In Part I of this small survey of "red flags" that indicate future trouble for projects or collaborations, I described the effects of toxic conflict and the loss of capable leaders and team members. Although these are warning signs, they tend not to be the very earliest warning signs. Indeed, when they occur, it's fair to say that trouble has already arrived.
Fortunately, there are several other behavioral phenomena that do tend to provide more advanced warning of trouble ahead. Among these behaviors are those that relate to interpersonal communication. Below are four examples.
- Fear of speaking truth to power
- When we speak (or think) of "the elephant in the room," we're referring to the idea that there's something many of us know about but dare not mention. Although many causes can create these elephants, one of the most difficult to address is the need to critique a position or belief that a powerful person holds. The common phrase that describes such actions is "speaking truth to power."
- When people with the power to address a problem are unaware of the problem, for whatever reason, the problem is likely to remain in place. With time, its negative consequences can increase in severity, and the cost of addressing it can grow. People with the power to address problems need to be made aware of the problems, even if they're reluctant to learn of them.
- One member Although there are many different
kinds of elephants-in-the-room, one
of the most difficult to address is
the need to critique a position that
a politically powerful person holdsof a team afraid to speak truth to power is a problem and a red flag. An entire team afraid to do so is much worse. And when the team lead is among the fearful, catastrophe is in the future, and it's almost certain to arrive.
- Fear of speaking truth
- Widespread fear of speaking truth to power is a red flag. But an even more significant red flag is fear of speaking truth at all. This fear is more damaging because it prevents truth from surfacing within the team even when people with power aren't participants in the conversation. It is therefore more effective in its ability to limit the spread of unpleasant truths.
- But there is an even more dangerous possible interpretation of the observation that people are reluctant to speak truth. It's possible that team members fear that one among them is acting on behalf of someone with power, gathering intelligence about who is saying what to whom. It's possible that team members fear the consequences of expressing to each other opinions that differ from what the person with power wants them to believe.
- A team in which some members fear that other members are acting as "spies" for powerful people is a team that cannot solve problems that require acknowledging facts that differ from what the people in power want to believe. It is a team that cannot grapple with reality.
- High incidence of plausible miscommunication
- On occasion, someone — whom I'll refer to as Edgar — someone with responsibility for addressing an issue is found to have failed to address it effectively, or failed to address it in a timely fashion. The healthy response to these failures is an investigation of what went wrong, to determine what process changes might reduce the probability of recurrences. But too often, Edgar takes preemptive action. He provides a tale of plausible miscommunication that he hopes will obviate the need for investigation.
- A tale of plausible miscommunication is a narrative that explains Edgar's failure to act in a timely, effective fashion. It provides a believable story of how knowledge of the problem failed to reach Edgar. Edgar can then hardly be held responsible for the failure because he didn't know about the problem. And the tale neutralizes any desire for investigation because it suggests a root cause that's unlikely to be repeated or is beyond the control of anyone or any process inside the enterprise. Example: "The hurricane damage cut us off from the Internet." Another example: "Ella's sudden hospitalization for COVID prevented her from alerting Edgar about the system crash."
- Tales of plausible miscommunication can of course be truthful. But when they occur with any regularity, they could indicate that some are using the technique to provide safety for themselves without harming innocent parties.
- Power-serving spin
- In politics and public relations, to spin a narrative is to present an intentionally misleading story by weaving together a series of facts and half-truths to suggest an interpretation that favors a particular position vis-à-vis some incident or situation. Within organizations, power-serving spin is spin that strengthens the position of those with political power.
- Power-serving spin carries risk for the enterprise because it can limit the chances of success for people seeking the truth of a situation. For example, those investigating the causes of miscommunication might fail to find causes if they let themselves be guided by tales that are biased by power-serving spin.
- Organizational leaders who seek accurate information about what's happening in their organizations would do well to learn how to de-spin the information that does come their way. Even better: adjust organizational culture in ways that encourage delivery of information free of spin.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- Virtual Conflict
- Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common,
we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive
conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
- Heart with Mind
- We say people have "heart" when they continue to pursue a goal despite obstacles that would
discourage almost everyone. We say that people are stubborn when they continue to pursue a goal that
we regard as unachievable. What are our choices when achieving the goal is difficult?
- Listening to Ramblers
- Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners
can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility
- Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each
other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can
contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 5: Red Flags: III
- Early signs of troubles in collaborations include toxic conflict, elevated turnover and anti-patterns in communication. But among the very earliest red flags are abuses of power. They're more significant than other red flags because abuses of power can convert any collaboration into a morass of destructive politics. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
- And on August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.