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“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” ~ Steve Jobs ~

Getting smart people in organizations to feel free to give feedback and challenge ideas doesn’t just happen. Many long standing organizations such as Kodak, Sears and Borders have failed to adapt to the reality of today’s world have found themselves becoming irrelevant. One of the reasons is that the leaders did not receive valuable information that may have helped the organization turn around. Many leaders find themselves in a vacuum, unwilling to receive or seek information crucial to the health of their organization. In today’s highly competitive, fast moving environment, businesses need to have everyone, and their ideas, on board. It is crucial to develop an environment that promotes and encourages constant feedback and to challenge ideas at all levels. According to Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder of High Ground, creating a challenge culture is key to employee engagement and an organization’s growth and future.

Here are 7 Ways to Develop a Challenge Culture at Work:

Establishing the right culture

The culture of an organization determines the parameters within the people interacting, what is acceptable and expected. It must be made clear to new hires that not only should they feel free to challenge ideas at all levels, it is what will be expected of them. At High Ground, a great deal of time is spent from the outset establishing values and behaviors on a 1:1 basis. Scott Kelly, Chief Human Resource Officer of Hitachi Data Systems, states that “from day one on the job, new employees are not just encouraged, but expected to be self- starters with a solution-oriented mindset who feel empowered to challenge the status quo to drive the best outcomes for our customers and our company.”

Building a culture of trust

In order for there to be honest, timely and effective feedback, it is imperative that everyone is able to trust management and each other. The building of trust starts at the top with leaders being witnessed not only doing the talk but walking the walk. If employees see any hesitancy of leaders to be challenged or feel that their ideas and feedback will not be welcomed, they will not be willing to take the risk in sharing with them. By demonstrating that they not only seek fresh ideas that are different from their own, but acting upon them, leaders will let everyone know that it is okay to challenge them and each other. According to Scott Kelly at Hitachi Data Systems, “In our fast-paced world, decisions have to be made, and we can’t always wait for a common consensus. In those cases, trust wins out, with employees committing to the new direction.”

Continuous, open and timely feedback

Practicing open feedback and challenging ideas should not only be reserved for meetings or on occasions reserved for that purpose. To do so sends the message that it is not the norm. It needs to be done regularly and continuously during 1:1 opportunities and during regular interactions that are part of the workplace. When feedback and ideas are bounced around regularly and openly, it gives people the confidence to share, challenge and speak out as they come to see it as just the way things are done around here. At Hitachi Data systems, employees are all expected to give and receive feedback with “emotional
maturity.”

Constantly challenging the status quo

While maintaining their values and vision, organizations that are constantly looking for better ways to do things are by nature more open to being challenged at all levels. Forget the idea box that is never opened and when ideas are never implemented. The hallmark of such organizations is creating an environment whereby everyone is always striving towards continuous improvement. People who come up with usable ideas are acknowledged and held up as role models for what the organization stands for.

Effort and risk taking are genuinely appreciated

One of the easiest ways to kill a challenge culture is to create fear around taking risks and failing. This happens when people take risks, fail and then punished, or perceived to be punished for doing so. Starting with management, praise and appreciation needs to be heaped upon people who give their best effort and tried something new even though things did not work as well as expected. Instead of scrutinizing the failure, the focus needs to be on the learning that came from it. This practice must start from the top. It gives the green light for people to take some risk without the fear that they will pay a price if things don’t work out.

Establish and share accountability

Empowering others to challenge and feel free to give input does not work unless they are held accountable at the same time. In this new model of doing things, everyone takes ownership and credit when things go well and as well as responsibility when things don’t go as planned. In the old top down model when things went awry, staff could place the blame on management for making bad decisions. Management could model the behavior by openly and publicly sharing credit for decisions that worked well and acknowledging their part when things went off the rails. Taking responsibility from the top down will encourage everyone in the organization to do so.

Work on developing emotional intelligence

Developing an open, safe, trusting workplace where everyone feels free to challenge and share their ideas is easier if the employees are self-aware of how they come across to others with empathetic and well-developed listening skills. As VIP Sandhir of High Ground states, we have to be able to “read between the feelings” in attempting to understand and communicate with each other in the workplace. People who do well in the modern workplace model are those who are open to not only diverse and challenging ideas, but are also looking for ways they can improve themselves.