This is the fifth installment in our High-Impact Team Series. If you would like to read all installments of the series, click here.
You can't create a well-oiled machine when there's friction. When team members feel safe, they can remove friction to make progress. When they feel unsafe, it’s more about self-preservation.
What's the Cost of an Unsafe Environment?
There are a few thought processes that arise in an unsafe environment:
"It feels like a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose."
"I don't trust your motives, so I’m not going to ask for help, nor accept it if you offer it."
"Finding who to blame for a breakdown is more important than figuring out my own contribution or working on a solution together."
"It’s not ok to be wrong, so I won’t make suggestions or offer to help you."
"It’s not ok to make mistakes, so I’m less likely to experiment or innovate."
"I won’t confront someone I see has caused a problem (especially the boss)."
"In short, I will opt to avoid any risk."
Friction is often caused by simple disagreements, misunderstandings, and mistakes. Only dialogue fixes these issues, so everyone needs to know how to engage in a crucial conversation. Rebecca Dannenfelser said it best: “When a team doesn't see the value in engaging in difficult conversations, it steps over issues, refusing to call out and discuss the real concerns that can strengthen the team and move them towards innovative problem-solving together.”
How Do You Know When You Are in a Crucial Conversation?
According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, a discussion between two or more people is crucial when:
How Can You Make the Conversation Safe?
First, you must step away from the content of the conversation. Take the following steps to create a shared pool of knowledge by getting all of the facts out in the open and making sure both sides of the story are heard, along with opinions, feelings, and theories.
Think before talking. Get introspective about your own role in the situation. Be sincere and honest by asking yourself, “What do I really want for myself and others in this relationship? How would I behave if this is what I really wanted?”
Identify your mutual purpose. Your conflict is likely about strategy or simply something that happened along the way. Agree on your end result so you both know you have the same goal. If it seems you’re at cross-purposes, brainstorm to find some intersection where you both win.
Pursue mutual respect. Perceived disrespect breeds defensiveness, which hinders healthy communication. If your mistake affected someone else, apologize. If you’ve been misunderstood, clarify by contrasting: “I don’t mean X. What I do mean is Y.” If you’re having trouble respecting someone, acknowledge your mutual humanity. Nobody is perfect.
Master your stories. We often make assumptions about how people are thinking or feeling. Instead of assuming, get to the facts. The other person may have a completely different reason for their behavior than your version. Ask for their side of the story.
"...There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so..."
— From Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Very few people are naturally skilled at creating a safe environment for a difficult conversation. Promote safety in your team environment by using the Crucial Conversations Cheat Sheet. Better yet, ask your whole team to read the book. Successful execution of your team’s goals depends on your collective ability to remove points of friction.
Are these ideas enough that you can take action on them right away? Which resonates the most for you?