(Originally posted in Sept, 2011)
In my former life I was a marine biologist and even though it has been many years since I left academia for the world of business I am still fascinated by how much we can learn from studying the oceans and marine life. Recently I read an article about “Dead Zones” in the ocean and I saw an excellent analogy with what goes on inside of organizations.
What is a Dead Zone?
Dead zones are hypoxic (low-oxygen) areas in the world’s oceans and lakes. Most dead zones occur near inhabited coastlines and are normally caused by excessive runoff fromrivers laden with fertilizer and nitrogen rich chemicals from surrounding farmland. The nitrogen in the water causes algae to bloom in massive numbers and when they die and sink to the ocean floor the bacterial breakdown uses up large amounts of oxygen, killing fish, crustaceans and other sea floor animals. Basically, nothing grows there.
In March 2004, the recently established UN Environment Programme reported 146 dead zones in the world’s oceans where marine life could not be supported due to depleted oxygen levels. Some of these were as small as a square kilometre (0.4 mi²), but the largest dead zone covered 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 mi²). A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide.
The interesting thing about most of these dead zones is that they usually occur in the summer and by the fall and winter, when the wind and waves stir things up, the oxygen is replenished and the dead zones shrink in size.
Corporate “Dead Zones”
One of the essential ingredients for sustained business performance, innovation and rising productivity is the free and transparent flow of information so that everyone inside an organization has access to fresh knowledge, from which insights and improvements tend to flow. Too often, however, I have noticed “dead zones” inside companies where people lack relative and current information. They are making assumptions on old, stale information that gets quickly out of date. Most of these corporate dead zones occur because senior and middle managers tend to hoard information and are reluctant to pass it around. In many cultures, information is a form of power and prestige. Another reason for the lack of flow of information is the mistaken belief that they don’t need all that information and if they wanted it they would simply ask.
Like the wind and waves that re-oxygenate the ocean dead zones, a culture rich in feedback and open communications, with ample opportunities for open dialogue across the organization tends to move life-giving information into all areas. Everyone, but especially senior and upper managers, work better within a feedback-rich culture.
In many of our senior team alignment workshops at the start of most turnaround or transformation assignments, we teach and practice the skills of “real-time” feedback between individuals and then go on to build business processes for constant feedback between functions, departments and organizational levels. Like in the ocean when oxygen flows back into the area, the influx of real-time information creates an explosion of energy, innovation and productivity.
Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
Why so many corporate Dead Zones?
One of the questions I always ask audiences when I give large presentations is “How many of you get enough feedback?” Very few hands go up. I then follow with a second question. ”How many of you would like more feedback at work?” Virtually all the hands shoot up. People want and need feedback, sometimes for appreciation, sometimes for improvement ideas, and sometimes to self-calibrate their leadership or managerial behaviors and practices.
Everyone wants and needs more feedback, but very few actually give it. Why? Because we all have a head full of beliefs and assumptions that go something like this.
- It’s not my job to give him or her feedback
- Besides, they might get offended
- And anyway, if they wanted my feedback they would ask for it.
- They might think I want something if I give them some positive feedback
- They might turn the tables if I give them some constructive (critical) feedback
- I could be wrong so I better not say anything at all
So, with all these beliefs running around in our heads, we usually avoid giving others feedback, either appreciative or constructive. That’s how Dead Zones get started and perpetuated.
Again, one of the ways were deal with corporate dead zones and lack of feedback and information flow is to help executives and managers surface these limiting beliefs, talk bout them, and best of all have the opportunity to practice, with their peers, the skills and methods of real-time, open and honest, appreciative and constructive feedback. Scary? At first. Energizing and liberating? Like an explosion of positive energy. Like oxygen feeding a starved fire.
It is not unusual after the hour or two of practicing feedback with their peers that a senior manager will say: ”That’s the most feedback I’ve had in my 20 years working in this company!”
Do you live in a feedback rich culture or a corporate dead zone? Feedback is like oxygen, critical for a productive and sustainable business life!
Tight Lines . . .
John R Childress
E | firstname.lastname@example.org