The 2 Words This Executive Never Says to Employees

April 20, 2017, 1:00 AM UTC
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The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you stay optimistic when your company is struggling?” is written by Phil Schraeder, president and chief operating officer of GumGum.

When you’re part of a company that’s growing rapidly, obstacles and challenges come up all of the time. That’s just a part of life at organizations that innovate and take risks.

The way we see it at GumGum, the Santa Monica-based computer vision startup where I work, if you’re not stumbling at least occasionally, you’re probably not doing it right. But sometimes a “fail”—of a project, a prototype, a product, or a relationship—leaves team members feeling demoralized.

Which, of course, is counterproductive; the goal is to learn from stumbles and move past them.

What’s the best way to do that? Here’s how I see it:

Don’t forget to celebrate small victories and small wins
It’s easy for management to only call attention to big, obvious, company-wide successes—like a great quarter or a great year. Someone in sales or operations or PR generates some nice slides with impressive stats that get shown off at the occasional “all-hands” meeting, and then everybody goes back to their desks thinking, “So I guess we’re doing okay?”

See also: What Laying Off Employees Reminded Me About the Importance of Trust

You want to do more than that—you need to do more than that. Consistently acknowledging accomplishments that may be minor in the grand scheme of things, but are critical to individual projects and groups, helps team members to feel motivated and empowered. And acknowledging these successes in front of everyone helps buffer and contextualize the inevitable “fails.”

Avoid constant “fire drills” and a nonstop crisis mentality
I’ve been part of organizations in the past, and I have friends and colleagues who are currently part of organizations, where everything is a fire drill. Everything is a problem and everything is urgent because the corporate culture is fundamentally reactionary. It’s about yelling, “Fire!” and attempting to motivate people through fear.

That might work in the short term, but ultimately, it wears everyone down and creates confusion about when something really needs to be escalated. Fire-drill culture also creates an atmosphere of struggle and constant near-failure, which leaves team members feeling like they just can’t catch a break.

Is it possible to be positive about negatives? I say yes, absolutely. As a manager, when you create a positive environment and you’re a partner in the collaborative process of solving a problem together, your team members are much more likely to rally.

Create a culture where problems can be identified early
When there’s no atmosphere of blame or recrimination around problems, the people who are on the front lines of a particular project are more likely to want to bring potential issues to the forefront a lot sooner—hopefully before those issues become actual fire-drill-worthy crises.

That means leadership teams should constantly encourage an open dialogue and a consultative, working relationship across all layers of the company.

Foster company-wide transparency surrounding challenges
To solve a problem, you first need to understand it. The more qualified people you can pull in across teams to help understand the problem at hand, the better.

As an example, it’s always tough when we go into new markets—particularly international markets. You have to really understand the nature of that local market.


So now, every time we enter a new international market, we create a task force for that specific territory. People with launch experience, operations experience, and knowledge of local cultural customs and sensitivities, all come together and learn from each other. Everybody gets a sense of ownership in not only tackling the challenge but, ultimately, successfully expanding our global footprint.

Reframe the “problem”
I’m not suggesting that managers sugarcoat problems (or even crises), but I do think that maintaining composure and avoiding needlessly negative messaging is profoundly important.

Personally, I avoid using language like “problem” or “screw-up” (or even more colorful variations thereof). “Problem” is loaded; it’s a term that comes with lots of baggage, whereas “challenge” makes you think, “How are we going to solve for this?”

The implicit message from management on down should always be: We’re smart; we can figure this out; we’ve got this. This is what we do—with an emphasis on “we.”

We take on challenges and, in the end, we triumph—together.

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