Authentic Business Dialogue During Tough Times

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You can easily make the case that the dialogue in most business environments is never fully authentic, but when market conditions are especially challenging, there is no question that frank and candid conversation suffers.

For many businesses, a market downturn sets off both external and internal battles for survival.

And the first casualty of war is truth.

If you know that your employer is likely to initiative significant layoffs in the near future, are likely to “rock the boat” with information or opinions that go against the grain of current management thinking?

If your business leaders clearly value “problem solvers” more than “problem identifiers” (more commonly called whiners) are you likely to speak up about issues you have noticed, but do not know how to solve?

During times like these virtually everyone goes into survival mode, and they are only willing to do or say those things that will enhance their chances for survival.

There are four particularly destructive behaviors that become very prevalent during an economic downturn. You could argue that these tendencies are always there in practically any business, but when there is a marked increase in corporate paranoia and fear, these behaviors become more common – and also more destructive. Because now more than ever most businesses need authentic engagement and conversation rather than self-protection.

Here are the four most problematic business dialogue patterns during tough economic times:

Heads in the sand. It is truly amazing how many bright, educated and competent business people manage to minimize or deny the severity of a situation. They engage in debate about metrics and data and root causes and strategic vision while their corporate ship slowly sinks.

Business teams that openly discuss doubts and challenges are much more likely to act quickly in a practical manner – to acknowledge and resolve the crises. And yet, according to our research, fewer than 30% of business teams are able to effectively discuss disagreements about the urgency of economic issues.

Mouths shut. After deciding upon an action plan, most people fail to hold others accountable for deviating from agreed-upon execution timelines and deliverables. And those who fail to meet agreed upon objectives rarely speak up – they keep their mouths shut and hope that no one notices they didn’t meet a deadline. Or worse, they fudge their reports to create the impression that everything is fine. (“We’re all green on every project on this spreadsheet!”)

In contrast, high performing teams are comfortable directly addressing the issue when someone is not achieving an agreed upon goal. No one is attacked. These issues are addressed productively and directly – with the mutual goal of a successful outcome in mind.

Protecting Pets. In many organizations, individuals conclude that necessary budget cuts are politically unwise to bring up. Ideas are withheld because people don’t know how to suggest cuts to the boss’s pet project. And business leaders often send out clear signals regarding the “undiscussables” that must be protected at all costs. Even if the leader is factually and objectively correct, not allowing engaged dialogue about these issues creates a closed and fearful dynamic.

Business teams that aren’t mired in these kinds of “undiscussables” are much more likely to act quickly to resolve a financial crisis. Because everything is on the table, the discussions are more complete, have greater depth, and are more likely to result in an action plan that produces positive results.

Circling Sharks. By the time actual budget cuts and layoffs occur, business leaders have convinced themselves that their decisions are rational, well-informed and necessary. But more often than they realize, the cuts are actually irrational, based upon corporate sharks circling around the weak and defenseless..

Authentic dialogue can help to ensure that the difficult decisions made are in fact rational, well-informed and necessary.

What Leaders Can Do

Each of these behaviors represents a pivot point between agility and a tar pit. Teams that confront these behaviors through crucial conversations are 250% more likely to survive. Less agile teams are 360% more likely to miss millions of dollars in lost opportunities. Here’s how leaders can take control:

  • Model and Teach Authentic Dialogue Skills. As leaders foster the dialogue skills required to hold these crucial conversations, every one of the positive results described above is enabled as teams reach consensus, not conflict.
  • Schedule Regular Financial Workouts. The era of fixed budgets is over. Agile firms replace fixed budgets with financial workouts that pit a wide range of initiatives against clear criteria, revenue, and strategy to guide their spending. These workouts are led by the C-suite and scheduled quarterly or in response to unforeseen shocks.
  • Publicly Sacrifice a Sacred Cow. Sacrifice breathes life into new values. When leaders openly demonstrate that fiscal stewardship is more important than pet projects or personal ego, cynical team members begin to “doubt their doubts.”
  • Support Decisions that Favor Timeliness over Perfection. Most managers believe their leaders expect perfection. However, fiscally agile leaders accept that urgent financial decisions are made under conditions of uncertainty. Good leaders encourage managers to tailor decisions to the information they have.
  • Create Safe “Sub-Dialogues.” Leaders who break fiscal challenges into discrete problems and assign small cross-functional groups to work in a time-bound way are more likely to generate solutions. They will see intelligent cuts proposed rapidly by those who truly understood and embraced the goals of the reduction.

The greatest barrier to business agility is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of time but a lack of focused, unified dialogue. Leaders who invest in the skills, time, and support to help their people hold crucial conversations will generate both profoundly wise and surprisingly rapid solutions to their challenges. And while the need for business agility is paramount in today’s economy, the capacity to engage in candid, timely and wise deliberation pays returns in any season.

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