You could say that any team is as strong as its ability to handle and engage in sensitive and tough conversations. The easy ones are easy.
Two types of conversation are typically sensitive and tough for people to have – giving or receiving critical or negative feedback, and any topic that requires them to put their own personal feelings, egos, pride and/or agendas aside for the greater good of their company or team.
It could be something more complex such as deciding which team to invest in, which team member to promote or re-allocating resources and budgets from one leader’s team to another.
It could be something as simple as giving honest feedback to colleagues, your boss or subordinates about poor performance, or receiving the same from them.
It is a natural human reaction to take even the most insignificant topics personally, which leads to out-of-proportion reactions and behaviors.
In high-performance teams, team members never lose sight of the bigger picture. They put their team and company first and they always strive to do the right and the best thing for the collective cause.
In high-performance teams, people don’t hold back their punches when it comes to discussing and debating the tough and sensitive topics. Teammates may fully ‘go at it’, push back and/or disagree with other team members, but they continue to listen to each other and consider each other’s views. They never cross the line of interacting in a respectful way.
In high-performance teams, at the end of the conversation, no matter how sensitive or tough, when the team or the leader makes a decision all team members put their personal preferences and agendas aside and they all genuinely align, own and support the decision, whether it is in their personal favor or not.
When they go back to their respective team members, they represent the decision as their own in a united front with their colleagues.
I have seen some great teams that exemplify this behavior. However, I have seen more teams that don’t. I think it would be safe to say that most teams don’t do a great job when it comes to having tough and sensitive conversations.
For example, the senior leadership team of a global manufacturing company was attempting to have an honest discussion about the effectiveness of their organization. The CEO, who felt proud of the high-performance culture he had built opened the meeting by asking his leaders to be open and honest about how things were progressing. He was expecting to only hear great input from his leaders.
However, while the leaders did acknowledge that the CEO had established clear processes and rigorous discipline, they also felt their CEO was not open to hearing their ideas (when they were different than his) or receiving any critical feedback about the processes he had put in place or about his tough and controlling leadership style.
The leaders took a chance based on the CEO’s urging to be open. They told him in a direct and unvarnished manner how they felt about his lack of openness to their ideas and his intimidating style.
Instead of listening, internalizing and owning the feedback… and thanking them… the CEO became very defensive and emotional. He lost his cool and started screaming at his leaders. The room went silent. People were shocked, the level of intimidation skyrocketed and everyone shut down. It was apparent to everyone that the CEO took everything his leaders conveyed personally.
Needless to say, any traces of ability this senior team had prior to this conversation to discuss and address real tough and sensitive issues were destroyed.
Let’s be honest, having the tough and sensitive conversation in a productive, constructive and respectful way takes leadership maturity and courage.
Unfortunately, too often there isn’t enough of these qualities even in the most senior teams.