August 5, 2021

The Elephant in the Zoom

I’m bullish on hybrid work.

I did it myself when my children were small. As a corporate lawyer in a very large regional bank, working from home a few days a week afforded me access to my most productive hours, erased my commute and allowed me to have lunch with my kids.

But, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Hybrid took a lot of extra work  - being available at times my colleagues were not and going the extra mile when I was in the office to interact with colleagues I didn't often see.

And keeping my mouth shut.

I saw things at times that concerned me (we all do, don't we?). But I wasn’t there everyday, and I was happy with my then-unorthodox working arrangement.  Why would I rock the boat?  

Herein lies one of the dangers of hybrid work. Happy engaged employees? Often, yes. But they won't always tell you when you’ve made a mistake.

I had a flashback to ATD’s International Conference in 2017, where I presented insights on the importance of workplace relationships. Fellow presenter and social science researcher Joseph Grenny said something that has never left me: “The health of a relationship, team or organization is a function of the average time lag between identifying and discussing problems.”  

Grenny’s research is sobering: in a study of more than 1000 people, 72% failed to speak up when a peer did not pull his/her weight; 68% failed to speak up in the face of instances of disrespect; and 57% failed to call peers on violated workplace processes. Each failed conversation was costly, accounting for thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

If these numbers reveal workplace dynamics in a traditional pre-COVID workplace when everyone was in-house, imagine how much being together only on Zoom increases this cost?

Creating a culture of openness and candor, psychological safety and honesty, takes work. Full stop. Initiating and sustaining difficult conversations - speaking up when you have something to say that someone else does not want to hear - doesn’t happen by itself. And screens are not particularly conducive to "speak truth to power" moments.

But you can set the stage to make it a little bit easier by intentionally creating the environment to invite divergent perspectives.

One leader recently used Reflection Point with his team to do just this. His objective was to engage his colleagues to be more open about their challenges and to help each other more.

We used the provocative story “Menagerie” by Charles Johnson - a fable where animals take over a pet store and brutal mayhem ensues. A spirited debate unearthed the touchy subject of talent reviews. Team members admitted that they were very uncomfortable discussing the performance of their direct reports, reluctant to share what wasn't going well. Many remained silent, choosing instead to struggle with low-performing teams. They feared it would reflect badly on their management and might lead to repercussions such as vacant roles not being filled if their team were perceived as low performing.

But something shifted after the session. The valuable practice they gained in challenging each other and opening up changed the dynamic: “They started truly delving into each person’s behaviors while questioning their own roles as leaders.” The leader added, “one of my guys asked [the group] for advice. He wouldn’t have done that before.”

We’ve seen this again and again. Practice speaking up and addressing uncomfortable challenges are critical precursors to tackling problems as they arise. Creating these opportunities to get this practice can take many forms, but requires three things:

  1. Make it low stakes: don’t put people on the spot and ask them to take a risk. They won’t.
  2. Be as inclusive as possible: some of the most important insights are buried in your organization at every level. Speaking up is not only for leaders, it's for everyone.
  3. Practice often: just as a muscle requires development and regular conditioning for optimum performance, conducting challenging conversations and respectful disagreements takes ongoing practice. There is no "one and done" here.

Addressing problems is never easy. For colleagues in organizations that pride themselves on collegiality and compliance, it’s nearly impossible because collegiality often hinders candor. But with the right opportunities to practice – to build the muscles of respectful challenge and disagreement – reducing that lag time between seeing and addressing problems is within reach. Even on Zoom.

Image Credit:
Anonymous, Elephant, ~1700, Cleveland Museum of Art via Wikimedia
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