Discussing Hard Topics in Organizations Obsessed with Optimism

Making change requires optimism, but a relentless focus on the positive can turn into a culture where nothing negative can be discussed

As a leader, you may feel obligated to act as a cheerleader for change: someone needs to keep teams motivated as they encounter obstacles. But watch out: a relentless focus on the positive can turn into a culture where nothing negative can be discussed—and that’s when you’ll start to encounter real problems. 

In one brainstorming session, for instance, our clients developed a solution that everyone was enthusiastic about, and publicly committed to making it happen. But in individual follow-up meetings, it was a completely different story: each person was convinced that the solution wouldn’t actually work, and that in fact, they’d already tried something similar to no effect. When we asked why they didn’t bring up these concerns in the meeting, we heard a variety of responses, from “everyone else seemed on board” to “that’s what our leader wants to do”—even though no one was really on board, and the leader had held the brainstorm so the team could come up with their own solution!  

When making change—even when everyone involved has the best of intentions and the same end goals—some kind of conflict will inevitably arise. People will disagree on what the “best” outcome is, or who should make what decisions, or what to do next. Since conflict feels uncomfortable, though, they’ll often exert a lot of effort to avoid it. Avoidance is even more prevalent in hybrid environments, since it’s harder to read body language. But some level of conflict is healthy and necessary to achieve the best results. 

So if you’re noticing that your team is a little too focused on the positive, it may be time to dig into what’s not being said. Professors Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux have developed a useful framework for teams to think about “undiscussables”:

  • Teams think, but don’t say. These are things that are taboo to discuss: bad news, unorthodox ideas. Like the brainstorm team, individuals may privately have doubts, or will discuss them with a trusted colleague, but they don’t feel comfortable bringing them to the attention of the wider organization.
  • Teams say, but don’t do. Individuals profess company values but act against them, or commit to a plan that then gets dropped. While this behavior can be driven by cynicism, in many instances, people feel they need to defend the leader or the team, and believe criticism would damage “team spirit”—again, think of how everyone on the brainstorming team believed everyone else was committed to the plan.
  • Teams feel, but can’t name. Sometimes people simply struggle to identify or name what they’re feeling, and try to carry on without acknowledging that it’s a source of friction. This is often the case when individuals ‘working styles clash, or there’s a personal conflict—after all, no one wants to be perceived as being “difficult.” 
  • Teams do, but don’t realize. This is the hardest to diagnose, in which people engage in unproductive behaviors but don’t realize they’re doing it. This might look like a leader subconsciously rolling their eyes when they hear an idea they don’t like, or a team reflexively calling for more research as a stalling technique rather than making a hard decision. 

To encourage teams to embrace conflict and start discussing negative topics in a healthy way: 

  • Acknowledge how you contribute to the behavior. In an attempt to be positive, you may have accidentally created an atmosphere in which people feel they can’t share problems. To correct this, model the behaviors you want to see. Start by naming the problem and discuss how you’re going to improve it. If you’re unsure about if or how your behavior is impacting the team, ask a trusted colleague or coach to observe you in action and provide feedback. 
  • Tackle “Think but Don’t Say,” and “Say but Don’t Do” issues first. Behaviors in these categories are easier to identify, and acting quickly on them will show you’re serious about making changes. More personal conflicts and unconscious behaviors may require more exploration to get to the bottom of the issue and more mediation to resolve, and they typically take place in a private setting—which is critical for resolution, but not as helpful for using as a case study in change.
  • Practice with low-stakes issues. Sometimes teams simply need to get used to the idea of sharing challenges with their teammates without fear of being judged. If that’s the case, break the team into pairs and ask them to discuss something that’s not being said, even a relatively “safe” topic like “no one ever cleans the coffee maker.” Then bring them back together to discuss what it felt like to discuss the issues—not the issues themselves. Did they feel scared? Were they surprised to learn that someone else felt the same way? Then repeat the activity with groups of four, encouraging them to identify as many issues as possible.
  • Use retros to bring issues to light. A project retrospective gives people insight into the work others are doing (which they may not see on a regular basis) and helps them understand that people can have different feelings about the same experience. While ultimately, you’ll want teams to feel comfortable sharing doubts and addressing conflicts during the retro, just like the brainstorm team, you may have to start with 1:1 afterwards to assess their true level of candor.
    • Pro Tip: If you’ve just joined a dysfunctional team, digging into these topics at the beginning can just lead to a quagmire. Instead, focus on what the team is doing right, and emphasize the positive so you can build trust. Only once you’ve established some quick wins should you then work on conflict. 
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