Empowering Employees to Speak Up: Why Raleigh’s Red Hat Meritocracy Is Effective

empowering employees to speak up

In a true meritocracy, employees should feel safe bringing up critiques or new ideas during meetings. Image source: Flickr CC user John Benson

It should have been an easy meeting. Management at all levels agreed on the path for the new initiative. It wasn’t really a time for discussion; it was a time to explain plans and to set goals. And then, a lowly associate asked to speak. Point by point, goal by goal, the associate tore into the agreed-upon solutions. Management was taking the wrong direction. The new program would fail without key changes. He could see the flaws in their plan, and he had solutions.

At many firms, this lowly employee would be labeled a trouble-maker. He could have been disciplined, or have faced career stagnation, for daring to question corporate leadership in this frank and public way. But this engineer didn’t work for just any company. He worked for Raleigh-based Red Hat, a technology company known for its focus on innovation and meritocracy. The company’s leadership listened to his suggestions, and weighed them against their own plans. Eventually, they adopted all of his proposals, and he was on a path to promotion, not unemployment.

Red Hat’s Approach to Meritocracy

In an article in Wired, James Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, explains that the Raleigh firm encourages great ideas from all members of the team. While Red Hat employs a hierarchical corporate structure, leaders also know that great ideas can come from anywhere. As a result, Whitehurst and his colleagues encourage employees to offer constructive criticism on corporate initiatives and they listen respectfully to the ideas that employees present to the management team.

They also realize that not all thought leaders are also people managers, so when they reward an employee for a good idea, they do it in ways that encourage his passion for the job rather than by simply adding a new title or new management responsibilities. For instance, an employee who came up with an exciting idea related to cloud commuting might be put in charge of bringing his initiative to life.

As employees prove that their criticisms and ideas have worth, they move up through the Red Hat ranks. Everyone on the management team has earned their place there by coming up with great ideas, going beyond their job description, and achieving excellent results. Employees at all levels see that thinking, problem-solving, and speaking up present a pathway to success at Red Hat. This creates a culture where employees aren’t afraid to share ideas or offer constructive criticism of managers.

Empowering Employees to Speak Up Through Meritocracy

Your meetings and teams may not be structured like Red Hat’s , but you still have opportunities to allow employees to speak up, share innovative ideas, and possibly even change the direction of the company. When you reward and promote people based on the quality of their ideas, you create an innovative, agile management team that won’t be afraid to speak up when they see mistakes in corporate strategy. By encouraging constructive criticism at all levels, you can avoid costly mistakes and create more productive teams.

What tools can you use to encourage employees to speak up?

  • Town Hall-Style Meetings. When the company begins a new initiative, go to various departments and hold town hall-style meetings. Encourage employees to ask questions, seek clarification, or volunteer observations and suggestions. Most firms save town halls for major changes such as mergers, layoffs, and reorganizations. But these open meetings can be effective for encouraging employee speech even when individuals don’t feel like their futures are on the line.
  • Internal Social Media Networks. Does your company have internal messaging apps, social media, blogs, or discussion boards? These technologies can be used to encourage employees to speak up when they have a new idea or spot a flaw in current processes. To get things started, post a concrete problem and ask for solutions. For instance, “We need to cut waste by 25% to meet our latest targets. What areas have you seen where we can reduce waste?” Or, “We need to increase the number of customer service issues resolved on the first contact. How can we make it easier for our customer service representatives to resolve issues quickly? What is currently holding them back?” Concrete problems generate useful criticisms and workable solutions.
  • Reward Good Ideas. If an employee spots a flaw in a plan and comes up with a workable solution, you need to reward them. Congratulate them publicly, so that co-workers see that everyone’s input has value. Offer a perk, such as a gift certificate or a better parking space. And finally, give them a new responsibility related to their ideas and interests. For instance, you may want to give the individual a key role on the team that will address the problem and then implement their solution. If you let people see that good ideas lead to more interesting career paths, your employees will be more likely to speak up without fear.
  • Welcome Uncomfortable Ideas. By empowering employees to speak up and offer constructive criticism, you create a stronger, more resilient corporate team. However, sometimes you may not like the criticisms you receive. If you’ve committed to a particular course of action, you may find it uncomfortable or inconvenient to face its flaws. We can learn from the way management at Red Hat deals with these situations. They cheerfully accept the criticism, even if they don’t plan on changing their plans. They also take note of the person who offered it. If the idea turns out to have been a good one, they still reward the employee who came up with it, even if management never implemented the idea. This lets their employees see that they’re humble and able to focus on the quality of ideas, even when they don’t use them.

Remember, it’s not enough to add a line to the corporate handbook praising people who speak up and offer constructive criticism and new ideas. You have to actively demonstrate to your employees that you value their input, respect their expertise, and acknowledge their abilities. If you take positive, concrete actions, you can create a team that values constructive criticism and understands that everyone is responsible for making sure that initiatives succeed.

Are you unsure of how to go about empowering employees to speak up when they spot a problem with the direction of the company? Do you struggle to create teams of honest, innovative managers and thought leaders? The experts at Applied Vision Works can help you create a culture that rewards new ideas and constructive criticism.

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