Who’s Going to Tell the Boss He’s Wrong?

By Steve Radick posted 04-08-2010 16:59


Text Box: Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kumar AppaiahWe get paid to tell our clients the hard truths. This is something that new employees at Booz Allen Hamilton hear from the very first day we’re hired. As consultants, it’s often our job to tell our clients that their processes need fixed, that they’re not communicating with their employees effectively, that their technology is broken, and sometimes, that their leadership is wrong. As consultants, this ability to be an honest broker is part of our job.

However, when we developed and launched our own internal Enterprise 2.0 suite of tools – hello.bah.com– I began to wonder if we could take our own advice.

As part of our change management efforts, we identified several Vice Presidents and other members of our leadership to actively (and visibly) engage with people using the platform. Some started blogs where they communicated with their teams or discussed industry trends, some created wiki pages on areas of their expertise, and some simply asked questions using forum posts.

In a short amount of time, we saw some great content –posts discussing the latest trends in leadership, posts asking for recommendations on the best way to learn about social media, and even posts asking why people thought some of our organizational policies “suck.” (our VP’s words, not mine J).

The Problem

However, after a while, we quickly noticed that there was very little actual conversation taking place. While the posts were getting a lot of views, very little discussion was taking place. Everyone loved everything about our organization, right? No negative feedback means everything is great, right?

Ummm…not exactly. Why were our people more than willing to talk about what’s wrong with the organization at lunch or in the hallway, but weren’t having those same discussions with the people who can actually do something about it? Why can we complain and gripe about the latest policies amongst ourselves, but we’re afraid of talking directly with the very people who can do something about these same issues?

So I sat down with members of our leadership to find out what they thought, and somewhat surprisingly, they were tired of the lack of honest conversation too -

  • “Why should I waste my time posting if people aren’t going to tell me what they think?
  • “You told me that blogging would allow me to engage in conversation directly with my team, but they’re just ignoring me.”
  • “If people won’t tell me something’s wrong, how am I supposed to do something about it?”

It wasn’t that people didn’t know how to post or had nothing to say, it was that they were no cultural mores to follow. There wasn’t anything from which they could model their behavior. Even if people wanted to comment, they weren’t real sure how to do that. Should they write in a formal voice since it’s the VP’s blog or should it be more conversational? Is it ok to disagree with him? What if I mis-spell something? How can I disagree with him in a way that won’t get me fired? I’m just a junior employee – my opinion doesn’t matter to someone as high up as he is.”

The Solution

To combat this conversational inertia, we identified several people to be community managers – those individuals responsible for modeling the behaviors we wanted to encourage on the platform. These commented on posts, asked questions, suggested when and where conversations should be moved to email, and generally set the tone for how to engage on the platform in a beneficial way. We highlighted situations where blog comments actually led to real-life focus groups consisting of the blog commenters and the VP. We couldn’t just tell people that it was ok to question the boss – we had to model those behaviors so that people could see it for themselves.

When I purposely disagreed with one of our most senior VPs on his blog and asked some pointed questions about why certain programs weren’t being implemented, the first thing my colleagues said was, "I didn’t even realize that you were looking for a new job!" However, when the author and several other leaders responded in a positive way, more and more people started to see that not only could they engage in the discussion, they could actually have a real discussion with some of our most senior leadership, regardless of where they fell on the organizational chart.

Soon enough, people across the organization realized that the conversations taking place on the blogs, wiki pages, and forum threads were more like the conversations you might have in the hallway instead of what traditionally may have occurred on the Intranet or via email. And instead of trying to find people who would actually engage in a conversation with the boss, we had to try and carve out time on the boss’ calendar so he could actually participate in the conversations that were taking place!

#socialnetworking #changemanagement #wiki #culture