Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 31;   July 29, 2020: Red Flags: II

Red Flags: II


When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems.
A wall of stone

A wall of stone. When people with political power are unaware of trouble in their organizations, barriers sometimes are preventing knowledge from reaching them. We can think of these barriers as if they were stone walls, with various people, including those people who have political power, contributing to construction and maintenance of the wall, stone by stone. Every choice to withhold information, or to delay conveying it, or to slant it in the recipients' preferred direction, is a stone.

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 of 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 almost certain to arrive eventually.
Fear of speaking truth
Widespread fear 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 holds
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. An appropriate response to these failures would be an investigation to determine what actually happened and 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: they can adjust organizational culture in ways that encourage delivery of information free of spin.

In the final part of this series on red flags, I'll examine the abuse of political power in organizations. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Red Flags: III  Next Issue

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