We tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others in the light of their actions, which are visible to us. J.G. Bennett
Business is a team sport and Authentic Communication is perhaps the most important tool in building exceptional leadership teams and high performance organizations. Authentic communication is the capability to express what we truly feel and believe in a clear, direct and constructive manner. This is fairly easy to do when we have a favorable perspective on the issue or person we are dealing with. On the other hand, when there is an apparent disagreement on a difficult and volatile issue, authentic communication becomes challenging.
Even though we intend to be authentic, we struggle to put that into practice consistently. Many times, we have good reasons for that, especially when we face what my friend and colleague Fred Kofman says, the “Quatrilemma.” What is a Quatrilemma? It is the concern that when we express what’s exactly on our mind:
- We don’t feel good about ourselves
- The other person may be offended
- The relationship gets worse
- The issue does not get resolved and becomes even more complicated
It seems like we are stuck between two poor choices (a) express what’s on our mind and face the negative consequences or (b) sugar coat the concern by putting our values at stake and muddle through without resolving the issue. Most teams and organizations alternate between the two options, depending on the people and situation. It doesn’t have to be that way; there is a superior third option.
Polite harmony on the surface among team members without addressing the underlying issues, remain as passive conflicts and undermine the morale, engagement and productivity. Just imagine how much more effective teams and organizations can be when we engage in authentic communication. $550B is the estimated loss of US productivity due to poor engagement at work.
What’s the way out of this quatri-lemma? We have to express our truth and elicit the other’s truth skillfully. We all have perspectives and opinions. It is impossible to operate without making assumptions and inferences, but it is dangerous to completely rely on them. The third option involves expressing our concern by focusing on observations and facts and staying interested and curious about the intention behind their action. We all have a good rational reason for what we do even when it appears crazy or incomprehensible on the surface.
If we dig deep enough, we will uncover the noble intention behind the actions. The key then is to explore the underlying reason or intention without judging the person. We cannot have an authentic conversation if we judge the other person’s intention or if we fear conflict. We cannot have an authentic conversation if our goal is to be right. The purpose of an authentic conversation is to find the solution and engage in right action. Right action is action taken in line with one’s values and principles, for the good of the team, without a personal desire to be right.
Since it takes two to have an authentic conversation, what if the other person is not ready or equipped to have one? We have control over our actions alone; we do not have control over someone else’s actions and on the outcome. There are no guarantees in life. However by doing our part and staying in alignment with our values and beliefs, we may encourage the person to participate and improve the chances of having an authentic conversation. If more people in the team engage in this practice, a tipping point of authenticity is reached.
Authentic communication is easy to understand and difficult to practice but is absolutely necessary to build trust and high performance teams. We have to become part of the problem and ask ourselves what role may I have played in the problem that I am seeing. We have to push the envelope and get uncomfortable. It requires courage – we have to be willing to be vulnerable by sharing our values and emotions. It requires us to be self-aware of our thoughts, intentions and actions. We need a high degree of self-esteem to explore the discrepancy we exhibit between our thoughts, intentions and actions; we need self-confidence to request and accept feedback on the impact our actions are having, and self-discipline to make a relentless effort for positive change.
The CEO or the senior-most leader of an organization is ultimately accountable for results. When the leader delivers results, professional trust in his or her ability grows. But results are a lagging indicator. Besides good financial results can mask bad practices and poor short term results may make us overlook solid execution processes being put in place to ensure consistent results. How then do we fairly evaluate the short-term performance of a senior leader who is not directly executing tasks? More importantly, how does this senior leader develop a trusting professional relationship with the boss?
The issue gets even trickier when the boss is an entrepreneur/owner who used to be the CEO or the boss was a COO who moved up to become CEO and is now supervising his or her replacement. In both these situations, the boss tends to be hands-on and may understandably have difficulty letting go. This creates tension and frustration in the relationship which has to be handled with care.
Let us look at the worst-case situation from both perspectives. The leader feels unnecessarily micromanaged and the toxic thought that enters his mind is that the boss will never let go. She is always going to be looking over my shoulder. The boss’ toxic thought: I can’t trust the leader to manage the details, he is too hands-off to catch critical issues early and we will pay for it later. If either, or worse, both of them operate with certainty that their toxic thought is true; the effectiveness of the organization is severely compromised.
This creates a perfect opportunity for an authentic conversation. The leader doesn’t take the boss’ enquiry as a personal or professional affront and instead becomes curious about the intention. He may discover that the boss is being overly careful and only wants the organization and leader to succeed. If necessary, the leader will express his concern constructively and suggest an alternative approach – let us focus on process and results.
Similarly the boss does not assume that the leader is not as passionate about execution. He converts his frustration to curiosity and enquires about the leader’s approach to ensure execution is on track. She may find that the leader already has a process in place. If not, she asks him if there is a more effective way to communicate and evaluate progress.
While they are both sincere in seeking a mutually agreeable solution, authentic conversation does not guarantee one. But it certainly goes a long way in making buy-in easier even if there is a disagreement. The leader may have to accept to agree to disagree and abide by the final decision. If we dig deep enough, we will uncover the noble intention behind the actions. It is worth the effort!
In a nutshell
Don’t assume intention behind the behavior or judge the person, be curious. Channel anger and frustration by expressing genuine concern and state values being violated. Do not fear conflict. Become part of the problem and focus on solution and right action, not on being right. Suggest an alternate approach. There are no guarantees in business and in life but we certainly have a choice to be authentic and that guarantees peace of mind!