Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Complicated Conversations Considered Keystone Hazards

As Anzeneers, we are constantly on the look for keystone hazards. A keystone hazard is one that, once triggered, causes a cascade of risks and/or failures. 

If we look at 5 Dysfunctions of Teams, you will see that the whole work is based on the keystone hazard "lack of trust" which cascades into fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and ultimately inattention to results. I can't do this topic justice in a blog, but I can recommend that you pick up the book.

The lack of trust has its own laundry-list of causes. We may have felt betrayed in the past, or we may have found inconsistency in other people that has upset us. It may be from our own personal set of insecurities from past experiences. It may be from prejudice or social causes. It can come from friction over introvert/extrovert approaches to communication. It can grow from physical distances. It can be multi-causal and complicated in its own right.

I have come to recognize that the problem with approaching your leaders may not be a matter of trustworthiness or transparency or even alignment. 

The problem arises simply because conversations have become complicated.

A simple conversation is always preferred. I know what I need, you know what you need, we know where we stand and what we need to move forward. A request is made, a negotiation arises, an agreement results, and work is done.

Mike; "Joe, I need to get this proposal out, but the text seems unfocused to me."
Joe: "I agree. I really need to get this other work done, but let's spend an hour."
Mike:"I think an hour is enough to get a good start on this."
Joe: "How about later today, since I'm in the middle of a thought right now?"
Mike: "Sure, but not too late because we have a time zone difference."
Joe: "What about 2:00pm my time?"
Mike: "Okay, that works."

Conversations can be even simpler, but we moved from needs to availability to timing to a promise and an agreement. In this case it works out pretty good for all the parties. 

Because it ends in a agreement, Mike and Joe have pre-invited each other to confront them if they fail to keep the agreement. The conversation between them will be fairly easy. 

But sometimes you can't converse so easily.

Reasons people avoid hard conversations with a leader or manager:
  • Talking about a problem will make it even more emotional and confusing
  • Once the point is raised, the other will turn it into a monologue
  • It will take time that we don’t want to spend on it
  • It will turn into a defense of the other person's position rather than a dialogue
  • The leader will see the confronter as uncooperative or disruptive
  • The leader will take any hint of dissent as rejection or rebellion
  • The leader will take any uncertainty as dissent
  • It will turn into a conversation about personalities instead of working agreement
  • It will end with a "trump card position" instead of an agreement
  • The foregone conclusion is that the other will “win the discussion”
  • If I come with one problem, I may leave with a dozen more
  • When you are talking to your boss, you are talking about your job
In short, the fear is that the conversation will accomplish little other than making the initiator of the conversation feel belittled, confused, or marginalized.  This risks the company's time and money, and may prevent promised from being fulfilled. It obscures information that might have led to new product features or new products, but leaves unfulfilled employees and frustrated bosses behind.

In the worst case, it could cause the manager to question employing the "clearly misaligned" employee at all, perhaps leading to dismissal.  This damages the time, reputation, and income of the employee and damages the reputation and skill base of the employer.

In light of these risks to autonomy, status, certainty, fairness, and relationship (SCARF) it is a wonder that any transparent, open conversation occurs.

But consider what happens when the communication issues are tolerated and allowed to continue their cascade.

While conversation is guarded in public spaces, employees talk to each other. Stories and rumors are the mythology that generate a company's culture, so stories of bad interactions create expectations of more bad interactions.

The story telling takes time that would have otherwise been productive. If employees can't reach an understanding of how to heal the relationships they're discussing, then it results in damage to reputations and relationships as well.

Stories of pain and frustration can not be contained in the company's walls. This is why successful companies tell us that "your culture is your brand." Eventually stories will escape via friends and spouses to various communities, including communities where the business may want to do business (hiring or being hired).

The need to tell stories is a fundamental human condition, to establish fairness by creating disapproval of poor behavior.  Studies have shown that gossiping and disapproval create environments where good behavior can grow. If people can treat others unfairly with impunity, simulations and studies show that more people will take advantage of the ability to mistreat others.

Trying to suppress the stories (instead of dealing with root causes) drives the company toward more despotic behavior, and the employees to more glib storytelling. It creates new stories of unfairness, and damages reputation on both sides.

Yes, it's hard to have conversations when conversation is nuanced, complicated, prone to overreaction, and indirect. Perhaps the only way to solve this problem is with more simple and direct conversation, free from hints of consequences or bursts of sarcasm.

LATE NOTE: as this is being published, Josh Kerievsky has launched an initiative within our company to identify and eliminate mixed messages -- an attempt to simplify our communication and extend this to our  culture and approach to the market. Pretty exciting stuff! More later.