Ever have the flu but still have to go to the office? A functional culture is like that. It’s sufferable and not deadly; so, we plod on.
“At our exec team meeting, we work through a lot of issues; when a new thing comes up, we stop the meeting until all the people who are involved with that issue can be in the room. Calls are made, people pulled in, etc so we can have the discussion of what’s really going on, with everyone involved able to shape the dialogue.We are incredibly healthy in how we debate. But it’s not easy. We hire people smarter than ourselves and then we involve them in the discussion. And sometimes that means we have fierce conversations that are volatile, hard, and ultimately messy. Would it be nice if our executive team never disagreed? Heck, Yes!And do I want — say — my sales person to necessarily see all those disagreements? I wish we didn’t have disagreements but that’s not reality in any business. So I do want him to see and participate in those messy conversations, because I want him to understand how a decision got made. Then he walks out knowing it wasn’t a political decision behind his back, but a set of hard trade offs that we made, together.”
– Leave room for everyone to think their own thoughts and have their own understandings. The words you use, the tone you use, and the context you set will all make a difference in how others respond.
– Name with what matters most in the outcome, and set the context for what you want. This can sound like: “For me, what I most want to do is to create a shared understanding….” Or “we must win this account at all costs because it is our toe-hold into a new market.” Sharing what is important to you may seem like common sense, but without it, people do not know your intention or what has meaning or importance in this conversation. It is not enough to know your intention; you must communicate it to the group.
– Say exactly and specifically what you want people to understand. Use as many distinctions as needed. It is not enough to describe something as “blue” if what you really mean is “turquoise.” Don’t rely on subtext. Don’t expect them to “figure it out.” You are responsible for calling a spade a spade. Use proof points when you can. For example, “I believe the issue is turquoise because of these three points of fact….”
– Leave room for new information. Present everything as “early findings,” not truth. The word “truth” has a charge to it. The phrase “early findings” suggests you are doing good discovery and your observations are for the team to understand together.
– Avoid easing in. The work of Chris Argyris has introduced this concept of “easing in,” which is where you try and soften a message by delivering it indirectly through hints and leading questions. Easing in conveys that you have a point of view you are unwilling to share directly, which suggests that the issue is embarrassing or shameful. A better approach is to make the subject clear and discussable by stating your thoughts straight out and indicating that you are interested in working on solving the situation.
– Just like in any other personal relationship, avoid using the word “you” when you are about to critique something. Rather than saying, “Your ideas are unclear,” you can say, “I need more clarity on those ideas.” You can state your perceptions, feelings, and assumptions, but you should not state other people’s assumptions and feelings.
– Look for ways to paint a picture or use an analogy. Sometimes this helps the data-driven folks and the social-context folks to arrive at some shared way of looking at a situation.
– Ask people to comment on what they see differently and why. Remember the goal in all messy tough situations is a shared understanding. You want to make sure everyone sees things fully and expansively (versus agreeing). Clarity and understanding is what you seek.
If you face your tough issues directly, the team will learn they can handle anything. They will not come apart, they will not be punished for not knowing the answer already, they will learn what they need to learn. High performance comes when people realize they can do many things, well. Yes, even the fights.