The Elephant in the Room

When Contradictions Create Paralysis and Destroy Effectiveness in the teams

“We believe in teamwork” (while solo-flyers get promoted). “We empower our subsidiaries to serve clients as they see best” (while corporate imposes inflexible policies). “We take care of our people” (while benefits are being cut every year).

The contradiction between the espoused values and what actually happens (the behaviors in action) hides a valuable message. While managers say they believe in teamwork, they might also be afraid of loosing their top talent to the competition and end up promoting high-performers that not necessarily are team players. The apparent contradiction per se is not the problem. The problem is when these contradictions aren’t openly discussed. If somebody exposes the contradiction, you have to come to terms with the brutal fact: maybe you do not value teamwork as much as you say you do. In an effort to hide the contradiction you, probably unconsciously, give ambiguous answers, don’t include the item in the agenda or shut people down.

It’s the undiscussability of the contradiction that creates confusion, paralysis and resentment, eroding trust and the ability to get the job done. When you take this to the arena of teams, undiscussabilities can become a disease that infects all interactions.

A large telecommunications company I worked with dealt with an undiscussable that put their sales strategy at risk. Responding to growth in the market, the General Manager had defined an aggressive sales target for the region. Some of his Direct Reports, the Sales and the Operations Manager, agreed to this goal while privately harboring many doubts. There was a belief in the team that setting aggressive goals is what kept the team sharp and focused, beating the competition. Challenging or expressing doubts came across as lack of “team-playerness”.

The Sales Manager worked with marketing to invest in new campaigns and also created a new incentives plan to ensure his team reached the number of expected new users. Sales were multiplying and the Sales Manager felt confident they would achieve the goal. The challenge was that when the Operations Team came in to set-up the new users, they couldn’t handle the number of installations. Clients complained of how long it took for the company to install the service or about invoices with charges that had not been explained at the time of sales, and many ended up cancelling their subscription.

What nobody was saying out loud is that such an aggressive goal wasn’t realistic. Why didn’t the managers raise the issue? For fear of being seen as underperformers. The General Manager had clearly stated it was an achievable target according to the market context and that it was up to his direct reports to figure out how to make it happen. Also, individual bonuses were based on different indicators: the Sales Manager was concerned with the number of new users (even if they cancelled a month later) and the Operations Manager was concerned with keeping costs down so increasing resources to address the demand was not an option (even if poor client service led to cancellations).

So, the sales target was at risk and this had a huge impact on what at Axialent we call the three dimensions of sustainable success. At the task level, expected profits for that year were off track. At the relationship level, the different players were blaming each other creating reactivity and mistrust. This permeated all of the interactions, stalling other decisions and creating roadblocks to collaboration. And at a personal level, people were under a lot of stress and venting with peers instead of effectively addressing the problem.

So what can you do? To dismantle an undiscussable, there’s a helpful three-step process that helps you make meaning of the situation, find how you are contributing to it’s existence, and dissolve it by making it discussable.

1. Review the situation with the curiosity of the learner

Imagine you are the Operations Manager. The General Manager believes the target is realistic. You don’t. First, you need to acknowledge that both are opinions, not truths. Try to remove yourself from the situation and look at it from a third person perspective. What facts would support the General Manager’s point of view? For example, a key competitor doubled his sales in the last 4 months and an internal report showed idle resources that he believes could manage the increased installation activity. If he has made a decision that makes no sense to you, instead of judging that he doesn’t understand your reality, consider he might be missing relevant information that were he aware of would have led him in a different direction.

Now look at your actions from the third person perspective: What facts support your point of view? How might the General Manager be interpreting your actions? What relevant information might you be missing that he has?

Instead of getting caught up in who is right, consider that you are both right – from where you sit in the organization and the information accessible to you, you both make perfect sense.

2. Explain them with the mindset of the player

The General Manager has made a decision that has brought you and the Sales Manager to a challenging situation. But you also play a part in the drama. How might have you contributed to this overload crisis? Is there information you could have shared upfront? How effective were you in explaining the conditions under which you would be able to handle the increased activity?

Waiting for the General Manager or the Sales Manager to solve the problem or come up with new ideas that address your needs (needs they might not even know about) won’t get you far. You don’t control how they think or what they do. But you do have control over what you do. You can vent and complain, which won’t solve much. Or you can assume you also played a part and now have the opportunity to speak up to diffuse the undiscussable.

3. Make them discussable with authentic communication

Once you can see that there are different perspectives at play (and not one truth), and that you probably contributed in some way to where you are right now, you can diffuse the undiscussable by making it discussable. Ask for a conversation in a context where all parties can be focused and present. Start by acknowledging the importance of a sales target that will propel the company’s growth and the effort made by the Sales Team to achieve it, supporting it with some examples you believe were very effective. Say that you understand you don’t have the full picture and might be missing information, but would like to share the impact the sales target and accompanying strategy had on you and your team, and how that puts the overall profit target at risk. Provide facts. Ask questions to understand where they are coming from, their facts and underlying interest. Once you feel you got the full story, and could share the impact the decisions had on you, move on to exploring ideas that can fulfill the interests at play: the General Manager’s need to show an aggressive sales target to the shareholders, the Sales Team need to offer a fast installation to win clients over, and your need to sell a realistic post-sale service so clients don’t become disappointed and leave.

Having the conversation is not a guarantee that you will get what you want. But not having the conversation leaves you stuck in an impossible situation anyways. Remember: the contradiction hides an important message. By analyzing it with curiosity and assuming you also contributed in some way, you can now choose what to do. You can choose not to have the conversation because you feel personally at risk by exposing the issue. Or you can engage in an effective conversation. By bringing light to the inconsistency you can move from an undiscussabale situation to an actionable solution.


About the author

Vito is Managing Partner for Latam South Cone. In his work, Vito focuses on learning, change, and organizational effectiveness. He gained much of his business knowledge working hands-on for more than a decade as a Manager at Banco Río, Argentina, where he was responsible for the quality and productivity area, commercial operations, and e-banking. Read more >


2 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

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  1. I just learned a new word: discussable. As soon as I saw it, the undiscussable became crystal clear. (Undiscussable is an even newer word, so new that my spellchecker doesn’t even recognize it.)

    Sometimes just getting a label opens up the opportunity for communication. False premises like “questioning things means you are not a team player” can now be brought to light and resolved.

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