Why Facebook Encourages Hard Conversations at Work

December 9, 2015, 8:56 PM UTC

On the back side of the giant “thumbs up” sign at Facebook’s headquarters, there’s another, much more meaningful symbol of Silicon Valley. It’s the welcome sign for Sun Microsystems, the company that previously occupied the sprawling Menlo Park office. When Facebook (FB) moved in, CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to keep the sign from the computer giant, which once ruled the Valley but eventually failed, selling to Oracle in 2009.

The decision was meant to send a message to Facebook employees to never get complacent. But Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg likes to send her employees another, more direct version of that message. She tells them to have “hard conversations.”

“Sheryl asks me, ‘What’s the latest hard conversation you’ve had?'” said Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook. “She wants to know what have I raised with a peer, whether its someone I’m working with, or a client.” Everson explained the method on stage at Business Insider’s Ignition conference in New York on Wednesday.

Six months ago, Sandberg had a hard conversation with Everson about an internal project she’d been working on called Fuel, which is intended to make Facebook a more sustainable place to work. Sandberg told Everson that she was “too close” to the project, and that people were having a hard time giving her feedback because they were worried about insulting her. “Now I have to overcorrect and go to those people and say, ‘I want to hear the feedback,'” Everson said.

Hard conversations are at the heart of Facebook’s company culture, and key to Facebook’s ability in avoiding the fate of Sun Microsystems, Everson said. Sun and other fallen Silicon Valley giants didn’t fail overnight. “It took time. People weren’t willing to have difficult conversations,” Everson said. “They thought it was too limiting, or too time consuming or too political, or it wasn’t their job.”

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