Team Effectiveness – Discussing the Elephant

The ability to raise undiscussable issues distinguishes a high performing team from a mediocre one. These conversations represent the ultimate challenge in the league of difficult conversations. One of the most problematic undiscussable issues in a team is the behaviour, style or competence of the leader. Like most difficult conversations, the risk of NOT raising them can be detrimental to a team’s performance and in some cases have far reaching consequences  - as this story illustrates.

On January 13, 1982 a plane travelling between Washington and Virginia crashed into a bridge. Of the 79 passengers and flight crew on board only five survived. The crash was thought to be as a result of pilot error, it was only when they recovered the black box that they discovered the real reason. It was an incredibly cold day that day and the plane stood for too long on the runway allowing dangerous levels of ice to build up on the wings. The co-pilot it seems had grave concerns about this and could be overheard making indirect remarks on the voice recorder implying that this could be a problem. That night he and 73 others lost their lives in an accident that could have been prevented had he had the skills and the courage to express his concerns in no uncertain terms to his boss.

Undiscussables – essential for decision making

Undiscussable issues are often the topic of conversation around most water coolers. Gossip perpetuates team dysfunctionality and creates cultural artifacts in the organisation; ‘this is just the way we do things around here’. In a time when there is no margin for error when it comes to making business critical decisions, having all the relevant information to hand is vital – and that includes information you might not want to hear.

How to turn an Undiscussable into a Discussable

If you are the team leader there are three things you can do to bring the elephants into the room;

1. Start to create an environment that promotes disclosure – ask your team what would need to happen to create such an environment. Barriers to disclosure often include the fear of reprisals; ‘if I raise this it will be a career limiting move’ or powerlessness; ‘what’s the point of raising this nothing will get done’. You’ll need to break down these barriers and your team will need reassurance that you will take action and that there won’t be repercussions.

2. Model transparency and openness yourself – start talking about your aspirations for your team and the concerns you have about the welfare and performance of the team if there are issues members feel they can’t discuss. Acknowledge that every team has issues that are undiscussable, it’s normal and natural to expect but also explain that highly effective teams have the capacity to talk about the things that matter most.

3. Act consistently with the values and principles you espouse – acting inconsistently will only reduce the levels of trust in the team and invite further barriers to discussing the elephant. If you say one thing then don’t do the other, you will lose credibility and trust of the team reducing the chances they’ll be open with you.

A high performing team operates in a transparent and open environment where concerns about behaviour, performance and style can be raised – even the behaviour of the leader.

Want to learn more about difficult conversations and how to maximise success and minimise risk? Click here to read more.

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