Most teams are not good at having the tough, uncomfortable conversations, even if it is necessary for a really important cause. Furthermore, most people are not good at giving honest and direct feedback and coaching to others, especially if it involves negative criticisms and feedback, even if it would make a big difference.
Even when team members do attempt to say what’s really on their minds, they often say things in such a diplomatic, vague and sugarcoated way that the impact of their message is lost in its tepid delivery.
At times being diplomatic can be an effective approach. It may allow you to address a delicate problem with a teammate in a more sensitive way, which will make it easier for them to hear and own the issues. However, some critical issues demand a more direct and candid approach that cannot be gained from being cautious or politically correct.
For example, when a team needs to make clear and tough decisions about topics such as where to cut costs and/or reduce budgets or headcount, where to invest and whom to promote. These are decisions that require team members to prioritize and make trade-offs. These are decisions that require team members to put their personal agendas, survival, and egos aside and do what is best for the company or team.
As we all know, this is often easier said than done. Size of budget and/or organization are considered power and status symbols. Typical corporate mindset is often “if you have less money or people you have less control, power, influence, and status.” Therefore, contrary to any politically correct statements leaders may say about looking out for the good of the team first, most are not inclined to give these up too quickly, at least not without a fight. Needless to say, these type of discussions have to be open, honest, direct, courageous and effective in order to make a difference.
From my experience, 95% of the challenges, problems, and dysfunction that exists within teams are due to one of two things:
- Team members lack the courage to rock the boat. They are afraid to piss others off, get into trouble, lose credibility, appear as troublemakers and/or fear they will look foolish.
- Team members are resigned about their ability to make a difference. In most cases, people have tried to raise issues before or they’ve seen others do it, only to get shut down and perhaps even blacklisted, so they have concluded that it is best to play it safe, pick their battles and let others take the risk.
I am sure many leaders would deny this very simple analysis of why so many teams lack power. It’s the lack of courage to speak up that leads to conflicts, lack of alignment and collaboration, and status quo. Most leaders would rather blame others or their unfavorable circumstances for their lack of open, honest, authentic, courageous and effective communication.
You would think that the larger and more complex the organization the more critical it would be for the senior most leaders to communicate in the most direct and effective way. After all, these senior leaders are typically more seasoned, experienced and mature in leadership and the senior executive team is where all the different functions and businesses come together. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In so many senior executive teams the level of siloed behavior and avoidance of direct and blunt communications is baffling.
In fact, in many senior executive teams, the inner expectation is that each senior executive will run his/her division and colleagues won’t interfere with each other’s areas. The unspoken rule seems to be: “You don’t call me on my stuff and I won’t call you on yours…” The exception to this rule is when the CEO believes in the power of team and he or she insists that their senior team members behave as a real team. I have worked with different CEOs including the ones that invest in building their team and generating candid, transparent and powerful communication, they are refreshing to work with.
The consequences of cautious, politically correct communication include things like:
- Team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully aligned with. They 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 break down, 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 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.
I am sure you would all agree that the cost of lack of candid, transparent and courageous conversations is grave. So, why is this the norm in most companies? We all know the answer: it is an easier and safer behavior. It allows us to avoid ownership and responsibility. We may feel bad or guilty, but these are easier to confront and experience than fear.
That’s why courage is so important. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is about 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.
Here are two final tips:
- If you focus on yourself and your own self-preservation you will hold back and let your fear run the show. However, if you focus on your future and what you want to achieve it may empower you and give you more courage to step out of your comfort zone and communicate on your future’s behalf.
- There is a powerful quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, which I love, that will enable you to strengthen your courage muscles: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”