Modeling open management practices

How can managers know if other leaders are cultivating an open culture? Ask the people they impact every day.
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WOCinTech Chat. Modified by CC BY-SA 4.0

In the first part of my interview with Sam Knuth, a fellow Open Organization Ambassador, we discussed how leaders need to make time to be open. Openness isn't effortless.

In this second part, Sam and I discuss how executive leaders support their managers and teams in leading with open values. Because of the confidentiality of some of the answers (we're colleagues at Red Hat, after all), I am summarizing the interview in a series of articles that highlight and share some of Sam's most memorable observations and practices.

Managing managers

Executive and senior leaders manage groups of managers, which means they may have little (or no) direct, routine contact with individual contributors in their organizations. So if they're interested in promoting open cultures throughout their organizations, they'll need to continuously model the open management practices they expect to see from all the managers in their team.

Executive and senior leaders, however, don't only promote open culture; they're also members of the organizational communities they want to see thrive, and like other members they shoulder some accountability for the health and vitality of that culture. Like all other members of an open organization community, managers are accountable for being stewards (even protectors) of the values of the community as well. Senior leaders are responsible—as is any community member—for challenging behaviors that are unsupportive of open values.

But this work is even more critical in the case of managers, especially because managers can enjoy enhanced decision-making power in many open organizations, and they influence more and more people the higher their role in an organization's hierarchy they sit.

So how can executive leaders promote and protect open values in their organizations? Sam described a multi-factor approach to gathering and understanding associates' perspectives of their managers' leadership competencies.

Meeting one-on-one

As Sam's organization grew and more layers of management formed, Sam found he didn't have ongoing conversations with associates who weren't directly reporting to him, and was losing touch with how employees were feeling. Those feelings are integral to any understanding of the organizational culture individual contributors experience every day.

The bottom line? However you connect with associates, cultivating psychological safety is important for generating candid discussions.

So Sam set up one-on-one meetings to connect with associates throughout the organization, choosing as randomly as he could. This helped create a safe space and develop trust in a confidential environment. Sam did this across his 250-associate organization by scheduling two to three meetings every week, because he felt it was the best way to get a sense of everyone's perspectives. It also gave him opportunities to share what he was learning with the managers in his organization and to coach them on becoming open leaders and champions of open values among their peers.

During these discussions, he listened actively and asked many questions. Red Hatters can be quite forthcoming in their feedback, but asking questions helped Sam pick up on subtle cues when necessary. This way, he could ferret out an accurate sense of the situation, asking himself, "Does what the associates' say line up with what I think the leaders are intending? Where does it seem like alignment is not occurring? Why?"

It's an individualized approach that's both time-consuming and candid, and Sam found it to be well worth the effort.

It's also the opposite of a process I recalled from my past life in a conventional organization. As Sam and I chatted, I remembered "round tables," where an executive would set up team discussions to (allegedly) understand associates' perspectives. It was supposed to be a venue for collecting feedback and constructive criticism—but, in practice, no one said anything to the visiting executive that they hadn’t shared with team or department leaders, so there was no candid discussion about those team or department leaders. I didn't feel any sense of psychological safety, which is required in order for associates to share their thoughts. In my case, the round tables were completely ineffective.

The bottom line? However you connect with associates—individually or in groups—cultivating psychological safety is important for generating candid discussions.

Travelling to meet associates was ideal for these kinds of individual meetings to occur face-to-face, but the pandemic changed this tactic. On the other hand, workplaces across the world were already becoming more distributed before the pandemic; in fact, Sam struggled to meet associates in the United States because of the distribution of sites and even associates working remotely! To overcome this, leaders can set up one-on-one teleconferences with associates. In cases where associates seem to be less forthcoming or fearful of sharing their opinions, leaders can ask probing (but not direct) questions of the associates to get feedback as best as they can. For instance, leaders can glean a great deal of information from how associates answer questions such as:

  • How are you feeling about your work?
  • What kinds of challenges do you encounter in your work?
  • Do you feel like you get the support you need to do your work?
  • How well do you feel you connect with your manager? Colleagues?

On (not) using surveys

Finally, Sam and I discussed surveys. After all, couldn't someone achieve the same results using a survey—without all that extra legwork?

Surveys have their place in tracking the health of an open culture, Sam told me, but on their own they're rarely sufficient for doing this. For starters, Sam said, using surveys requires skill in both asking quantifiable questions and analyzing data, and that kind of skill isn't as common as we tend to think it is. Without proper expertise in using survey instruments, we may be letting data mislead us (for instance, when we gloss over problems because we see a high average score on another, similar question). So Sam finds surveys most useful for capturing a broad perspective on team- or department-level experience of a culture and a manager's role in creating and maintaining it.

Getting an accurate sense of specific details or issues is difficult when using surveys, which tend to ask for more generic feedback. Painting a more complete picture really requires sitting down with people and talking to them.

Getting an accurate sense of specific details or issues is difficult when using surveys, which tend to ask for more generic feedback. Painting a more complete picture really requires sitting down with people and talking to them, Sam insisted.

That's why it's important to investigate and spend time learning about the work culture in your organization from the associates themselves. Use a combination of techniques, and open multiple channels to facilitate feedback in as many forms as possible, as different people feel comfortable with different media.

When managers aren't open

Like any role, managers learn skills and behaviors that help them succeed in particular organizations. When they get hired into an open organization (like Red Hat), they might experience some "abrasion" (my term), because there can be a genuine belief that a manager is managing with open values even though that person's vision of open values doesn't match that of the organization.

I recalled personal experience with this, where I had a manager who probably thought they were being open, but really wasn't.

"Exactly," Sam said, "and it's very painful."

Audio file

Listen to Sam Knuth describe difficulties helping managers become more open.

When managers really aren't sufficiently "open," it's an issue that has to be addressed—because it can be damaging to teams. Sometimes managers can unlearn their conventional skills and behaviors. And sometimes they can't. Sometimes the change has to happen quickly so that the team doesn’t suffer. Ultimately, the organization's executive leader must embody that organization's culture.

So "open management" then becomes a question of "open by whose standards?" and the organization must make those standards explicit in some way. That means deliberately codifying what the organization means by "openness." Some organizations might draw up a simple social contract to accomplish this—a description of open principles and practices that all agree to let guide them. Other organizations might go so far as to formalize certain managerial competencies that align with the open culture an organization seeks to maintain. Regardless of the approach, however, it's important that an open organization fosters transparent discussions about behaviors it does and doesn't want to see its managers reflecting and encouraging. In this way, executive leaders can be those stewards for an organization's open culture.

In the final part of my interview with Sam, I'll describe another important open management tactic I learned during our conversation: daring to be vulnerable.

Read the first part

What to read next
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Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work.

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