As we adjust to our current landscape, how do managers help team members maintain equilibrium in unfamiliar times? My intention in this article is to focus on the benefits of honest, open and transparent dialogue and leading with powerful conversations.
Open and transparent dialogue is challenging
This is a challenging space, none more so than in the area of trust and authenticity. Managers want to be open to their team members and colleagues about what they are thinking and feeling but without inadvertently creating a negative emotional contagion and potentially destabilising and frightening their colleagues if they open too much about their natural fears and worries around the present situation.
Typically, we counter this by displaying a neutral demeanour. Like the swan swimming against the current, it all looks peaceful on the surface but we are feeling turmoil underneath. This can lead us towards stumbling into the stereo type platitude of ‘keep calm and carry on’; when to actually express one’s true feelings would be a better approach to start thinking about resilience builders and the creation of an optimistic but realistic mindset as we navigate our way through the biggest existential threat most of us would have seen in our working lives, at least for those of us fortunate to be living in the environment of Northern Europe where the basic physiological and psychological ‘Maslow norms’ have been quite stable for decades.
As managers, finding a way to express our authentic selves goes a long way to opening up the powerful conversation. In David Maister’s book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’¹ , he explained his Trust Formula:
Credibility +Reliability +Intimacy / Self-Orientation
The premise is that if you can combine credibility, reliability and intimacy and stay away from appearing to be putting your own interests ahead of the team, this will build trust and allow you to engage in meaningful and realistic conversations in an environment of mutual support, collaboration and understanding.
In my work as an Executive Coach, I find that my clients have little trouble demonstrating credibility and reliability and they are by and large selfless in putting the needs of the team ahead of their personal ones. The big challenge is in the area of intimacy.
The challenge of intimacy
As Stephen Covey explained in ‘The Speed of Trust’², the word intimacy in this context means:
‘IN. TO. ME. SEE’
…This is the willingness to reveal to others what you are genuinely thinking, feeling and believing and to be comfortable to externalise your thoughts, feelings, hopes fears and beliefs. In effect to be willing to be vulnerable.
The extensive work of Brene Brown³ gives ample empirical evidence of the advantages of being prepared to share your feelings, hopes and fears as a way of living however it is in the work environment that people are the most reluctant to reveal their true selves. As long as their open thinking and sharing can be calibrated in an appropriate, measured manner and transmitted in language that people can process, understand and apply, it can be highly productive. Once you can find the courage and the humility to share your truly authentic feelings, you give a license for your colleagues to do the same and then you have a level of honesty in the room to release you to work together on a collective solution to collective challenges.
I cannot overemphasize enough to managers and leaders who I coach as to the importance of people feeling like they are talking to the ‘Real You’ as they look for a realistic path forward whilst digesting and processing the impacts of the current pandemic.
In Frances Frei and Anne Morriss’s recently released book ‘Unleashed - The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You’⁴, they talk about the three foundation keys to building trust with employees and in the process, catalyzing powerful, authentic, honest conversations. The Trust Triangle is expressed as a triangle with Trust sitting at the centre of the triangle:
People need to feel that they are experiencing the Real You. In our current circumstances, bravado will not cut it. If you give out bravado ,you will receive bravado. If you act authentic and your words match your actions, it is much more likely that your employees will have the confidence to share their true feelings and together you can work through and co-create solutions.
People need trust in your overall competence and decision making abilities under heavy stress and pressure, to make sound and reasoned judgements. If they doubt your reasoning, they will struggle to buy in to whatever strategies you are advocating and in the process, potentially succumb to their own self-doubts in an increasingly unproductive spiral where you are amplifying your collective burden together rather than decreasing it through the power of authentic dialogue.
People need to feel that you genuinely care for them and are invested in their success and that you can understand their situation and empathise with it. If they sense your empathy is expedient and you appear distracted, they will disengage or not feel intrinsically motivated to engage with you. Their internal dialogue might be something along the lines of: ‘what’s the point. Nobody understands my perspective so I will keep my feelings to myself, work on my own solutions and keep my head underneath the radar’.
I have been sharing Frei and Morris’s Trust Triangle in my leadership coaching sessions and can attest to its powerful impacts. Most of the leaders and managers I coach are acutely aware of the advantages of adopting a whole person, learning/questioning style in their interactions with their teams.
The challenge of managing and operating in a surviving/uncertain/enhanced VUCA environment rather than a thriving environment, is how easy it becomes to slip back into a command/control/transactional mode where priority is given to just getting things done over the human needs of connection and understanding, as we inch our way through the fog of our current circumstances.
It is easy to succumb to the false belief that short, sharp, ’form ‘conversations will make things happen faster where as in reality, it makes things slower because people feel that their deepest needs are being treated as secondary to the needs of the business. This will ultimately manifest in compliant teams rather than committed teams who will give you the amount of effort required to meet their job description rather than their whole-hearted commitment and discretionary effort that is fuelled by intrinsic motivation rather than external targets.
My message is therefore to remember and practice the basics consistently as an ongoing, intentional habit. One of our key principles as executive coaches is to acknowledge and respect that the wisdom lies inside all of our clients and we simply need to give them the time and space and a ‘safe container’ to access it. Honouring your employees self-efficacy allows them to connect with that wisdom and find their own answers as we accompany them down their own unique path towards mastery.
So whatever the external conditions, remember to reveal your human side and prioritise the trust building basics before diving into the process, form and function type of conversation. A little active listening, trust building and carefully created powerful, forward-focussed questions will take you a long way towards maintaining engaged and committed teams in what has been a challenging year for all of us.
1. The Trusted Advisor, David Maister, Published by Simon &Schuster, October 2001.
2. The speed of trust, Stephen Covey, Published by Simon and Schuster, November 2006.
3. www.brenebrown.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/brenebrown/
4. Unleashed – The unapologetic leader’s guide to empowering everyone around you, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Harvard Business Review Press, June 2020.