When it comes to communication and conversation, especially about the more sensitive, touchy and uncomfortable topics there are two types of leaders: the “Let’s talk about it…” type and the “Let’s not talk about it and it will go away…”.
Let’s be frank, no one looks forward to, or enjoys discussing the tough topics such as “What is not working?”, “Who is not doing their job properly?” or “Who is accountable for the failure in results?“.
People especially don’t like to talk about these topics when they know or suspect that their people are frustrated with, or blaming their leadership, performance or behavior.
However, some leaders seem to be braver, more mature or more responsible about their role and duty to foster an environment of frank conversation.
But more importantly, not talking about it doesn’t solve the problem, it pushes the problem and people’s frustrations under the carpet, so they are not visible and apparent. But that doesn’t make any of this go away, in fact, it makes things worse because it forms an undercurrent of unspoken negative chatter that wastes energy and time that forms a sentiment of resignation and cynicism.
Let me share two true stories…
The CEO of a global service company was a powerful leader who knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted things to be done. He commanded his organization and executive team with an iron fist and because he had such strong industry knowledge, he wanted to be involved in, and control pretty much everything.
He was convinced that his leadership style was very successful because the company was doing better in terms of performance. Therefore, he had little patience for varying or contradicting views, especially critical feedback about his decisions or leadership methods.
There were many significant organizational, operational and customer issues and problems in the company, but the senior executives were very reluctant to bring them up because every time they attempted to do so the CEO would play down the issues and shut down the conversation.
Under this CEO the company reached a plateau, which it never overcame. While the business results improved, the CEO was unable to transform the culture of his organization. The levels of cynicism, resignation, and fear to speak up deepened and the company continued to be very political and siloed.
In contrast to the first story, the CEO of a global telecommunication organization, in this second true story, was a very bold, passionate and inspirational leader. He believed in teamwork and communication and he promoted that environment throughout his senior executive team and his entire organization at every opportunity.
In fact, when he as much as suspected that teams were not discussing or addressing the real issues that were preventing effectiveness or success, he was not shy to summon the relevant leaders and compel them to start talking.
However, his hands-on approach frustrated some of his executives, as they felt that he was too involved in their business and interaction with their peers. When the CEO picked this frustration up, he brought up the conversation at his next executive team meeting.
Despite people’s uncomfortableness to give him the feedback the CEO encouraged his leaders to communicate courageously. The senior team had a very open, honest and productive conversation, at the end of which the executives took responsibility for the fact that they were not promptly addressing issues between their functions. They committed to doing so. The CEO committed to taking a step back in his interference in his leader’s interactions.
Things visibly changed for the better and the CEO and many of his executives continued to remember these conversations as a milestone in the development of the executive team.
No doubt that the “Let’s talk about it” route is often harder, more uncomfortable and at times messier and more chaotic. However, it is a more powerful and effective route and it makes a bigger difference to the culture and performance of the organization.