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Is It Safe for Your Team to Get “Real”

Published: May 31, 2016

Industrial Logic’s Joshua Kerievsky writes:

Protecting people is the most important thing we can do, because it frees people to take risks and unlocks their potential.How true! When I am talking to a new team, there is one thing I zero in on very early in the game. It sits below all the methodologies, practices, cultural manifestos, and vision statements. It is the absolute prerequisite to meaningful continuous improvement.

Can your whole team get “real” when it counts? Is it safe for someone to say:

“I’m not comfortable about where this project is going …” “We’re feeling a bit bullied lately …” “I’m overwhelmed, and I can’t reasonably keep up with this workload …” “This isn’t meeting my expectations …” “I’m confused about what we stand for here …” “We aren’t living up to our mission and here’s why …”Common wisdom says that these types of conversations are out of bounds. You’ll hear arguments like “people aren’t comfortable talking about this kind of stuff” or “this is better off dealt with in a much smaller group.” We seek to contain this talk, subdue it, and silence and control it. Even the thought of “going there” feels a little awkward and scary.

If you let these tensions fester, you’ll often start hearing small groups of people say things like:

“It isn’t worth bringing it up anymore. We just can’t change this.” “That’s just the way it is. Not much we can do about it.” “Let’s keep this between you and me …” “I don’t feel comfortable talking to [my boss] about this. She’s part of the problem.” “I’m just waiting for the most politically opportune time to … ”At any given point our organizations carry the “debt” of these unresolved tensions. Importantly, different individuals process these pressures in a variety of ways. Some people:

  • can disconnect at the end of a challenging day, month, or quarter. Unless the dissonance threatens their job, they’ll take a certain level of dissonance in stride
  • internalize that tension. It’s stressful, but they aren’t wired to fight or raise a stink
  • form alliances and pockets of resistance, and share gripes to blow off steam
  • serve as spokesperson for the less vocal team members, and take the brunt of the pushback
  • just up and leave The important point here is that you wont always see a mass exodus or a big uprising.

These unresolved tensions can hamper an organization for years because the impact is rarely some cataclysmic event that rocks the system at its core. The fed up folks will leave. And those who remain will find a way to coexist, accepting the fact that it isn’t quite safe enough to openly voice their concerns. What permeates is an all too common “low-level dissatisfaction” … people don’t love what is going on, but they don’t hate it enough (or their living situation doesn’t allow) for them to leave.

The irony is that it is these very same people that get called out for being disengaged when the consultants role in.

We direct much attention towards change management. In my experience, the seeds of change are already present in your organization. At some level — typically the level closest to the work — there is an awareness of what is “wrong”. The trick is creating an environment which is safe enough to let those with that awareness speak openly and own a path forward. Without that safety, no amount of process, assistance from consultants, hyping the culture, or empty statements of vision will allow you to turn the corner.

What has worked for you? How do you create this level of safety?