How to get your team to air their grievances and equip them with tools to independently problem-solve
By Candice Chung
One of the simplest ways to gauge the health of a relationship is by measuring the lag time between identifying a problem and bringing it into the open. In fact, social scientist Joseph Grenny argues the same litmus test can be used to reveal the effectiveness of any team or organisation.
“You can predict with nearly 90 percent accuracy which projects will fail — months or years in advance,” writes Grenny in his book Crucial Conversations. In most cases, the predictor of success or failure is a team’s ability to hold difficult conversations. “For example, could they speak up if they thought the scope and schedule [of a project] was unrealistic? Or do they go silent when [a team member] begins slacking off?”
Good leaders recognise the importance of getting their team to speak up. The reality, however, is that most workers tend to do the opposite — bottling up mid-range, mid-temperature niggles since it often feels like an easier way out.
“The two main reasons employees are wary of airing grievances are ‘I don’t want to get in trouble’ or ‘I don’t want to make trouble,’” says James Carlopio, organisation psychologist and Adjunct Professor of Business at Bond University. This is because opening up about certain grievances tend to involve elements of social or political risk.
Marcus Crow, co-founder of uncertainty management firm 10,000 Hours, calls these everyday gripes ‘the undiscussables’ — they are typically related to personality clashes or battles over resource allocation. In other words, things that involve potential losses for one or more of the parties involved.
“These are things we don’t talk about, but we should. And it’s hard to do because you’re going to risk saying something that could exclude you from the mainstream way of thinking in the organisation,” says Crow.
While there is no overnight solution to get staff to open up— since it takes time to cultivate genuine rapport and trust — the good news, says Crow, is that a team’s communication fitness can be built up over time.
To start, try asking for regular feedback in low-stakes situations. “For instance, at the end of every group meeting, check in and ask, “How did we just do?” and invite some brief commentary from the group — so the group gets a chance to reflect on its work,” says Crow.
A helpful thing to remember is that when employees have critical feedback, it’s usually a sign that they care, says Zivit Inbar, Director of people and performance consultancy group, Different Thinking. It’s therefore important for managers to reward candour by fostering an open culture and taking negative feedback seriously.
“Culture is all about managers modelling behaviours in a consistent way. To build a culture of honesty and openness means that the managers themselves must be honest, open, accept different opinions…admit their own mistakes and foster learning from errors,” says Inbar.
Once employees feel they can safely air their grievances, the next goal is to set up a framework for the team to independently problem-solve.
“The [short term] focus is to solve the immediate problem so that it does not impact on work productivity. After that, it’s important to show employees exactly how [an issue is] fixed and highlight important information along the way,” says Carlopio.
In the end, Crow believes most teams already possess what’s necessary for successful conflict resolution — what doesn’t happen is the practice.
“There’s no magical call to arms from leaders that will leave the team feeling empowered,” says Crow, “Rather, it’s by experiencing the leader making time, or the practice of sitting together and reflecting on hard-to-tackle issues that you’ll build up your proficiency to work together and problem-solve.”