When an organization faces disaster or misses an opportunity, hindsight reveals that all the signs were there, but those who saw didn’t feel comfortable sharing what they knew. The responsibility rests with the leader of the organization, who must create a culture in which people feel safe and empowered to point out emerging difficulties or suggest a course change. Too many leaders fail in this essential task. As a result, their followers often feel frustrated, helpless, and unwilling to surface impending issues.
In these times of unpredictable and continuous change, it is essential that colleagues feel comfortable sharing bad news, admitting mistakes or anticipating difficulties and a need for change. However, when things are going well, no one wants to be the one to disturb the ship. Even a highly effective organization may have a culture that does not support discord or disagreement, weakening its ability to respond to looming crises. As an old homily says, there are two things leaders never get: a bad meal and the truth.
Understandable. Humans tend to desire social harmony and create it by avoiding upsetting, difficult, or confrontational topics. We learn from childhood that this is the essence of good manners. But the purchase of this false serenity comes at the cost of ignoring the submerged issues. Also, when we are upset about something and don’t respond to it, unpleasant feelings and emotional distancing build up, limiting trust in the relationship. Like tooth decay, avoidance builds slowly until it erupts into pain. In the business world, the cost of avoidance is high. However, avoiding contentious issues is common and destructive in any organization.
Repressed communication occurs when leaders are so enamored with their own point of view that they put it forward without any awareness or sensitivity as to how it affects others. A presumptive manner leads to unrequited and repressed feelings within the organization. Leaders who ignore, belittle or blame others again create a closed atmosphere and will often have their wishes undermined or ignored. It is true that many people instinctively resist change and new ideas (in fact, you could say that is why they are not leaders), but to be effective, the leader must be sensitive to this reality and treat with tact and compassion.
Leaders are completely dependent on their employees to get things done, but unless that leader is aware of what others see or how their own actions are perceived, they are flying blind. Employees are often familiar with those who take safety shortcuts or perform poorly, and are often aware of upcoming issues that the culture of avoidance tells them not to report. When the leader looks away or does not seek information, disaster can strike quickly. How can the leader open a discussion where others are both candid and open to new ideas?
The heart of the problem
Leaders often struggle to understand why they need to listen to others. They want what they want and seem to forget that they can only get it if they hear, understand and respect what others see and want as well. This is a lesson we are taught in kindergarten, a lesson that animators often forget.
Many people in power are not used to being open to other people’s ideas. They think leadership means telling people what to do, rather than listening. How many leaders have failed to receive warnings about potential disasters because they didn’t seem open to listening to their employees? But raising a tough question means you have to be really willing to listen to others and consider changing your own perspective. This aspect of emotional intelligence – being open to listening and learning – does not take away from the power of the leader. Instead, it allows the leader’s vision to expand to consider paths other than the path they originally chose and the difficulties that lie along the way.
Forge a solution
To create an open environment, leaders must introduce and solve problems that others would prefer to remove and take the time to listen to those who are reluctant to follow the leader’s direction. Four practices allow a leader to create a positive climate for open discussions:
- To look forward.
- Join others in your quest.
- Deliver your message directly and without judgement.
- Listen carefully.
Then the dialogue can begin, with all parties working together in mutual respect.
1. Look to the future.
When leaders learn of missteps or missed opportunities, they tend to blame those around them. Their impulse is to kill the messenger. But when you, the leader, shift your focus back to yourself and what you can do, away from the past and into the future, you move from blame to responsibility. And since it is you who want to solve the problem, it is you who must act.
Start by choosing a specific problem you want to solve. It could be something you want your colleagues and team members to do, a way you want them to change, or something they did that upset you. Before starting the discussion, ask yourself:What do I want them to do about it?“The past cannot be undone, so the challenge is to walk together on a new path. Maybe repair work can be done. What would that look like? Going from what you want to what you want others to do is often harder than you think. Moving from what happened in the past to what you want in the future is the starting point for effective conversation.
2. Enroll others in your quest.
Before leaders can start a conversation about a difficult issue, they must get the attention and agreement of others to discuss the issue. This requires thoughtful preparation, which is often overlooked. Such negligence can lead to the discussion taking place at the wrong time and in the wrong place and with an unclear purpose.
Thoughtful preparation begins with the leader explaining to the individual or group why this issue matters to you and your desire to address it openly. Participants will need time to think about it, asking ahead and setting a time and place is helpful. It should be a safe, quiet, and neutral place where time is set aside and there are no interruptions. When people are startled, they become resistant and prone to emotional outbursts. Giving time to think and react before the actual meeting can help them arrive with a more receptive mindset.
It’s important to let others know why you think it might be helpful for them to consider changes. At the same time, you need to communicate that you are willing to listen and respect their refusal. You can’t change their behavior or direction until you hear their concerns, objections, and perspectives. They may be sitting on crucial information that would change your perspective if only you could hear it.
3. Deliver your message directly and without judgment.
It’s up to you, the leader, to initiate the conversation. You need to say what you want in a way that doesn’t blame, push, or attack others, but nevertheless directly states your concerns and desires.
Delivering a clear message is best done through what is called an “I” statement, because it starts with yourself. You declare what you see, what you feel and what you want. Using the word “I” makes it less likely that you blame the other person or other people. You might be upset by what they did, but you’re only aware of their actions and don’t know their intent – and if you assume what they intended, you’d probably be wrong. So while the action may have been hurtful, now is the time for you to learn what the other person intended to do. By starting with this openness to learning, you establish a climate for others to act in the same way.
People need to discuss their intentions and goals because so many human interactions turn into conflicts due to misunderstanding, seeing actions and assuming intentions rather than listening to each other. Emotional intelligence means knowing that your intentions are not always clear in your actions and that the same truth holds true for others. The conversation you are starting now is about unraveling false assumptions and misunderstandings. Taking responsibility by clarifying your own intentions allows others to join you on a positive path.
Two concerns interfere with creating a climate conducive to frank discussion. First, people fear retaliation if they open up, and that’s often a reasonable concern. How can they be assured that there will be no retaliation? Policies need to be in place to support this. Second, others might think it’s a gesture and that after the meeting the climate will revert to avoidance and secrecy. How can you assure them that this is not a one-time event, but that you want to see it as a real change? There are no easy answers to this, but if your initial statement addresses and addresses these concerns, it’s more likely to have real impact.
4. Listen well.
Once you’ve delivered your message, the focus has to shift, totally. Now is the time for you to listen. Listening does not mean being silent, but is asking questions, probing for more, and allowing others to speak without you interrupting them by reaffirming your position or arguing. It is difficult to become a listener; it takes patience, practice and intention.
You may find yourself emotionally triggered by what someone is saying, and you may want to lash out or withdraw (the fight or flight response). But this is where you have a choice: do you have to respond now, or can you be patient, put that aside and try to learn the other’s intention? When the people involved in the discussion have a complex emotional history, perhaps as family members, they may need a coach to help them avoid getting tripped up by those triggers that lead the conversation astray.
Once each person has shared their intention and point of view, a productive exchange can begin.
Towards an open organizational culture
The final deal from these talks is unlikely to be something any participant initially expected. But the most important results are that each person learns something and mutual trust is strengthened. It empowers everyone to find ways to move forward that accommodate all perspectives and desires.
Much more can be said about creating an open and candid organizational climate. The procedures outlined above describe the first steps a leader can take to initiate this transformation, a transformation that can improve or even save an organization.