For Business to Succeed, Managers Must Listen to Direct and Honest Feedback

I’ve been lucky enough to live, work and hang out in both Manhattans—as in New York and Kansas—which makes me kind of an expert on how you can tell the difference between the two. For instance, while you might not be surprised to learn that the restaurants in Manhattan, N.Y., are better than the restaurants in Manhattan, Kan., the disparity between the two is probably bigger and perhaps more mysterious than you think.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the 10 highest ranked restaurants in Manhattan, Kan., are not as good as the 10 lowest ranked in Manhattan, N.Y. To the casual observer, there might be a few seemingly obvious reasons why this is so, such as concentration of wealth or concentration and diversity of population. But Manhattan, Kan., has some advantages too, like proximity to (hence freshness of) the ingredients as well as fewer distractions. But that’s not the important distinction. The fact is that the differences are actually caused by bad attitudes and a general lack of empathy. Not by the restaurants; by the customers. And not by the customers in New York; by the customers in Kansas.

More on this restaurant thing in a minute.

I’m terrible at small talk and as awkward as Joe Cocker in a conga line when I have to walk into a room full of strangers. I’m always glad to attend CIO conferences, but I’m only good for about 15 minutes at those “networking” receptions sponsored by this or that vendor. My coping mechanism is to enter the room, move slowly into a circle of people and pretend to listen. Most of what you hear among any circle of strangers as they carefully sail clear of the “never talk about” topics like politics, religion, race, gender, social issues and, of course, Fight Club, is an amazing amount of chatter with very little usable information or ideas being exchanged. This isn’t because there aren’t great ideas or powerful intellects present, but because you never know, in a situation like this, whom you might offend by offering an opinion. Sadly, many are cowed by the threat of disapproval for expressing even the most traditional point of view. What results is conversational chloroform.

Examples of pure and unambiguous communication can be hard to find, but it happens occasionally. For instance, there are our horses. We love our horses here on the ranch in Texas, but we’d be the first ones to admit that they’re pretty dumb. For the most part, horses have one thing going through their little minds, 24 hours a day, and it explains a lot about their sometimes strange behavior.

It is, “I’m a horse, I taste good.”

I don’t know what they’re so afraid of. We’re not French!

Horses are absolute geniuses about one thing, though. That is, the specific location and placement of their feet. It’s what allows them to navigate rough, vertical terrain at breakneck speeds or walk carefully around a newborn foal in a tiny birthing stall.

So, it is absolutely, 100 percent true that if a horse steps on your foot, it is because he meant to. The horse is attempting to communicate. This is attitude as a figure of speech, and if you don’t understand the message, you might be in for a very bad day. What he’s asking is, “Who’s going to be in charge today? Who gets to crowd whom, and which one of us is going to step aside?” These are questions that horses ask of each other every morning as they’re turned out in a pasture. Most of our horses weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds. I weigh 170 pounds. So, it’s important that I make myself clear about who’s in charge when I get a question like this.

But back to the Manhattan thing....

This past summer a couple of other IT executives and I left Austin, Texas, on motorcycles headed for northern Colorado via the back roads of western Texas and New Mexico. This was “middle-aged guy” high adventure complete with a ride to the top of Pikes Peak, on gravel roads with no guardrails, that left us shaky in the knees. (I’m sure it must have been the thin air.)

Road trips like this through small, shabby towns separated by the emptiest stretches you can imagine feature lots of pretty unhealthy “country cookin’” and motels so rundown, we were grateful our wives hadn’t come along. After about three days, we finally pulled into the midsize town of Durango and decided to treat ourselves to the best steak dinner we could find. On the desk clerk’s recommendation, we found ourselves seated in what looked like a fairly new place in a strip mall—not terribly busy for a Friday night—with the usual steak house selection and astonishingly high prices. Even more astonishing was that, somehow, the chef managed to ruin the filet I ordered. Ordering a filet is usually a pretty safe bet because they’re tender right out of the cow, and preparation is simply a matter of searing it on both sides (and sometimes adding that strip of bacon that nobody eats). But, somehow, someway, Chef Shoemaker managed to transform a filet into a hockey puck, except less tasty than a hockey puck, and he compounded his mistake by stopping by the table to ask us how our meals were.

Don’t Ask If You Don’t Want to Know

Before I tell you what happened next, I should mention that I’ve got a fair amount of experience in the restaurant business, having served as CIO for PepsiCo’s restaurant divisions, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC and assorted others when they still owned them. As industries go, few are as tough, competitive, hazardous or fickle as the restaurant business—generally, more than 70 percent of new restaurants fail in their first year. Also, according to studies I’ve seen, customers who have an unsatisfactory meal on their first visit to a new restaurant will not return to try again, on average, for two and a half years, by which time the new restaurant has probably closed.

Ever heard the expression, “Nothing you say will ever teach you anything”? Not true.

I turned to Chef Cinder and calmly and politely said, “This is, without a doubt, the worst filet I’ve ever had, anywhere.” This was followed by a silence so loud it was making the other guys wince. Chef Incendier then mumbled something and walked on to the next table. My traveling companions began glaring at me like I’d just strangled a kitten while I made silent gestures back that said, “What? Was it something I said?”

This was one of those cases where I was clearly right and the chef and my companions clearly wrong. The chef was wrong in that he didn’t visit our table because he wanted to know how the meal tasted, he wanted to hear that we liked it. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have bothered to speak. It’s just one of those things you learn on your way to becoming a CIO and one that managers with less experience trip over all the time. It is the pervasive and persistent misunderstanding among young managers at all levels that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to listen. Getting the message across doesn’t depend on articulation, or eloquence or the impeccable logic of your argument, but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. It’s absolutely true that your boss, your peers and your team can hear you only when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words have to chase them.

My friends were also wrong in this case, because they thought I was being impolite.

I was being nothing of the sort.

It’s Not Rude to Be Direct

In fairness, both of these guys grew up and lived most of their lives in the Midwest, and this kind of direct, seemingly harsh communication is considered unmannerly and New Yorky. Where does this dopey idea come from, anyway? This difference in ability to provide direct, unfiltered feedback is why the restaurants in New York are better than the ones in Kansas. This is the Manhattan effect. The inherent advantage a restaurateur in New York has is that if he serves a bad meal, or serves it too slowly, he is going to hear about it right then and there. Real-time feedback is crucial to addressing the customer’s complaint and fixing the problem before the next customer comes through the door. The ability to measure things begets new behaviors.

The restaurateur in Kansas, on the other hand, is at a huge disadvantage. When served a bad meal in Kansas, the customer is far more likely to tell the waiter that the meal was “fine,” quietly pay the bill and never come back. The only indication to the restaurant that there might be a problem with the food is that they are going broke. This is the bad attitude and lack of empathy that the silent individual can inflict.

Even restaurants that succeed, such as this purportedly great steak house in Durango, will never be as good—or as successful—as they could be. That there must be some genuinely good restaurants in Kansas is a testament to those individual owners’ talent and self-critical natures, and their ability to attract the handful of diners in their geography willing to engage them with critical feedback (probably transplants from the East).

In an effort to keep them from stabbing me with their steak knives, I tried to explain this thinking to my two corn-fed friends and relate it to how we might have all done things better in our jobs had we the benefit of receiving and giving more direct real-time feedback. “My feedback,” I said, “just might save these guys from going out of business.” To which one of the guys said, “What if you don’t care if they go out of business?”

This might be the most insightful thing I’ve heard him say in 20 years. Silence as an argument carried out by other means. The revenge of the passive-aggressive. How many businesses have been lost, how many careers have been damaged, because feedback was not forthcoming? Was it not forthcoming because of malevolence or a belief that it would not be well-received?

Depending on the nature of your business or geography or whatever, it might be pretty tough to get meaningful feedback from your customers, but your managers and employees are a different story. If you’re not getting meaningful feedback from them, there’s no point in spending a lot of time wondering why. The reason is you.

Being lucky enough to get real-time feedback doesn’t mean much without some measure of receptivity to the negative message. I imagine that the owner of a successful restaurant in New York probably has to have a pretty thick skin. I’m not sure whether this is something you have to be born with or something you can learn. I certainly could have used a thicker skin when I was an active CIO. Even though I knew better, I still had a tendency to take negative news pretty hard. I had a terrific career, but there’s little doubt that I could have done some things better.

To all of my ex-teammates who might have been afraid to knock on my door because of the way they thought I might receive negative news, I’m sorry for that, and I wish I had it to do over. I suppose it doesn’t do any good to close the barn door after the horses have gotten out, but you might as well.

For most of the IT leaders reading this column, you’re in luck. It’s not too late.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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