For the past half hour, Jane and Mary, respectively the customer service and the sales manager at organization ABC, have tried to solve a problem related to one of ABC's major customers.
“The customer feedback form is incomplete,” Mary says. “My sales reps cannot gather enough background information when visiting their customers. ABC had a major problem and this was not expressed in the form. I understand that you are doing the best you can, Jane.”
“Well, I understand your concern, Mary,” Jane answers calmly, “and you know that I value your opinion. Here is my perspective, though: My employees already have a hard time completing that form.”
An observer who happened to stop by in the meeting room would fail to see anything wrong. Jane and Mary’s discussion is polite and professional. Both individuals take great pains in following the rules of courtesy, using words such as “understand,” "value," and “perspective.”
In reality, however, Jane and Mary are unlikely to solve their problem. Eventually they will just adjourn, check the meeting off their list, and move on.
In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky suggest that a typical office discussion involves four separate meetings.
The first meeting occurs before the meeting as Jane and Mary exchange ideas with their supporters. It may surprise the outside observer to learn that customer service forms are not a very important topic of discussion in that first meeting. Instead, Jane may feel unrecognized and undervalued by Mary and by the company CEO. Mary, on the other hand, may feel that Jane does not support her sales efforts.
The second meeting takes place in Jane’s and Mary’s heads. For instance, here is a sample of Jane’s internal meeting: “Mary is always recognized as the ‘company savior’ and no one realizes the hard work my staff does.” Mary’s meeting, on the other hand, involves Mary’s quota difficulties, the current economic crisis, the pressures suffered by Mary’s department, and Jane's inability to understand her business needs.
The third meeting – a long, tedious, and inefficient conversation about customer service forms – involves two very polite and political (even if untruthful) versions of Jane and Mary.
The fourth meeting will take place after the meeting, when Jane and Mary return to their supporters and continue chatting about issues unrelated to the customer service forms.
We have all been there. We talk to our supporters because we need to vent. We fail to tell the truth to those whom we oppose because it is politically risky and personally scary to do so. We spend time discussing issues that do not really matter because bringing up what does matter is unthinkable. We fail to resolve problems because we cannot possibly bring them up.
Why does this happen? Why can’t people just be “honest”? Four possible answers occur to me.
Leaders must come up with such a process. Further, leaders must learn to recognize signs of mistrust and discomfort with real conversations. Some of these signs include:
Don’t get me wrong. Politeness is important. I’m not advocating that basic rules of courtesy be ignored in the workplace. When people are real, however, they may speak more informally and filter their words less. Ask yourself – how do you tell a trusted friend that you disagree with him/her? Do you say “trusted friend, I fully recognize that you have a different perspective from mine and I value that”? Or do you just say “sorry dude, but that really won’t work…”?
Heifetz et al.’s “four meetings” are not only inefficient – they are dangerous. When team members fail to discuss what truly bothers them, they cannot possibly reach synergy. Further, conversations behind closed doors are likely to breed mistrust, fuel gossip, and create organizational factions.
Have you experienced "the four meetings"? How can we transform them into one productive and truthful conversation?
Dr. Cris Wildermuth
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is Linked:HR's Community Leader and an Associate Professor at Drake University, where she directs the Master of Science in Leadership Development. You may find out more about Dr. Wildermuth's leadership development, ethics, and intercultural development consulting practice at THIS PAGE.