11 Jul 2016 18:08 IST

Hear ye, the story of three pegs and the truth!

Listening to unvarnished truth that employees want to share about managers can avert many problems

For well over eight years, I was fortunate enough to work for a company whose chairman is a genius. An alumnus of IIT, and then Carnegie Mellon University (for PhD), he has the unparalleled ability to mesmerise people with his technological prowess and articulation skills, to say nothing about his brilliant sense of humour.

Work hard, party hard

He lives in the Bay area, and would visit India a couple of times every year. And every time he came down, we would host a cultural event and he would thoroughly enjoyed the show that the employees and their families put up.

When in Bangalore, where most of our India-based engineers were located, he would host a dinner at a five-star restaurant for all the middle managers and senior leaders.

Dinner tables were organised in such a fashion that each table had one vacant seat. This was done with a clear purpose in mind — for the chairman to grab his food and hop around from one table to another! Employees thoroughly enjoyed the informal atmosphere.

Not all play

The chairman would spend time at each table, connecting with managers and listening to whatever they had to say. But dinner would start only after an hour — it was always preceded by cocktails for an hour. He knew that managers would shed their inhibitions and speak their minds after the third peg of whisky had been imbibed! And he was never disappointed.

Managers would spill whatever they wanted to, without any inhibitions. The next day, he would discuss with the leadership team what he picked up during the conversations, in terms of opportunities for improvement and employee wellness and engagement.

This was a great engagement event but, more importantly, it was an opportunity for the chairman and senior managers to listen to the grievances of managers and the people they managed.

But make no mistake. As an employee-caring organisation, there were many upward communication channels in place — managers had periodic one-on-ones with their direct reports; upline managers held skip-level meetings with their direct reports’ direct reports; there were HR round tables, a Coffee with Mali monthly event. Such feedback channels were also tracked for their effectiveness.

Issues identified during these communication sessions were attended to promptly and shared on the intranet with all employees.

Shrinking communication

But in many high-growth organisations, one of the major sources of disengagement is shrinking communication to update and connect with people. One-on-one meetings at least once a month is a far cry in many organisations even today. Many managers feel this is an unnecessary burden since they anyway meet and do business or project reviews few times a month.

But these managers miss a point. One-on-ones as a communication channel are mandatory in good organisations with a clear objective in mind — to address the employees' agenda, their aspirations, learning needs, issues in the team and the like.

Periodic project reviews seldom focus on these issues — the manager’s agenda occupies almost all face-to-face meetings. Skip-levels, when done regularly by upline managers, will bring to fore any team-level issues, and problems that employees have with their team leader or manager.

While these meetings are not meant to provoke employees to complain about their managers, almost invariably, subtle cues about their superior’s style and behaviour surface. The senior manager can then initiate appropriate corrective action by talking to the manager concerned.

The whole purpose of these upward communication channels is to ensure that managers and leaders have an unbiased and straight-forward insight into what is going on in their teams and divisions.

Leaders cannot be too busy to connect with their people, and should encourage them to bring to the table their anxieties, discomforts and other important issues that require to be addressed timely.

At the organisation I worked with, because managers at all levels lent an ear through multiple mechanisms and paid attention to the unvarnished truth that their employees wanted to share, many problems and serious damage were averted. Such forums for open communications also offer a unique opportunity to check the attrition of good talent.

So, remember the Third Peg and the Truth story (this is a real story, by the way) and you, as a leader, will appreciate the need to listen to people when they’re expressing their true sentiments, about leaders and the organisation.

It works better when leaders use the feedback to improve themselves and not single out and shoot the messenger!