A few years ago the leadership team at Domino’s garnered much respect for their willingness to absorb tough talk. Sensing a growing problem, senior management ordered a series of taste-test feedback sessions where they simply let people try their pizza, then candidly say what they thought. The responses weren’t encouraging, to say the least. This tastes like cardboard! Your sauce tastes like ketchup!
Domino’s could have easily dismissed such complaints as uneducated or misguided, but instead chose the harder path of actually listening to unflattering feedback. So the leadership team decided to scrap their old recipes and reinvent their entire product line. The result? Better-quality pizza that was overwhelmingly well-received, leading to the highest year-over-year increase in the fast-food industry (14.6%). All from listening and responding to tough talk instead of burying their collective head in the sand.
According to the most recent Workplace Accountability Study commissioned by Partners In Leadership, head-burying is a very serious problem in American companies. 77% of employees surveyed don’t believe their organizations have the ability to hear bad news to the point of it being a strength. As a result, if you put four typical employees in front of a typical boss, three of them will just say whatever they think the big guy wants to hear. Only one is likely to share unpleasant facts about whatever is holding back the team or the organization.
All of us have had the experience of interacting with someone who refuses to hear or say hard truths, making it impossible to acknowledge reality. The price for this lack of transparency can be enormous: misinformation leading to unresolved problems, leading to missed targets. If Domino’s had taken that path, they’d still be serving up cardboard with ketchup…. assuming they remained in business at all.
Digging deeper into our accountability study, a whopping 88% agreed with the statement that “There are people I depend upon today to get things done that will cause me to fail in my ability to get results for the organization, if I don’t do a better job holding them accountable now.” That’s not a minor problem with workplace accountability—it’s a crisis. An essential part of the solution is to become proficient at saying and hearing unpleasant truths.
Consider a new employee who was reviewing the nuts and bolts of a project with her manager when the manager started to ask pointed questions: Why are you thinking this way? Why did you do this the way you did? How come things aren’t further along?!
The employee felt herself sinking deeper and deeper into the chair. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and exploded: What are you doing? How can we collaborate with this kind of conflict?
The manager was shocked, admitting that this was the kind of candid discussion he was used to having with his people. He felt that drilling deep was necessary to produce the best possible results. In turn, he expected his people to push back, test theories, and stand up for themselves.
Fortunately they were able to uncover and repair the source of the disconnect. The manager confessed that since he had been instrumental in hiring the new employee, he assumed that they already had a decent working relationship. But she wasn’t feeling the same level of mutual trust and respect. Without those foundations of trust in a relationship, tough talk can easily be misinterpreted as rough talk, or even abuse.
Another example comes from a friend who, as a university professor, is often asked for career advice by his students. For those he’s close to, he pulls no punches—offering hard to hear tough talk. One young man came to him after his freshman year seeking advice regarding his dream of Harvard Medical School. His first year GPA had only been a 2.3, with the confessing that “I guess I was kind of using my first year to blow off a little steam.”
The professor didn’t sugarcoat the truth: “Harvard Medical School only takes 4.0 students. You will never be able to go there. It’s simply a fact. Blowing off steam has cost you Harvard.”
Once the student picked himself up, dusted himself off, and reminded himself how much his professor truly cared, they were able to plot a different strategy—based on the reality, not where he wished he was.
It does little good to live in a fantasy world when real business and real decision require living in reality. For leaders at any level, the lesson is clear: Invest the time to build trusting and respectful relationships, and you will have the foundation to turn ketchup into gold.
Craig Hickman, Marcus Nicolls, and Tracy O. Skousen, co-authors of Fix It: Getting Accountability Right (Portfolio / Penguin) and members of the leadership team at Partners In Leadership.
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