One of my real jobs is running a medical device component manufacturer with a few hundred employees. A fun job in a thankfully still-growing industry. When I started a few years ago the culture was one of top-down decision-making… really top down. In fact, pretty much every decision was made at the very top, and no one else, even senior managers, decided anything.
That had to change in order for lean manufacturing have the slightest prayer, so I slowly began to expect people at all levels to stand on their own two feet. I knew that we had a group of very talented people who were fully capable of making decisions, and I also knew that there were very few decisions of such significance that we couldn't recover from one that was poorly made.
It worked. With rare exception the group stepped up to the plate, and along the way the overall leadership competence of both managers and individuals increased dramatically. Quite honestly I feel like a proud papa. We've made some incredible changes, created excellence in many areas, and mutually raised the bar. The exciting part is that it continues to accelerate, and part of my job has become the "throttle" so we don't get ahead of ourselves. I have become aware that there is an optimum rate of change, not too fast that it collapses like a house of cards and not too slow that it withers. Building a solid solid foundation is critical.
One side effect of our invigorated leadership is that we have become very good at discussing issues. Perhaps too good. We passionately point out problems, opportunities, and new ways of doing things. We debate long and hard. We're master debaters. Well, maybe I should rephrase that. The debate sometimes slows down decisions, and we need to work on that.
I didn't realize how much this passioned debating had become part of our culture until the other week. We recently hired a top notch manager who is creating dramatic change in his organization and really taking the overall company to a whole new level. We're all thrilled with what he's doing. Then I receive an email from him worried about all the "ruffled feathers" he's creating and wondering if he truly fits in. I was completely blind-sided. Where the heck did this come from?
Then it hit me. He would suggest some improvement, and immediately a whole bunch of people would reply with "how about this other way" or even more directly, "I don't like that, but this other way might work." That's how we operate. It can require a thick skin, and I consider it a positive when difficult conversations are out in the open instead of fermenting in a hidden cranny. In our environment we would eventually sort out the various ideas through vigorous debate, and in the end we'd implement an improvement.
But think about it from an outsider's perspective, even one with thick skin and years of leadership experience creating obvious competency. A bunch of people always second-guessing ideas? I can completely understand why it would appear to be "ruffled feathers." After a bunch of explaining, the situation has calmed down and I hope he engages us as much as we perhaps overly-engaged him. We need to be challenged in order to improve, and outsiders bring a fresh perspective that can add fresh challenge.
It can be tough, especially if you've been entrenched in it a while, but be aware of the culture you've created or that has evolved. Even if it is positive, how is it perceived by a newcomer?