Are you getting all the information and feedback you need to lead your organization effectively? Unless you work in an extraordinary organization, the answer is an emphatic "No."

In most organizations, there are the "undiscussables: the items that everyone knows exist, yet do not feel free to talk about in a way that they could actually provide a resolution. For example, the boss is erratic in his emotions, so people tiptoe around him and check in with his close associates to determine whether "today is a good day to approach him." Or, two of the department heads are engaged in a long-running feud, so we know not to bring an issue up with one in the other’s presence.

While teaching a graduate business school course in Ethics in Business, I discovered that these twenty-something students, working during the day and attending classes at night, could not see the possibility of raising difficult issues for discussion and resolution. In case study review after case study review, their proposed solutions to sticky ethical issues omitted forthright, straight-shooting conversations with the people involved. “Why are direct conversations not an option?” I finally asked them. Their reply floored me (then – now, after researching it further, I find it quite common). It was not considered team play to raise sticky issues. They did not want to be perceived as anything other than team players, which to them meant holding their tongues on any issue that might cause distress or embarrassment to themselves or others. They did not want to be perceived as heretics for speaking against the party line. Even if ethical lines were crossed, people were being treated unfairly, or they, themselves, suffered.

Do leaders know that the "team" definition has been bastardized in this way? They may not. There is a condition that Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, calls "CEO Disease," the information vacuum around a leader when people withhold important (and usually unpleasant) information. It may be for fear of the leader’s anger, or it may be fed by the instinct to please the person we report to.

So consider that you may be receiving only the positive feedback, and that the negative is withheld when information flows upward. When the feedback is about the leader’s own behavior and performance, the problem worsens.

What do you do to counteract this tendency? Robert Eckert, CEO of Mattel, instructs us, “As you go to work, your top responsibility should be to build trust.” As the leader, you set the tone of the organization, and you determine the culture through your actions and your values. It is up to you to make it safe for people to share their opinions and feedback to improve the organization, no matter what it is (when delivered respectfully).

What does a high-trust organization look like? It has these characteristics:

  • People talk straight and confront the real issues – there are no undiscussables
  • Accountability is high – trust grows when people are reliable and deliver what they commit to
  • People share credit abundantly
  • Innovation and creativity prevail
  • Mistakes are considered to be a means of learning
  • There is real communication and real collaboration
  • Energy levels are high and positive
  • Information is shared openly and frequently

Consider that, as a leader, it is one of your key roles to create this environment of trust and openness. Business results depend on it.

Jim, a driven, dedicated leader, has encountered poor performance throughout the organization he leads. His first attempts to address this focused solely on the work. Instinct drove him to try harder, control more and increase the volume of his voice and actions. He commanded, threatened and cajoled people to shape up. That had little to no impact. Jim, at the end of his rope, decided to try an entirely new approach, one that focused on the changes he himself needed to make in order to increase team performance. He shifted to an approach of collaboration and inquiry, while maintaining an unwavering focus on goals. He learned that culture has significant influence on people’ ability and desire to perform. He learned to make it safe for people to discuss the "undiscussables." He found that people became more engaged and felt more valued, and that their performance automatically increased, their attitudes improved and they contributed ideas and creativity at higher levels. Performance reached an all-time high and goals were met and exceeded.

Begin to discuss the "undiscussables." Your business results depend on it.

Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She can be reached at 585-586-1717 and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This article appeared in Business Strategies Magazine, February 2004.

Barbara Osterman
About The Author Barbara Osterman [Full Bio]
Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She supports organizations in increasing business performance and results by successfully weaving business initiatives and culture transformations.

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