I took a bus this morning that went the wrong route. I was preoccupied reading an article and when I looked up from it I noticed that the scenery was not what I expected. The driver had taken a wrong turning. People in the street and in their gardens were staring in bemusement to see a bus coming along their street where no bus was meant to be.
Curiously, the passengers were not saying or doing anything. Some might even have missed their stop due to the diversion and yet they sat, looking slightly concerned, but holding back from action or words. I started to move to speak to the driver and then decided to wait and see what happened. Here’s the rest of the story.
After a few minutes, the driver realised his mistake. He stopped the bus and got the route map out to see how to get back on track. At this point, some of the twenty or so passengers exchanged whispered comments - “I wondered when he would realise he had taken a wrong turn” and “It looks like we are on a mystery tour”. There were also some self-conscious giggles. Still no-one addressed the driver.
There is no doubt that most of the passengers knew the route and travelled it regularly, and yet they held back from sharing their knowledge with the driver; even although this was to their personal detriment!
Eventually, the driver radio’d his controller and between them, got the bus back on its route. The passengers who had missed their stops got off at the next opportunity. Everyone else behaved as if nothing had happened.
Holding back is everywhere in our organisations. In my work with teams and coaching individuals, I see the evidence of the performance impact of this restraint. Our colleagues can see clearly that we need help, are struggling with something, or making a poor quality choice. But, for some reason feel they cannot intervene. This scenario often plays out to a point of a poor outcome and the “I could see that coming” remarks.
Here are a couple of examples;
Julia is an Operations Director of a very large service organisation. She is an amazing leader and has significant positive impact on the performance of her organisation; she will make a great CEO. In the early days of working with Julia, she “held back” a lot.
For example, she did not speak out in the Board meeting when the HR Director outlined plans to implement a new performance related pay system for professional grades. She could see some real issues with the scheme and the way it was to be implemented. However, Julia felt that she should not challenge the plan because she had relatively few of the affected staff in her department and also did not want to step on the HR Director’s patch.
The implementation went ahead and, after three month of poor employee relations, threats of strikes and disruption to performance, it was withdrawn on the order of the CEO.
There was also the management team that was perceived to be underperforming by their Executive. The Executive decided they needed training to skill them up, and teambuilding to make them a more effective unit. After a few sessions of working with the team, it became apparent that there was an “elephant in the corner of the room”; something unspoken and unacknowledged, even within the team.
After some feedback and careful coaching, the team began to speak openly about their experience of being managed by the Executive. They felt stifled and micro-managed and most were fearful of the consequences of being found “wanting”. There was a lot of hiding of issues and fire-fighting as a result. The team actually had great ambitions for their organisation. The also had the desire to step-up and put the serious work in to deliver those ambitions. But they feared the lack of support from the Executive.
These managers did not need management training, they needed to find the courage to stop holding back and the skills to have some difficult conversations.
We all hold back; sometimes for very good reasons. We also hold back to the detriment of our own, or our team’s performance. Often, we hold back because we fear upsetting others, or in case we are wrong, or perhaps not to appear pushy or overly confident or clever. How do we find the courage when we should, or even must, speak out?
Here are some questions you might ask yourself when you find yourself holding back;
• Do you truly understand the situation you are reacting to? If not, ask more questions; first seek to understand, and demonstrate your understanding to others.
• What are all the possible outcomes (good and bad) if you say nothing? Get a wider perspective and share this with others.
• What is the worst possible thing that could happen if you speak out? If that happened, what would be the real impact on you? On others?
• If the worst happens, what will you do to get things back on track? Sometimes, this is as simple as saying “sorry”. Would that be so terrible?
• How can you speak out in a way that is least damaging to you and to your relationships? Avoid putting colleagues on the spot in public and use techniques such as “wearing my pessimist had for a moment....” to de-personalise your challenge.
For every ten ideas, insights or challenges you are holding back, nine may actually be helpful, positive and performance-enhancing. What right do you have to deprive the world of that?
© Copyright Fiona Gifford 2010
Fiona Gifford is Founder, Director Leadership Coach with The Performance Collective. For more information on how you can build High Performance Leadership in your organisation, contact her at Fiona@theperformancecollective.co.uk.