Imagine the circular conversation in your workplace. The movie you’ve seen before, where you know the outcome, and can predict that there will be no change. It’s likely the conversation happens in the hallway, the restroom, or after hours while having pizza. It’s the one where you conclude in the end that your company (or team) is just that way, no one would listen and it’s always been that way. Productive team members work around them, they’re known as just lazy, etc. It’s the déjà vu conversation that nothing ever changes – things just stay the same. I’ve had them and so have you.
You can imagine I was pleased as emcee for Rhythm Systems Breakthrough Conference to have Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, confirmed as a speaker. I was giddy to have the chance to hear confirmation of what I learned from our earlier 2-day training on Crucial Conversations. I was expecting sort of a refresher on material I’d previously learned. Even so, deep inside, I was a bit sad for our attendees. They would only get what seemed to me like a small spoon at the ice cream shop, you know, the one that’s used for tasting only. They wouldn’t be filled, but I knew they’d like the flavor.
This is my attempt at a second serving, a recap of one key idea that can help anyone, in any relationship, to immediately get better results from their crucial conversations. The first step is to begin to measure how long it takes for issues to get addressed in your organization or team. Ask it this way, what is the gap between people seeing it and people saying it? Or, asked another way, what is the gap between people feeling it and people expressing it? Or, people concluding it and people raising it?
What’s the gap between people seeing it and people saying it?
What is that lag time? The health of a relationship, team, even an entire organization can be largely measured and predicted by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems.
Do you have a personal relationship where the big issues can go unaddressed for months or years? What is the effect? How does that play out? In your business world, what about your executive team? How long does TDC (thinly disguised contempt) get carried before a quality conversation can be held?
According to Grenny, there are not 100s of things that you need to develop in the culture of an organization … there is just this one. When you shorten the lag time between identifying and discussing problems, then everything else in your culture gets better.
One example Grenny shared was of the great sales person who was with the company in the beginning, and who, as the company grew, was automatically endowed with the position of sales manager. That same person is now a VP in your company, and the company has outgrown his or her capabilities. He or she actually no longer fits in the role. What is the lag time between the identification of this issue and the conversation to address it? When that conversation takes months or years to occur, what is the cost, and who pays?
Focus on where you can identify moments of disproportional influence. Moments when how you show up disproportionately affects growth, quality, productivity, safety, and more.
As a negative example, Grenny shared a fascinating story about Dame Stella Remington, the first female leader of the UK domestic spy agency MI5. Dame Stella vividly remembered such a moment of disproportional influence. As she described it, the day after an IRA bombing in London, she sat in the office of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher awaiting a security briefing. As Dame sat there waiting, Prime Minister Thatcher arrived a few minutes late, stood looking out the window in silence for an uncomfortable 30 seconds or so, and then sat down. She looked at a place over Dame’s shoulder and then asked, “so what about this business with the bombing?” Dame Stella recounts that she opened her mouth to begin the briefing but Lady Thatcher cut her off. Lady Thatcher then began to brief Dame Stella on what she thought happened, the potential policy responses, the consequences of those responses, and continued talking for about 30 minutes. Not once did Lady Thatcher ask for the input from her head of domestic intelligence. Lady Thatcher had gotten several significant points wrong. After her monolog, Lady Thatcher stood, straightened her jacket and pivoted as she began to leave the room.
What would you want the head of your domestic intelligence to do right now? What should she do? Wouldn’t you want her to speak up with something like, “I know that you’re the decision-maker, Lady Thatcher, so I want to give you all the correct information so you can make an informed decision”? Now, compare this scenario with your team. I’m completely aware that most of us are not making life and death, or peace and war decisions, yet they are critical to the life of our organizations.
As a leader, you should ask yourself “how can this gap between seeing it and saying it be shortened in my organization?” What’s your organizational Dame Stella moment? Dame Stella had a decision to make at that moment with Lady Thatcher. Dame Stella reveals that she just let Margaret Thatcher walk away. Dame added, “after all, she had already made up her mind.”
How many times do members of your organization let someone walk away? How often do they choose to be silent, to keep knowledge and experience to themselves? What’s your company culture regarding disproportional influence and specifically problem identification and lag time? Stop the déjà vu conversation about nothing ever changes, that things just stay the same, and do it with transparency and zero lag time between people seeing it and people saying it. That simple yet challenging act will improve culture and grow your company.
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