Do I Have Something in My Teeth? Trust, Candor, and Simplicity in Culture

Have you ever been in a meeting where the person across from you has something stuck in their teeth? Throughout the entire meeting you zone out the speaker and the only thing that captures your undivided attention is this something that’s nestled between your colleague’s teeth, extremely visible when he smiles at what you believe may have been a funny comment by the speaker. But you weren’t listening.

What would you do? Would you interrupt the meeting and embarrass him by pointing it out? Do you know him well enough that you have his cellphone number and you can text him (maybe add a LOL so it takes the edge off)?

“Was I not feeling safe enough to have this embarrassing conversation?”

This actually happened to me a while ago. Well, not this scenario exactly but close to it. I was in a one-on-one meeting with one of my peers, discussing an engagement project we were working on. I was having a great day because I had just eaten this croissant that was left in the kitchen from a morning event. The meeting went fine, nothing out of the ordinary. Until we ended the meeting. I went to the restrooms and as I was washing my hands, I looked up, and noticed pastry flakes stuck between my teeth!

No way that this wasn’t visible to my colleague! But she hadn’t said anything. And this is when my overthinking kicked into high gear. Was she not comfortable enough with me? Hadn’t we build enough trust to call these things out in a respectful way where we would laugh at it later? To make things worse, I didn’t go back to her either to ask her if she had noticed it and if so, why she hadn’t said anything to me. Was I not feeling safe enough to have this embarrassing conversation?

Psychological safety

The type of work we engage in is becoming predominantly collaborative in nature and the workplace continuous to add layers of complexity to this. Whether it is because of a fourth generation that is being added or an increased awareness of the need to individualize our motivation and feedback techniques, the opportunity for conflict increases with it. Conflict, luckily, is shedding its negative image and many leaders are understanding the crucial role it plays in today’s race for innovation and affordable problem solving.

Margaret Heffernan points this out so poignantly in her Ted Talk Dare to Disagree when she states that “openness alone is not enough”. You need to supplement this openness with healthy conflict where arguments lead to a collective way of thinking.

“Openness alone is not enough”

And even though this thought bubble is taking off, operationalizing it system-wide is still a challenge for most, if not all, organizations. No wonder we see associated concepts prefaced with “radical” pop up everywhere. Ray Dalio’s concept of radical transparency, Lorna Davis with radical interdependence and of course Kim Scott with radical candor.

But before business leaders start to follow down a path of culture change through any of the radical implementations, it is important to note that there is no “one size fits all”. Ray Dalio is extremely honest in his interviews when he states that his concept of radical transparency is also the driver of quick turnover for those new hires that aren’t seeing themselves fit within this culture once they finally see it in action. And even though Kim Scott highlights the importance of being kind while providing direct feedback under her motto of “caring personally and challenging directly”, I have seen it be used by leaders to be brutally candid and overly direct with feedback, completely missing the first half of the concept.

The real danger lays in our human need to simplify the world around us – not honoring its mystical complexity – and the fear of looking incompetent that comes with humbling ourselves and admitting that we don’t know everything. Because of this, we face the traditional pitfall of putting too much emphasis on one concept, hoping that it will finally be the magical potion we’ve been looking for our entire career (remember the hype around the open office concept or ROWE?).

What idea is right for YOUR culture?

New ideas, especially if they have an energizing quality about them, are needed to propel culture change forward. But how do you know what idea is right for your culture? You really don’t know unless you try. But before diving into a new idea head first, I would heed Amy Edmondson’s words of advice; “don’t fall for shortcuts”. Not just because the outcomes could have negative side effects, but more importantly because you rob yourself from the ability to analyze the process you’ve implemented and make system improvements.

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“Don’t fall for shortcuts”

What follows are three guidelines to consider when facilitating culture change, regardless of what radical movement you would like to follow.

1. All roads lead to Rome

The main difference between divergent thinking and convergent thinking is that divergent thinking encourages the problem solver to think of multiple possible solutions to a problem. Before listening to sales pitches of change consultants, engage your team in digging for the root of the problem and catalogue multiple solutions that could potentially work. Diving into engagement and leadership effectiveness issues could have solutions that seem contradicting at first sight. For instance, how can you be a successful leader by being direct and immediate with feedback, but also allow your team to make mistakes and not hover? Or how do you engage your team in personal and meaningful ways without getting too personal and blur the lines of a supervisory relationship? Or how do you ditch the annual review process and provide weekly check-ins without appearing like you’re micromanaging? The solution lays in approaching employee relations, team dynamics and relationship building not as a continuum with two opposite ends but rather as a painter’s canvas where depth and perspective is created by combining colors.

2. Skill development within a larger picture

Having an idea to rally behind is great and is extremely important in the visioning stage of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. But to fully get people to adopt the change rather than just be excited about the possibilities of change you need to build practical skills among the leadership team that is charged with leading change. In addition, the foundation where these skills will be exhibited, i.e. your organizational structure, needs to be supportive of the intended change.

The change management competencies that come to mind are “story telling”, “emotional intelligence” or “coaching”, to name a few. And even though these skills are crucial in driving change, they should not be a starting point for leadership development. Following Hackman’s model for team effectiveness you will see that the factor of “expert coaching” is the fifth and last step in the process and one to take only when the other four steps are completed (being a real team, having a compelling direction, creating an enabling structure, and supportive context). Take some time to dissect the criteria for all steps and analyze what skills are needed to accomplish these criteria before you blindly following the newest management trend.

3. Creatively combine colors & ideas

As I have mentioned before, leadership is a science, but also an art form. With the rise up of people analytics HR professionals and leaders have an abundance of empirical data at their fingertips. We need to be careful to not swing the pendulum completely to this side of the discussion. Going back to the painter’s canvas analogy, being able to creatively combine ideas is crucial in order to tailor solutions specifically to your unique culture and current needs. This could be as subtle as adjusting the ratio of directness with civility, or by adding a bit more conflict to an already open relationship. Kim Scott’s idea of Radical Candor might be exactly what you need to move your culture forward, but the timing of change implementation might require you to balance this approach with Christine Porath’s Ted Talk on civility and the business reason for being nice to coworkers.

As of current I still haven’t gone back to my colleague to ask her about the curious incident of pastry flakes between my teeth. And perhaps it is too late now. However, I did learn something from this: Knowing that culture change starts with me I realized that I need to set clear expectations within a relationship ahead of time and not just dust off my principles when something happens. This way I can hold myself accountable in the moment and not let overthinking reason me away from doing the right thing. That’s why, as I build relationships that go beyond openness, I might ask you the question: “would you tell me if I had spinach stuck to my teeth?”

Arend Boersema was born in Indonesia, as a Dutch citizen. Lived in The Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland, to eventually end up on this side of the ocean and recently moved from Upstate New York (Rochester, NY) to Philadelphia, PA.

He is currently applying his educational background and multi-cultural upbringing in leading organizational development and culture change efforts as the Sr. Manager of HR Business Partner Services at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and continues to pursuit his passion for teaching as adjunct professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) for online courses in the graduate Human Resources Development program.

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