“I’m Only Telling you this because I’m leaving the company”
What Happens When Leaders Forgo Courageous Communications
In our last post, we talked about the difficulty many people have telling their colleagues the hard truths. This post will tell a story of the debilitating effect of stifling these conversations.
The conversation we started to have…
I was working with several levels of leadership – about 35 people in total – in a division of manufacturing company. It was a Strategy-to-Execution S2X™ session designed to identify and eliminate roadblocks to more effective execution. We did a series of break-out sessions to get everyone engaged in the conversation.
After one round of break-outs, the groups were asked to share what they had come up with. A frontline supervisor in one of the groups, Bob (not his real name), brought up an issue that the organization typically resolved very adeptly. It was truly not a big deal and in about five minutes of conversation with the group of 35 leaders, the issue was resolved.
As we were wrapping up the conversation, another person in Bob’s break-out group said, “I’d just point out that Bob would not have brought that up if he wasn’t leaving the company on Friday.”
The conversation we needed to have…
WHAT? Hold the phone. “Let me re-phrase … Bob would not have brought up a relatively minor issue, that this group just resolved in five minutes, except for the fact that he’s leaving the company in a couple of days? I have to know…why?”
The question was followed by … dead silence. Much uncomfortable shifting in seats. Quite a few people looking down at their shoes I guess to check them to see if they were well shined. And they sure as hell were not going to look up to engage in what had quickly become a very uncomfortable conversation.
After much digging and prodding, we ended up having an excellent conversation. (We took a two-hour side trip into this issue, but it was far more critical than the discussion we started out to have). Most of the group admitted that they didn’t feel comfortable addressing issues with their peers or their leaders because they felt the level of trust within the organization was not high enough to support it. It was also obvious that some of them lacked the personal courage or the skills to address the conflicts they needed to address.
Finally, it became clear that senior leaders in the organization were unaware that people weren’t addressing issues that needed to be addressed.
What about the rest of the participants? Well, they were adamant that “they didn’t have any issues that they had not addressed with others.” More on that below.
I was back in that company about a month later as a follow-up to our initial conversation. A couple fascinating facts emerged:
First, it turned out that Bob’s issue with communicating with his manager (let’s call him Alex) went back more than 20 years to when he and Alex had been peers in another organization. One had turned down an invitation to the other’s house for dinner. That was it.
The two never talked it out, and the resentment followed them over the years to their new employer. Their conflict had, to some extent, infected communication among the entire management team.
All because two people had avoided talking about a conflict from more than 20 years earlier.
Second, remember all those people who said in the initial workshop that “they didn’t have any issues they hadn’t addressed with anyone else?” All of them pulled me aside at some point during my visit and copped to the fact that they, too, had issues that they’d had to sort out with one or more of their peers. And, they all also talked about how liberating it had been to finally hold those courageous communications, and get issues out on the table that they had been avoiding talking about.
It also became clear that since they couldn’t talk about routine issues that the organization typically ate for breakfast, they surely were not talking about far more tricky issues around quality, performance, hand-offs between work-groups, etc. By learning how to hold more courageous communications, they quickly evolved to a much more productive culture and performance.
In our next two posts, we will discuss how to assess your organization’s ability to manage conflict and provide a simple road map to help you conduct those courageous communications constructively.