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A Cure for “Terminal Niceness” at Xerox

This past Sunday, I was derailed from my usual routine of bee-lining straight to the Modern Love column in The New York Times (by the front page of the business section), where the cover story  read “Xerox’s New Chief Tries to Redefine Its Culture.”

Ursula Burns, who was appointed CEO this past July, describes an environment at Xerox where the employees are simply too nice to one another. She wants them to “become more fearless and be more frank and impatient with one another” to help the company grow.

Ms. Burns’ call for brutal honesty within her organization got me thinking—can Xerox’s 130,000 employees leverage anything we know at Communispace about building the kind of community that will cure Xerox’s internal positive bias? Here’s what I came up with:

1. Build intimacy.
Give Xerox employees a platform to be heard in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they are one of 130,000. Intimacy is what drives participation. For us, that means that a community of 500 members has better participation than, say, in a community of 2,000. With larger size comes increased anonymity, which means less engagement.

2. Talk to the same group of people over time.
Knowing what to ask is important, but knowing when to ask can be even more important. Our members become increasingly loyal about the companies who sponsor a community, and this makes them more honest over time. They become more committed to your success and stop being polite and when they feel you are committed to listening—and that you aren’t going away.

3. Close the loop.
Take listening one step further and close the loop. Tell them what you are doing with the information you heard, and how it is making a difference. This will make everyone feel that giving feedback—both good and bad—is a good use of their time.

4. Let your customers help.
Gather the customer stories—both the ones who’ve been loyal for years and the new ones you’ve acquired through Affiliated Computer Services—that will help open up the conversation. They are uniquely poised to keep everyone honest if you have the kind of relationship with them where they feel that you are truly listening.

And who knows—maybe in a few months the NYT headline will read something like “New Culture Redefines Xerox.”

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