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  Proverbs on Learning from Advice of Employees

 

     The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.

 

     On an unusually cold but bright blue morning in late January, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off as scheduled. Onlookers at Cape Kennedy oohed and aahed as the earth rumbled beneath their feet and the NASA craft thundered skyward. As the vehicle cleared the tower---the point where worried engineers had feared and warned project leaders of an explosion---one whispered to another: “We’ve just dodged a bullet.” Seventy-three seconds later, Challenger burst into flames, killing all seven astronauts onboard.

     Flashback one year, to January 24, 1985. Roger Boisjoly, a senior scientist with a NASA contractor, has examined the blackened grease on a recently flown space shuttle with both perplexity and concern. As one of the nation’s leading experts in 0-rings and rocket seal joints, he knows that the grease on the rings, coupled with the rings’ partial erosion, is, at the very least, cause for immediate testing.

     Soon thereafter, Boisjoly raises the issue with both his superiors and NASA management. He suspects that the relatively cool temperature in which the shuttle had flown had the effect of hardening the rubber 0-rings on the rocket booster, causing them to lose contact with their seal. (Rocket 0-rings prevent leakage in much the same way as water faucet 0-rings.) This, he tells management, would permit the booster’s hot combustible gases to escape their chamber via the rocket joint and compromise the 0-ring. The blackened grease and partial ring erosion is evidence of this chain of events, implying an unacceptable level of risk to the shuttle and its passengers.

     Management asks some tough but justified questions about Boisjoly’s theory, prompting him and supervisor Arnie Thompson to perform lab tests in March on the connection between low temperature and the ability of the 0-rings to create a seal in the rocket booster joint. The tests confirm Boisjoly’s suspicion: At a temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the primary 0-rings lost contact with their seal for only 2.4 seconds, whereas at 50 degrees, they lost contact for ten minutes. The backup (secondary) 0-ring, however, did remain sealed throughout. From this research, the two conclude that at too low a temperature, it would be possible that neither the primary nor the secondary 0-ring would seal at all, thus leading to an explosion in the booster.

     By midsummer, Boisjoly is all but begging both his employer and NASA for resources to further investigate the problem. He even writes to his company’s vice-president of engineering to ensure that top management is aware of the problem. In this letter, he expresses the urgent concern that if the company fails to resolve the 0-ring problem, “The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order---loss of human life. . .”

     In late August, the vice-president of engineering responds by formally appointing a “Seal Erosion Task Team.” However, of the company’s 2,500 engineers, only five are allocated for the project. This is a harbinger of the level of organizational support the team, headed by Boisjoly, will receive.

     For months thereafter, the intimate group of scientists do what they can to analyze the threat, but at every turn, they are frustrated by indifference. Resources are scarce, but bureaucracy abounds. Because management would not grant verbal approval for requests, the team makes glacial progress.

     January 27, 1986, the day before the space shuttle Challenger’s scheduled liftoff, is a bitter cold day by Florida standards. The unseasonably low temperatures---predicted to be 18 degrees near launch time---leads to several last-minute meetings to discuss the prudence of a launch. At 8:15 that evening, three teams of engineers and managers meet by teleconference to again hear from Boisjoly on his theory. Assisted by Supervisor Thompson, Boisjoly presents thirteen charts from the March experiments. Their specific recommendation is that the temperature must be at least 53 degrees for the shuttle to safely launch.

     Although Boisjoly’s superiors initially appeared supportive of the recommendation, a top NASA official was not, responding bluntly: “My God. . . when do you want me to launch? Next April?”

     After the presentation, the four senior managers for the contractor confer. Although not a single pro-launch statement had been made by their engineers during the meeting, the group votes 4-0 to recommend launch. At 11:00, literally at the eleventh hour, the teleconference ends and the decision is telefaxed to the Kennedy Space Center. Later that evening, Boisjoly writes in his work journal: “I sincerely hope that this launch does not result in catastrophe. . .”1

     The next day, Boisjoly witnessed in horror that very catastrophe he had predicted.

     As with the assassination of President John F Kennedy, many Americans remember precisely where they were the moment they first watched or heard about the Challenger disaster. It was a tragedy that shocked the nation, made seemingly all the more tragic by the fact that a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, had been invited to be among the seven on the Challenger crew. We were further horrified to learn that the 1,200 students and 140 faculty from her school collectively watched the explosion on the live television broadcast. “We were rejoicing in the liftoff.. . .celebrating with her,” Principal Charles Foley told reporters. “Then it stopped. That’s all. It just stopped.”2

     Now, with the mourning ended and many years removed from the accident, Challenger has become, among other things, a staple for business ethics courses worldwide. Indeed, many business realities contributed to management repeatedly ignoring the advice of its expert employees---most of which had to do with things like program reputation and effects on future funding if there were a delay---but notwithstanding legitimate managerial concerns, the debacle has become a classic example of ignoring the value of employee input.

     This value is easy to recognize when employees are world-renowned experts in their field. However, it’s also true that an employee need not be a rocket scientist to have expertise and to contribute suggestions. In fact, one could argue that those on the front lines who are in daily contact with clients, machines, the public, the technology etc., are a constitutive resource for improving one’s product, service, or work system. Moreover, some research indicates that employee participation in decision making may have effects on variables like employee morale, productivity, and turnover.3

     Beyond human theories and arguments, though, God’s Word speaks often to valuing the input of others when making decisions.

 

PROVERBS’ ADVICE ON ADVICE

     Two insightful verses on the need to receive counsel before making a decision are found in the proverbs:

 

Plans fail for lack of counsel,

but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22 NIV)

 

He who answers before listening---

that is his folly and his shame. (Proverbs 18:13 NIV)

 

     Proverbs has a tough message for many bosses: You don’t know everything. You may know your industry; you may know how the organization works or how to manage your budget. You may even have an alphabet soup of credentials following your name. But you can always learn from others.

 

Solicit and Welcome Advice

     There are two central points about advice that the Book of Proverbs offers to us. First, Proverbs 15:22 and its close parallels (11:14; 12:15; 20:18; 24:6) encourage us to actively solicit advice. Seek it out, because “plans fail for lack of counsel.”

     Not all unilaterally designed plans will fail, of course. We know that because most executives have seen some of their lone-ranger-type projects actually come to fruition. But most of us may not have to think very hard to recall the embarrassment and frustration of plans that disintegrated because we were simply too stubborn to ask for help. Or perhaps we spurned the suggestions that were offered to us. Because we don’t have all the answers, soliciting input from “many advisers,” the verse tells us, leads to a greater likelihood of success.

     Second, and equally important---but also equally neglected---is to respect unsolicited advice. In practice, when a subordinate comes to us with a suggestion, most of us will listen to it. But beneath the seemingly attentive veneer, are we really listening? Are we actually giving serious consideration to the unsolicited advice? Or are we in our minds, as Proverbs 18:13 cautions us against, answering before listening? Do we dismiss the suggestion before really weighing its value? Proverbs’ instruction is to not assume that we always know best; instead give authentic consideration to the merits of the unsolicited advice.

 

Be Humble

     Implicit in this advice to welcome advice is a virtue discussed as Principle 3: be humble. Soliciting advice and respecting unsolicited advice are acts of humility, something with which legions of bosses struggle. Refusing counsel and answering before listening are simply manifestations of pride. Proverbs 13:10 makes this connection explicitly:

Pride only breeds quarrels,

but wisdom is found in those who take advice.

 

     Here, pride is set against wisdom, and wisdom is correlated with taking advice. Although the verse never mentions humility, the teaching is quite patent: Have the humility to be teachable. Set aside the prideful notion that you know it all and seek advice. This is the godly path of the wise.

     Valuing employee advice (and all other advice, for that matter) begins by devaluing one’s complete self-sufficiency. In humility, solicit advice from subordinates and others and respect counsel that is unsolicited. Listen before answering. These are principles that could have saved seven lives in 1986.

 

SOLICITING IDEAS CONFIDENTIALLY AT PILLSBURY

     When it comes right down to it, respecting unsolicited advice is a personal issue entirely within one’s own control. Actively soliciting employee ideas, though, is another matter.

     Candor has never been the strong suit of most employees. Regardless of how many satisfaction surveys they receive and how many times they are urged to take advantage of the boss’s “open door policy,” it is virtually impossible to defeat the pervasive notions that (1) management will simply ignore suggestions from below, and (2) there may be some reprisal for criticisms, regardless of how constructively they are phrased.

 

Overcoming Employee Fears

     So the practical question for the Christian manager then becomes: How does one overcome the perceived barriers to effectively implement Proverbs’ advice on advice? How do you get employees to offer suggestions and to tell you what’s really on their minds?

 

     The Pillsbury Company, a Minneapolis-based food corporation, has found a way.

     In 1993, Pillsbury contracted with a third party to establish a toll-Free, twenty-four-hour hot line for employee comments. When an employee calls the number, he or she is first given the option to remain anonymous or to leave a name, and can then leave a comment of up to four minutes in duration. The contractor then transcribes the messages and sends them straight to the top of the organization, where every message is reviewed by the CEO, the general counsel, and the VP of human resources. The cost for the company is about three dollars per employee per year.

     Once the hot line was installed, Pillsbury needed to get employees to use it. Through an aggressive wave of advertising that included the distribution of stickers and magnets, employees both became aware of the tool and gained trust in its confidentiality.

 

Tasting Success at Pillsbury

     During its first five years of operation, employees left more than two thousand messages. Thirty-six percent concerned benefits, 18 percent were product and cost-savings ideas, 18 percent involved workplace morale issues, 7 percent dealt with the workplace environment. Another 7 percent centered on policies and procedures, and the balance were miscellaneous. What perpetuates the system and largely determines its success, though, is management follow-through. Every question receives a response. Answers to questions of general interest are posted on employee bulletin boards and are sometimes addressed in the Pillsbury Today newsletter. Individuals who leave their name get personalized feedback, typically from a local manager to whom the transcript has been forwarded. The employees are regularly reminded that the hot line is not a voting machine, but they also know that their feedback will not fall on deaf ears and will not affect their performance review.

     And what of its tangible success? Pillsbury says that the first five years of the hot line’s operation generated about two hundred usable product and cost-savings ideas. Employees tend to like the system, as does senior management since it not only spawns worthwhile suggestions, but it also keeps top management in touch with what matters most to employees.

     Indeed, it would seem that Pillsbury has found a recipe for valuing employee input that derives from the scriptural cookbook: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

 

BEING TEACHABLE

     Scripture exhorts us to be humble enough to be teachable, and teachable enough to learn from those who work for us.

     It is important to recognize, though, that in implementing this teaching, no one approach is mandated. Mechanisms for employee “input” range from traditional suggestion boxes and open supervisor doors to hot lines, sophisticated surveys, and formal committees. In other words, from the highly informal to the structured and institutionalized.

     Note that Scripture does not speak to the particulars of implementation. Rather, as is so often the case, God is less concerned with specific managerial processes than He is with the transformation of one’s heart. The initial attitude of many Christian managers, unfortunately, is that virtues can be workplace liabilities. Humility is weakness, teachability is a tacit admission of inadequacy, and accepting input from below implies a personal deficiency in innovation and acumen. Both one’s sinful nature and one’s corporate culture perpetuate this condition, whose fruit is the destructive mind-set that one must always have the answer.

     But no one does. And according to God, the supreme evaluator, that’s OK. When we embrace this liberating reality---that we don’t have all the answers---we have taken the first critical step in turning away from pride and corporate norms. The wise manager will complete this turnaround and genuinely value the advice of others. (157-167)

 

NOTES

1. Russell P. Boisjoly, Ellen Foster Curtis, and Eugene Mellican, “Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster: The Ethical Dimensions,” Journal of Business Ethics, 8, no. 4 (1989): 217—30.

2. News Services, “The Challenger Tragedy: Joy Choked Off As Christa’s Pupils Watch TV,” San Diego Union and Tribune, 29 January 1986, 1.

3. In recent decades, many researchers have tested the theory behind the contemporary employee participation movement, but their results remain inconclusive on the general question of participation’s effect on performance, turnover, and satisfaction. For example, compare John L. Cotton, et al., “Employee Participation: Diverse Forms and Different Outcomes,” Academy of Management Review, 13, no. 1(1988): 8—22, to John A. Wagner III, “Participation’s Effects on Performance and Satisfaction,” Academy of Management Review, 19, no. 2 (1994): 312—30. Owing to this scholarly incertitude, the various findings are not presented here.

4. Gillian Flynn, “Pillsbury’s Recipe is Candid Talk,” Workforce, 77, no.2 (February 1998): 56—59.

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