Few opportunities for building trust are as profound as a leader’s role in creating a “safe haven” for difficult conversations, decisions, and strategy execution – an environment where people feel it is safe to say what they really think and what they think is best for their organization.  Members of a team often define a safe place as one where individuals can discuss difficult topics in an open and candid manner without any fear of backlash, where the issues are separated from the individual.

So many teams seem to drift to a place where the culture of the team is soft on the difficult issues and hard on the people, even though they all acknowledge they would prefer to be tough on the issues and respectful of the people.  If there is a single factor that most contributes to the erosion of trust and the avoidance of difficult issues, it’s the “absence of the assumption of positive intent” of others.

In a recent strategic alignment session, a CEO took a moment to be vulnerable.  He shared with his team the role he believed he played in creating an unsafe environment for critical conversations.  He explained that he had a habit of telling himself a story, one that usually focused on another member’s intent, objective, and motive without ever really engaging the other member.  Many of these assumptions or stories involved the presumption or assumption of a negative motive.  He said, “The conversations I have and the language I use with myself set the tone and the stage for my attitude and my conversations with others.  I need to stop this habit of telling myself a story and assume positive intent.”

As a team, they identified several behavioral ground rules and actions that they committed to take to create a safe haven for critical conversations:

  1. Be mindful to assume positive intent.
  2. In the face of conflicting data or concern, go directly and quickly to the individual…without judgment.
  3. Use dialogue versus lecture for collaborative problem solving.
  4. Have no predetermined outcomes; be completely transparent on agenda.
  5. Pursue a deeper level of understanding rather than quick, superficial judgments.
  6. Listen and be present in the dialogue.
  7. Make it OK to ask for help and be vulnerable.
  8. Allow no backlash – either for vulnerability or positions taken.

The practice of creating explicit behavioral ground rules like these can act as a behavioral contracting process between team members.  This way, they can actively hold each other accountable and, at the same time, rigorously support each other in ensuring that these behaviors embody the way they work together.

Interestingly, this team has adopted the novel and innovative practice of holding up a yellow card or red card (like a referee for soccer) to make it also safe to call out an individual or the team practice when it violates a new behavioral ground rule.

As a result of these new practices, the organization is getting clearer and experiencing more conviction on the strategy and on the behaviors and culture that will enable the company to successfully execute on that strategy.


February 1, 2012


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