With the current economic environment, when a group of industry veterans gathers, the conversation generally turns to "Where is he?" or "Do you remember him?" The other night, I was a part of one such conversation, and we started talking about a well respected senior management veteran in the industry who was fired by a national supply company for speaking honestly or "telling it like it is" during a company board meeting.

It seems the new company president didn't appreciate the honest, frank assessment this veteran manager gave during the meeting because it didn't fit his narrative and message he wanted to convey. By that one action, the new president squashed free speech in his organization.

Why did this president get uptight with his senior manager's honest assessment of the business? I could patty-cake the answer, but sometimes you just need to blurt it out - when you are selling a business narrative to a board, which is hooey, you can't stand the truth. If I were a board member of this company, I'd question and verify extensively everything the company's management told me, because most of it was whipped-up from failed, dumb ideas.

If a board really wants to find out about how badly their company is being operated, gather a focus group of their competitors who can tell you all of the dumb things they are doing and what really is going on in the market. It's sort of like the reality television show, "Undercover Boss." Most independent business people are amazed at the whoppers being told to some of these boards, and what's even more miraculous is the boards believe it. You wonder how many successful board members get so wealthy being that gullible.

Freedom of speech in your organization takes guts, because as a boss you might be told something horrible-that you are wrong. The egos of many of today's executives tell them they are the smartest people in the room. So, if you allow free speech in your organization you've got to be humble enough to listen to it, mindful that someone else may have a good idea, and realize that other people working for you might be smarter than you. Ouch! It's a heck of a lot easier being the communist dictator of your organization, because if someone says something you don't like they'll be sent packing.

I've always told our managers and associates to speak freely to me about the organization, as long as it is said respectfully. Over the years, I've listened to a lot of positive criticism of our organization, and it made us better when we made changes to improve. I don't paint pretty pictures for the owner of the company; and, at times, even though it's tough to admit a failure in the operation, he knows exactly what is going on. In my view, allowing freedom of speech in an organization is the primary key to success.

Here are some key elements in having freedom of speech in your business:

  • Encourage respectful dialog at all levels, and never retaliate against an employee for saying something that hurts your feelings. How a senior manager responds to free speech will determine if free speech actually becomes part of the culture.
  • Senior managers must be prepared to hear bad news and learn to handle it, especially if they are the ones responsible for creating the bad news.
  • If you have the courage to allow free dialog, understand the members of your team will, at times, have other burdens upon them and sometimes a comment may be said short in nature. As long as it's respectful, don't get mad - everyone has a bad day.
  • Great managers encourage team members to speak out, and frequently they will ask questions like, "What do you think?" To get great ideas and comments you have to ensure that you're always throwing down the welcome mat.
  • Don't be intimidated by bright, smart people who work for you. Realize that the smart people who are under you were probably hired by you. So, that makes you pretty smart, too.
  • If you want people to talk freely with good ideas the key is to be nice. When team members truly believe they can talk to you without fear of having their head snapped off, you'll get great information.

There is no right to free speech in companies as there is in America; similarly, if companies allow freedom of speech, as free nations do, the engines of creativity flourish.
I feel bad for the executive who lost his job for "telling it like it is" because this gentleman is very bright, articulate, and knows what he's talking about. His termination was a major loss for the national company because the president is now surrounded by a group of "yes" people who will yes him until he's fired and the company fails. Those yes answers were cemented when the president fired his only honest voice.

To find out if you have true free speech in your company, go to lower management and hourly employees and ask them this simple question, "How are things going?" If the answers you get back are rainbows, sugar plums, and puppy dog tails then you have people who are scared to talk. On the other hand, if the answer is something like, "Things are going pretty good, but..." then you have people who feel free to give honest feedback - always look for people who will give you the "but."

Don Magruder is CEO of Ro-Mac Lumber & Supply in Central Florida and former chairman of the Florida Building Material Association. This article originally appeared in FBMA's May 12 newsletter.