Do people in your organization tell the truth?

No, I’m not accusing your coworkers of being sociopaths or psychopaths. Whether the accrual that helped make your quarter was justified is your business.

But, do your co-workers know what you think of them? Do they tell you what they think of you? Of management’s decisions? Of how priorities are set? Of whether the project is going well?

I’ve had dozens of clients. And sometimes, groups really functioned well, which meant, people could talk.

I’ve been blessed at various points in my career with employees who could tell me, “Adam, you’re going too fast. Or you need to calm down.” Or, “we all know when you’re yelling even if you don’t raise your voice.” Which was true. 

I’d say that with all my best clients, we could freely express when we thought the other party was wrong, or losing their mind.

And then there were other times. I was the “outside party,” the trusted confidant who knew how to keep his mouth shut. As this confidant, I knew what people really thought about their colleagues. It made some meetings very uncomfortable – or really interesting exercises in primate behavior.

In these places, we got things done. But boy oh boy, was it a challenge.

In a recent podcast with Elise Stevens (about minute 14), agile software/product development expert Johanna Rothman emphasized that client success in based on culture (which was the inspiration for this post). In her words, culture is:

What people can discuss; How people treat each other; and What gets rewarded. And if you think about that, any culture, in an organization, where we don’t work for psychological safety, means we cannot collaborate on small things and get them done.

So, to phrase it as a question, is your organization a safe place where people can actually discuss difficult issues? Do people feel safe with the company and each other to have real conversations?

Organizations fall along a wide spectrum in their cultural ability to discuss. Let me talk about two extremes that I’ve seen.

On one extreme are the overly blunt/folks with anger management issues. As in “yes, those jeans make you look fat” and “if you screw up one more time you’re fired.”

In this case, those with power feel they can say anything while others cower behind their monitors.  Thankfully, I’ve only run into this once or twice in my career and those engagements did not continue for a long time. Life is too short.

With these kinds of folks, the dysfunction is easy to see.

On the other extreme are the places where folks avoid any confrontation at any cost. I’ve seen this particularly in more than a few non-profits I’ve worked with.

Rather than having honest conversations, it’s all about affirmation.  As in, “we all try too hard” or “he’s such a good guy” or “she’s so loyal.” These folks are obsessed with making sure their organization is a “safe space” for everyone. 

It’s like being in the corporate version of a Stuart Smalley affirmation skit.

In order to make it safe, the people in the organization never discuss anything difficult – even though difficult things happen. The result is things fester and fester until they blow up. People go from being super nice to being unnecessarily nasty in an instant.

Let’s be clear. I’m not going to only work with clients who are totally committed to overhauling their culture, and thankfully not everyone needs that.

I am going to say that what you can discuss, how you treat each other, and what gets rewarded needs to be top of mind whenever we’re taking on an adaptive challenge.

Where does your organization fall on the “ability to discuss” spectrum?

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