In my previous blog, I talked about the seven fears that keep people from telling the truth in organizations and the impact on business performance. Today, I want to tackle how organizations can create safe havens for change.

The key ingredients to creating a safe haven for truth telling are relevance, humor, vulnerability, and co-accountability captured in a picture. The best way we have found to bring these fast-track change traits to our most critical conversations is to visualize the truth. By visualizing the truth in humorous sketches that succinctly focus on the issues we feel need to be discussed, people are immediately and safely drawn into to the conversation. They couldn’t look away if they wanted to. The visualization validates how they feel.

Our change immune mechanisms kick in when we are given facts or figures or are told about the urgency to change. All these defenses go down when we capture how we feel about today’s realities in a visual sketch. Change is an emotional process. The humor actually invites us to not take ourselves too seriously. It allows us to chuckle about the candor and realism like a good Saturday Night Live skit, but also to realize that the essence of the good laugh is in its truth! The vulnerability is the simple recognition that no single individual is responsible for creating the realities that we are creatively dissatisfied with, but we are all co-accountable if let them continue or whether we choose to do something about them.

Let me give you two real organization and team life examples. While most teams have many issues that can be captured in a picture to create a safe haven for truth telling, I have focused on two discrete issues (recurring with numerous teams) that helped people increase truth telling and accelerate the speed of change.

The first team problem where the truth was hopelessly “locked in the bathroom” was on the issue of decision making. This senior team and their direct reports felt that a dramatic bottleneck on decision making existed at the top of the organization. Yet no one knew how to talk about it, or dared to. This simple visual sketch depicted dozens of leaders taking a ticket, as if in line at the deli counter. The connection between many leaders waiting on one or two people or meetings to see if their decision was approved really hit home. The conversation that pursued focused on the real issues of delegation, trust, talent, letting go, investing in others’ success, fact-based decision making, and empowerment, to name a few. One member of the team said, “That’s us, and we can’t look at that picture and decide to do nothing about it.” The inertia dam of change broke by visualizing the truth on decision making routines and behaviors.

The second team problem was all about team leaders playing two or three levels below their pay grade. Just seeing and validating the fact that leaders were metaphorically on zip lines, regularly zipping two or three levels into the organizational weeds, caught everyone’s attention. The team didn’t know how to discuss the fact that the leadership culture drove team member behaviors to be relentlessly focused on the details of today’s business versus more strategically focused on the critical issues for tomorrow’s business. This also captured the leadership habit of doing it for their people versus building their capability to do it themselves. This sketch successfully launched a dramatic change process within months that had been hinted at for three years prior.

Visualizing the truth can create the safe conversation field to minimize people’s fears and maximize the speed and authenticity of conversations, decisions, and strategic change actions. Truth telling as a core competency just may be within reach.

September 12, 2012


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