The CEO of a large real estate development company recently complained to me about a frustrating executive team meeting he’d just finished. One of the company’s historically high-performing businesses was struggling. Its leader had been in the job only six months and had made some changes to their marketing plan. The CEO believed this to be the culprit behind the slipping performance, and knew everyone on the team shared his view. But nobody raised it during the meeting. Frustrated and confused, he vented to me, “It’s not like we’re shy about having spirited debates. We are very blunt with one another. So why didn’t anyone volunteer their insight to help out a struggling peer? If I’m the one that always has to do it, it just looks like I’m doing group performance management!”
His views were accurate. In general, people in his organization didn’t shy away from conflict; they could comfortably spar with one another when their views differed. But when I asked them why they didn’t bring up their concerns about their colleague’s marketing shift, I got similar answers: People didn’t think it was their responsibility to address issues outside their business. They wanted to stay in their lane. It never would have occurred to them to interfere in the business of a colleague, especially if they hadn’t been asked. They didn’t want to look like a know-it-all or a busybody.
You and Your Team Series
- Tara Healey and Jonathan Roberts
- Rebecca Knight
- Jim Whitehurst
While this team was comfortable with heated debate and hard pushback, the notion of initiating such conversations about each other was foreign. James Detert’s research at Harvard Business School reveals that even when people are comfortable speaking up, they often withhold information and concerns when they don’t believe there’s a good reason to do otherwise. In my experience working with more than 40 leadership teams, it’s not uncommon for leaders to have unspoken agreements not to tread on one another’s territories. And this is true even in environments where speaking up is safe and leaders actively solicit feedback.
Making it psychologically safe to speak up is one thing. Setting an expectation that people actually do it is another. If people only raise issues that specifically concerns them, you are reinforcing a type of individualism that undermines teamwork and cohesion. Research from the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence found that high-performing teams have even levels of participation across a group and empathetic engagement of team members’ concerns.
If you want people in your organization and leaders on your team to routinely raise difficult issues, regardless of who does or doesn’t benefit, you have to do more than let them know it’s safe to do so. You have to make it an expectation, and back it up with processes and behavior that reinforce it. Here are a few examples of what I’ve seen great organizations do.
Set the expectation. Let those you lead know that when they have insights about a colleague’s organization or strategy, you expect them to freely share them in a respectful and helpful way. When this doesn’t happen, the default mode for many groups and teams becomes a hub-and-spoke model of operating, where the leader becomes the primary source of keeping things synchronized and everyone else is excused to worry only about their own “spoke.” If leaders reinforce this for too long, it conveys that the only issues you must be concerned with are your own. Don’t assume people will see the self-evident need to avoid this. The higher up a leader is, the more pronounced the individualism that distinguished them to get there will be. Help leaders shift from standing apart to advancing their careers to joining forces with peers to create collective success.
Orchestrate “speed dating” exchanges. With many of the teams I have worked with, we spend a few hours in 20–30 minute one-on-one meetings, varying the questions we use to guide the conversations. Some teams do this on a quarterly basis. You could shape the conversation around leadership effectiveness, strategy execution, or the health of each respective relationship. In each round, both leaders exchange prepared views with each other, with commitments to follow up where necessary. This mechanism has been transformative for some teams, whose comfort with making each colleague’s success their agenda has become the norm for the rest of the organization.
Build shared problem solving into your regular meeting agendas. Here’s how it works: One member brings a business challenge they are facing. They frame the challenge at the outset of the conversation with about 15 minutes of context setting. Using a structured process, the rest of the team asks questions to clarify their understanding. After the questions have been addressed, the team offers ideas, feedback, and even support to help address the challenge. Using this method, I’ve seen leaders discover issues with their own leadership, view challenges from an entirely new perspective, and even out the resources spread across departments. This approach helps minimize feeling defensive or dismissive of others’ challenging views because you are expressly asking for them. Building it into your regular meeting agendas (and all your meetings have agendas, right?) helps reinforce the notion that speaking up is routine, expected behavior.
Measure trust. The foundational currency that fuels the freedom to exchange difficult views is trust. Like any currency, it has different values to different people. For some, it is extended or withheld based on competence. For others, it’s based on consistency in actions and words. For still others, it depends on common personality traits or how well they feel they know someone. In any group or team it’s almost always a blend of all of these. Whatever builds trust on your team, measure it. Through simple devices like short pulse-check surveys or smartphone apps that collect quick data, assess the strength of your team’s trust as they define it. Data on the health of collective trust acts like a report card. Teams are compelled to continually improve when their agreed-upon rules of the road are regularly reviewed. At least once or twice per year, teams should compare how they are performing with those norms and correct course when necessary.
Don’t leave raising difficult issues to chance. Embedded in those unspoken challenging views are the insights that could unlock great solutions or advance stalled strategies. Do more than try to convince people that it is safe to speak up. Make it an expectation that they actually do so.