Start Up is a podcast about “what it’s really like to start a company”. The podcast chronicles the story of Gimlet Media’s humble beginnings, from being an idea hatched by This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and his co-founder, Matt Lieber, to successfully raising capital against all odds, and finally to where it is now, a media company with 2 new shows. All of this happened in just 6 months.
Episode 12, “Burnout”, describes how employees are losing their faith in the company because of the long hours they’ve been putting in. A month earlier, the founders, Alex and Matt, noticed they were doing much better than expected and so they decided to grow faster. But they hadn’t put in place the structures to grow with that kind of pace. As a result, employees were having to pull all-nighters and didn’t feel like they were doing a good job or, worse, didn’t WANT to do a good job. As one staff member put it: “I went from feeling like I would do anything to keep this place going, to “Let’s burn it to the ground.””
At one point, Alex acknowledges that he’s not doing a good job of listening to his employees’ concerns, to the point of risking his whole enterprise failing because of missed deadlines, miscommunications, and people threatening to leave or actually leaving.
The episode shows a disconnect between the bigger picture vision that Alex is holding and the current reality his company is in. In just 6 months, Alex has gone from having an idea to having 12 employees that the company cannot do without. And Alex realizes that he needs to connect with Gimlet’s current reality and pay attention to his employee’s needs.
Too many companies, small and big, have crises brewing right in front of the leadership’s nose, but they often go unchecked until the crisis actually happens and it’s too late to reverse course. When leaders don’t have structures to connect their employees to the bigger picture, employees cannot see how their role might evolve over time and they feel like they are operating in the dark. It might be fine to function this way at the beginning when everybody is figuring things out, but pretty soon the lack of systems to bridge that disconnect will threaten a company’s effectiveness.
We’ve seen through our own clients that when employees are connected to who they are within the company and how their role is instrumental to the implementation of the company’s long term vision, they feel a sense of belonging and are more likely to speak up, ask for what they need, and identify issues as they arise, before it’s too late.
For us, the missing element is connection. Connection exists when people are listening openly and when people feel free to speak. As a result, we focus on the two things that always get in the way of connection and that you can actually do something about:
- Not listening or not being listened to: leaders are either not listening or their employees are not feeling heard.
- Not telling your story: employees don’t feel like they have a voice and so they don’t speak up. There is no space for them to actually tell their story. Perhaps leaders aren’t telling the story of the company to their employees, therefore people are operating in the dark.
These are three actions we’ve implemented in various organizations that mend these feelings of disconnect, make people feel heard, empower them to speak up, recognize the problem and work towards a solution:
- Create a dedicated time and space for people to be listened to: decide on a room, and a time when people can actually come and bill it as a listening space. This is not a space for leaders to say how they think a crisis should be handled. Shut up and listen, leaders.
- Pay attention to time: when we run programs for organizations, we have time-keepers who will stop people if they go beyond their allotted time. This kind of structure creates a sense of fairness and even safety for everyone. Make sure everyone has the same amount of time to speak. We ring a bell after the allotted time has passed. You can find your own way of keeping people accountable to that time.
- Ask “what happened”: a cornerstone of our Listening and Storytelling Method is to have people describe their experience by taking out all the interpretations, opinions and judgments they have about a situation and instead have them tell exactly what happened. This means sticking to facts and to people’s personal experience of a situation.
For example, if you ask what happened, and keep out their interpretations, opinions, and judgments, you will get an answer like this: “I was given a deadline and was at my desk till 1am working without a brief on what I had to do. I got the brief the next morning and had to redo all my work” If you don’t ask what happened and instead vaguely ask them what they think about a particular situation, you are more likely to get a vague and emotionally charged comment like this one: “I am really annoyed about having to stay so late and I never get the right information”
Saying what happened and sticking to it in a disciplined way creates an opening for whoever is listening to feel included and free to form their own interpretation about the situation, rather than being forced to accept an interpretation. Plus, as a leader and chief listener in this space, you will get a very clear rendering of experiences and people’s perspectives instead of opinions and feelings. Experience is great material to learn from and you can implement change when you know what happened.
To learn how you can create better connection between yourself and others in your life and work, go to narativ.com.
CEO, Narativ Inc.