Stay quiet, stay safe for a pay cheque.

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Mike Straw

Written by Mike Straw

Stay quiet, stay safe for a pay cheque.

Honest feedback is essential for breakthrough performance – but creating cultures that encourage it is tricky.


Don’t bring me problems…

My door is always open – how many times have we all heard that from leaders? Today’s leaders are at pains to show how they are open to honest feedback and to hearing the truth about how things are going. But, in reality creating a culture in which everyone feels they can speak honestly to leadership is hard. Afterall, speaking the truth to someone who has power over your livelihood is not easy – especially if you might upset them. Being open to feedback and creating the psychological safety that encourages honest communication is essential for breakthrough cultures – how can leaders develop it?


Setbacks happen

It starts with acknowledging that setbacks are inevitable. It is crazy to think that every project will go off without a hitch, but all too often the unconscious approach is to communicate a vision of how things are going to be, gain commitment to an approach, and regard any obstacles as problems or failures.  Against this backdrop it is hard for individuals to speak up and be straight about challenges they see.

Leaders should instead actively communicate that setbacks are expected and understood to be a natural and indeed vital element of any progress. They need to create the business case for looking for and calling out breakdowns as the basis of a culture of honesty.

The choice of language is important. Talking about problems triggers emotional responses – something has gone wrong, things are not as they should be, something, or someone, is to blame. This negatively charged language makes people feel uncomfortable and has a deep psychosomatic impact on individuals which make it much less likely that they will speak out. It also makes it harder to disentangle what is fact from what is an individual’s interpretation of a situation. Anxiety and stress caused by things ‘going wrong’ constrain capacity for imagination and rational consideration of what’s actually happening.


Breakdowns are opportunities

Breakdowns, by contrast, are simply opportunities to look at facts and to discuss and innovate ways to overcome setbacks.

Leaders are not best placed to understand the intricacies of day-to-day execution of projects; teams working on the frontlines will have a better view of what’s really going on. By stepping back and relinquishing control leaders can orchestrate breakdown discussions that provide space to explore options. Facts can be unpacked, debated and understood. These become rewarding discussions that teams want to participate in as research and development opportunities that move projects forward. They also deepen commitment to the overall vision as individuals are empowered to contribute to solutions that get things back on track rather than looking to leaders to ‘fix’ issues.

Breakdowns are an opportunity for leaders to tune into the current limits of their existing thinking. These boundaries of the mind are simply boarders where your imagination can spring off of to get creative with your solution finding. Without these boarders it’s harder to be creative, so embrace the discovery of breakdowns.


Bring out your dead

At Achieve Breakthrough, we’re regularly hired to get high-stakes projects that have veered off course back on track. By the time we arrive, relationships between different stakeholder groups may be somewhat frayed, with a culture of blame-laying, hiding mistakes and problems, and a purely transactional (not collaborative) spirit bedding in. An exercise we find that works well to quickly bring teams back together is to re-cast peoples relationships to problems as inevitable setbacks and then to have an open “bring out your dead” dialogue. This is a moment of radical candour where everyone knows they are now physiologically safe to share their “Little Voices” – in particular the “problems” they see that have or could happen, mistakes they are hiding, and judgements they are holding. In this moment we encourage people to speak freely what are perhaps just interpretations about a situation – in a spirit of clearing the decks to move forwards.


First impressions count

A leader’s initial reaction to a setback is critical in building open and supportive cultures. The natural inclination of many is to deal with the issue and quickly find answers. “Don’t worry about that,” “I’m on it,” or “I’ve already considered it” are common knee-jerk reactions. But this type of response will close down conversation and disempower teams. They can feel that their concerns are either not legitimate, unwelcome or not taken seriously.

Individuals may use the language of problems, and feedback may be critical of the leader and their vision. To create truly psychologically safe spaces, is the leader’s job to move beyond these reactions to listen and help their teams re-frame their concerns as breakdowns. Coaching, questioning and focusing conversations on facts are the essential practices needed to do this. Delivered well and consistently, they will build an open and honest culture of collaboration that is profoundly empowering for all.


Mastering emotions

Underpinning all of this is the leader’s own emotional maturity. Mastering your own reactions to feedback is essential. You cannot expect people to be open and honest if your initial reaction is defensive or evasive, and certainly not if it is aggressive. Core to this is understanding who you are being in the conversation. Whilst feedback may seem personal, in reality it is aimed at some aspect of the organisation, the project or the vision. Yes, it is your vision, and your commitment, but by decoupling you, the leader of the organisation, from you, the individual, you can remove the emotion and consider the facts of the situation. By giving up control to equip and empower the team to resolve breakdowns not only will you build a more straight-talking culture, but you will deepen individuals’ personal commitment to the vision.

None of this is easy, and it takes practice, but consistently applying these basic approaches will build stronger, more honest and committed teams. Remember:

  • - Always invite feedback but resist the urge to respond immediately and ‘fix’ things
  •  - Language matters - talk about breakdowns not problems, falls not failures. Expect and welcome them as opportunities to create new approaches
  •  - Step back and coach teams to unpack facts and collaborate on best next steps
  •  - Be conscious of who you are being in the conversation – be confident in your own emotional maturity and ability to decouple the personal from the corporate.
  •  - People are not machines - stand in your people’s shoes, see the world through their eyes and understand their context. Bring compassion and humility and be proud of them for having the courage to call breakdowns. Even if they feel personally painful to hear.


Published 29/01/2021

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