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The danger of acting in a cautious and politically correct way

In a previous blog “Five necessary areas for improvement of your team,” I outlined 5 areas that most teams need to step up in. In this blog, I want to elaborate on the first area: Boldness and Courage.

Most leadership teams avoid the tough, uncomfortable conversations. Whether it’s giving honest, direct and critical feedback and coaching to others, or making difficult decisions about budgets, resources and other areas that affect power and status – the common tendency is to take the safe, easy way out.

Even when managers and team members attempt to say what’s really on their minds, a 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. And while diplomacy may allow team members to address some problems efficiently at times, critical issues demand an energy, passion and direction that cannot be gained from adherence to cautious, “be careful” behavior.

Although some may deny this to be the case, I strongly believe that 95% of the challenges, problems and dysfunction existing within teams are due to team members simply being afraid, hesitant, or resigned to have the hard conversations.

Even at the highest levels, I frequently see leaders being reluctant to rock the boat with their peers or boss, as they may be viewed as petty or make themselves vulnerable out of a concern or fear of negative consequences.

In other times, leaders and team members are so convinced nothing will come of any heroic efforts that they succumb to the pervasive mindset of, “Why stick my neck out?” and its political adaptive maneuver, “Pick your battles.”

To top it off, leadership teams caught in the courage conundrum don’t acknowledge that it’s the lack of willingness to speak up that leads to failures and issues. Instead, they blame various circumstances by using excuses such as:

We have conflicting priorities.

There is not enough time to get done what we need to do.

We can’t succeed because another department isn’t doing their job.

We don’t have enough resources to get done what we want to do.

Can you relate to any of this? To be sure, please answer the following questions about your team’s dynamic:

Planning:

Do team members make tentative and contingent commitments by saying yes and agreeing to decisions they are not fully resolved about?

Do team members go off and do their own version of the commitment made, and then blame circumstances when they fail to produce their part of the commitment?

Do team members try to escape accountability by saying, “I was never fully on board with this in the first place”?

Conversations:

Do team members tolerate confusion and misunderstanding in the discussion stages and then use those as justifications when things don’t get done?

Do people see that things are going to break down, but still they don’t say anything about it?

Do team members have concerns about their colleagues’, or leader’s sincerity and/or effectiveness, but they don’t confront them?

Do team members hear others make commitments that they know are not going to happen, but they don’t speak up or hold others accountable?

Meetings:

Do team members know that there is an elephant in the room but still they not address it?

Does their “yes” not mean yes, and their “no” not mean no?

Are their promises empty?

Do team members sit in the meeting, choosing what they say or don’t say based on what is safe and politically correct?

Are people aware that there is no real alignment or agreement, but no one says it?

Relationships:

Do team members engage in undermining conversations about their fellow members or their departments, rather than confronting colleagues on the issues?

Do people talk about themselves as team players, smile in the strategic meetings, and then go behind their colleagues’ backs to badmouth them?

Do team members promote themselves and their careers at the expense of others?

Energy:

When things don’t work, do team members spend more time making sure everyone knows “it’s not their fault” than actually trying to fix the problem?

Do team members copy everyone on emails just to protect themselves and “cover their behinds?”

Is there a lack of, or insufficient, results or progress?

Are team members always looking over their shoulders and suspicious of the others’ agendas?

If you answered most or all of these questions with a YES, your team has an opportunity to become stronger. If so, you aren’t alone. As I said before, most team members avoid difficult discussions. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

In a future post, I will share more about what you can do to make your team dynamic more authentic and courageous.

Photo by: Valery Kenski

Why most teams are not strong at making decisions and sticking to them

How many times have you experienced the following scenario?

The team discusses an important challenge or opportunity that is critical to the organization’s future. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the team tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time: they actually damage the team, which is no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. Unfortunately, people have stayed within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

Many times, this happens because leaders and managers either lack the courage to take a stand or they don’t understand their role as leaders. Often, people simply don’t know how to effectively manage conversations.

People seem to be so attached to their opinions and points of view that they simply don’t listen or can’t hear what their colleagues are saying. As a result, they can’t tell the difference between what is essential to moving the conversation forward and what is merely a matter of preference, form or cosmetic.

They want others to view and express things the way they do. But, in diverse teams that is not going to happen, and quite frankly it shouldn’t. In fact, one of the strengths of a diverse team is the ability of its members to look at things from multiple angles and points of view in order reach a richer and more complete conclusion.

But, reaching a conclusion is the key. And, this is what most teams don’t do well.

I often see team members arguing about important details even though they actually agree with each other on the principle or direction.  Instead of building upon each other, they react too quickly with “I disagree” only to say the same thing in their own words. This slows the discussion to a snail’s pace and makes everyone mentally and physically exhausted.

Another ailment: people opine endlessly about things without ever saying “therefore I propose” and moving the discussion forward toward a decision.

Discussions that spin in a directionless manner suck the energy out of the team. Although people remain seated around the table, they begin to silently give up and mentally disengage. This fuels negative underground chatter and background noise, as well as cynicism about meetings. In most organizations, the general sentiments about meetings are “too many” and “most are a waste of time”.

But it gets worse! When teams make decisions based on compromise and lack of alignment, people say all the right things – just to get the tortuous meeting over – but they leave the discussions not genuinely owning its conclusion, outcome and decision. When circumstances press, people have no problem paying lip service to the decisions.

Reflect on your own experience – have you ever looked back after these meetings and felt the frustrating feeling: “we just spent hours discussing and agreeing to something important, and people still go off and do what they want regardless of the decision?”

That dynamic is more damaging to the team and organization than if you didn’t make a decision in the first place.

Effective leaders and managers know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They always look for ways to encourage their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences in order to align with the collective wisdom of the group.

They instill in their teams a commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation “agreeing to disagree”. It is always a cop-out.

Of course, some topics are complex and may require a number of meetings and conversations to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But, paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand.

Organizations that achieve 100 percent alignment behind a goal that is 80 percent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are 80 percent aligned behind a goal that is 100 percent right. How motivated are those who are not aligned to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so.”

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. But, when team members find the courage to make the tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving others wrong.

If an entire team is behind one direction – even if it is only 80 percent correct – if they truly align, commit, and have each other’s backs, it is astounding what can be accomplished.

Blunt honesty is the right approach both in business and at home.

I love working with leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest and courageous communication around them. These leaders are about 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 “CYA” (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, what company can afford this?

Any manager can do this – break these undermining patterns, reverse past damage and create 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. They need to stand for a new code of rigorous honesty, refusing to settle for less than the truth in an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear.

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 even 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, “It saved my marriage.”

I am not a marriage counselor, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But one thing I do know is that when organizations have the courage to face the truth 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. In short, the team becomes unstoppable.

Do less. You’ll be able to achieve more!

In my line of work I attend many business meetings, and many of them look like this: people sit around the table with their laptops or iPads open. There are relatively brief moments where everyone is deeply present, listening, paying attention and engaged in the conversation. Most of the time people are sporadically engaged but mostly working on their computers, iPads or smartphones responding to emails and focusing on other work related things.

Most people who work in organizations seem to feel that they have to attend too many meetings and that many, perhaps most of these meetings are too long and not productive. In fact, many times people say that most meetings are a waste of time.

Why is this the case?

I often ask my clients why their meetings are not productive. Many people attribute this to the fact that “people are not engaged and invested in the conversation because they are too distracted by other multi tasking activities.” Many also say that the reason they continue to do emails and work during the meeting is because “the meeting isn’t that productive or relevant to them.” This sounds like a vicious circle and self-perpetuating predicament.

In many cases people also say that “their manager is the biggest offender of doing emails and other work while in meetings, so this sets the mode and standard for less effective meetings.” When I have further asked why people don’t simply close their computers and devices in meetings in order to fully concentrate on the discussions at hand, many said that the reason is “with all the resource constraints they now have to do the work of two people”.

In today’s economy, the challenge of doing more with less is definitely more prevalent in corporations than ever. However, the strategy of “multi-tasking” as a solution is simply the wrong answer.

All this is true in our personal lives too: Have you ever noticed that when a friend or a family member is concentrating on a mobile device or computer while in a conversation with you, these conversations become intermittent, repetitive, unfocused and unproductive?

Our three kids (14, 21 and 25) act like it is normal to text, tweet, instagram and social network while talking to us, their friends, and others. This is the norm today among kids, teenagers and young adults. But, I recently read an article that indicated that the kids of today retain and remember less information because they rely so heavily on the internet. What is clear is that the more parallel demands we place on our brain and focus, the less productive we are, the more stressed we are, and the longer it takes to do the work.

Even though we’ve learned to accept this reality, at time it still causes inter-generational tension because its simply unacceptable for my wife and I to communicate and connect this way. In fact, on a recent carpool trip, it was amusing to see my youngest daughter with her three girlfriends, sitting side by side and texting each other rather than speaking.

At first we tried to impose clear rules around the use of phones and other devices, to make sure our kids balance their social networking with being present at family time and homework; otherwise they would never take their eyes off their phones. We had partial success. But, we didn’t give up. We all pledged to close our phones in all family dinners and social events. This has already made a difference in the quality of our quality time together as a family.

Please don’t understand me wrong, I have nothing against these marvelous devices– in fact, I own many of them, and love using them. But what today’s kids, teenagers, and business managers often fail to see is the cost of their multitasking on the entire spectrum of things that matter to them, from productivity in school and work, to intimacy with family and friends.

If you want to achieve greater, more complex and extraordinary things with higher quality, slow down and focus: you’ll get there much faster.

And as a bonus, you’ll be a happier, healthier person. That’s something you and your family can enjoy, at your leisure.

Agreeing to disagree is always a cop-out!

How many times have you seen the following scenario?

A team meets to discuss issues that are critical to the organization’s future. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the leader tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time: they actually damage the organization, which is then no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. People have stayed within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

This happens because leaders lack one or more of the following attributes: courage, an understanding of their role as leader, and the ability to powerfully manage conversations.

True leaders know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They are able to elevate their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences to align with the collective wisdom of the group. They instill in their teams a real commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation agreeing to disagree. It is always a cop-out. Of course, some topics are complex and may need a number of meetings to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand. And, the cost of lack of decisiveness, accountability, and follow-through is cynicism, resignation and stagnation.

Achieving extraordinary results requires the ability to align on goals. Agreeing to disagree precludes that. Organizations that achieve 100 per cent alignment behind a goal that is 80 per cent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are divided behind a perfect goal. Compromise too often means that some of the people are 100 per cent behind one point of view and others are zero. How motivated are those zero per cent people to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so.”

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. Making choices means eliminating alternatives. But when team members do find the courage to make tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving that others are wrong.

If an entire team is behind one direction – even if it is only 80 per cent correct – if they truly align, commit to a direction, and backstop each other, it is astounding what can happen. Individuals are then free to stake out a much more powerful future – and in my experience, they almost always do.

What has been your experience? 

Why Agenda Driven Meetings Don’t Work

A key principle of generating total alignment and engagement is ensuring that you are always working backward from a deliberate, desired future — rather than merely extrapolating or perpetrating business as usual. When it comes to meetings — which consume enormous amounts of most managers’ time — this principle can make the difference between meetings that make a big impact, and those that waste valuable time.

To begin with, most meetings are designed backwards. The agenda planning starts with the questions:
How much time do we have? and What do people think we should talk about?

The reason we say these meetings are designed backwards is because the time allocated for the meeting should be determined instead by answers to the more useful questions:

  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • What do we want people to leave the meeting with?
  • What could we do during the meeting to achieve the desired objectives?

The answers to these questions will determine whether the meeting is worth having, who should attend, what should be covered and how much time it should take.

Once the purpose and agenda are agreed upon, and the meeting commences, the agenda should also be managed to produce the agreed outcomes, rather than having success determined by whether the planned schedule was adhered to. We have repeatedly seen meaningful, productive conversations interrupted by a timekeeper who thought his or her job was to play the role of the agenda police.

This orientation around time rather than outcomes means discussions that may have served their purpose might be extended unnecessarily, while other conversations that are yielding unexpected fruits might be shut down once the time allocated to them has been exceeded.