As a leader, do you know your teams’ full potential, and how far they are from meeting it? What’s holding them back, or where might they be stuck? Misaligned? Under-resourced? Right now, at this very moment, do you know what you could do to push both their collective efforts and individual impact forward?
Chances are, you might have a rough idea… but not a detailed enough understanding to truly be effective. You might be hoping that an upcoming engagement survey will give you more detail, or that someone in another role can get you that information, but in this era of hybrid work—where there are few halls to walk down, and when conflict feels too uncomfortable to address over video chat—we need everyone in the organization to be an active sensor for when work is working against them. After all, finding out about obstacles now may save you from missing goals later on down the line.
Now’s the time to embrace a “make noise” culture, in which individuals do call out when they feel like they can’t work at their best: they bring well-diagnosed problems to leaders to engage in courageous conversations, which take time and energy to resolve, but that result in better outcomes.
Pre-COVID, many of us may have worked in what we might call a “make do” culture, in which everyone does their best to get their work done without causing a fuss. Teams may be aware of limitations (such as inadequate resources, a lack of alignment, or an unclear path forward) that will hamper their ability to do the job, but don’t raise the issue—it’s fair to assume that everyone else has their own challenges; why make things more difficult? If anything, teams are more sensitive to the fact that everyone’s feeling more burned out and stressed the past few years.
Related to this “make do” culture is the common refrain of “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” This attitude is increasingly risky because work is more complex and cross-functional than ever: individuals rarely have the knowledge or authority to solve problems alone, and without input from others, they won’t develop optimal solutions. Worse, people may only surface problems they can actually solve independently—even if those aren’t necessarily the most important ones to fix.
Realistically, there are times when you simply have to make do, and of course, empowering individuals to solve problems is generally a healthy approach. But cultures that overly value harmony can fall into the trap of “making do” too often, and continuously downplaying issues and avoiding possible conflict can lead to both individual and collective detriment.
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If anything, uncertainty requires less harmony, as market signals turn into critical business challenges much quicker. That’s why now’s the time to embrace a “make noise” culture, in which individuals do call out when they feel like they can’t work at their best: they bring well-diagnosed problems to leaders to engage in courageous conversations, which take time and energy to resolve, but that result in better outcomes.
Part of what prevents people from making noise is that “noise” and “conflict” are saddled with a negative connotation within organizations, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Change can only come when things are out in the open.
The first step is to name issues; to acknowledge they exist. Once they’re named, we can classify and assess them. It also gives them boundaries, which makes it easier to discuss and make decisions about them. One tool we’ve found works well for raising issues is called “Elephants, Dead Fish, and Vomit.” This pungent-sounding activity was popularized by Airbnb, and ironically, we’ve found it particularly helpful for clearing the air.
Elephants, Dead Fish, Vomit
We recommend setting aside time to discuss these issues in a quarterly session with your leadership team, ideally as part of a review of overall organizational health that includes results of engagement surveys and retros. Before you gather, ask individual leaders to prepare the following:
- List the elephants in the room. Elephants are the big issues that no one likes to talk about. They could be inconvenient, shameful, and/or obvious… but they’re not being discussed. They’re antithetical to the values of transparency and productivity, and will prevent the most important work from getting done.
- List the dead fish. Dead fish are lingering issues or resentment—cultural moments, initiatives, or norms that people can’t let go of. Maybe it was a poorly managed layoff, or even a group-wide memo that struck a sour note. No matter what the cause, it needs to be addressed, or people will continue to focus on past events that can’t be changed.
- Identify what needs to be vomited out. Vomit is all those individual frustrations that have been building over time. They may not even need a resolution; they just need to be voiced.
- Then, come together to assess next steps. It’s unlikely that complex, deep-seated issues will have a quick solution, so develop a plan for how and when to tackle them. For elephants, for instance, think about who else needs to know about them to begin to address them, and who can help you in naming them. For the dead fish, determine who else needs to be involved, and how you can provide some sense of closure.
- Decide what not to share. Not everything needs to be brought to the larger group’s attention! Don’t force leaders to share all the complaints, but do be willing to evaluate whether they need further action, preferably in a 1:1.
Making noise and discussing issues won’t always be the most comfortable activities, but they do offer the promise that the other side will be more productive and healthier for the organization as a whole. At the same time, not all problems can be solved or should be, given that resources are constrained and strategies require tradeoffs. Good leaders help teams know what’s in scope right now to be solved, and what must live in the backlog for the time being.
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