Realism and truth telling are at the heart of authentic engagement. However, many organizations lack this realism. And the higher you go, the more rare it becomes. As truth telling declines, cost, bureaucracy, redundancies, and lack of confidence in the future all rise. For most, safe havens are behind closed doors.
Embracing the truth may be the single most significant catalyst to personal and organizational change. Why do we seem to be protectors of what is, versus builders of what could be?
First, organizations have fundamentally forgotten that "human beings work here." We have to remind ourselves that we're dealing with people who have emotions. Second, people fear change.
There are eight common fears that people tend to experience. They work to insidiously seep into our mind-set for change, causing us to play it safe.
We don't perform at our full potential; we perform at our belief level. And in the face of change, fear and anxiety often control our beliefs.
The antidote to this epidemic of truthlessness is finding a way to safely have critical conversations, thereby creating an environment where people can be vulnerable, and explore the truths with which we are creatively dissatisfied.
Creating Safe Havens For Change
You can create a safe haven for truth with relevance and humor. Dilbert masterfully uses these tools to depict challenges people face in their organizations but can't address.
Humorous sketches that succinctly focus on challenging issues immediately and safely draw people into the conversation.
Our change-immune mechanisms kick in when we are given facts. Defenses go down when we visually capture how we feel about realities.
Humor allows us to chuckle about the candor, but also to realize that the essence of the laugh is in its truth! The vulnerability is the simple recognition that no single individual is responsible for creating the realities that we are dissatisfied with.
We are all accountable.
Let me give you two real organization and team life examples.
The first team problem was about decision-making. This senior team felt a dramatic bottleneck existed at the top.
A visual sketch depicted dozens of leaders taking a ticket, as if in line at a deli counter. The connection between leaders waiting on people to gain approval really hit home.
The conversation that ensued focused on issues of delegation, trust and empowerment. One person said, "That's us, and we can't look at that picture and decide to do nothing about it."
The second team problem was about team leaders playing below their pay grade. Visualizing leaders on metaphorical zip lines, going down three levels into the organizational weeds, was powerful.
The team didn't know how to discuss that the leadership drove team members to be relentlessly focused on the details of today, versus being strategically focused on critical issues for tomorrow. This sketch successfully launched a dramatic change process within months.
Setting behavioral ground rules
Many teams drift to a place where the culture is soft on difficult issues and hard on people. The factor that most contributes to avoidance and erosion of trust, is the "absence of the assumption of positive intent".
In a recent strategic alignment session, a CEO shared with his team the role he believed he played in creating an unsafe environment for critical conversations.
He explained that he had a habit of telling himself a story that usually focused on another member's intent and motive without ever engaging the other member.
He said, "The conversations I have and the language I use with myself set the tone and the stage for my attitude and my conversations with others. I need to stop this habit of telling myself a story and assume positive intent."
The team identified behavioral ground rules to create a safe haven for critical conversations:
- Be mindful to assume positive intent.
- In the face of conflicting data, go directly to the individual...without judgment.
- Use dialogue versus lecture for collaborative problem solving.
- Have no predetermined outcomes; be completely transparent on agenda.
- Pursue a deeper level of understanding rather than quick, superficial judgments.
- Listen and be present in the dialogue.
- Make it okay to ask for help and be vulnerable.
- Allow no backlash - either for vulnerability or positions taken.
Ground rules facilitate accountability and provide support in working together. They made it safe to tell the truth and helped to banish the fears that people experience when facing change.