Most teams avoid the tough, uncomfortable conversations. In most cases, team members tend to delay or avoid giving honest and direct feedback and coaching to each other. People especially avoid giving negative criticisms and feedback – even if these are necessary and would make a difference.
Even when team members do attempt to say what’s really on their minds, their lack of courage often leads to things being said in such a diplomatic and sugarcoated way that the impact of the message is lost in its tepid delivery.
While at times diplomacy works and it may allow team members to address some problems efficiently, many critical issues demand an energy, passion and direction that cannot be gained from adherence to cautious, “be careful” behaviors.
For example, when a team needs to make tough decisions around budgets, resources, headcounts and other areas that require prioritization and tradeoffs or are considered power and status currency, people have to have dialogue in an open, honest, courageous and effective way, with no compromise or taking the safe way out.
Despite all of the theories explaining the complexities of team effectiveness, from my experience, 95% of the challenges, problems, and dysfunctions existing within teams are due to team members simply being afraid to ‘rock the boat’ or resigned about their abilities to make a difference.
I am sure many leaders would deny it’s the lack of willingness to speak up that leads to conflicts, lack of alignment and collaboration, and status quo. They would rather blame others for their unfavorable circumstances and for their lack of open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective conversations.
Even at the highest levels, leaders fear giving straight feedback and rocking the boat for fear of failing or being viewed as incompetent, trouble makers or as selfish. I have also seen leaders unwilling to make themselves vulnerable out of a fear of being viewed as soft, weak, or ineffective. Alternatively, they are so convinced nothing will come of any heroic efforts that they succumb to the pervasive mindset of, ‘Why stick my neck out?’ and it’s political adaptive maneuver, ‘Pick your battles’.
The consequences of the politics and caution are grave. Here are some examples which I am sure you can recognize:
- Team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully aligned with. They then go off and do their own version of the commitment made, blame circumstances when they fail to live up to their part of the commitment or say “I was never fully on board with this.”
- Team members tolerate confusion and misunderstanding in discussions and then use those as justifications when things don’t get done.
- People see that things are going to breakdown, and they don’t say anything about it.
- People have negative points of view or criticism about their colleagues, or even their boss, which undermine team trust, but they don’t confront them.
- In meetings, team members know that there is an elephant in the room and something is not being said, but they don’t want to be the one to bring it up.
- ‘Yes’ does not mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’ and a ‘promise’ is not a ‘promise’. Instead, people sit in the meeting, choosing what they say or don’t say based on being politically correct or covering their asses. Everyone knows there is no real alignment or agreement, but no one will say it.
- Rather than confront a colleague directly with their concerns, team members engage in undermining backchannel conversations about their fellow team members or their departments.
- Team members spend a great deal of energy looking over their shoulders, being suspicious about others’ agendas, and overall protecting themselves from being screwed over or surprised by others.
But in order for any meaningful dialogue to take place and key objectives to be met, team members need first be honest with themselves about their authentic feelings and thoughts and then muster up the courage to communicate them to the team at large. This includes saying those things that leave one afraid of being blacklisted and unpopular and pissing other people off, including the boss.
And just how does one get the courage it takes for this authentic conversation to take place? It is not, as popular opinion would have it, by having no fear, but the exact opposite.
Courage lies in embracing the fear, acknowledging it and speaking up anyway. In fact, the prerequisite for courage is fear.
If you’re not afraid to speak, you don’t need the courage to do so.