How to Turn a Team Fight Into Play

By: On June 26, 2018

How to Turn a Tough Team Decision Into A Win

I could see Claire slump a little in her chair. She was a very senior leader in her company and had been charged with leading a decision team through the evaluation of a major strategic choice, one that would dramatically shift the business model of the company by creating a very visible distribution partnership with a giant firm. The decision carried huge risk – for the company, for its owners and customers, and for her personally – since it was bound to upset some employees and important customers.

“That’s a big decision,” I said slowly, realizing mid-sentence that I was at risk of playing Captain Obvious.

While only a select group knew about the possible direction under consideration, opinions were already divided. Claire knew this because her email and text strings were lit up with lobbying from the alliances already forming around the options on the table.

The fight was picked. Now Claire’s challenge was to turn the bubbling conflict into something productive.

Conflict is often decision-making in disguise. When you do it right, it can make everyone and everything better. People learn from each other. They broaden their view of the world. And the decisions they make are often better in quality and much better in implementation than when tension is swept under the rug. If you’re on a leadership team, you’d better master the decision-making play.

What makes Claire’s task seem daunting is that the decision seems gigantic, complex, and contentious.

But what if Claire could turn what feels like an overwhelming task into a series of small moves? What if she could steal a page from accomplished strategists to help the team navigate the challenging topic in a way that keeps passion but injects rationality? What if instead of trying to get one giant but doubtful victory, Claire could manufacture a series of small wins that creates momentum and – gasp – fun for the team? 

Here’s how she could turn a tough fight into play.

Win #1: Start by clarifying the decision to be made. Make sure it’s clear, simple, and agreed to by everyone who is engaged in the decision process. “How can we fundamentally change our business model to gain access to these three new markets?” might be an example of this. It’s Claire’s first small win.

Win #2: Agree to what we don’t want. Sure, Claire should get the team to talk about the desired outcomes they’re pursuing for the business. But it’s just as interesting to have people share what they don’t want, what they fear most. Fear drives more of our subconscious behavior than we think. So if you can draw it out, validate it (“whoa, I wouldn’t want that either!”), and help each person convert their worst fears into what they truly want, you get a three-fer. You get a vivid picture of the team’s collective fears, a more specific vision of success, and the interpersonal bonding that comes from self-disclosure. It’s Claire’s second small win.

Win #3: Identify options. There are almost always multiple ways to address any course of action. Claire will only have to think back to the lobbying she’s had from team members to identify a few. Why not say to the team, “Before we go further, I want to catalog all of the potential options we have in front of us.” She can write them down on a whiteboard, making sure they are mutually exclusive. The rule here is no evaluation or judging. The team just lists them and describes them as dispassionately as possible. Yes, someone will roll their eyes at the suggestion made by that guy, but simply acknowledging options preempts the time waster of someone later saying “but we never considered X.” If the team winds up with too many options, the team can always vote on which two or three make the short list. It’s Claire’s third small win.

Win #4: Tease out assumptions. Usually, what comes immediately after identifying options is the food fight where different factions fight tooth and nail for their preferred option. Listening drops to levels only seen in Congress. Instead, Claire can say to the group, “It’s possible that any of these options are the best choice for us. Let’s make a list of what must be true for each option to lead to a happy ending.” Now the team is coming to agreement on the assumptions behind each option. To cap it off, they can vote on which three assumptions are most crucial to the success of each option. It’s Claire’s fourth small win.

How to make tough team decisionsWin #5: Embrace skeptics. Staring at a list of critical assumptions for each option, the skeptics will start to get restless. “I’m not sure I buy that assumption,” they’ll say to themselves or mutter to each other on break. Skeptics get a lousy rap in teams. Leaders often feel frustrated with them, wishing they’d just be a little more positive. It’s better to embrace the skeptics. Claire can say, “OK, what evidence would convince you that each of those critical assumptions is valid.” Skeptics are usually reasonable. They know they don’t live in a climate-controlled lab. So with a little time, they will often be able to identify data that would make them comfortable that the assumption was tested and worth acting on. Claire will see their defenses drop. A bit. They’re skeptics after all. And in the process, the skeptics have done the team a valuable service by making sure the group’s thinking is rigorous enough. It’s Claire’s fifth small win.

Win #6: Search for data. Once skeptics have helped identify the required evidence to test your assumptions, Claire can simply ask the team, “For each assumption, what data do we have and what additional data would we need to convince our friendly skeptics?” Pretty soon, they’ll have a research agenda on their hands. Since skeptics generally love research, Claire can get them involved in hunting down the answers. It’s Claire’s sixth small win. She’s on a streak now.

Win #7: The choice. Once the team has assembled all of the data possible to test the assumptions underlying their best options, it’s time to make the decision. Let’s say Claire chooses a joint decision approach for this decision. She now says to her team, “It’s time to make a call. Based on the options before us and the data available to us right now, what is our best judgment? What should we do?” There still may be debate. People may still wring their hands. But rather than making one big agreement in one “swell foop,” they’re more likely to come to an agreement that they can all live with. It’s Claire’s seventh small win. She’ll be tempted to heave a sigh of relief and maybe give herself a high five. But to really complete the play, Claire isn’t quite done yet.

Win #8: Track the decision. The best teams learn from experience. As big as this decision is, Claire knows it’s not the last they’ll face. So together, they write down what they decided, why they decided on it, and how they managed the process. They do this so that they can communicate it to other curious people and so that they can revisit the decision later and see how sound their judgment was, particularly on testing assumptions.  It’s the eighth and capstone win for Claire. Not only is the decision as sound as possible in the real world, but she has the foundation in place to help the team get better at the next decision.

Notice what Claire is communicating by how she turns a team fight into play.

  • We’re all on the same team. We trust each other and the process to get the right answer.
  • Everyone’s input matters – the dreamers and the skeptics and everyone in between.
  • We make decisions based on the merits, not based on personality or shady politics.
  • We live in the real world, so we make decisions based on the best data we have available. But we do look carefully and critically for data.

Add that up and Claire has made a powerful statement about the kind of environment she’s going to create in her company. She’s fostering a place with transparency and engagement and the ability to intelligently navigate challenging human emotions. That can only help her company live closer to its ideals and deliver results.

Your organization’s mission matters just like Claire’s company’s mission. Your mission gets played out through the decisions made every day. Those decisions sometimes provoke conflict, but they’re often fights worth having. They make everyone and everything better because without them your firm won’t rise as high or shine as brightly as it could. And, we all need your company to shine as brightly as possible.

Be Bright

 

One Decision Every Leader Must Make

By: On June 12, 2018

one decision every leader must make“You change management people are all the same. If my friends from GE were listening to this conversation, they’d say it was the biggest crock of shit they’ve ever heard.”

Scott was a little frustrated. And salty. He’s a CEO facing a big challenge. The clock is ticking. His board expects results. We were in his office, trying to figure out how to get his top leaders to move forward on a big, bold move he had decided to take.

“Those GE guys,” his rant continued, “they just point to the hill and tell people we’re going to take it. That’s what they call leadership!” I may not be the smartest guy in the room but I could tell that he was contrasting that approach with the one we had been discussing, one where we would encourage key leaders to weigh in on the decision, to voice their concerns and influence the outcome. “This just seems… soft,” Scott said. “We’re not running a democracy here. I have to be able to make some decisions around here without getting approval from my own team.”

I couldn’t agree more. Leaders absolutely should make decisions. The one they must make most often, though, is one they rarely think about: How should we make the next big decision?

Conflict in leadership teams is often decision-making in disguise. Handled well, that kind of conflict makes everyone and everything better because it forces people to learn from each other, to deepen their understanding of the business, and to begin to trust the team’s ability to move forward. Decision-making conflict is a play that every leadership team must master. Mastering the decision-making play starts – like any play – with setting it up well.

You’re not ready to run the play until you’ve clarified the decision-making rules you’re going to use. That choice is always the leader’s to make, just like coaches in many sports get to call plays.

After Scott finished his tirade, I tried to help him see this point.

“The question isn’t whether you’re a soft, enlightened leader or a hard-ass,” I said.  “The question is which decision-making approach does your organization need you to use right now?”

In a world that has bought into the cult of the strong leader, this is a point we have to constantly remember: It’s not about you and how you’re viewed. Our job as leaders is to serve those around us, no matter what that requires us to do or how we’re viewed by one end of the leadership spectrum or the other. We create the conditions where our team and organization can be their absolute best. This helps the organization be who it was created to be. It enables people to have joy in their work. Of course, it also enhances the bottom line.

For the next half hour, we explored Scott’s decision-making options as coined by David Bradford and Allan Cohen.

decision-making Cohen & Bradford

  • Scott could make the decision autonomously and communicate that he expects others to carry it out. There are times this makes total sense. Emergencies, turnarounds, and times when a decision is highly confidential or beyond the ability of anyone else on the team are great times for autonomous decisions. Effective leaders are careful to communicate the whys behind an autonomous decision. That way, others can both explain the decision and extend that thought process to decisions they face in their roles.
  • Scott could be consultative, asking for input from others but reserving the right to make the final decision. This approach is also appropriate in some circumstances, especially when a leader has most of the expertise or her team isn’t ready to fully engage in decision conflict yet. A friend of mine recently took a C-level job in his company and is pulling together a team from across the organization. They aren’t developed enough as a team yet to make some of the immediate decisions together, but their input will be very important to my friend’s ability to make good choices. And even an advisory role provides a sense of ownership for his team members.
  • Scott could make the decision jointly, where the whole team (or a subset) shares decision rights. This approach makes sense when no single person has a monopoly on expertise and when deep ownership by several players will be required to implement the decision successfully. Leaders can always place a time limit on these decisions and reserve the right to revert to a consultative decision if the team fails to reach a conclusion.
  • Scott could delegate the decision to a team member or subgroup within established boundaries. Do this when a decision doesn’t require your personal attention and as a way to demonstrate trust in your team, especially if there is a specific team member in need of a confidence boost.

Team leaders often worry about giving up control and having to live with decisions they don’t love. That’s a fair concern. But leaders always have the right to draw boundaries around decisions and to establish a limited set of non-negotiables. In extreme cases, they can change decision styles mid-play, though that’s the last resort because it exposes the fact that the play is busted.

When leaders share less power with their team than they’re capable of handling, they unintentionally undermine the team’s ownership of the organization’s future and hinder the team’s development. But when leaders share more power than the team can handle, decisions can go horribly wrong and the team’s confidence in itself falters.

On the other hand, when leaders choose the best decision-making approach for each given situation – and can explain why they chose it – the decisions will be sound. Better yet, the team will gradually grow in its confidence and capability; it will be able to propel the organization toward making the impact it was created to make in the world.

That’s why selecting the best decision-making approach is one decision every leader must make.

Be Bright

How to Clarify Decisions and Stay Out of a Conflict Rat-hole

By: On June 7, 2018

“I’m not sure why we’re even having this meeting. It seems to me like it’s a total waste of time. The value proposition we’re debating has already been decided by the CEO and he’s not looking for our vote!”

 

 

 how to clarify decisions

 

Fourteen smart people sat around the rectangular table in a conference room. All of the participants had agreed to be in this 3-hour working session. In pre-session interviews, they had passionately stated that clarifying the company’s value proposition was crucial to the future of the business and to each of their functional areas. They had also indicated their strong support for getting this group together.

And yet, with one comment, this team member had sent the meeting down a conflict rat-hole. Worse yet, he did so in the first 20 minutes of the meeting. What followed was as predictable as it was painful: a 2 ½ hour free for all that got bogged down in the definition of a value proposition.

“A value proposition is a simple catchphrase we can use to get a prospect’s attention,” a grizzled salesperson said with an I’d rather be at the golf course air.

“No, a value proposition is a unique selling proposition,” a marketing person said.

“A value proposition is a summary of our product’s benefits compared to competitors,” a product person chimed in.

Meanwhile, a financial analyst lost 103 neurons to a small intracranial explosion, and the CMO’s migraine got worse. She shielded her eyes from the glare of the light.

Eventually, the session started to dribble away to its unsatisfactory conclusion, after a lengthy analysis of whether or not there was already a value proposition in place. Three people left for a conflicting meeting. Another two took phone calls and dashed from the room. By the last half hour, the group was down to the four poor souls who couldn’t invent an excuse to escape the hostage crisis. Needless to say, not much got accomplished that day. No decision was made except to abort the project.

Most swirl in leadership teams comes down to making a decision that no one can precisely define.

In the meeting I described above, one team member probably thought the decision was about how the company positions its products with customers. Another may have thought it was about which customers they should be pursuing in the first place. Still, another may have believed it was about how salespeople differentiate from the competition when a customer raises a price objection.

And then there’s the guy who thought the most important decision was where the team was going for dinner that night. We love that guy.

In these situations, the team churns. And bogs down. Pretty soon, you’re fighting a migraine yourself, secretly wishing you could stick a fork in your eye.

Conflict is often decision-making in disguise. Conflict can make us all better, but only when we define the decision to be made as precisely as possible. Preferably in a sentence devoid of jargon and simple enough that it could be understood by a young child. Or a golden retriever.

Clarifying the decision-to-be-made sounds super simple. It’s not.

Your team may need to spend a significant amount of time working on this task. It will force you to answer important questions that evade hurried brains. Questions like:

 

 

  • how to clarify decisions flowchartWhat symptoms are we seeing in the business that tell us that a choice is coming our way? If you slow down for a second, you’ll usually see something happening—or not happening—in your organization that raises a flag about a problem or a gap or an ambiguity. In the case of the disastrous meeting above, you might see salespeople having difficulty differentiating solutions without resorting to discounting or hype.  Or product development teams may have a tough time figuring out which features to include in the latest design.

 

  • What factors contribute to those symptoms? Don’t just jump to treating symptoms. Look for root causes. Maybe salespeople in the organization above struggle because the company has failed to identify their ideal customers and what really matters to them. Perhaps there are enough different views on this key issue that it muddles their actions and confuses their organization. Or maybe they have not communicated the CEO’s strategy well enough to the organization to make it stick.

 

  • What choice faces us? Before you engage in conflict, pause for a moment and summarize the decision before you. Make it simple. Write it down where everyone can see it. In the case above, perhaps the team could have summarized the choice this way: “We need to profile our ideal customers so that we can better organize our product development, sales, and marketing activities around delighting them.”

 

  • Is making this choice worth it? As entertaining as decision conflict may be, make sure the benefit you gain by making a choice outweighs the pain you’ll experience for going through it.

 

By all means, pick good fights. Dive into decision-making. It has the potential to make all of us and everything better. Just be sure you start by setting up a clear decision-to-be-made, understood commonly by all, and valued by everyone who will have a part to play.

 

Be Bright

 

How to Diagnose a Horrible Decision

By: On May 22, 2018

“We suck at decision-making on this team.”

Of all the complaints I hear about leadership teams, this one ranks near the top. Effective leadership teams know the plays they have to run over and over. Decision-making is a fundamental play, but one that is often busted. That’s frustrating to team members because intuitively they know decisions are what teams are supposed to be good at. Here’s how to diagnose a horrible decision.

So where’s the decision-making problem?

It starts with an impending decision. Often, the choices latent in the decision are imprecisely defined or poorly understood by a portion of the team. This lack of shared understanding immediately clouds the issue as people fill in blanks or privately resolve ambiguities with their own versions of reality.

Since one of the questions all team members are constantly asking themselves is, “Do I have control over my environment?”, people immediately start attempting to influence the decision itself or the process by which the decision will be made. You’ve seen this a thousand times. Team members lobby, sending private emails or grabbing time with the boss outside of formal meetings.

Often, team members build or tap into alliances with other members of the team to create even more influence. This alliance-building isn’t good or bad. It’s a completely rational strategy for people who care deeply about a decision and realize that they can’t influence the group solo. Alliances aren’t damaging in themselves. How they are handled is what makes the difference. If communication becomes more transparent, there won’t be a problem. But if it doesn’t, an insecurity driven territorial battle is likely brewing.

The differences between alliances may erupt into an overt clash in a formal setting like a team meeting or, even more damaging, in the hallways of the organization. We’ve all been part of organizations where poorly handled differences in the leadership team results in range wars in the corridors. Often, no one is sure how the decision is going to be made and what role each team member will play in the decision. The result of a poorly organized and poorly run decision play is chaos, carnage, and confusion.

After which, the leader often cuts off the conflict to restore order. Unfortunately, the conflict has just gone underground.

Sometimes team leaders shut down the bubbling conflict before it becomes overt. Their instinct is to smooth over differences. Or, they take the decision out of the hands of the team by making it themselves. But the differences of opinion in the alliances remain, again pushed underground.

Regardless of whether leaders smooth over conflict, take decisions away from the team, or allow decisions to erupt into a range war, the team exits this decision-making experience with less confidence in themselves as a unit than before. To complicate matters for the leader, they probably have a lower sense of ownership as well. Instead of learning, “We can do this!” they’ve learned, “I guess the leader will have to do this.”

 

No wonder leaders can feel lonely after a decision-making play goes wrong, and no wonder team members feel powerless. It all happens because the team didn’t know how to run the decision-making play effectively.

Correcting the decision-gone-wrong pattern starts with a proper diagnosis.

So before we jump into how to fix this, think about the last time you had a less-than-stellar decision process with your team. Ask yourself:

  • Was the decision well defined or ambiguous?
  • Did team members share a common view of the decision to be made or were their views disparate?
  • What were the natural alliances? Were the alliances overt or covert?
  • How did the alliances attempt to influence the decision? How did those attempts impact the team?
  • Once apparent, did the leader shut conflict down or open it up?
  • Were the ground rules for making the decision clear or fuzzy?
  • Were the roles to be played by each person in the decision defined or undefined?
  • What happened as a result of those dynamics? Was the play busted or successful?

Conflict is often decision-making in disguise, so when you know why decision-making goes wrong, it’s like getting a twofer: with a little careful diagnosis, you can improve decision-making and make conflict more productive all at the same time. Since decision-making is one of the most foundational plays any leadership team is going to run, a little diagnosis will get you on the road to running that play effectively and making conflict constructive.

Be Bright

 

How to Tell Your Leader the Truth Without Getting Fired

By: On May 15, 2018

Dear Team Member,

 

When it’s decision time on your team, what your organization most needs is the truth.  Sadly, the truth is usually in hiding, especially from your leader. 

You and your teammates know things about what’s going on with the business that your leader can’t hope to know.  You live closer to the customer, the competition, the code, the supplier base and the staff than she does. You hear the rumblings in the cubicles. She may have a better handle on the big picture, but you see what’s happening at ground level.

Now you’re headed into a big decision. You will spend countless hours examining the past, analyzing options, and trying to divine the future. You’ll scrub numbers. You’ll scratch your head. But will it be worth it?

It’s easy to blame your leader for the futility of this process. She’s temperamental and strong-willed. He’s aloof, Spock-like. She’s dictatorial. He’s tightly wound.

But before you indulge in self-righteous criticism that might render you useless to those around you, sit in the Leader’s chair for a moment.  He’s between a rock and hard place. The Rock is his boss – or worse yet, the board. The Hard Place is you.

First the Rock: Bosses and Boards have no senses of humor about missed numbers or wrong decisions. No matter how nonsensical it is, they lay the successes and failures of your company at the leader’s feet. Yes, this gives the leader both too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly. But it’s the world your leader lives in.

Next the Hard Place: That’s you and your colleagues. The Leader often feels lonely, like she’s the only one rowing in this boat.  Yes, she causes a lot of that loneliness because she grabs the oar right out your hands. But emotions, while not always reasonable, are forces to be reckoned with. Don’t let anyone fool you. Feelings dictate a lot more of how The Leader acts than anyone guesses.

 

Emotions affect you, too. You’ll be tempted to try all sorts of feeling-management tactics to handle the truth during this decision-making process.  See if you recognize any of these:

how to tell your leader the truth

The Duck and Cover – It’s easy to play defense when your leader is on a tear. Keep your head down. Don’t say too much. Peek over the edge of the bunker tentatively to see what it’s like out there, then hunker back down. Let’s call it what it is: self-preservation. It’s understandable, but truths will go unspoken that could alter the future of your organization for good.

how to tell your leader the truth

 

The Bank Shot – When the Leader isn’t listening well, it’s tempting to try to bank the truth off someone else. So in a meeting, you talk at someone else hoping that the Leader, perhaps with the shields down, will let your message sneak through. But what if the bank shot hits the rim and falls away harmlessly? What then?

how to tell your leader the truth

 

Turning Up the Volume – Maybe you’ve tried to be subtle and clever, but the message isn’t getting through. Maybe you’ve tried a bank shot or three and haven’t yet scored. Now you’re tempted to amp it up with the Leader. If she’s not listening, should you speak LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R? In reality, she might just think you’re treating her like an idiot.

 

You have better options if you want to give The Truth, something so essential to making the great decisions your organization needs if it’s going to make an impact.

  1. Put yourself in the leader’s shoes. Empathy helps others hear you. Think about what he’s trying to accomplish.  When it’s time to tell him a truth, help him see how ignoring this truth will actually prevent him from achieving his goals. Can he accomplish his goals despite ignoring this truth? OK, then show him how he’ll achieve his goals but at a significant personal cost. Either way, your attitude is that of a friend trying to help someone get important stuff done.
  2. Pick your spots. Even the most self-aware Leader has a limit on the difficult truths she can face at any one time. Maybe you have Ten Truths to share. On stone tablets.  Pick the top two. Making it manageable helps others hear you.
  3. Choose your setting. Do you want to raise hell? OK, push back against the Leader in a big, public setting. But if you want to maximize your chances of a positive reception, perhaps a quiet word in private or on a break from the meeting would work better. Sharing truth in safer places helps others hear you.
  4. Choose your words. A friend told me of an executive who was hesitating to make a bold strategic acquisition. The executive could tell that one of his key team members was troubled by the situation. “What do you think?” the executive asked. “I think you’re acting like a scared accountant,” the team member said boldly. Those eight words of truth shook the executive into action. Choosing words that strike home helps others hear you.


While simple enough, none of these things are easy.  It’s easy to duck and cover or blow your top.  But your organization needs The Truth if it’s going to rise as high and shine as brightly as possible. So gather your courage and give it to them. #TruthWins

bright companies

Be Bright.

Why Conflict Matters to Leadership Teams

By: On May 8, 2018

“I think my team is about here on the conflict scale,” the CEO said, drawing an x on the whiteboard.

why conflict matters leadership teams

We had been discussing his leadership team and how he needed them to perform at a higher level if the company was going to achieve its next level of performance and make the impact he dreamed of in the world. The topic of comfort with conflict had come up.

The CEO had put his mental model about conflict on the whiteboard, a simple continuum moving from a group that avoided conflict on one extreme to those itching for a fight on the other extreme. Intuitively, this CEO was arguing for a Golden Mean where people are transparent and comfortable with conflict. His company is based in the Midwest, so it came as no surprise that he placed the majority of his team in the conflict avoiding space on the line.

The question hanging over this whole conversation: why does a team’s comfort with conflict matter? Are people who value conflict just sociopaths disguised in business casual attire?

If you work together long enough, you’ll fight for a variety of reasons.

  • You may disagree on what to do. This is task conflict.
  • You may disagree on how to do something – or how someone should do their job. This is process or role conflict.
  • You may just dislike or distrust someone else. You may pick a fight for fun or to score political points. This is personal conflict.

All great teams welcome the first two kinds of conflict. They see them for what they are, tremendous opportunities to advance the shared agenda of the team. They understand what’s behind these conflicts and how to make them productive.

Productive teams know that task and process conflicts are decisions in disguise. Since a leadership team is the sum of its decisions, you could say that a leadership team is the sum of its conflicts.

Think about the decisions your leadership team has to make:

  • Where are we taking the organization? Where are we not taking the organization?
  • How high should we set our goals?
  • Where will we allocate precious resources to run today’s business and build tomorrow’s business at the same time?
  • What will we stop doing so that we have enough resources to pursue the best outcomes?
  • What do we stand for as a company? What are we willing to do even if it costs us because it’s simply who we are and what we believe?

You could probably fill in another 20 decisions your team faces regularly. You should expect differences of opinion on issues of this magnitude. In fact, it would be a sign of trouble if you didn’t have any tension about these questions.

Conflict has the potential to build or erode a team’s confidence in itself.

That’s because every person on the team is constantly asking themselves a few key questions about their participation on the team.

  • Am I in or out? Do people value me and my input as a colleague?
  • Do I have influence on this team or am I powerless?
  • Will I be able to make my best contribution as a result of this decision or will I be handcuffed?

When a leadership team does decision-making conflict well, team members answer those questions positively even if the decisions don’t always go their way. Do this regularly, and the team starts to feel as if they can take on any challenge successfully. People reinvest that little bit of extra effort into the shared work of the team. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the team is successful tackling the next decision. It’s what turns a group of individuals loosely held together by an org chart into a true team.

When decision-making and conflict break down, team members answer those same questions skeptically. Fail regularly, and the team starts to wonder if they can handle even the simplest decisions as a group. People hold back that extra effort required to make the shared work of the team successful. That, in turn, hampers the team’s ability to tackle the next challenge.

So try this experiment: List the last five decisions your leadership team faced. Note how much conflict you experienced. Flag how successful the decision process was in terms of reaching a decision supported by the team in a timely fashion. Notice how each decision affected the emotional commitment of team members.

And next time the tension is rising in your team meeting, ask yourself:

  • What decision is provoking this tension?
  • How do my teammates’ reactions show their level of confidence in our ability to handle this challenge?
  • In what way is this decision an opportunity to build or erode our confidence in this team?
  • How can I help engage the group in productive decision-making?

By all means, see conflict as decision-making in disguise. See it as an opportunity to stretch yourself personally and your team into the people – and team – you were created to be.

 

Be Bright.

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision – An Open Letter to the Boss

By: On April 19, 2018

Dear Boss,

If you’re facing a big decision, what you most need now is the truth.  Without the truth, you could easily foul that decision up.

Here’s the bad news: No one tells you the truth.

This may come as a surprise. You think you’re approachable, fair, and level-headed.  Trust me, you’re not… at least not in the minds of your people.

They remember that day a few months ago when you were a mini-Mount Vesuvius and erupted all over them.  They remember the time you heard something you didn’t like and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back toward the place where the sun never shines.

You call yourself intense. They call you volatile. You say you like working with smart people. They say you hang with your cronies. You say you demand excellence. They say you’re a perfectionist.  You say you have an open door.  They say you stuff your ears with cotton.

So when you most need the straight truth, you’re left with something more obtuse.  People are playing each other like backboards, bouncing messages off each other or a subordinate or a consultant and hoping to get the ball to drop through your net.

Each time they open their mouths, they’re thinking about consequences. Rather than articulate, they calculate. Some go silent. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear and they’re happy to feed it to you even if it isn’t really true: “You’re right. Alex is a screw-up. And everyone else sees it too.”

Maybe most frightening, those who are most likely to give you a straight shot have stopped short of 100% candor.  They leave out the crucial 11%, quietly hoping you’ll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not showing their whole hand.  Why risk retaliation when they’re not sure you’re going to go for it anyway?

 

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision

 

Before you shrug your shoulders and move on, think about the consequences for a minute:

  • Do you ever feel like you’re the one who is pulling hardest on your team? Do you ever get frustrated with the team for not owning the goals that you’ve set? Maybe at this point, they’re in the first stages of resignation.
  • Unless you’re a genius and can make your company’s dreams come true single-handedly, you’re going to need to attract and engage a team of highly talented people to turn the dream into a reality.  You can only play the “it didn’t work out with Mark because he wasn’t a good fit” card so many times. Then, smart people will start to realize that maybe it’s you. Good luck recruiting them then.

You’re probably surprised about this. You might be tempted to forward this note to your own boss or to a colleague.  Before you do, think for a second:

  • Am I getting the whole truth from those around me?
  • If not, how am I encouraging people to hold back?
  • What can I do to increase the level of candor?

Since you have the courage to ask those questions, you probably want to take action.

Here are a few ideas on how to get the truth when facing a big decision:

  • Choose a straight-talking person on your team and take her out for coffee. Ask her an open-ended question like, “What fact is obvious to everyone else but most people would think I miss?”
  • If you’re feeling really courageous, ask her, “What am I doing – or not doing – that has made people hesitant to tell me that truth?” Or, “What’s it been like to be on the receiving end of my leadership these past few months?”
  • It will be tempting to justify, explain, and defend. Don’t. Take notes. Ask curious follow-up questions like, “Tell me more.” Or, “What did you see that made you react that way?”
  • Thank your team member for her honesty.
  • Pay for the coffee.
  • Do something immediately to apply one thing you learned from the conversation. If you want people to keep telling you the truth, please don’t skip this step. If appropriate, publicize your effort to the team member who prompted the insight as a way of saying thanks.
  • Repeat.

Yes, this is vulnerable. It takes time. It takes humility, that most winsome leadership trait. But do it long enough, and the spigot of truth will flow freely. You and your team will make better decisions as a result. You’ll increase the chances that your team will achieve its goals and make an impact in the world. And that makes it all worthwhile.

 

Be Bright.

 

What Role Should a Leader Play in a Planning Meeting?

By: On April 12, 2018

Have you ever seen leaders play one of these roles in a planning meeting?

  • The Lecturer – In meeting 1, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is controlling everything.  She says too much and says it too strongly. The rest of the leadership team starts to wonder why they even showed up. They politely go along, acting like they agree even when they have reservations.  It’s a charade. Everyone is just waiting for it to be over so that they can get back to real work.
  • The Passive Enigma – In meeting 2, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is strangely passive.  You know he has opinions. You hear them in private all of the time. But in an effort to “not dominate the conversation,” the leader has completely zipped and padlocked his lips.  The rest of the group politely fills the air-time, but you wonder when you will find out what’s really going to happen. And you wonder who stole the real boss and sent the mannequin.


Leaders face a dilemma when they involve their teams in decision-making.

I hear their confusion almost every time I lead a planning session. They quietly approach me as we’re about to kick off the planning meeting and say things like:

  • “OK, I’m going to try hard not to say anything today.”
  • “What role should I play today?”
  • “Don’t let me dominate the meeting.”
  • And my favorite: “Where should I sit?”


I understand the dilemma. On the one hand, who wants to be that domineering boss who monopolizes the session and chokes the creativity of the team? On the other hand, who wants to be the lame boss who allows chaos to swamp a valuable planning session?

Here’s the advice I almost always give to leaders about their planning session roles:

Ask yourself, “What does this session need from me right now?”

For instance:

leaders role planning meeting ask questions

1. Ask questions:

If you see a team member who hasn’t contributed for a while – and who you know has strong opinions or good ideas – draw them out. Ask a simple question like, “Sherry, we haven’t heard from you on this issue and I’m pretty sure you have ideas about it. Would you share your thoughts?”

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leaders role planning meeting provide boundaries

2. Provide boundaries:

If the team is straying into an area that you know is going to be a waste of time or if they’re debating something that has already been decided, provide boundaries. “Gang, I appreciate the conversation. Something you don’t know is that we’ve already decided as an organization not to pursue that market. So let’s redirect our conversation over to these other issues that are still open for debate.”

 

RELATED:

leaders role planning meeting draw out differences

3. Draw out differences:

There should be differences of opinion on your team. Instead of allowing them to lurk beneath the surface, get them on the table and crystallize them for all to see. “I’m hearing three different points of view on this topic. Let me see if I can articulate them and then we’ll debate the merits of each.”

 

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4. Enforce ground rules:leaders role planning meeting enforce the rules

In any contact sport like planning meetings, fouls will be committed. Part of the leader’s job is to be sure that the team plays the game fairly. “OK, I just want to remind everyone that it’s fine to disagree. But we cannot allow disagreement to get personal or to let disagreement stop us from getting to a solution that we’re all committed to acting on. So Rob and Gina, let’s try that conversation again and see if we can get to a better outcome.”

RELATED:

leaders role planning meeting manage the tempo5. Manage tempo:

It’s an art to know when to slow down the conversation and dig into a topic, and when to call time and get the group to move forward. As a leader, you often have a better read on that call than most. “Alright, it sounds to me like we need to close on this issue. Here’s what I think we need to do…”

RELATED:

leaders role planning meeting let it run6. Let it run:

Sometimes, the best thing to do is… nothing.  The team is wrestling with an important issue and they’re doing it well. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s taking time. No, you’re not quite sure where it will land. But it’s a substantive topic worth the effort. Sit back. Watch. Ask yourself, “What does this situation need?” And if the conversation needs nothing, give it nothing.


All of these options look like active engagement and guidance without domination.  That’s probably what the planning session needs most from you.

 

Light and Height company

Be Bright.

How To Be an Ally Without Being a Chump

By: On February 7, 2018

A while back, I wrote a piece arguing that we should act like Allies instead of Critics with our colleagues. I know you may have been thinking, “But you don’t work with this one scumbag at our company. There’s no way he’d be an Ally. And if I act like an Ally with him, I’ll end up just being a Chump.”

This might end very badly…

No doubt, there are special cases where a particular colleague defies your attempts to be an Ally. They may not have it in their mental models that being an ally is even possible in a work setting. They may believe that work is a big reality TV show and that they have no real choice but to survive at your expense.

Even in this situation, you do have options besides reverting to being a jerk at work:

  • Embrace the challenge. You can view this situation as a workout for your soul. We all know that we learn more from hardship than from comfort. Perhaps having this Critic in your life is a way for you to learn patience, the ability to unhook yourself from their critique, and the skill of not retaliating.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask your brain the question, “What might lead a reasonable person to act this way?” There are usually multiple possible explanations, not all of them sinister (see Hanlon’s Razor). Even if you’re not sure the other person is reasonable, this question forces your mind to soften. Soft minds have a better chance of making good calls than brittle minds.
  • Ignore the hostility. It’s amazing what you can accomplish by doing nothing. You can defuse the Critic’s negative attempts to influence or at least be wise to their methods.  William Ury, a master negotiator, tells a story about a time when a political leader spent the first hour of their meeting berating him and the other side for perceived wrongs of the past. Ury said, “I take your candor as a sign of friendship. Thank you for telling me what you think.” This immediately defused the situation because he sidestepped the leader’s attempt to control the tone of the meeting.
  • Engage in supportive confrontation. Originally described by David Bradford and Allen Cohen, this is an approach where you try to help the other person see that what they’re doing won’t get them what they want – or at best, it will get them what they want at great personal cost. The key here is that you’re saying to them (and yourself) that the easy thing to do is to avoid this conversation but that you care too much about the work you have to do together to take the easy way out. Notice you don’t have to care about them personally, although it wouldn’t hurt.
  • Enlist the power of the group. Critics lose their power when the rest of the group ignores or counterbalances their critique. Try creating an atmosphere where the silent majority is drawn out to balance the vocal critic. If you try this, attempt to provide the Critic with a bridge back to the group. Otherwise they’re bound to get more isolated and combative when they sense that the group is immune to their attempts to influence.
  • Collaborate with influencers. You can escalate the issue to leaders who may be able to influence the other person or even remove them from the situation. Of course, you’re now raising the stakes. Be sure to attempt at least one of the approaches above before escalating the issue. Any savvy leader will ask you, “What did you try already to address this situation?” Have a solid answer or risk just looking like a whiner.
  • Leave the room. If all else fails and a Critic is persistently affecting key parts of your work environment, you may be able to find ways to remove yourself from the situation. In extreme situations, this may mean quitting your job. More often, you may be able to limit or eliminate interaction with this person in your current role.

One last thing: I’m definitely not saying that anyone should put up with abusive colleagues or that a difficult person is the same as exploitive and abusive behavior. Let’s call those things what they are: completely unacceptable.

But if your colleague is temperamental or troublesome instead of exploitive or abusive, these may be strategies you can use to deal with them while becoming the person you were created to be. And that would make the hardship worth something.

Be Bright

Critics and Allies

By: On November 28, 2017

If you’re a leader, you’re going to spend the vast majority of your days in meetings. Leaders spend most of their time with others wrestling with tough issues that couldn’t be solved elsewhere and creating a future that no one person could achieve alone.

So, quick: think about the next meeting on your calendar with colleagues at work. When you walk into that room, what will you encounter?

If you’re like too many organizations, that room will be packed with critics. They’ll be impatiently waiting for you to shut your big yap so that they can tell you what’s wrong with your ideas. They’ll relish playing devil’s advocate as if the devil needs any help these days. For every point you make, they will bring a counterpoint.

Even in a room of critics, you can be an ally

If you want to kill a meeting dead, follow the Critic’s Creed:

  • Indulge fantasies of punching, spitting, or escaping the meeting.  You’re activating the reptilian part of your brain. It mostly wants to survive and sit in the sun. It’s guaranteed to escalate or freeze out any real conversation.
  • Hide what you really think and want. This will make everyone wonder what your real agenda is. Your colleagues will watch their backs, their heads on a swivel. Which you think is fun to watch.
  • If you do say something, blur the distinction between data you see and how you interpret the data. Mash it all up so that people exhaust themselves trying to figure out how you got there!?!? That will wear them down and get them back to swinging their verbal fists. Which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
  • Spend a lot of time arguing about who owns what responsibility. Everyone knows deep down that these arguments are really about who gets credit when things go well or blame when they crash and burn. In case they got lax, the self-preservation instinct triggered by this topic will get everyone watching their backs again. #awesome

Critics practice this creed because they’re afraid of losing a zero-sum game they’ve invented in their own minds. They can’t see an alternative of working with others instead of against them. Unconsciously, Critics have adopted the belief system of what Wharton professor, Adam Grant calls Takers.  You don’t need me to tell you that if your culture is dominated by Critics, it will kill innovation and stifle the development of your next generation of contributors. Who would dare trot out a vulnerable new idea or stick their necks out to lead if they’re going to get slaughtered by the Critics?

A room packed with Allies is very different. Don’t get me wrong, Allies aren’t soft. They’re hard as nails on the problem you’re working on together. But they’re soft on the people. Instead of sitting across from you, arms crossed, ready to shoot down your ideas, they’re sitting next to you saying, “Tell me more. I didn’t see it that way. Maybe together, we can make something better happen.”

If you want to bring a meeting alive, follow the Ally’s Action Plan:

  • Monitor what’s going on in your mind, especially your reactions to others. If you find yourself getting angry or wanting to avoid this conversation, use that reaction as a trigger to ask your brain a question that the reptilian brain can’t answer. Something like, “what might lead a rational person like this colleague to hold that point of view?” Give the idea the benefit of the doubt, and forget about whether or not the colleague is rational. It’s an insignificant consideration.
  • Reveal what you think and what you really want and maybe even why you want it. Critics hide what they want to keep everyone off balance. Instead, put your cards on the table because you trust that you’re Allies and that there’s a really good chance you can reach an agreement or a better idea.
  • When you speak, use the four magic words. This will help others separate what you see from what you believe. It will also help them build on your ideas.
  • Align yourselves on the shared outcome you’re trying to achieve and how each party in the room can contribute to shared success. Spend extra time understanding where different parties must cooperate well and quizzing each other on what each of you must do to make the other successful. Make realistic and value-enhancing agreements – and then deliver on them scrupulously.  

It’s much easier to be a Critic than to be an Ally. It’s much easier to complain about the lousy meetings you have to endure than do your part to make them really productive. If you’re an Ally, you get on the same page faster. You agree to action faster. You learn and adjust faster. You do all of it with less wasteful friction and more creative tension. Put a bunch of Allies together in a culture that values that sort of constructive behavior and you’ll end up with more creative output and more commitment to everyone keeping promises.

And yes, if you’re an aspiring Ally stuck in a Critic culture, you can still make a difference. You have your own sphere of influence. You can find other Allies and do everything possible to work with them. You can model Ally behavior knowing that some current and potential Allies will find you.

At the very least, you will become one of those people about whom others in the organization will say, “She’s a tremendous colleague. We do our best work and feel best about ourselves when she’s involved.” That has potential for influencing others to come out of the shadows and join you.

 

Be Bright

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