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Why You Should Let Employees Voice Their Opinions ... in Public

Two news stories this week are both mirrors and opposites: NPR firing commentator Juan Williams, and the Tribune Company firing CEO Randy Michaels. If leaders can untangle these two stories, they will learn how to handle the trickiest of workplace situations: how much freedom of expression to allow. Err on either side, and your company will wither.

Sam Zell and the rest of the Tribune board recently asked Randy Michaels to resign as CEO. This move happened for many reasons, including Michaels' poor financial performance and his asking a waitress to remove her top for $100. Many people questioned his hiring in the first place -- and applauded his removal. In the meantime, the culture at the Tribune Company was hit with a boiling blast of rage and also an icy chill of fear. The rage was that these abuses were allowed to continue for so long. The chill was the sadness and resignation that their once-great company had become a corporate version of the Jerry Springer Show.

Then there's Juan Williams and NPR. Williams put his foot in his mouth on Fox News (at least as NPR saw it) when he said people wearing "Muslim garb" on airplanes made him nervous. Two days later he was terminated for not following the code of a news analyst.

NPR management intervened right away. Instead of letting a problem fester -- like the Tribune did with Michaels -- the organization reacted immediately. Isn't this a good thing?

Actually, no.

The effect of the Williams firing was a blast of boiling rage from the right and anger from NPR member stations, who saw the whole episode as a major impediment to their fund drives. There was also a chilling effect, as people questioned not just the firing but the process. Is this the new situation: step out of line and you're gone? Isn't there any room for free expression?

If we don't get the freedom of expression piece right, this is what happens: the mood becomes hot and cold at the same time. Hot with anger, cold with the fear and resignation that there's nothing people can do about it. Put hot and cold together and you get lukewarm -- mediocre and inept. To use a different metaphor, you get a withering of culture and performance.

In the vast majority of companies where I've consulted, people get fired the Juan Williams way -- they don't fit the mold. They irritate people in power over and over until management has had enough. In many cases, the fired individuals are popular because they say what's on people's mind -- and that's the reason for their termination. Firing the people who speak their mind, for whatever reason, mixes the hot rage with the cold chill of fear.

There are also the cases where prima donna behavior is allowed to continue, and it plays out the same way. People feel like there are two sets of rules: one for the powerful people, and one for the rest of us. Hot anger mixes with a resigned chill.

So what to do here?

1. In the vast majority of companies, encourage a level of debate far beyond current tolerances. Employees need to see that new ideas are discussed and debated, without people getting terminated for voicing negative views. This debate will happen in your company whether you think you allow it or not. In most companies, it's happening over email and, when people are bolder (or stupider), over Facebook and Twitter. Unbeknown to managers, many companies have underground blogging sites where people say what they can't say at work. Bring this debate inside the company -- leaving behind, of course, any sexism or offensive behavior.

2. Only terminate people when they violate the sacred tenents of the organization: the workforces' shared core values. Of course most companies don't have any real shared values -- they have a list of values that might as well have been left by the last occupant in the building and just adopted because the word "integrity" was in there. Without shared values, most terminations will seem arbitrary -- and they'll turn on the faucets of hot rage and cold fear.

After a round of layoffs at Zappos, employees asked if they could Tweet about it. The answer from management was yes, along with the request that they do so thoughtfully, considering all of the sensitivities involved. That's the right approach. Bring the debate into the open, without management picking off people who step out of line with their comments.

Why is all of this is so important? Because the biggest problem in companies today is lack of innovation -- and innovation can't be controlled, mandated or managed. It's emergent. It often comes from the clashing of ideas and viewpoints. And to foster it, managers who can't handle criticism should resign the job to somebody who can.

Got too much freedom of expression? Got too little? I hope you'll say so in the comments below.

Photo courtesy yoshiffles, CC 2.0
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