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How to talk to your team about the elephant in the room

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No one mentions the blatant hostility and conflict between two team members. A colleague softens the data to avoid delaying the project launch date. In the team meeting on Monday, the leader did not mention the fact that two team members had been fired in the previous week.

These situations occur in many organizations, and it is difficult to address them because they are not comfortable bringing them up and discussing them. Since organizational theorist Chris Argyris coined the term “non-negotiable” in 1980, many scholars have grappled with issues that are too threatening, inconvenient, or too hidden to bring to the surface. These are topics that can feel embarrassing or reveal major issues, such as pay inequality, poor team member performance, or interdepartmental competition that threatens to derail a project.

As executive coaches and organizational leadership consultants, we deal with matters that cannot be discussed with our clients on a daily basis. But what cannot be discussed in itself is usually not presented. Instead, our clients complain of its most common symptom: the feeling that things are “stuck”.

Getting bogged down leads, at the very least, to ineffective meetings that amount to little more than status updates and, at worst, to inaccurate decisions or failed projects. And default comes at a high cost, costing organizations millions of dollars annually. When uncomfortable issues cannot be addressed, organizations end up tolerating bad employees and poor performance. Frequent discussions or back tensions lead to wasted energy and personal fatigue. The lack of progress that results from non-negotiable saps morale and motivation.

However, organizations abound—and indulge—in things that cannot be discussed. We see two reasons for this. The first, Argyris points out, is that they serve a purpose: to help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment. Secondly, as we have claimed, they exist because of a skills gap. And that missing skill is framing.

What is the framework – and why aren’t more leaders using it?

Framing means defining the problem and setting the container for the conversation. The framework helps people organize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences and, ultimately, allows them to take action on the issue. We see framing as the Swiss Army knife of leadership – it’s one of the most useful skills a leader can use, skills that solve a variety of problems, including ones that can’t be discussed.

If framing is such a valuable tool, why do so few leaders know about it or use it? We see three reasons:

We do not teach leaders the skill of framing.

Framing is a communication skill used throughout history to persuade audiences, initiate change, rally people in moments of crisis, and articulate a compelling vision. However, while we expect leaders to be able to do this, we do not teach them how to do it. The average CEO we work with, especially one who leads a technical function like finance, operations, IT, or even HR, has never heard of framing.

We cannot frame what we cannot acknowledge.

Non-negotiables are exactly what we have been conditioned to avoid. From an early age, we’re taught that if we don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. We are trained to protect ourselves and others from social discomfort. Framing non-negotiable paths runs counter to this instructable.

Framing is believed to slow things down.

Leaders are motivated to achieve results. Framing the elephant in the room is seen as accidental, time-intensive, and a delay in progress. However, in reality, the greatest obstacle to progress is precisely the unexpressed differences, disabling behaviors and energy-draining moods that remain unaddressed.

framing art

It’s hard to overcome these hurdles, but it’s possible to learn a range of framing skills that get us and our teams into a mess. In our experience, leaders can build this vital leadership competency by practicing these five steps, which provide a useful model for navigating difficult conversations.

Step 1: Identify for yourself what is holding you back.

As a leader, your first step is to identify what is causing resistance or holding you back from moving forward. This could be simmering tension, an action conflict, a difference of opinion, a negative emotion, negative agreement, or an unconscious pattern. In this step, your task is to try to determine what is happening. Ask yourself, what is the crux of the matter? What is not working?

Step Two: Look at the situation with curiosity.

The next step is to open your understanding of the issue. It helps to imagine that you are an extraterrestrial observing the situation for the first time. You may ask yourself, what do I notice? What are the possibilities besides my thoughts about what’s going on? What else could happen? By giving yourself some distance, you can easily identify other possibilities without getting emotional. This step also helps prevent bias because you are not defined by a point of view, aspect, or outcome. To get started, start each idea with a “maybe statement.” Maybe… something else might be true.

Step 3: Determine what you notice to others without judgment.

Often, something is stuck or unarguable because it is perceived as threatening, undervalued, or simply wrong. Naming it and keeping it nonjudgmental opens room for learning and discussion with those involved. This step requires that you describe your observations of what is holding back progress (Step 1). To do this, you must hold the probabilities (step 2) as equally valid. This step usually begins with these words: “I notice…”, “I notice…”, “It seems…” or “I heard…”

Step 4: Set an intention with others to learn.

This step helps you, as the leader, to create a safe psychological container to discuss something potentially threatening to others. This is important because research shows that our automatic framing in challenging transfers, particularly those featuring competing opinions or conflict, tends to be self-protective. Self-protective framing all but blocks the opportunity to learn and improve. When a leader shows his intentions to learn, he makes productive conversation about different perspectives possible. This step might sound like, “I would like to learn…” or “Help me understand…”

Step 5: Invite others to think and input.

Your final step now is to engage others and invite them into the frame – allowing all participants in the conversation to address a shared reality. This call turns what can’t be discussed, or stumbled upon, into an issue that everyone can focus on. This step can be as simple as saying, “What do you think?” or “How do you see it?”

Here’s how to perform these steps in two different scenarios.

Frequent performance issue

One of our clients, Amal, a chief sales officer for a professional services firm, came to us frustrated and concerned. (All names are pseudonyms). Over the past three months, Amal has provided feedback to the new Regional Sales Manager, Lee, three times regarding improving the privacy and clarity of his expectations with the sales force. For example, individual salespeople were not systematically following the company’s sales process to qualify and track leads, resulting in a poor sales pipeline that did not meet the company’s growth goals.

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Lee was routinely praised for his empathy and collaborative leadership style, but he seemed to downplay the need to set direct, clear goals. Amal encouraged, cajoled, and questioned Lee, hoping he would set clearer expectations with his employees, but nothing changed.

In a last ditch effort to rectify the problem, Amal decides to frame it for me.

Step 1: Identify for yourself what is holding you back.

Lee doesn’t set strong, clear expectations with his team, even after I gave him feedback about it three times.

Step Two: Look at the situation with curiosity.

Perhaps he does not agree with the comments? Maybe he is not suitable for this role? Maybe he doesn’t know how to set clear expectations or measurable goals? Perhaps he is afraid of conflict or opposition from his employees?

Step 3: Determine what you notice to others without judgment.

Amal tells Lee, “I’ve noticed that we’ve discussed your need to set clear goals with your sales people and yet it persists that they don’t follow our sales process.” Note, Amal did not attempt to give feedback again. I framed the lack of noticeable change as an issue.

Step 4: Set an intention with others to learn.

Amal tells Lee, “I would like to learn how you see the situation and why this problem persists.”

Step 5: Invite others to think and input.

Amal Lee asks, “What are your thoughts?”

By framing this, Amal was able to unearth the root cause of Lee’s reluctance to change: He expected opposition from his crew and admitted he was uncomfortable with the conflict. Lee understood the comments and wanted a change, but was afraid of being seen as authoritative and didn’t know how to handle the employees’ objections. By taking a leadership course and working with a coach, Lee was able to build his confidence and conflict fluency skills, which helped him set clearer goals with his team and overcome future resistance.

Gridlock Team

Tai, COO of a multinational consumer products company, told us that she attended a meeting where her team was discussing several recent negative customer reviews. Her team leaders have been blaming the problem on supply chain malfunctions, labor shortages, and flawed market analysis. Tai saw more finger pointing than fruitful dialogue. Fearing that nothing will be resolved and she will end up with entrenched conflict and uninvolved team members, she decides to frame the problem.

Step 1: Identify for yourself what is holding you back.

The group does blame versus critical thinking.

Step Two: Look at the situation with curiosity.

Perhaps team leaders fear the negative repercussions: increased workload, public criticism, and loss of credibility in the eyes of others? Maybe some are loyal to our sellers and don’t want to disturb the boat? Maybe some don’t see the customer’s point of view? Maybe some people don’t know what to fix or where to start?

Step 3: Determine what you notice to others without judgment.

Tai tells the team, “I notice that everyone has different ideas about where the problem lies. I also notice that we don’t analyze or discuss any of the ideas in depth.”

Step 4: Set an intention with others to learn.

Tai continues, “I’d like us to really understand the challenges we’re facing so we can get back to positive reviews.”

Step 5: Invite others to think and input.

Tai inquires, “All of your points of view are legitimate. What if we each spend five minutes apart thinking about what we see as a central problem and then present our ideas to the group for discussion?”

When Tai defined this framework, the team was able to start thinking systemically and critically together. Each of the challenges is outlined for all team members to see. Presenting the challenges to the public review gave the team an opportunity to discuss and identify the main issue they needed to resolve first in order to reverse the negative review. Team members also set up another meeting to discuss refund plans for each customer who submitted a negative review.

. . .

The practice of framing something that is stuck because it is uncomfortable is both simple and challenging. It’s simple because the steps are easy to learn, but difficult because we have to go against our conditioning. When we encounter an obstacle, our usual reaction is to either push it or take the path of least resistance by ignoring it. Either way, we failed to properly identify the problem. And oftentimes, we implicitly define blockage through the filter of desires, in terms of what we want to happen. Our biases and emotions dampen our curiosity and limit our ability to seek out new information and seek help from others.

As with most new skills, framing gets easier with practice. When leaders try these steps over and over, they develop the muscles to get work back on track and tackle even the biggest elephants in the room.