In every company, certain subjects are only discussed behind closed doors. The problem is that often these “unspeakable” statements are the most important ones for leaders to hear and for the team to tackle.
They need to be said out loud, not at the “meeting after the meeting.” The subjects people are most afraid to talk about are those that leaders most need to address.
Some typical examples of unspeakable subjects in a company include:
- The is no management accountability
- The leaders lie to us
- No one cares how hard we work
- Our remuneration is not competitive
- The leadership doesn’t do a good job at communicating with employees
- People care too much about impressing bosses rather than doing what’s right
Before your company can improve its overall performance, it needs to bring taboo subjects into the light.
There are steps companies can take to encourage workers to speak the unspeakable.
One is for the members of the leadership team to hold a tell-all meeting. At this meeting, leaders must acknowledge that they are inadvertently creating barriers to high performance.
They must promise that no one will be fired or punished in any way for telling the truth.
For such an amnesty to work, it has to be offered in public. That is the best way to ensure that the promises will be kept. I also recommend that the organisation hires an outside coach or facilitator whose job is to ensure that the leaders keep to the subject, are specific, and confront uncomfortable issues head-on. The facilitator will also help the leaders by giving them a second chance if they get defensive or don’t adequately answer the question.
At one such meeting I facilitated, during which participants were offered amnesty, a manager got up and said that he had been up unable to get a senior leader, whom he named, to meet with government officials in Asia to discuss a very large business deal.
The manager noted that CEO and Senior Leaders from the company’s competitors in the region had met with the officials, but his leaders “couldn’t be bothered”. He added, “our top leadership isn’t leading; it’s managing.”
Although he felt like he was taking his life into his hands when he told the truth, later that evening, he was presented with an award for having the courage to speak up. When he came to the podium, he said that he called his wife early and told her he was going to be fired. Instead, he got an award and a standing ovation. By publicly honouring him, the company sent a powerful message about the behaviour it wanted to encourage.
Another way to get to the unspeakable truths is to ask questions such as these in a focus group or a confidential survey.
- What are the burning issues at our company?
- What are the concerns about the senior leaders that are on everyone’s mind?
- What are people saying privately about our company’s future?
- Are there rumours floating around about the company?
- How do people feel about the changes being discussed?
- Are there unwritten rules that make it difficult for you to do your job?
- Why are people leaving the company?
- What are the most frequently told lies in this business?
- Do you think people who tell the truth here—or say things that the boss does not want to hear—are rewarded?
Here’s another example of how to handle rumours and difficult subjects.
In early 2009, following the 2008 financial crisis, my leadership team dealt with a tough issue by performing a skit at our annual management conference. It involved a couple of senior leaders acting out the role of investigative journalists and interviewing other senior leaders about rumours of upcoming redundancies in our business. It forced the team to acknowledge issues, challenge assumptions and be honest about plans going forward.
The company had its best-ever year the following year, and over the years, as a leadership team, we tackled all sorts of issues in this way.
When things happen that are out of their control but which require changes to be made, people have an emotional reaction. It’s very important to assemble the team members in a room and let them gripe. Allow them to vent. Allow them to say how they field-to air their frustration so that they can get past their emotions and have room thing.
Many leaders fear letting people talk about their feelings because they believe it will create a negative atmosphere. While it’s true that people were to complain indefinitely, would have a negative effect on the workgroup.
Remember that negative feelings are already there. If they’re not expressed verbally, they will get expressed through behaviour.
People may have accidents, get sick, or try to sabotage the team. The trick is to set a time limit for venting. Limited to no more than an hour. Depending on how serious the issue is.
One of the regional development teams in our real estate business found a way to address the emotional issues that go along with working in a stressful team with talented people who are highly invested in the success of the company.
When the team started out, most people were reluctant to discuss problems openly. As a result, the team went through a very dark period where they had a number of projects going on at sites. They suddenly realised that they were just beating each other up all the time instead of dealing with problems properly. When they did discuss issues, people would take things personally – either by taking the blame themselves or assigning it elsewhere.
As a result, they decided to dial down their emotions and approach problems more positively. They said, “We’re all going to make mistakes from time to time, or problems are going to arise, whether its acquisition, design or planning and was going to have to deal with them”.
“We’re not going to go over and dissect all the ins and outs of how we got to where we are. We’re just going to move forward and fix it. Instead of being an individual problem, we’ve got eight or ten brains on it, and everything must be solved in one way or another.
Again, before your company can improve its overall performance, it needs to bring taboo subjects into the light. There are steps you can take to encourage workers to speak the unspeakable.