We can’t talk about this

Dealing with undiscussable topics

I’ve written often in this blog about the value and process of giving and receiving feedback. It is a skill that I’m convinced is woefully underused yet is crucial for leaders to master as they endeavor to create high-performing teams. While some managers do a great job of at least creating the opportunity for feedback, they can talk and listen and talk and listen and still have a sense that there are issues out there that are simply not coming into the conversation. This is because, in most organizations and on most teams, there are “Undiscussables.”

Because we don't talk about him doesn't mean he goes away.

We have lots of terms for undiscussables, one of the most common being “the 800 pound gorilla” or “the elephant in the room.” I’m not sure why we’ve decided to use jungle metaphors for this phenomenon but the fact remains that an undiscussable is not acknowledged yet is known by everybody…except perhaps the person(s) who is the source of the topic to begin with.

Dealing with undiscussables is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, simply allowing an important issue to remain untouched can create discomfort and a toxic environment. On the other hand, the issue is undiscussable for a reason. Either people don’t feel safe talking about it, there are social sanctions to bringing it up (the team punishes the speaker for making them uncomfortable), or there is simply not a clear way to get the topic on the table.

If you think there are important issues that your team actively ignores, you should consider finding a way to address them. But be cautious. Calling out the 800-pound gorilla may only serve to tick off the 800-pound gorilla! There is nothing constructive about the well-meaning manager who calls together a dysfunctional team and has them “put it all out on the table” without a plan on what to do with “it” once “it” is on the table.  Undiscussables are usually highly emotionally charged and have little to do with logic. It’s a genie that’s difficult to get back into the bottle.

(Apparently this is “Metaphor Monday”!)

Discussing an undiscussable issue takes finesse and a true respect for those holding the beliefs as well as those about which the beliefs are held. These issues aren’t created overnight and they can’t be resolved overnight either. So what do you do?

First, start asking high-quality, data-seeking questions. If you are unable to do this without being defensive, have somebody else like an HR professional or external consultant do it for you. The purpose of the questions is not to fix anything but rather to understand what makes up the issue that cannot be discussed. You want to find out exactly what the belief is and why it is held. Look for examples of behaviors on your team or in your organization that may reinforce the belief, even if the actual situation is not what it is seen to be. Don’t defend anything…simply listen

Second, help people understand that they are only seeing the behaviors of others rather than the intent. There are tools with which to do this, but the point is simple. I only know what you do but I have no idea of why you do it. Even if you tell me why you do the things you do, I can never know for sure that what you say is true or that you even know why you do what you do. But I can SEE what’s happening and that is something we can talk about.

Third, give people time. Be patient. Making your team aware that you know of the undiscussable and that you are willing to address it may be the only step on which you can succeed initially. That’s fine. Any change to the reinforcing loop that is causing the problem will ultimately change the problem. Don’t be judgmental about what is reasonable and what isn’t…if people have a topic they feel they can’t discuss it has nothing to do with whether you could discuss it or not. Those are THEIR feelings.

Finally, create safety. Monitor your own responses and remember that undiscussables are cloaked in fear. If somebody starts to be honest, encourage it and avoid any kind of defense or attack. Let people know that you will do whatever is necessary to ensure that it’s ok to discuss important issues. If you encourage the process step by step you may find that the topics that are getting in the way can be addressed once they are out in the open. If you don’t know how to address them, ask for help…from the team, from a colleague or from a trusted mentor. However you choose to address it, there will be a lot more air in the room for people to breath if you get rid of all those large animals!

The Workforce Generations are Changing

Today I have the honor of speaking to one of my favorite audiences, a young professionals club associated with the local Chamber of Commerce. These are the Midland Young Professionals (MyPros) with the Midland Michigan Chamber and every time I speak to them or a group like them I am energized. Today’s topic? Working with Multiple Generations.

Generations in the Workforce

This is actually one of my more high demand topics but today is a unique presentation for me. Today is the first time that I actually lead this discussion without any attention paid to the Traditional or Silent Generation. These are the folks born roughly between 1928 and 1945. While there are still many in this age group that are in the workforce, as of the latest U.S. Census data, they represent less than one half of one percent. As a result, I have removed that group from my talk.

It was a hard decision to make in my presentation for today because it was like I was relegating our oldest workers to the “does not matter” category. Of course I realize that, while I like to think I make an impact in my writing and speeches, I probably am not going to simply make a generation disappear. And even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. The value of the Traditional Generation to the workforce will be felt for a very long time.

The oldest generation in the workforce brought us stability. They were born in an era that was struggling with the great depression and they experienced both the down times and the recovery that followed. To the organizations for which they worked, they brought process. Being very young during the great depression, they brought a point of view into the workforce that oversight, procedure and policy could not only bring stability, but also efficiency. It was the Traditional Generation that invented Management.

The other element that played a large role in business but has become less so in the past few decades was the view of values that were characteristic of this generation. The Traditional Generation, by and large, believed that there was a moral right and wrong. Regardless of religious background, there were principles that were understood to be understood. As a generation, they saw the world in a much more black or white view and held those standards steady in the workplace.

Of course like with any generation, they weren’t perfect. The hierarchies that were established to bring order also brought stifling work environments. There were many beliefs in the culture that were carried over into the workplace regarding rights, diversity and so on. But those were a function of the time and should be understood that way.

By the way, I also don’t include Generation Z quite yet because they just start entering the workforce in any notable numbers this year. They are turning 18 and graduating from high school, so they haven’t yet had the influence that they are going to have. There is one very interesting characteristic of this new generation entering the workforce by the way. They also grew up at a time of great chaos and have seen both the consequence of enormous economic downturns as well as the growth and boom that follows. Early research indicates that this group may end up being less like the Millennials and more like…you guessed it…the Traditionals. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Are You Walking the Talk?

As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing people. It is the only thing.” Leading through example happens whether you decide to do it or not. You are doing it by default. You are, in essence, already “walking the talk.” The question is really, “What talk are you walking?”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking-the-talk is about congruence. Whether it is your company, your employees, or your peers that have diverse perspectives, these perspectives come into play when your behaviors are judged according to your words. Determining if we are modeling the behavior we espouse is further challenged by the fact that we are not typically adequate judges of the messages our actions communicate. The only way to truly answer the question about your own tendency to follow your words with appropriate actions is to get input from others and spend time in self-reflection. A future article will focus on the soliciting and receiving of feedback, but for now, we’re going to look at the challenge of reflection.

There are five key questions that you should ask yourself, and ask your followers, that will bring you much closer to realizing how effectively you are delivering on your words:

1. Am I clear?     Many times we confuse our employees about our expectations because we ourselves are not clear on what we mean. For example, “I expect us to focus on collaboration” could mean that you expect team members to work more openly with each other, with other teams, with other companies or in all three situations. Depending on background and culture of the follower, it could also mean that the objective is to work without a manager. Or it could be understood to have an underlying message that individual performance will no longer be rewarded. A team holding a variety of these interpretations could be trying to behave in very different ways.

 2. Do I mean what I say?     Have you fallen into the habit of explaining to your followers what you believe your expectations should be rather than what they really are? As leaders in challenging times, we sometimes feel obligated to tell our employees that things will get better soon. The problem is, often we don’t know that…or perhaps don’t believe it. It is much better to be honest and brief than to be dishonest for the sake of morale. Our employees are smart people. They know when we don’t mean what we say.

3. Do I hold myself to a higher standard?      Strong leaders are not only willing to behave as they expect others to behave, but they are willing to hold themselves to even higher standards than they expect of others. By establishing higher standards for yourselves than for your followers, you will find that you provide an authentic inspiration that goes well beyond simply stating the desired behavior.

4. Do I understand how I am perceived?    As a popular saying goes, “It is impossible to see your own picture when you are standing in the frame.” For leaders to ensure consistency between words and actions, they must receive feedback on how they are seen by others. If you do not have a formal mechanism for getting this feedback, start soliciting it now. Be specific with your questions. Instead of “How am I being perceived,” ask “How did people feel about that statement,” or “What do you think I could do to be even more consistent?”

5. Do I truly care?      The purpose of “walking-the-talk” is to reinforce positive behavior and to teach your followers how to be more successful. If you reflect on your own feelings about your followers, you will find that the only to care if you are consistent is to care about the success of your employees. If you are honest about your feelings on this, and you find that you really do not care as much as you want them to think you do, it’s time to step back and find your passion again.

Own Your Inspiration

Nobody else can

Lately, a few special friends and acquaintances have been asking me about the slowdown in my blog and other writing projects. By slowdown I mean SLOW down.  It’s not that I have been any less interested nor that writing satisfies me any less. It’s just that in the last few months, I haven’t been motivated to create anything new or particularly interesting as I’ve been caught up in one thing or another.


Along this same time period I have allowed myself to become so busy with tasks that I have quite a stack of reading collecting. These include magazines of all types, articles, blog posts, you name it. If it is something that I want to sit down and mull for a while it has gone on the stack. Until a couple of weeks ago where I finally had some “spare” time and let myself take an article off of the top of the stack.

Amazingly, as soon as I started reading again, I started writing again. It helps to have a few special friends that also continue to push a little, but without something to spark the ideas, there is nothing to write. Only then did I come to the realization:

 If I’m not reading, I’m not writing. Or as a very insightful friend reminded me, if there is not input, there will be no output.

As a leader, you can get caught up in the tasks that have to be accomplished and become entirely focused on the day-to-day grind of getting work done. As issues arise, you can deal with them as you always have and get the same results that you’ve always gotten. But if all of the opportunities and issues were as simple as that, nobody would need your brain. And organizations are desperate for brains.

There are many ways to rekindle your own inspiration.  Roger von Oech, the author of the classic “A Whack on the Side of the Head,” points out that “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” To do this, you have to allow yourself some time to think. Leader after leader with whom I’ve worked has said that they would be much happier and much more effective if they just had time to consider options and create new ideas. Important point: Your time is your time. If you have zero time to think and reflect, it is because you haven’t chosen some of that time that you own and devoted it to the pursuit of thinking.

It might also be that you don’t need to free up additional time, but rather repurpose what you are already doing. For example, avoid following up on email or being on a phone call at the gym. It’s pretty silly looking anyway, but if you’re on the treadmill, or taking a walk, or driving to and fro, it’s possible to unplug from everything and simply mull over a problem or opportunity.

What works for me is to be intentional. We often let thinking time be the time we have left when everything else is completed. But how much more effective could you be with “everything else” if you had some time to think? It is possible to make thinking the first priority rather than the last. I have moved reading, for example, to the very first thing I do now when I get up in the morning. No email, no perusing social media, no television. I take the next thing from the stack of what I want to read and go for it.

What sorts of things do you do to prioritize thinking? What works for you?

The Leadership Paradox of Vulnerability

Great leaders are strong. Great leaders are confident. Great leaders have a vision and know how to get there. Great leaders are stable and consistent.

Leadership Vulnerability

Oh, and Great leaders are human. Great leaders have doubts. Great leaders take risks. Great leaders have emotion. In short, Great leaders are vulnerable.

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and the author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” In this book she simplifies vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As she puts it, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.”

How is it even possible that a leader can be a Great leader without showing up and being seen? Many try to do this through posturing and internalizing any doubts or concerns. They believe that, by hiding their vulnerability they avoid the risk of letting their followers know they don’t have all the answers. These leaders are generally horrified that, if those who depend on them see them as being less than 100% certain, they will begin to doubt their leader.

Here’s the thing. Your followers know you aren’t perfect and that you don’t have all of the answers. In fact, they think you’re full of it when you try to act like you do. To us, vulnerability feels like weakness, but to our followers, vulnerability represents courage and guts. To us, perfectionism feels like a promise to deliver all things at all times and avoid any possible embarrassment of mistakes or misjudgments. To our followers, perfectionism seems like arrogance and a mask that keeps us from connecting.

I’m not asking you this week to go into your work or leadership context and break down in a huddled quivering mass. I’m simply asking you to be honest with your people. Let them know that you understand their concerns because they are also yours. And let them know that together, you will help lead them through it. That, in my humble opinion, is the sign of a Great leader.

The Power of Affirmation

I was thinking about a friend over the weekend and mulling over what it is that makes her so special. Then it occurred to me that she is one of the most affirming individuals that I’ve ever met. Not cheesy, useless “you can do it” affirming, but very specific and focused and natural. At the same time, I was grading graduate student final papers and, as many of us do, getting more distracted by the amount of feedback that I needed to give rather than focusing on the specific feedback each student needed to receive. What that starts to look like then is a version of, “If I didn’t criticize you about it, it was good.”


In 1982, Ken Blanchard published “The One Minute Manager,” which since then has sold over 13 million copies (kenblanchard.com). If you haven’t read this book (seriously?) you really need to! In his book, Dr. Blanchard extorts managers to “Catch People Doing Something Right” and then, without formality and tons of structure, give them feedback about the value of what they’re doing and you’re appreciation of their effort.

Unfortunately, many managers that I have worked with in my consulting business as well as students in my graduate classes, have adopted the theory that giving positive feedback on elements of one’s job that they are expected to do anyway will create an “entitlement” culture. Actually, many are afraid that once they start they might have to continue. As one manager told me recently, “I barely have time to correct the wrong behaviors. I certainly don’t have time to say something about the right ones.”

This is a real shame and a way to lose good people over time. It is certainly a mindset that undermines employee morale and engagement no differently than a lack of positive interaction lays waste to any personal relationship. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, and reported in Forbes Magazine, analyzed over 200,000 responses from around the world finding that the number one factor in employee happiness was “Appreciation for my work.”

And by the way, that concern over how much time affirmation of a person actually takes? Not an issue. First, like I suggested before, read Ken Blanchard’s book “The One Minute Manager,” or another of his great books, “Catch People Doing Something Right: Ken Blanchard on Empowerment.” Second, don’t overcomplicate it. Identify something specific that a co-worker, employee or boss (yes, boss) has done and praise it for that specific thing. Say thank you, even when people are delivering what they are expected to deliver. Identify a single thing that they are doing very well in their work and let them know you notice.

There are many other ways to do simple affirmations without sounding like a self-help guru. The biggest trick…think about your people and your relationships and give some intentional reflection to what it is about each of them that you admire. Don’t make stuff up…be sincere. You will find that for such a small investment, the returns can be tremendous.