A Culture of "Yes" is a Culture of Death


One of the funny things about kids is they tend to say exactly what they think. It's no wonder that Walt Disney’s Thumper had to warn “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” But as adults, we can carry this principle too far – particularly at work. If you can’t find anything nice to say (or think) about an issue at work, ask yourself "Why?"

Is it because you think management is heading down the wrong path? If so, bring your concerns and your questions to their attention. Questioning “why” and offering constructive feedback doesn't have to lead to conflict. It’s critical analysis — key to the health of any organization. Without it, companies can stagnate (at best), decline or go under. Consider this analysis published in Yale Insights concerning Polaroid’s failure:

Through the 1990s, Polaroid executives continued to believe in the importance of the paper print. Gary DiCamillo, CEO from 1995 to 2001, said in a 2008 interview at Yale, "People were betting on hard copy and media that was going to be pick-up-able, visible, seeable, touchable, as a photograph would be."

So when customers abandoned the print, Polaroid was taken by surprise. ‘It’s amazing, but kids today don’t want hard copy anymore, said DiCamillo. “This was the major mistake we all made…”

I have trouble believing that literally everyone at Polaroid didn’t foresee the death of print photos. I think it’s more likely that those who did weren’t encouraged to speak up - or perhaps they were in an environment where their concerns were not heard.

According to this Forbes article, “It’s important to discuss issues openly in order to get input, feedback and invite perspective…Voicing your opinion can create and convert those same conversations into meaningful research to help you drive more sustainable performance outcomes.”

The book Good to Great offers a related research finding. “Confront the brutal facts” is an imperative for any company that wants to be great (not just good.) At times the brutal facts may concern the external environment. At others, they may concern internal issues. In either case, it’s always important to openly discuss them.

Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted…The good-to-great leaders understood this distinction, creating a culture wherein people had a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.

Pixar is held up by many as the classic example of an innovative, creative work culture. The company achieved that reputation in large part by encouraging divergent thinking – which leads to creative solutions. Consider this excerpt from an interview with Pixar President, Ed Catmull.

Our first “Braintrust” started off with essentially five people who worked together phenomenally well. They were funny. They were focused. They were intense, but their intensity was applied toward the problem and not toward each other.

We began to call this the Braintrust, and we thought we would apply the principle to other areas, like the technical areas. But we found when we tried it in other areas that it didn’t work as well, and it took a while to figure out what the difference was.

What Pixar discovered was that the initial Braintrust worked well because it didn’t have any authority.

Huh?!

The original Braintrust was tasked with raising concerns about how the story was progressing - not choosing a new direction. The film’s director who participated in the Braintrust knew that the ultimate decision making power remained with him, so there was no need to be defensive. It freed him to listen openly.

None of this is to suggest we should challenge the status quo just for the sake of challenging it! Rather, when that red flag goes up in your mind – whatever the issue may be – take the time to voice your concerns.

Lead with questions instead of answers, (one of the hallmarks of great leadership according to Good to Great) and solicit a variety of opinions from folks who have insight. You may find that management already has made the best decision given the circumstances, or you may discover through dialogue a better solution for the issue at hand.

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