A few years ago, the nonprofit where I worked was going through a major reorganization. As is often the case with reorgs, there was significant staff turnover and a loss of trust. A byproduct of the disruption was that only a small handful of people were willing to speak up and address difficult issues directly or in meetings, particularly at the management level.
Eventually, the organization embarked on a journey of learning the techniques in the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” and integrating its ideas for effective communication on sensitive topics. The book’s authors recommended using a code word for bringing up touchy subjects. I jokingly suggested “Smurf,” thinking the toy might lighten the mood in serious situations. I was overruled and no code word was adopted.
At first my colleagues and I scheduled one-on-one discussions and addressed issues in team meetings using our new skills, and it worked. But a pattern soon emerged. The words “crucial” and “conversation” were intimidating for some. The people who fully embraced the methods happened to be the same small group who had been speaking up previously. Avoiders continued to duck and dodge the tough stuff. In the end, it was not the right tool for us and we abandoned it.
I thought about my proposed Smurf code word during a recent chat with one of our CEO advisors at The Bailey Group. He shared a story about a similar challenge he faced as the incoming president of a Montana-based manufacturing company. The organization had experienced changes in ownership and leadership, and existing management team members were silent during meetings. In his company’s case, a toy penguin was placed in the middle of the table as an icebreaker.
Why a penguin? The company’s former CFO explained that in the wild a single penguin would “take one for the team,” diving off an ice shelf to test the waters without fully knowing if food or predators were waiting beneath the surface. Similarly, it would take just one lone manager to make the leap, bringing up a risky topic in a meeting to show the rest of the team if it was safe to jump in.
The point of the penguin was not to get everyone to agree that an issue needed to be addressed. In some cases, people openly admitted they weren’t comfortable talking about a particular subject. Occasionally leadership even said “no” on behalf of the entire group, setting boundaries when necessary. But ultimately, it worked. The penguin effectively empowered the team to discuss difficult issues and provided a way to openly and constructively resolve them.
During team meetings at The Bailey Group, we’ve used poker chips to signal when someone had something uncomfortable to say. Throwing a chip on the table allowed the team member to take a moment to collect his or her thoughts, while the rest of the team agreed to listen in a nonjudgmental way. But the reality is that creating a workplace culture where everyone feels safe speaking up is not as simple as a Smurf, a penguin or a poker chip. It starts at the top. It takes a leader who is committed to walking the walk and talking the talk, even when it is uncomfortable.
Here are five questions to consider as you build a workplace culture that supports open dialogue:
- Are you willing to explore why people might be afraid to speak up in meetings? Team members may be introverted, reserved or conflict averse. There may be a perception that what everyone thinks doesn’t really matter. Employees may believe their livelihood is at stake. While toys can be a nonthreatening way to break the ice, it is still up to you to lay any misconceptions to rest. Assure staff it is safe and there will be no consequences for speaking up. Create opportunities for everyone’s voice to be heard.
- Are you committed to making it clear that everyone is expected to speak up? It’s your job to make it known that collecting input from team members at every level is a priority for the organization and that it is not optional. Everyone must fully understand his or her stake in creating a culture of open and honest communication and embrace collaboration. Set clear expectations and address the objectors right away so nothing is allowed to fester.
- Are you able to create opportunities for input outside of formal group settings? Consider that it might be uncomfortable for some to speak up in a group, especially if it hasn’t always been an expectation. Make it a point to connect with team members one-on-one to get their individual feedback. And when you do, pay attention to whether it is in line with the feedback shared in group meetings. Engage in informal conversations with staff and make certain that potential negative side conversations and gossip are nipped in the bud.
- Are you willing to address tough topics that may cause discomfort for you and others? If there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to name, it is up to you to do so. All successful leaders eventually have to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. Have the courage to engage the group in a constructive dialogue about it. Being candid may not always be easy, but it will demonstrate to employees that you are willing to take risks and it will inspire them to do the same.
- Are you ready to adopt habits that support an ongoing culture of open dialogue? Creating an environment where transparency, vulnerability and unguarded discussions are a priority will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight. Find a method for engaging in open dialogue that works for you, be prepared to use it consistently and don’t give up when it gets tough. Creating healthy communication habits within your organization will not only benefit you and your employees, but it is certain to generate respect from your external stakeholders as well.