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How to Discuss the Undiscussables on Your Team (HBR)

How to uncover the taboo topics on your team before they escalate and damage morale.

how to boost morale on your team, Dina Denham Smith

(Originally published in HBR. Image: HBR Staff/macrovector)


Concerns about the quality of a promising new product kept under wraps. Obvious tension and discord between two team members overlooked. The disconnect between the team’s stated values and its actual behavior left unstated.


Despite all the focus on fostering psychologically safe workplaces, teams remain rife with undiscussables: topics that are too obscured or feel too challenging to surface and discuss. What unites the varied topics consciously or unwittingly deemed off-limits is that they exist because they help us avoid short-term discomfort and conflict. But undiscussables also exist because there is a perception gap: leaders overestimate how freely their team members will speak. Leaders feel psychologically safer than their team members, and the false consensus effect makes them prone to assume others share their team-related perceptions and experiences.


The challenge of undiscussables has grown as we’ve shifted to more distributed teams and virtual communication, which make it harder to raise uncomfortable topics and detect discomfort. However, neglecting to surface the undiscussables can lead to strained working relationships and unproductive meetings characterized by an absence of productive debate. Over time, ignoring them can impede your team’s ability to solve problems, learn, and improve its performance, costing millions of dollars per year.


You need to uncover any taboo topics on your team before they escalate and damage morale and performance. Here’s how.


Accept that elephants exist

There are many classic signs of undiscussables; for instance, meetings marked by quick consensus, a lack of productive debate, or uneven participation. Other symptoms include intransigent team conflicts, indirect communication and triangulation, and disengaged employees.


But even if you don’t spot these signs, it’s safe to assume that there are unexpressed thoughts and feelings on your team that, if tackled head-on, could help it work more productively. In one study, more than 85% of employees reported that they chose not to voice important issues to their boss.


Employees do this for numerous reasons: fear of repercussions or retaliation, a sense of futility if issues feel too entrenched, groupthink, and the natural human desire to be liked and accepted. Team members may also second-guess the validity of their concerns or be uncertain about how or when to raise the issue.


The onus is on you to banish the elephants — or you become complicit in their existence.


Check your fear  

Apprehension over surfacing unspoken issues or delving into those you perceive as sensitive or controversial is natural. You may worry that you’ll open a can of worms, reveal an unsolvable issue, get blamed for the problem, or deplete your team’s energy.


However, loss aversion makes it likely that you are overestimating the risks of raising undiscussables and underestimating the consequences of doing nothing. These unaddressed topics may be the most significant barriers to your team’s cohesion, morale, and performance.


Tackling undiscussables can require facing unpleasant truths and having the courage to tackle tricky conversations. However, these conversations are typically most challenging to initiate only. In practice, I’ve observed that acknowledging unspoken issues brings a collective sense of relief. With the obstacle finally out in the open, teams often come together as they seek ways to address it.


Monitor and manage how you respond to challenges

Due to your power, your team members continuously monitor your actions, verbalizations, and body language to determine how they should behave. If they worry that you’ll react negatively or intensely to challenging information, it will block your efforts to discuss the undiscussables.


Therefore, it’s crucial that you monitor and modulate your reactions to challenges or difficult information. Negative events have more power than positive ones in driving human behavior. So, like creating psychological safety, you must both decrease (and ideally eliminate) the negative consequences of speaking up and magnify the rewards.


When someone challenges your ideas or offers tough feedback, buck any instinct to defend or justify your position and express openness and curiosity instead: “Tell me more” or “Help me understand.” Sincerely thank team members who speak up, publicly and privately. Even when you cannot adopt their suggestion, explicitly demonstrate appreciation for their contribution.


If you’re unsure how your team experiences you or find it challenging to regulate how you respond to difficult information or stress, consider working with a coach.


Communicate your intentions and acknowledge reality

Don’t leave your team guessing: Tell them why you want to surface unspoken issues and how their participation is needed. For instance, you might say, “I’m committed to having more open communication and addressing anything hindering the team. It may be challenging, but I believe we can navigate it together. I can’t do it alone, though. It’s your voice and insights that will make the difference.”


Sometimes, the issues your team raises may be out of your control, like a change in strategic direction mandated by the executive suite. So, clarify that discussing the undiscussable may not always lead to change. Sometimes, employees can mistakenly equate being heard with being heeded, and it’s important to proactively remove this misconception.


Seek additional ways to show your commitment to transparency and open communication. For example, most companies conduct employee surveys and exit interviews, which can highlight hidden challenges on your team. Too often, this data isn’t shared or followed up with any action. Instead, make it a practice to share and discuss this data as broadly as possible.


Revamp your approach to one-on-ones

Research shows that one-on-one meetings are most effective when the agenda is dominated by the topics most important to the employee. Meet regularly with your direct reports and follow this best practice to enable your productivity and team efficiency and to build the trust and psychological safety you need for your team members to talk more freely with you.


Additionally, however, purposefully dedicate one monthly or bi-monthly one-on-one meeting to asking direct questions about their experience and observations as a team member. Open doors and attitudes are insufficient for encouraging your team members to speak up. Instead, you must ask directly. For instance, you might ask the following questions:


  • What challenges might I be overlooking in our team?

  • What might I be unaware of right now that I should know?

  • What’s one thing you think could improve our team dynamics?

  • How can I most help you?


Make the purpose of this meeting clear to your direct reports in advance and share the questions you will ask so they can consider them beforehand.


Make a special point of regularly asking new team members or third parties like consultants who regularly interface with your team for their observations of your team. Once you and your team members are ingrained in your team’s culture, it’s hard to see if unspoken norms prevent essential conversations. However, new team members and outside parties can often spot ineffective team patterns and issues that are getting skirted or glossed over.


Regularly look inward with your team

Team meetings and offsites typically focus on the work itself rather than how the team is functioning. However, to surface undiscussables and prevent their accumulation, you must also carve out time to focus on team dynamics.


Initiate the conversation by framing the elephant in the room for your team. In other words, directly but nonjudgmentally name the topic that seems to be impeding the team. For instance, “We say we want to have a productive conflict on our team, but I don’t think I am hearing everyone’s opinions in meetings.” Or, “I sense some tension in the room, and it seems we’re avoiding talking about it.” State your intention to learn and engage with the team to unpack the issue, which can sound like, “I’d like to understand. What does everyone think?”


As your team builds trust in the process, you can prompt them with direct questions like, “What are the biggest obstacles to our team’s success that we haven’t discussed?” Or, “What aren’t we discussing that could help us grow?” To increase openness and participation, divide your team into pairs or triads to discuss these questions and then have them report back to the group.


If you’re met with silence with either of these approaches, temporarily leaving the room can be helpful, as it was for one client whose team was especially skeptical. You might say, “I sense there’s more. Let’s see if it helps for me to leave the room. When I return, I want you to share your perspectives and concerns as a team.”


Once you have surfaced one or more elephants, delineate what is within the team’s control and what is not, collaborate on the next steps, and maintain transparency about how you will respond to any concerns raised.


Surfacing the undiscussables on your team may be uncomfortable, but it must be an ongoing campaign, or they will sneakily build up in the background and hinder your team. You may not be able to solve every issue, but by naming the elephants in your midst, they lose some of their power. And some, you’ll be able to show the door.

 

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina

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