“Don’t Say Anything But…” Four Reasons Why People Won’t Have Fearless Conversations

As a leader, has an employee ever come to you and said, “Don’t say anything but my co-worker isn’t doing his/her job.” Or, “My co-worker, is being disrespectful to us (the team).” Or, “Sarah is avoiding me and I need information from her.” Somehow, because you are the leader, you are supposed to magically solve these complex people interaction issues without any data other than hearsay comments.

What are the consequences of this lack of communication and/or the avoidance of challenging conversations? Certainly, there will be wasted time; possibly poor quality products or services; likely delays to customer services. It is nearly impossible to measure the negative impact of a lack of communication. Intuitively we know it increases costs, causes delays and damages relationships, and damages employee engagement.

In 2003 the Columbia Space shuttle reentered earth’s atmosphere at 18 times the speed of sound. The 7-person crew died in seconds after the ship disintegrated. The left wing protective tiles had been damaged by a large piece of insulating foam that broke off during lift-off. The super-heated air entered the wing and then the cabin eventually destroying the Columbia and killing the crew.

This was the physical cause of the accident. Lost was human life, millions of dollars of government property, and untold knowledge from the 80 life-science experiments the crew had conducted. But, there was also a cultural cause. “Organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information” contributed to the accident. (Howell, 2013) In most organizations, people will not die if communication is stunted. But, there will be waste and waste is always damaging.

Furthermore, why does this type of communication dysfunction happen in most organizations?

I have identified four root causes of the lack of willingness and lack of ability to have fearless challenging conversations.

Cause #1: The context is not safe for honesty.  It is a leader’s job to make it safe for people to talk to one another. This unsafe context is deeply seated in how we learn to interact with each other during school and in our families. Unfortunately, the authoritarian structure in schools where the teacher is above the student, the administrator is above the teacher and the superintendent is above the administrator is a barrier to open and honest communication. The fear comes from the high probability of some form of retaliation for telling the truth when the communication involves bad-news.

Cause #2: There is no clear problem solving process. The leader and/or the employee knows something is wrong but there is no clear adopted problem solving process to address it and so the employee goes to the manager for a solution. What if a clear process was available so the employees could act on their own to address it? Why does the manager/leader need to resolve basic communication problems?

Cause #3: There is a lack of understanding of how to use process improvement tools. If the leader and/or the employee don’t have process improvement tools to address complex issues they fall back on guessing. They rely on quick action or a lack of action, which may in fact make things worse. This is exactly what happened with the Columbia.

Cause #4: The culture prevents a disciplined thoughtful approach to problem solving. The leader and/or the employee do not take disciplined time to address the real root causes but instead they continue to react and guess and/or blame. This is exactly the approach we are taught in school. The school system is dysfunctional but the children are the ones who get the grades. The teachers must teach to the test or face consequences. There is little time for introspection and innovative thought.

It is not easy to address these issues but being a leader is not easy either. One of the very first responsibilities of a leader is to create a culture which allows employees to solve their own problems. These four steps will help. Otherwise, be prepared for employees to come to you and say “Don’t say anything but…”

Howell, E. (2013, February 1). http://www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html. Retrieved from www.space.com: http://www.space.com/19436-columbia-disaster.html

Leave a reply