In 2008, Aaron Moore, an engineer at Theranos, made a funny advertisement for the company’s blood test equipment. He described the equipment as “for pranks and to make colleagues happy to smile.” Available in most cases”, there is “vampire” in “blood collection accessories”.
Looking back at this matter, we can think that Moore’s spoof is not only a joke, but also to expose the topic that everyone does not talk about with good intentions: the company’s equipment is defective, and the leadership team is deliberately concealing the facts. Moore’s mischief spoke out the unspeakable things of the company.
The unspeakable phenomenon exists because people use it to avoid immediate conflicts, threats and embarrassment. But it cannot be said that it also suppresses the ability to doubt the importance of improving performance and promoting team learning. In the process of consulting dozens of management teams, we found that whether the team can openly discuss the obstacles facing the way forward is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of teamwork. We observed this phenomenon in various scenarios, and accordingly proposed a framework, a series of diagnostic problems, and several targeted solutions to guide the team to openly discuss the unspeakable problems of their own team and help the team The leader discovered the main taboo within the company, and then initiated the necessary exchanges to put these unspeakable problems under the sun.
In Cyranos, CEO Elizabeth Holmes and senior management were reluctant to admit that many engineers saw product defects at a glance. It is worth mentioning that Moore did not directly share his mischief with the leader, but expressed it in an anonymous and mocking manner.
When Holmes heard about the prank, he immediately began to investigate who did it. This approach has not caused healthy discussions within the company, but has deepened the belief that the defects of the company’s products cannot be discussed. A few months after being severely condemned, the disheartened Moore resigned.
This example tells us the possible consequences of suppressing doubt and limiting speech. Cyranos therefore cultivated a culture of fear and denial, and the company eventually fell to the point of lying to investors and customers, and even made decisions that might endanger the health of patients. The extremely popular Cyranos ended with a tragedy: Holmes was charged with fraud and the startup, once valued at $9 billion, collapsed.
Although Silanos is an extreme case, the problems it reflects-the unspeakable phenomenon in the team-are very common. As more and more teams are organized in a virtual manner and are spread around the world, it is more difficult to catch unpleasant signals in time, and misunderstandings are more likely to occur. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to discuss unspeakable things face-to-face (such as chats during lunch or coffee), so it is more necessary to find problems and speak out problems before they escalate and team and business performance are affected. A misunderstood question
We see that if the leadership encounters unspeakable problems, it manifests as an unresolvable conflict between team members, unevenness in participating in the meeting, extremely destructive herd thinking, and employee separation. We have also studied the team interaction of non-profit organizations, including elite sports teams,
The author reviews several research results on team effectiveness and operational failure, and connects the current mainstream management and social psychology perspectives with the often overlooked group psychodynamic research.
While consulting for multiple executive teams, the author also studied elite sports teams, medical teams, and a kidnapping negotiation team.
Over the past decade, their research findings have been verified and further improved in the Swiss IMD Business School Executive Program. The regiment, the medical team, and the hostage negotiating team found that such phenomena existed in different team environments and at different levels: the more unspeakable topics, the harder it was for team work. Without collective discussion of unspeakable problems, it is impossible to solve the problem wisely.
But team leaders often overestimate the risk of raising unspeakable questions. They mistakenly believe that discussing negative issues will destroy the morale of the team, reveal problems that they cannot solve, and expose their guilt, because people will think that the team is facing such problems, and the leader can not blame.
In reality, we find that discussing unspeakable issues can make people relax, increase energy, and enhance the team’s goodwill. At the same time, the team leader also underestimated the consequences of ignoring unspeakable problems. Ignoring unspeakable issues will undoubtedly cause tension in the working relationship, and lack of useful arguments during the meeting, so the meeting effect is greatly reduced. Without open discussion, the team cannot learn from the mistakes, correct the route, and finally make bad decisions. If not managed, unspeakable problems will have a negative impact on the entire team, weaken the ability to solve problems, and impair the ability to learn and adapt to change.
Four unspeakable levels
Management often thinks that the unspeakable things are very similar: some inconvenient opinions that people hide in their hearts. It is generally described in English as “elephant in the room”, “800-pound gorilla” or “deadmoose”. This idea ignores the complexity of the problem, and makes the problem even more terrible. Here we present a multi-dimensional perspective on the unspeakable. The gap between thought and speech (Siranos engineers know that there is a problem with the equipment but cannot speak) is a perspective. In addition, there are gaps between speech and meaning, gaps between feelings and specific descriptions, gaps between knowledge and actions. (See the sub-column “Beware of gaps”)
Each kind of unspeakable has its own unique motivation. Some come from cognitive barriers, some from emotional factors. Some are known to everyone in the team, some are only known to a few people or nobody knows, and they are outside the collective consciousness of the team. Different types cannot be said to use different methods to make them surface. Some can be found by asking questions directly, and some need to be inferred by behavior patterns before verifying with the team. (See the sidebar “Problem Diagnosis List”. Leaders can ask these questions to identify what the team has to say)
The following four types have intersections with each other, but the benefit of the distinction is that it can help you solve unspeakable problems more effectively.
1. Things that come to mind but do not dare to say unspeakable are often related to dangerous questions, suggestions or criticisms, and people often choose to censor themselves. You can use it as a joke (like Moore in Silanos), or talk privately, but never put it on the table.
For example, the new CEO of an Australian subsidiary of a global information technology company soon discovered that her team spoke carefully at meetings, always nodded in public, and began to criticize in private. These people are not used to telling real ideas. The CEO came with the mission of reforming the company. She needs the team’s honest advice and whole-hearted trust, so this cautious behavior must be resolved.
The reason why people hide real thoughts is often because they are afraid of the consequences of telling the truth, whether such consequences are real or hypothetical. The cause of this fear is generally the emotional and capricious management style of the team leader, which retaliates against people who disagree and makes the team members insecure.
Some behaviors or evaluations of colleagues who disagree may sometimes cause overly sensitive reactions, but often out of misunderstanding. Studies have shown that people’s health disagreements about what to do and how to do it will quickly become interpersonal conflicts. People often interpret it too vaguely as a “no call”, which affects the entire team, especially when faced with pressure. As long as there is a pair of sensitive relationships in the team, it is enough to make the whole team uneasy and affect the serious thinking of the team through emotional and social infections.
Wrong perceptions are often not corrected, because both hostile parties are convinced of their own inferences. Based on their own worldview and self-protection instinct, they think they know why the other party is acting in this way, and use this to drive their behavior, which ultimately leads to a more tense relationship.
Solution: The hostile parties need help from others to investigate the differences-differences in personality, experience, and identity-resulting in such a significant disharmony between the two parties, the so-called “no call”. The team leader should make both parties feel that they are equally welcome and recognized in the team, and treat diversity as a source of new insights, not friction makers. You can let the team members make the sentence “I feel…” and express the feelings in specific language, so that the things that trouble them are surfaced.
A neutral counselor can help team members to open their hearts by asking some important follow-up questions and clarifying and confirming when needed. In addition, formal assessment tools can be used to understand the personality of each member of the team, and a unified framework to help people understand the roots of colleagues’ behavior.
In this example of a German high-tech company, the distinctive personality contrast between CTO and COO provides us with clues about their tension. According to personality assessment, COO likes to look at the big picture and favors new ideas, while CTO pays great attention to details and reality, and likes proven and effective methods. This explains why the CTO always counters the COO’s problem-solving methods.
When discussing whether the character description is consistent with the self-image, we also see another factor: COO regards itself as a problem solver, and CTO regards itself as a person of opinion and acts on his own independent judgment.
These differences in self-image can explain why the valuable experience of COO is not valued by the CTO at all. The CTO hates intervention and is afraid to become “dependent on others.” At the same time, COO was frustrated that he could not participate in solving the problem. From the perspective of COO, CTO seems to be omniscient, unable and unwilling to accept the opinions of anyone. So the behavior of both parties is contrary to each other’s core work cognition, and it is inevitable to drive each other crazy.
To reduce these conflicts, you must distinguish intention from influence. Even if the feedback and suggestions are well-intentioned, it may challenge the other party’s perception of their abilities, integrity and popularity, causing a strong negative emotional rebound.
Knowing the background of your colleagues, you can pay more attention to their opinions and make better use of them, so as not to treat their opinions or behaviors as deliberately showing off, or making things difficult and squeezing. But self-awareness is equally important: if you can see and accurately describe your tendency, then colleagues are not so easy to take your abstinence seriously.
The tension between the German company’s CTO and COO was eventually relieved by a role-play. In role-playing, they asked each other to think from the standpoint of each other. They spoke the other party’s feelings accurately and finally laughed. There is empathy on both sides, but each has different methods and priorities. Realizing that the other party’s actions are not malicious, nor targeted at the individual, the two can cooperate more effectively and acknowledge each other’s contributions to the enterprise. They can also get feedback from other members to help them continue to improve their behavior.
4. Doing but not realizing that the deepest unspeakable is collective unconscious behavior, which is the most difficult to detect. Team members may understand the problem of their own one-third of an acre, but they cannot link scattered events to infer the root cause, so they often draw wrong conclusions about the team’s inefficiency and poor performance.
Let’s look at this example: The CEO of a French travel agency complains that the team is dead and the members are not active. We attended a meeting and found his complaint was right. The tricky part is that he is the problem. He was absent-minded during the meeting and always kept a small gap, so the signal that the team members subconsciously received was: We are not important to him.
This is what psychologists call “projection”, which means that we project our thoughts and feelings on others. In fact, it is the CEO himself who is really not active, but he mistakenly thinks it is someone else. Of course, under the influence of his team, he quickly followed suit and followed his absent-mindedness, but the CEO did not know that he was the one who started it.
In order to deal with the anxiety caused by being ignored or underestimated, the team will spontaneously establish a defense mechanism to avoid thinking about deep issues, or even not mention it at all. But this will prevent learning and prevent the team from responding and adjusting to emerging challenges effectively. The team members of this travel agency unwittingly imitated the CEO, which is exactly a defense mechanism for them to deal with anxiety. If you ask them if they are really not enthusiastic about their work, they will definitely say no.
Wilfred Bion, a British psychotherapist, once said that unconscious, unrecognized unspeakable things are reflected in some seemingly unrelated team behaviors, so it is difficult for team members to contact them Check it out. In this travel agency, when team leaders and members communicate completely with leadership as the core, they hinder the communication between team members. It is always the two people who are talking, and the leaders always mistakenly feel that the employees are not active. These interactions have prevented important self-censorship from being carried out, and the true cause of the team’s ineffective operation has been masked.
The behavior pattern caused by anxiety started unconsciously at first, and later developed into “our way of doing things”. Team members play an unchanging role, sitting in the same seat at every meeting and following the rules, impairing their ability to question assumptions and complete tasks.
Solution: The team may not be aware of it, but outsiders can see these problematic interaction patterns at a glance. The team leader can invite a trusted colleague from other departments within the organization or an external consultant to observe and evaluate the team’s communication habits, including body language, who spoke, how often to speak, who to watch when speaking, who is playing Who is to blame, who is to blame or what to blame when there is a problem, which issues are not discussed, who remain silent, and who ignore their speeches.
If he is a trained observer, according to Edgar Schein, an organizational psychologist at the MIT Sloan School of Business, he will conduct a “humbly inquiries” in order to understand the team’s mission. Important information and feelings. The questioner’s identity as an outsider allows him to ask questions unconsciously and without threats regarding the unconscious process he sees. The famous “Five Whys” technique in Six Sigma (that is, ask why at least five times) can help outsiders dig deeper and find out what problems the team is trying to avoid.
Before tutoring this travel agency, we asked for a meeting of senior executives (this is our example). We saw a lot of whispering at the meeting. Someone was listless while the speaker was giving a report, and some people were playing with mobile phones. The whole feeling is that the team meeting is completely passing by.
Then we showed the team several clips, all of which were videos of the CEO distracted by the phone. At first, everyone thought it was funny, but soon they realized that there were so many clips, and they couldn’t laugh. They just felt embarrassed. After three minutes we stopped playing and asked everyone: “What do you see?”
The CEO was shocked. He said: “If you tell me this way directly, I will definitely not believe it.” The team members were also very surprised, but once they saw the evidence, they immediately pointed out that the CEO frequently looked at the signal released by the mobile phone: yes The lack of respect and appreciation of others and their work is certainly not conducive to public discussion. The behavior of the CEO also makes other people feel that they can do the same, and the result is a meeting of all sorts, fruitless, and the CEO himself complains constantly.
The good news is that once these destructive and unconscious actions are exposed for public discussion, they immediately lose their destructive power. However, in order to change their behavior in the meeting and cultivate new habits, the team members also took two specific measures: they agreed not to bring their mobile phones when attending the meeting in the next month (the offender is fined and fines are donated to charity) and drafted A team charter was established to clarify the new behavior requirements, including listening to each other, asking more questions, not making assumptions easily, summarizing the discussion results, and implementing follow-up actions.
The content of the charter is not new, but the company has placed the charter signed by everyone in a very prominent position, so that every team member can point to the charter at any time to implement the new regulations. Six months later, the CEO told us that the meeting time was shortened and the discussion was more focused and heated. Team Detox
Most teams have the above four types of unspeakable phenomena, and are very distressed by this. But don’t try to solve all four problems at once. We usually recommend that team leaders proceed in order, starting with two relatively obvious unspeakable phenomena in order to achieve an immediate effect, that is, know but dare not say, say but not heartfelt.
First of all, the best entry point is to ensure “consistency between words and deeds.” This is not difficult to achieve, because everyone can see the consequences of “different words and deeds.” It reflects a collective failure, not a personal error. At the same time, if words and deeds do not involve high-level leadership, it will have a devastating impact on the entire organization, triggering cynicism, half-heartedness, and conflict among team members at all levels.
The team leader is fully capable of letting everyone discuss how to improve the team’s work and resolve bad communication patterns. You can do some prepared self-reflection: “Do I have a share of this problem?” Recognizing your responsibility, you can effectively initiate discussions and let everyone see your expectations of frank meeting.
An easy victory can help team members realize that although the change is painful, the gain is far greater than the pain, so that they have the motivation to move from shallow unspeakable problems to deep unspeakable problems. Solving deep, unspeakable problems often requires guidance or external intervention.
Team time to expose unresolved problems and solve them is not a one-time matter. In order to prevent new unspeakable problems from recurring, we should devote special time to focus on internal team communication instead of focusing on external work meetings aimed at solving problems.
We have studied a group in Switzerland that specializes in kidnapping and hostage negotiation. Because of the importance, the team dare not let the unspeakable things affect the work. With the help of a designated observer, the team can monitor team dynamics in real time and evaluate what has happened, not only focusing on the facts, but also on everyone’s psychological feelings.
The same principle applies in business. High-performance teams not only focus on what they have accomplished, but also how they work together. This is not something that can be done naturally. It requires extra effort. It is necessary to establish routine practices in the team and introduce discussion mechanisms to solve unspeakable problems, so as to avoid the irreproachable atmosphere rooting in the organization and creating trouble.
There is a rapidly expanding software group in Europe, and its executives systematically spend half a day discussing teamwork in the meditation meeting twice a year. The meeting was presided over by the director of the human resources department. He told everyone: “You are all busy with the responsibilities you are responsible for. If you have deliberately or unintentionally stepped into someone else’s site, it is time to spread out on the table.” At the end, the CEO sometimes asks team members to say “I’m worried about…” in order to find out the problem as soon as possible.
We have seen other teams use the same simple method to avoid the accumulation of unspeakable problems. Some teams asked participants to pour out trivial questions at the beginning of the meeting, or ask the participants three questions in turn at the end of the meeting: “What is useful at today’s meeting?” “What is useless?” and “Next What changes will you make at the meeting?”
A healthy team must be able to examine and improve the way they work.
Exceptions Although the pressure to avoid difficult problems is always there, it is always beneficial if the unspeakable problems are revealed-the premise is to expose the problems in a constructive way.
There is only one situation that we do not recommend—if you have just arrived at a poorly functioning team and need to make immediate results, then taking the time to diagnose and expose unspeakable problems may not be the best path.
In this case, a more effective way is to adopt a positive psychology strategy and use appreciation questions, such as a comprehensive and detailed discussion of what the team has done well and right, just like you are analyzing those bad behaviors and events From time to time, the inventory will be the same. The goal at this time is to find ways to avoid team weaknesses, focus on strengths and cultivate positive emotions and relationships, and then try to discuss unspeakable issues.
But the most critical one is no different: in an increasingly fast-paced world, teams need a space to discuss how they each work.