Marisa Guerin, PhD – September 3, 2019
In personal life and in the workplace, we come across topics that are sometimes very “hot” – issues that evoke more heat than light, that result in argument more than resolution. I learned growing up that ethnic cultures vary a lot in how they handle controversial topics. But in the workplace, leaders can’t default to social norms. They must have ways to engage their organizations with issues that are sometimes very “hot”… and sometimes, not hot enough.
My American-born father and his family were from Irish and German descent. At holiday gatherings, there was always lots of engaged conversation, but NEVER about the undiscussables (politics, sex, money, and possibly religion, although we were all Catholic at the time, so that probably was a non-issue.) When my Spanish mother married into this family and came to the US, she expressed a bit of amazement and a touch of friendly exasperation – “These people are always so polite! But no interesting discussions!” I saw what my mother meant when I spent some months as a young adult living with my Spanish cousins. “Lively exchanges” doesn’t say the half of it!
However, even in speak-your-truth-Spain, I learned that some things were too hot to handle. Specifically, it was impossible to discuss the Spanish Civil War with my aunts who had lived through it and who had lost their brothers and friends in brutal executions and ruinous warfare. As that generation has mostly passed on, Spanish society is now beginning to be capable of a moral reckoning with the complex realities of that horrific period. It continues to take time.
In the US and in other countries where highly polarizing politics has taken hold, many of us navigate our social worlds very gingerly these days. Some topics are simply ruled out of bounds for the duration of a visit with family or friends -- perhaps especially if your family group has a goodly portion of those of us with Mediterranean heritage. Tact and avoidance are good social survival skills these days.
However, you’ll need a bigger repertoire of responses if you are an organizational leader – work teams must not ignore their responsibility for tackling tough issues of many types.
Some conflicts are inherent in the balancing act of a real workplace – should a customer special order be permitted to interrupt a carefully-managed manufacturing schedule? Is it worth investing in a start-up with some promise? How can the organization standardize its jumble of favorite software and digital tech? When questions like these must be worked through, most leaders and team members can tap their skill set for rational problem-solving. They know that it is useful to assign the gathering of data, to pace the exchange so that each side gets heard and evaluated, and to identify the criteria that would lead to a good decision.
But what happens to “hot” issues that are not so much about direct conflict, but rather worrisome concerns that trigger underlying anxiety, unease or fear? For example, there may be compelling reasons to address the existential threat of a shrinking membership base, or the declining relevance of a popular but aging product, or the unspoken, widely-perceived need for a change in top leadership. Precisely because they carry real weight, these may be issues that create an unnamed unease, a sense of risk and uncertainty in the very people who are supposed to manage them.
In such situations, teams are more likely to duck a frontal engagement. While imagining themselves to be tacking the topic responsibly, they may in fact be shifting blame elsewhere, or outsourcing the risk to a consultant, or getting caught up in debates regarding “safer” but actually unimportant details. The anxiety attending the issue has crippled the high performance that the team may be capable of. If the touchy question is indeed a critical concern, the organization will suffer for lack of thoughtful, honest deliberation of the options available to it. The issue is too hot to deal with.
For the leader, the normal toolkit of problem-solving techniques will not be enough in such moments. A really useful idea described by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in “Leadership on the Line” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) is the notion that leaders can and should keep the ‘’temperature” of an issue in an optimal zone for the best performance of their groups.
If the issue is too hot, then the leader’s role is to bring the temperature “down” to a range that permits productive engagement. This calls on the leader’s capacity to provide emotional containment for the group. In essence, the leader registers the unconscious feeling of danger that is blocking the group’s productivity, and provides a degree of security that helps people deal with the issue.
What does such emotional containment look like? It could be the leader’s statement to the effect that the issue is such and such, and that he or she understands that it is a tough challenge, and why that is so, and that the way it will be approached is x or y or z. It isn’t the content of the statement that releases the dysfunction of the group – it is the team’s awareness that the leader is demonstrating courage and confidence. In his or her steadiness, the leader conveys that facing this issue is survivable, and necessary despite its risks.
In addition, the task might be broken down into component assignments that are more manageable for team members, with the overall complexity being “held” by the leader. It is not necessary or even wise to project unrealistic promises that all will be well, if in fact the future has important unknowns – but the leader’s willingness to stay on topic and do what is possible can unlock the paralysis that excessive anxiety causes in team members.
In corporate settings, the very structure of the business hierarchy can contribute to this containment. As Hirshhorn and Gilmore pointed out in their analysis of “boundaryless companies,” (HBR 1992) even if a leader is deeply committed to a collaborative work culture, she or he can protect the team from unmanageable anxiety by requesting their well-grounded recommendations about a sensitive topic such as how to reduce the complement of the unit, but not asking them to make the final decisions about which specific persons may lose their jobs.
The advice of Heifetz and Linsky is that when an issue is so fraught that it blocks the productivity of a team, it is the leader’s responsibility to provide adequate containment of the disabling anxiety.
What I find especially appealing about Heifetz and Linsky’s formulation of “managing the temperature” of a group deliberation is that they also guide the leader when an issue is NOT hot enough. Some topics move quietly underfoot, without attracting attention, but gradually shaping or constraining the organization’s options. Organizations can commit similarly costly mistakes when they fail to recognize the criticality of an issue and instead, remain complacent until it is too late.
This occurs, for example, when the leader registers that there is cause for worry about an external competitive threat or internal operational weakness, but the rest of the team is comfortable that the way things have been going is fine. If the group perceives no threat, they don’t mobilize their energy and creativity to understand or act on the problem. The organization will suffer for lack of effective, timely action. The issue was not hot enough to marshal the necessary response.
Under these conditions, Heifetz and Linsky suggest that the leader’s job is to increase the heat, to generate discomfort and a sense of urgency to act. One way to do that is to organize data and present it clearly in graphical form, with the implications of the trend identified. Other tactics might involve delegating to a few members of the team the responsibility for some research or analysis on key factors, or benchmarking with other organizations. Asking the team itself to work with and struggle with issues normally attended at the leader level is a good way to broaden their perspective and stimulate their sense of shared responsibility for what matters.
I observed an episode with a client religious community that illustrated the value of such methods. In an annual meeting, they found their attention focused on a graph depicting what became a mildly famous “green line”. Up until that point, they did not have a common picture of one particular, significant, financial metric. They didn’t know its trend line, and they weren’t fully appreciating the fact that their actions today could make a major difference for good or for ill another twenty years down the road. The image of the green line, its criticality for the future, and the discussion of what variables would cause it to dip (and crash) or stabilize (and sustain) had the effect of generating enough productive tension to tap the group’s innate creativity and competence. The issue entered the zone of optimal “heat” for successful work at the edge of an important variable for their future.
Pay attention to the way your team is reacting to issues of importance, and help them to stay optimally engaged with the work that matters the most. If you hold leadership, you are already more exposed than they are to the bigger picture, and on a regular basis. This probably ensures that you are less prone to put your head in the sand in the face of risk or to drift contentedly in the status quo – so be prepared to help your team engage effectively with important questions.
Provide greater emotional support for your team so that they are not overwhelmed or paralyzed when they take on touchy issues, and likewise, kindle their attention to less visible issues that need their creative attention.
And when you are with family or friends -- trust and respect their cultural norms. With very, very rare exceptions, the relationships are more important than the issues!