Start talking about what you are not talking about

What do you consider to be the key drivers of your group’s effectiveness?

Is it your ability to raise and address difficult issues? Is it your skill at being able to come to alignment on common goals or objectives? Perhaps it’s your ability to subordinate your personal agendas for the common good?

Whichever one it is, the prerequisite for all of these is the ability to have open, honest and straight conversations. However, it’s not what you can talk about that makes a difference at work – it’s what you can’t talk about. It’s always what you are not dealing with that’s controlling and shaping your team.

Take the following true story, as just one example, I was working with the senior managers of a global technology company that was trying to improve its performance. In an attempt to take stock of the biggest issues so that we could address them, each function presented their biggest frustrations.

The Sales managers, in a very open, direct yet productive way and atmosphere gave their Manufacturing colleagues the following feedback: “You don’t keep the production deadlines we set. Your output has many issues and flaws and you are not responsive when we need you to fix errors.”

The managers of Manufacturing said back to the Engineering managers: “You build new technology prototypes, which you design in partnership with the sales group and then sell to the customers in aggressive timelines. But you don’t seek our input about the design or consult with us about our ability to build these.”

They continued, “The customers love your vision, but when engineering hands off the design to us we struggle to deliver what you promised. In addition, our people feel demotivated as Sales views us as ‘business inhibitors’ and ‘obstacles to success’. The net result is poor customer satisfaction, loss of customers, poor product quality and lots of failures in delivery, which we are often unfairly blamed for.”

I can give you hundreds of examples of this type of disconnect between teams and functions in organizations. So, if you want things to be different in your organization, you have to develop the willingness and ability to talk about what you are not talking about.

Just a word of caution, before you ask the different functions to share their biggest frustrations and complaints about other functions make sure everyone is committed to a productive and empowering exercise where ‘learning from our mistakes’ is more important than ‘blame and who’s at fault.’

Returning to the story above – within 18 months, both profitability and customer satisfaction soared as a result of a new level of communication, alignment and partnership between Sales, Engineering and Manufacturing.

The bottom line is that you have to be honest about things that are not working company-wide. If everyone knows people are nervous about layoffs, competition or market changes, put it on the table. Discuss it.

One of the management myths is that you have to always be positive and pump people up. But the most refreshing thing is honesty — both about the good and the bad!

Are you making a difference in making your work environment healthy?

The blame game is always harmful and destructive. It undermines any team dynamic and creates a stressful work environment. When something goes wrong and people sense there is a witchhunt for fault, people react by hiding, covering their behinds, misrepresenting facts and being increasingly cautious. Nobody engages in a productive conversation to learn from the mistake. This negative dynamic only perpetuates the issues and increases the likelihood they will be repeated.

However, in an environment of ownership and commitment, people only tolerate open, honest discussions that lead to the source of problems and allow for real resolution. In this environment, no one is interested in who’s at fault, but rather in getting to the source of problems. In this environment, people are eager to volunteer their insights, observations, and energy in order to address what was missing, what needs to be corrected, and they take personal ownership for resolving the issues.

Unfortunately, most workplaces are filled with people spending more time trying to avoid blame for something that did – or might – go wrong, than in anticipating and addressing real problems.

In a healthy environment, people are also much more open to receiving feedback including constructive criticism, because the name game is “how to improve and get better,” rather than the common “gotcha” environment where they are consumed by the fear of being caught.

In an environment where everyone looks out for themselves, people tend to compete for credit and be threatened by others getting it.  Credit serves as evidence for being better than others, so the unspoken theme is

“Look how great I am!”

and the mindset is: the better you are the worst I am and vice-versa. Needless to say, in this environment, people can’t genuinely be happy with the accomplishment and success of others, therefore they are far less inclined to recognize and praise others too.

But, in a healthy team environment, where people feel they are working together towards a common aim there is no angst about credit and blame. In this environment, people are much more inclined to view others accomplishments as their own; they are far more generous in providing praise and recognition to colleagues. This produces energy, inspiration, motivation, and a desire to do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. In this environment, the concept of the whole is larger than the sum of its parts – becomes a natural reality.

Which environment are you working in?


Do you have the courage for brutal honesty?

I love working with leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest and courageous communication around them. These leaders are committed to high performance and they have zero interest in, or tolerance for, internal drama or politics. They operate at a high level of personal integrity, authenticity, and ownership. And they expect and demand the same from people around them.

They make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to get away with doing the things that undermine and weaken the organization: point fingers, adopt a victim mentality, indulge in destructive politics, and “cover-your-ass” behaviors that distract from the goals of the organization.

Even if these behaviors are very subtle, they drain energy and waste everyone’s time. Eventually, people begin to feel that they cannot make a difference, and the organization loses focus and cannot achieve the results it seeks. In today’s environment of growing competition and limited resources, no company can afford this.

I was working with a senior leadership team of a large and successful telecom company. At the start of our engagement I interviewed all the senior leaders and a handful of managers that report to them to gain insight into the starting condition of the organization and teams. The interviews revealed significant issues and dysfunctionalities in the levels of trust, cohesion, collaboration and communication between functions and between the senior leaders themselves, including the CEO. When I presented my findings pretty much everyone confirmed the issues. While people were somewhat startled by my summary, everyone also seemed extremely relieved that the truth was out.

We set out to drive change. However, every time I tried to engage the senior leaders in a direct conversation about their dysfunctionalities they were reluctant to do so. While there were no disagreements about the issues, the CEO and some of the leaders took these personally and therefore, despite their declarations to the contrary, they avoided facing them at all cost. From my standpoint, they lacked the courage to engage with brutal honesty. As time passed the second tier managers became more and more frustrated and discouraged about the lack of progress. People disengaged and invested less of their commitment, passion, and energy in the change initiative. As a result, progress stalled and cynicism grew.

Any manager can be the catalyst for breaking undermining patterns, reversing past damage and creating a high-performance team dynamic – if they are willing to be a courageous leader, role model this behavior, and call his or her people to account for it too. In an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear, managers need to stand for a new code of empowering honesty, refusing to settle for any less than that!

No matter which method they use, leaders must make their unconditional commitment to honesty known, and they must convince their people that they mean it. It’s not enough to declare it. They need to demonstrate through action that they are genuinely open to feedback, criticism, and input, including about themselves.

As one of my clients once admitted:

It takes 10 rights to fix 1 wrong, and 1 wrong to undermine 10 rights.

This leadership philosophy of open, honest, authentic and courageous communication can be messy, lonely and painful at times. However, time and again, I have seen it lead to significant transformations inside organizations. In fact, clients have repeatedly shared with me that creating a new level of communication at work has also made them a better person in their personal life, changing the way they relate to their children and their spouses. One CEO even told me once, “It saved my marriage“.

I am not a marriage counselor, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, one thing I do know is that when organizations have the courage to be authentic every day, a powerful platform of authentic team ownership, commitment and accountability emerges. The team is then equipped and energized to focus on any challenge or opportunity that lies ahead, no matter how unfamiliar, complex, or difficult it may be.

As a result, the team becomes unstoppable.

Are you willing to be empowered and great?

In last week’s blog, I spoke about how to develop and enhance your ability to see and own progress in any circumstance, even when you are facing challenges and adversity. I made the claim that doing this will enhance your positive outlook, energy, and sense of empowerment.

I also recommended a practical exercise that could strengthen your muscles in this area and I added the question:

If it is so easy to do this, why doesn’t everyone – especially those who are frequently complaining that “nothing is progressing” – grab this mindset and approach with open arms?

In this week’s blog, I want to get a bit deeper into this question. In fact, I want to push the question further and ask: Why do people resist being empowered and great?!

This may seem like an odd question. Who wouldn’t want to be empowered and great? Perhaps it’s not as obvious as it seems.

It is my life goal to ignite, energize and empower people. In fact, I am fortunate enough to have this as my job. I ignite, energize and empower people and teams in the workplace environment.

I spend a lot of time and energy reminding people just how great and able they are and can be. When people are cognizant to their greatness in one area of their life, they seem to carry it over into other areas. In fact, as we all know when people feel great it can be quite contagious to others around them.

But I have noticed that often people are not that eager to experience themselves as great, powerful, resourceful, able and larger than their obstacles and circumstances.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have been in where people were adamantly trying to convince me that they are just not capable or good enough for, or up to the challenge or opportunity they were facing.

It seems that people are afraid that if they accept themselves as great, enabled, empowered and unstoppable, they would have to admit and own that they have the capability and power to create, produce and have so much more than they do today.

Think about it, if you are un-empowered you will aspire to lower standards and goals, you will have fewer opportunities in front of you, you will expect less and you will have less accountability to deliver and have great things. You will also be able to get away with more excuses for why you can’t do things. By experiencing yourself as smaller than your problems and circumstances, you always have a way out.

You also do not have to challenge yourself, to change or think beyond your comfort zone. This is an easier and safer way to live. If you become empowered, if you begin living courageously, you would have to bring creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness to key aspects of your life, and even if you have the talent to do it, this would be scary.

However, the direct consequence of staying un-empowered is dire. Self-expression, self-esteem, and confidence are eroded. You are likely to not pursue and achieve your real dreams. And there is a constant feeling that “maybe I am missing out on something, selling out or not living to my full potential”.

By simply confronting and owning the benefits and costs of adopting the un-empowered mindset and life, you can regain your natural ability to choose. You could choose courageous living, and by doing so reclaim your self-expression and power.

I urge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself: ”How great am I willing to be?

Are you making progress every day?

I was facilitating a session with a group of managers in a global technology company. We were a few months into their change initiative and I wanted to find out how things were progressing since we started.

I asked them to take a few minutes and come up with a list of the areas where they have seen progress and improvement since we started. One of the managers threw out a cynical comment “Well, that list will be short!“.

As it turned out their list of accomplishments was actually not short at all. In fact, they had made admirable progress in many key areas. However, when we got to the list written by that same manager he again insisted that: “Nothing has progressed or improved!

I could tell that this manager had a chip on his shoulder. He was upset that certain areas that affected him and his team were not changing and improving fast enough. Unfortunately, it seemed that his frustrations were clouding his view and perspective about everything.

In my coaching work, I often come across people who seem to be stuck in the position that “nothing is changing” or “nothing has improved” even when everyone around them claims the complete opposite.

So, who is right and what is the truth?

I don’t think there is one. We often say: “I can’t believe what I am seeing!” However, I believe that in reality people actually see or don’t see what they believe.

When someone insists adamantly “nothing has improved or changed“, that says more about the person saying it, than the reality he or she are talking about.

I have a good friend who every time I ask her how she is doing she answers with some variation on: “Same shit different day!” That is ‘an attitude’, not ‘an objective summation of the truth’.

It takes a certain openness, positive outlook and talent to be able to see (and find) progress and accomplishment in any circumstance. It is an acquired skill, not something you have or don’t have. Yes, sometimes you need to squint your eyes, use a fine ruler or microscope to see the forward movement. However, if you orient yourself toward progress and accomplishment and look for it, you will always find it.

There are practical exercises you could adopt that would make you good at this. Here is one that I have been practicing for years, which has made a difference in my life:

Keep a notebook next to your bed (or somewhere handy) and at the end of each day take 15 minutes to complete the day by recording your answer to the following question:

What are the 4-8 things I made progress in, learned and/or accomplished today?

Don’t go to sleep before you have come up with at least 4 things. Some days it will be easy to fill the list. In fact, some days you will easily have more than 8 things. In other days, however, you will be scratching your head and searching your brain. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Do the practice and come up with at least 4 that have meaning to you. Do this for at least one month, in order for it to influence your perspective.

If you stay true to the exercise you will develop your ability to see and find progress and accomplishment in any circumstance. This will enhance your positive outlook, energy, and sense of accomplishment and progress. Ultimately it will empower you and make you experience yourself as much more powerful and able to achieve what you want.

So, if it is so easy to do this, why doesn’t everyone – especially those who are frequently complaining that “nothing is progressing” – grab this mindset and approach with open arms?

I’ll get into that in next week’s blog. See you then!