Recently we’ve been noticing that the vast majority of the leadership and culture change work that we do is actually about making it safer for people to talk about the things they find really difficult to talk about.
If you can’t have difficult conversations in your organisation, it can hamper your ability to grow.
Why avoiding difficult conversations can be a problem
We’ve been working with a senior leadership team in a medium-sized organisation.
The founder of the organisation was a very charismatic leader, and all of the executive team were good friends.
This made for a very interesting dynamic.
What we noticed was that hardly anyone ever challenged the founder. Apart from one person, who was pretty good at challenging him!
But when the challenge came up, while things were questioned, and doubts were raised, the leadership team felt uncomfortable and couldn’t reach a consensus, and no clear decisions would be made.
The result was that an ambiguous outcome cascaded down the organisation, and different departments would either attempt to engage with what they thought was the expectation and end up working at odds with each other.
Or they would lack the senior buy-in to really be able to act and deliver, and consequently felt they could never execute anything.
This was initially diagnosed as a problem with the management capability. (Which says something about how un-self-aware the executive team were. This is not unusual.)
Whilst it was certainly true that the management group could do with some development, the problem was actually with that dynamic in the leadership team.
Their inability to effectively manage conflict was having repercussions for them as they tried to grow.
Fixing a dynamic like this takes time and courage.
That group were brave enough to hear it and recognise the problem and its consequences. They even agreed to work on it through a programme of mentoring and facilitated group work. It was not always easy or comfortable.
Old habits die hard but they tried, and kept at it.
And now that we’ve identified it, they need to hold their conversations with this in mind and try to avoid these pitfalls.
Here’s another example
We recently ran a workshop for the founders of a small business who’d been working together for 10 years.
They’d done pretty well: they employed a fair few people, their turnover was respectable, but they’d reached a point where the founders didn’t quite know what to do next.
So they decided to bring in a new leader from outside to inject some energy, someone who had experience of growing a business.
The founders had a bit of concern over whether bringing in this person would be well received or not.
In fact, this was seen as a positive thing by everyone in the organisation – it really was well received. The staff had a lot of respect and love for the founders, but also a recognition that they were human beings and not perfect.
People thought, “it could be the best thing ever for us.”
In the workshop, we ran some exercises using the Once and Future Stories tool to articulate what was great about the organisation and what could be better, historically, and in terms of what might come in the future.
There was a moment, however, when a couple of people independently mentioned that they felt really uncomfortable about saying some things in front of the bosses. So we said, “We’ll ask the founders to step out for a bit,” …and they did.
We then spent an hour having a really free-flowing conversation about some of the dynamics in the organisation, and some of the problems.
None of the problems they mentioned were catastrophic by any means, but they touched on some of the behaviours of the founders. I was not appalled by any of it, they were all really normal and common issues.
What was interesting though, was that people found it really difficult to say these things in front of the founders. It didn’t feel safe or respectful. There was a fear that it might be misconstrued.
Of course, their comments were actually coming from a place of real commitment, of people wanting things to be better, but somehow it didn’t feel right to say them.
At the end of this session we had a situation where a load of good stuff had come out, but the people who most needed to hear it, hadn’t heard it.
“Should we tell them?” we wondered.
We asked the group if they felt safe enough to say this good stuff to the founders themselves. They said no.
So in the end, the two of us who were running the session sat down in front of the whole group, including the founders, and we summarised what we’d heard.
We stopped every few minutes to check with the participants whether we were still representing them in the right way. At the end we went back to founders and asked them what that was like, and how did it feel?
It was certainly uncomfortable, but also an incredibly positive experience.
Whilst there were criticisms, none of them were that catastrophic, but everybody felt heard, and the people who needed some feedback got some feedback, and they did take it in a really good way.
Now, it was quite a neat trick of ours to do it as an overheard conversation, and it allowed what needed to be said, in public, to be said, by us acting as a proxy.
It didn’t solve the problem though. While people might have felt more confident after we intervened, would that carry through into business as usual?
Frankly, I doubt it. One good experience is rarely enough to dent entrenched habits. Instead, the founders need to think about what they can do to make conflict feel safer. That will require them to dig deep, possibly face some uncomfortable truths.
The open question for the founders to think about: how do they create the conditions that allow people to say these things.
The questions that will help them think about it:
- Why can’t people have those conversations?
- What could they do to foster the safety of that space?
- How can they go about inviting feedback on a more regular basis?
We all find these conversations hard, and the rewards can be difficult to visualise. But it usually feels good when it’s out there. Getting it right once might not fix things but it’s a step in the right direction.
Repeated attempts will make it easier with every try.
So, what difficult conversations are you not having? I hope these two examples have shown how important it is to have them, and that it won’t be as bad as you think.
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