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  • Becca Timmins

What's happening beneath the surface?

Updated: Dec 12, 2022



Research shows that only 15% of people speak up about issues and concerns in their organisations. That’s a shocking statistic for any Leader or Business owner that none of us can afford to assume doesn’t apply to us. This blog considers why this might be the case, and what we can change to see what's going on beneath the surface.


I saw Margaret Heffernan (author of Wilful Blindness) speak recently. She quoted this shocking statistic:


85% of people say that they don’t share issues or concerns that they have within their organisations.

Turning this on its head, she pointed out what this means:


As a leader, you might only know 15% of what is not working within your organisation.

That’s not much more than the tip of an iceberg - and we all know that what lies beneath the surface can sink a ship! It’s a pretty scary wake up call, and I don’t think any organisation can afford to assume “that’s not the case for us”.


So, why don’t people speak up?


Well, the research project that Margaret cited, showed that there were two things getting in the way.


Fear of retribution and futility.


85% of the time, people don't say what they really think either because they fear negative fall out, or because they think it’s a waste of time.


In the case of the vast majority of industrial disasters, the investigation usually uncovers that someone (or multiple people) knew something was going wrong but didn’t speak up. I reckon that’s probably true of a huge number of mistakes that happen in our organisations.


What could we do differently? Well, let’s take one thing at a time.


How can we reduce and ultimately eradicate a fear of retribution?


I think that as Leaders, our first responsibility is to make things psychologically safe in our organisations. Remember Google’s Project Aristotle? That found that the NUMBER ONE determining factor of a high performing team is the level of psychological safety.


We only have a chance to make things better, and become high performing if we know what the issues are. And to tell us what the issues everyone needs to feel safe to speak up.


And this doesn’t just mean saying “this is a safe space” and expecting that to be enough! Believe me, I’ve seen that one in action and it doesn't work.


To believe that we are safe, we need see and feel evidence that shows us we ARE safe. We need to have the experience, repeatedly, of speaking up or disagreeing, and there being no negative response. Embedding real psychological safety takes time, and multiple experiences that I and others won’t be ridiculed / vilified / shouted at / managed out for speaking our truth.


So, our reactions as managers and leaders really matter. So keep calm, say "thank you for bringing that to our attention" and make your internal reaction your own responsibility, not theirs.


But it's not only the response of those above us that matters. How our peers react is also really important.


You see, belonging is super important to us. It’s a fundamental human need, and because of that, it's something that we really don’t like to risk. So I think, if we lead a team we are responsible for bringing about wider cultural shifts too. This need for belonging drives our behaviour, and something interesting happens when we think we hold a different view to everyone else in our group (or team). Margaret Heffernan also cited research that demonstrated:


We are more likely to agree with others, even when we KNOW they are wrong, than we are to disagree and risk isolation.


So a culture where there is a lack of judgement and genuine mutual respect is vital so that people still feel they belong even when their views differ.


In my experience, the Thinking Environment gives us a clear framework for a culture that creates this. The Ten Components give us a way to behave with each other that demonstrates deep mutual respect.


There is no room for lip service.


Learning together how to listen in a way that ignites the thinking of others (rather than just waiting to reply) means that we hear far more than that terrifying 15%. The Thinking Environment keeps us disciplined with practices for behaving respectfully in meetings. It gives us learnable structures and behaviours that encourage and champion diversity of group identity, thought and ideas.


And that’s the key point- it’s all learnable!


These are skills that can be taught and learned. Skills that help us to overcome our deep rooted learned behaviours.


So what about futility then?


Photo by Ronald Diel on Unsplash


Can we overcome that resigned feeling that "Nothing will change anyway, so why bother?”?


I’ve definitely heard it from my team in the past. Phrases like:


“I don’t have the energy to argue, it’s just not worth it”


“We’ve always done it that way, there’s no point arguing”


“That person won’t change, I’ve just got to put up with it”


If we want our teams to grow to become high performing, just giving them the space to air their grievances and concerns is not enough. They need to see a resulting change. When we achieve both, we start to overcome futility and move towards high performance, high satisfaction places to work.


And the Thinking Environment really supports this too.


People often assume that holding meetings in a Thinking Environment way costs loads of time, and nothing will get done. That they will just start to hear all the moans and find themselves with more on their plates to deal with.


But that is a very long way from my experience. You see, people are pretty clever! Teams really want to solve problems once they are out on the table!


In the past I think I have been guilty of disempowering my team by hearing their concerns and then assuming responsibility for fixing them. Which incidentally just made me more stressed and my team less effective!


Now, when an issue comes to light in our team, we ask a series of questions on which every single person contributes. Something like:


What do you think is the real issue here?

First, get beyond the surface symptoms that are presenting themselves and dig a bit deeper. You can even ask this a few times to get to the real heart of what's going on.


What do you think we could do to resolve this issue?

Open things up here and encourage difference- throw in a couple of ridiculous “could dos” yourself to show them that nothing is off the table.


Now, what will we do to move this forwards? What are our next steps?

Get some actions agreed, and make sure individuals take responsibility for them.


What have we missed that we need to circle back to another time?

Give the opportunity for any niggles to be caught.


For a group of 4, depending on the issue, that could happen in 30 to 60 minutes. And chances are you will resolve something that has a domino effect and ultimately saves you loads of time (and so money).


The Thinking Environment is a significant cultural shift for most businesses, but it’s one that is so well worth the investment. It is a means to uncover real issues, and have teams solve them collectively. Solutions are better for that diversity of thinking, and teams are more committed to implementation. It saves time and money and stress.



If you would like to understand more, or speak about how I could help you to implement these skills with your team, I would love to hear from you. More information can be found here on my website, or just drop me a line and we can have a chat.



Photo by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash


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