You're Doing Conflict Wrong

(Like this content about workplace conflict, but want to hear about it instead of reading about it? Here’s the companion podcast episode.)

If you’ve got two people who interact, sooner or later, they’re going to come into conflict. It’s a fact of human relationships.

This article is about transforming conflict and using it to your advantage. If conflict seems like something to avoid… If it seems like something you can win… Then, you’re doing it wrong.

When people come to workplace conflict hoping and striving to win, then it’s only conflict itself that wins. (Did that sound cheesy?)

What’s wrong?

Some people are conflict avoidant. Some people are conflict seeking. Whatever our conflict tendency, the vast majority of us are doing it wrong the majority of the time.

When we find ourselves in a disagreement, many of us do one of two things.

  1. Some of us widen our eyes, straighten up, and start arguing our case to win the argument. I call this the Stand and Fight.
  2. Others of us lower our eyes, shrug our shoulders, walk away, and resign ourselves to the certain outcome that things won’t go our way. I call this the Slump and Slink.

Most of us do each of these things at different times and in different circumstances. Avoiders sometimes go on the attack, and fighters sometimes flee.

It doesn’t mean we’re bad people — the fact the we do conflict wrong. It makes sense we’d respond this way. Our brains are wired by ages of evolution to preserve our lives. Being a jerk at work is a survival reflex. You’ve heard of “fight or flight.” Here it is. Argue = fight. Resign yourself = flight.

Your more primitive brain regions see disagreement with a colleague, anticipate conflict, and categorize that conflict as a threat to life and limb. Rationally, you know that threat isn’t real. Rational mind, though, has been nearly shut off. Primitive brain regions have coopted the rational mind.

What’s it cost to get workplace conflict wrong?

If it’s my brain acting on instinct, my response to conflict is nature. Why fight “fight or flight?” Why not let nature do its thing?

Well, combat and hiding both have costs.

  1. Combat deteriorates relationships in ways we’re all aware of. Combative posturing leads to mistrust and resentment. So does hiding — in more subtle ways. We pick up on the subtle signals when people disagree but acquiesce anyway. We see them hiding their disapproval like a kid in class who thinks they’re adeptly passing notes unnoticed. It feels manipulative. We’re uncertain where we stand, and so the relationship is full of uncertainty and discomfort. Without candor, there’s no trust.
  2. Even though the points of disagreement loom large, there’s usually more common ground than there is difference. When we enter combat mode, that common ground gets lost. Team cohesion suffers, and adversarial stances prevent good information from being heard. The points of disagreement are almost always relatively small. In the scheme of things, the common ground you share outweighs the difference 100 fold. It’s the difference that gets all the attention, and the context of affinity gets lost.
  3. When we avoid workplace conflict, valid concerns that could benefit the relationship and the organization don’t get the attention they deserve. Disasters (large or small) may result from the lack of information sharing. Same thing when you voice your concerns at the top of your lungs. You’re telling everyone why you disagree. And you may have very important points. If you’re on the offensive, however, instead of calmly sharing your concerns, people get defensive in response. They stop listening. You may be right, but by behaving aggressively, you insure that you’re not heard.
  4. People say quietly to themselves, “I knew it. Saw that coming.” People feel distanced from each other, and judge others as unwise, and pushy. “If only they’d asked me, I could have told them.” Team cohesion suffers. Resentment builds in all directions. 

So, if our primitive brains lead us to this kind of behavior, what can we do about it?

Slow Down

Your primitive brain, and the fight or flight response is powerful, but it’s not the only game in town. You can teach yourself to override it.

1.  Breathe: Try something called box breathing. Practice it anytime you feel a bit anxious or angry.

  • Breathe in for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for four.
  • Breathe out on a count of four.
  • Hold for four.
  • Breathe in for four.
  • Repeat.

This may not be practical during an argument, but it’s great before initiating a conversation that you anticipate may be stressful. And, even during the interaction, bringing your attention to your breath, and doing this box breathing as much as possible is a powerful fight or flight defuser. Just ask a Navy Seal. This is a technique they use in actual battle.

2.  Look for common ground. Whether your impulse is to fight or to hide from the conflict at hand, you’re focused on the differences between you. And either way, your brain is racing. It’s going a mile a minute. Your primitive brain has given your rational mind an assignment, “Identify all threats and all weapons to counter those threats and all means of hiding from those threats.” Your rational mind is good at that, but it’s now using that talent for assessment in an irrational fashion. It’s operating from the conclusion, and finding support. That’s backwards. Here’s an opportunity to practice the principle derived from the system of improvisation — YES, AND. Prompt yourself with phrases like:

  • “Here’s what I like about this…”
  • “I think we agree on X, Y, and Z.”
  • “I can see we’re not on the same page about some stuff. Before we get into that, let’s work together for a moment to find all the areas of common ground.”

3.  Puzzle it. Now that you’re calm, and standing on a wide swath of common ground, you and your collaborator can look at your points of distance and debate them. Investigate them. Try on each other’s perspective and see how it fits. Distance yourself from your ideas. You’re looking together at a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find the solution. Your pieces aren’t better or worse. They’re not even yours. Theirs neither. They’re not your ideas or their ideas. All ideas are joint property. They’re all just puzzle pieces. And they either fit, or they don’t.

4.  Murder the unchosen alternatives. When the decision is made about which direction to go down — yours, theirs, a third unrelated one or a hybrid of the two — put your doubts to rest. You may not be able to quash them, but don’t feed them. Instruct yourself, “We’ve made a decision. Whether I agree with it or not is irrelevant. That ship has sailed, and my job is to back this plan of action to the hilt.” Every plan of action but the one that was chosen is done. Burn your boats. Don’t dwell. And if it’s your plan that’s in action, don’t gloat.

Reap the benefits

By following this approach to difference and workplace conflict, you’ll reap rewards. Your relationships will thrive. Your blood pressure will improve. Your organization’s decision making will be more effective. Your results will be better.

If you want, you can think of this as the “BLIMP” method. If you look above, you’ll see the steps… BLPM. Ok. BLIMP is a stretch. I just know people like acronyms.


Know anyone who’d benefit from this article? Please feel free to share it or it’s companion podcast episode far and wide.


Make a friend. Almost kill him. Start a business together.

I made a new friend. One day, we almost killed each other. Then, we spent that afternoon together in misery. Next, we formed a company to teach others to do what we had done — at work. You can do it too at your work.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Meeting:

Adam and I worked together once, years ago, on a project for two months. It was great. Won some critical acclaim. Was beloved by a small number of fans. And ultimately, it failed commercially. Some time later, we entered a competition together (along with some others) with a weekends’ project, had some fun, and won an award. I liked working with Adam. I thought there was potential for a friendship there, so I asked him on an adventure.

“Let’s go on a half-day canoe trip together, Adam. Something local. I’ll meet you at the river.”

On the trip, we almost killed each other. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“The mindset that improv training breeds is kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine for a moment that every boss you’ve ever had, every coworker, everyone who has ever reported to you was kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine what you could have accomplished together.”

Adventure:

We met relatively early in the morning at a gas station. He followed me in his car to the downriver site where we’d end our morning’s paddle. And then, we drove my car to the upriver site where we put the canoe in the water. After a couple of hours of pleasant, enjoyable calm flat water, punctuated by the occasional mild, short, fun rapids, we came to a bigger rapid, and pulled the boat to the bank to reconnoiter.

I hopped out, scrambled a ways down the bank, climbed up on some rocks and debris, and scoped out the rapid. It was fast, turbulent water, but the chute through the rapid was uncomplicated and clear of any major obstacles. I nodded, returned to Adam, and said, “Let’s do this.”

He replied, “I don’t know.”

“I think we can do it,” I said. “Bigger, but not harder, than what we’ve already done.”

Then I reminded him of a few key techniques for navigating the rapid successfully and what to do if we capsized (I was the experienced paddler in the boat), and we pushed off the bank.

The first half of the rapid was a thrilling, easy, straight shot. We came to the first of two slight adjustments we’d have to make before reaching calm water again, and Adam leaned right when he should have leaned left. We took on water. The boat rode lower, and within one second we were capsized. For a few seconds, I shouted instructions to Adam. “Hang onto your paddle! Feet downstream! See you at the bottom! Left bank!” Neither one of us knows if he heard any of that.

Disaster:

The next thing I knew, my ankle got caught between two boulders. I swung around head downstream, foot pinned, face up in the heavy water. And the torrent played me like a ragdoll. I could not free my ankle. I struggled to keep my face above the water. By trying to sit up, I could just manage to bring my face to the surface long enough to gasp a breath. I did this a few times. I hadn’t been pinned more than a few seconds, I think, but I was already becoming exhausted.

If I couldn’t free my foot, I would drown very soon. But struggling as I was to earn just three breaths, I was losing strength, and hadn’t made any progress toward freedom. I thought, “I’m going to die.” I thought of my unborn daughter growing up without a dad. So I took a breath, and gave in to the torrent. I went limp. My body did a horizontal impression of a car-dealership tube-man in the current.

I was resting.

After only a couple of seconds of that, I summoned my strength and did the hardest situp of my life. I managed the biggest breath so far, and — finally — to wrench my ankle from between the boulders that held it.

Seconds later, the rapids spit me out into the calm but swift water below. I thought, for the first time since being pinned, of Adam. I hoped he’d fared better than I had. I hoped too that he’d heard me say left bank. I swam for that bank myself, exhausted.

By coincidence or by design, Adam had also found the left bank. We found each other, and took stock.

Our paddles were gone. Our boat was gone. Adam had seen it destroy itself against a rock, turning inside out and wrapping around the boulder under the immense pressure of the water. Our food was gone. Hats gone. Almost everything was gone. Drinking water, gone. Adam’s shoes, gone.

I still had my wallet. Still had my keys. Both of us, somehow, had managed to keep our smartphones, and to keep them dry.

The phones turned on, but there was no reception. So we climbed a small but steep hill beside the river.We were somewhere inside Fort Lewis Army Base, and there were no buildings, or paths or other man-made anythings to be seen, even from the hill. The bank was impassable. The river too swift and cold to float the afternoon in. And we could not place a call. Google maps did, however, give us some slight indication of our location and of directions. We identified a possible road on the map and planned to walk there. It was not very near.

Adam’s shoes were gone, and his bare feet already hurt after the small amount of walking we’d done. I gave him my sandals and went barefoot.

Ordeal:

We tried to walk in the direction of the road or path that the map had indicated. It wasn’t easy to do. The forest around us was all but impenetrable. Every foot of progress was hard won through undergrowth and brambles. We zigzagged our way in the general direction we wanted to go by walking along fallen logs whenever we could. They provided paths through the bramble.

The afternoon became hot, and we wished we had water. We became quite fatigued. The landscape of small hills and valleys was difficult. The bramble nearly impossible.

Eventually, we reached my wife by phone and tried to describe the spot we were trying to reach — and told her it was within Fort Lewis. Could she call someone to meet us there — or try to meet us there herself?

We lost reception.

When we regained reception, we learned she’d gotten permission to drive into this remote section of the base to try to find us.

We pushed on. I lost my wallet, and spent some time and energy looking for it, retracing my steps a small distance. I could not tell where I had been, could not see my own path, so I gave up on my wallet, and we pressed on again.

Finally, we came in to a valley we believed our road ran along. But there was no road. So we pressed on, until…

Salvation:

I don’t know whether I saw or heard her first. Bless her, my wife had found our road, driven along it as far as she could, and then, when the road became impassible to the car, she’d left the car to find us on foot. She’d brought water.

Rejuvenated, somewhat, by the arrival of our rescuer, and by the rehydration, we quickened our pace and reached the car.

With the worst of the ordeal behind me, I decided and told Adam, “Now that we’re safe, and only in retrospect, that was kind of fun.”

“Not my idea of fun,” said Adam (a guy who’s run the Tough Mudder because that is his idea of fun).

Retrospect:

That’s when something began to dawn on me. “Not my idea of fun,” was the most negative thing Adam had said all day.

We’d stood on the bank of that river, nearly drowned, already exhausted by the ordeal in the rapids, with no way back to civilization, without water, and facing hours of greater ordeal in the heat of the afternoon. Adam had leaned left when he should have leaned right. I’d taken us into a rapid that I should not have attempted with Adam’s level of experience and confidence. We stood there on the bank facing trouble, but not emergency.

There were lots of conversations we could have had on that bank. Either of us could have blamed the other, shouted, pointed, and cursed. Either of us could have sat on the bank to cry. Either of us could have begun to marshal resources to support his own comfort and ease — to hell with the other guy.

Instead, we took quick stock of the situation, and began to think of the two person unit. Adam was fitter physically. I was more experienced outdoors. I had sandals. Adam’s bare feet were already hurt.

We strategized briefly. And we took immediate action to get the pair of us out of the predicament.

And the day went that way, each of us caring for the other, filling in when we could for the other’s weaknesses.

There was not a moment’s time given to sniping or to blame. We spoke occasionally of the fatigue and the dehydration, but neither of us complained. Instead, we kept the team apprised unemotionally of our slowly deteriorating state of strength and endurance. We took a moment to admire the beauty of a striking caterpillar posing on a tree trunk.

We disagreed about strategy often. At those times, we debated briefly, and one of us would defer to the other, and get completely behind the plan from that point on. We made errors that set us back. We adjusted, and still never pointed fingers.

Revelation:

We had each other’s backs, and we were united behind a single purpose.

I’d been considering a company dedicated to making work good for people. I’d seen how much ineffectiveness there is in many people’s work habits, and how many people feel beat down by work instead of fulfilled. Most people in our society don’t like work. I wanted to make a difference in that because I wanted my daughter to grow up in a culture where work is viewed as a grace and a privilege. I knew that tools and techniques from theater improv could serve to help people focus on what matters, to respond to others with empathy and purpose, and to take inspiration from the most seemingly trivial things — and therefore to like work.

Because Adam is the best improviser I know, I’d thought about asking him to join me in founding this company.

But it was because of who we were together in adversity, because of our focus on purpose, our willingness to keep going when it seemed we could not, because of the resourcefulness and commitment to purpose and team above all else… Because of those extraordinary qualities proven in a true trial of our temperaments, I knew two things.

Company Born:

First, I knew Adam was someone I could work with in the trenches. Come hell or high water, we’d be able to weather the rough seas of a startup.

Second, I knew that it was the improviser’s mentality that allowed us to maintain such equanimity, kindness, and resolve during and after such a trial. I knew we had something we could offer to the workplaces and to working-teams all over our country. And I knew we were already both experienced at teaching it.

Pair that with a life-long passion for developing leadership in myself and others… We were poised to change lives. We asked Rachel (who shares our mindset and devotion to developing it still further) to join us. She rounded out our team, and we started changing the world of work one team at a time.

Our Impact:

The mindset that improv training breeds is kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine for a moment that every boss you’ve ever had, every coworker, everyone who has ever reported to you was kind, empathetic, resourceful, observant, responsive, innovative, and resilient. Imagine what you could have accomplished together. Imagine the joy that would have filled your days. Imagine how you would feel on Monday morning, knowing you were heading to work to be surrounded by minds like that.

That’s why I have found my life’s work in changing lives, by changing work, by changing habits, by teaching improv dynamically correlated to the work you do.

 


Collaboration Culture is "Got Your Back" Culture

Tracy and Cal work for a company that names “Collaboration” as a core value, but no one has ever defined collaboration.

Tracy and Cal head back to their desks after the meeting. Tracy says, “Cal, You told me last month when I started working here that you were going to have my back.”

Cal says, “I did. You heard me tell them you were doing your best.”

Tracy feels hopeless. “Yeah. Exactly. Now thanks to you, they all think I’m drowning. They think my best is crappy.”

Cal asks, “What’d you want me to say?”

Tracy stops walking and says, “Where were you last week to help insure I was better prepared for that meeting before I put my foot in it? You knew I was on the wrong track and you did nothing. You call that collaboration?”

What does collaboration mean?

The expression, “Got your back,” means different things to different people.

In some of the teams I’ve worked with, there’s very little agreement as to the meaning. Tracy feels hung out to dry while Cal knows he’s got her back. Often, the argument is not so much about the facts of who’s doing what, but about what it means to truly have your teammate’s back.

This is something I give a lot of thought to. “Got Your Back” is a central principle in every training program conducted by my company, The Yes Works. Our Adeptability Training is built on principles from neuroscience, organizational psychology, improvisation, and best practices in leadership practice. We help teams to function at higher and higher levels of teamishness through exceptionally collaborative relationships. “Got Your Back” (which we describe as making your teammates look good — and be good) is one of my favorites among those principles. Everyone can always improve in their practice of it.

Ultimate Got-Your-Back, Ultimate Collaboration

As Lon, a recent acquaintance of mine, told me today over coffee, “I ask myself, ‘who do I need to be to amplify my wife’s best?’ And she asks herself, ‘Who do I need to be to amplify Lon’s best?’” That’s not a question with one simple answer. And it’s a question of a higher level than most use when considering how to have a team mate’s back in collaboration.

Colleagues disagree about whether they’re being supportive because few teams have any specific definition of what a supportive attitude or supportive behavior looks like. I don’t have one either. I have eight. Each definition represents a different level of practice, and each level reflects a higher degree of functionality, productivity, and satisfaction on the team.

I’ve got your back:

  • Level 1: I won’t throw you under the bus. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 2: If you’re in distress and you ask me for help, I’ll agree to help. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 3: If I see that you’re in distress, I’ll stop and volunteer my help. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 4: I know where you’re likely to need help, and I’ll ask if you’re struggling and need my help. I’ve got your back. This includes looking for the inspiration in every idea, and seeing the value in intention.
  • Level 5: I know your strengths and weaknesses. My help will come in such a way and at such a time that your weakness will never show. The help is there before you know you need it. I’ve got your back. This includes allowing yourself to be inspired to action by those around you in all that they do.
  • Level 6: I know our strengths and weaknesses as a team. I develop my skills and those of my team and find resources to eradicate those weaknesses and contribute to seamless team production. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 7: No matter what’s going on with me, I’m going to bring my A game. You can depend on me to bring my best, even when I’m tired or overwhelmed or scared. I’ve got your back.
  • Level 8: No matter what’s going on with me, I’m dedicated to your success. I will do what I can to bring out your best. I’ve got your back.

Collaboration and you.

What level are you playing at? What level is your team playing at? What level would you like to play at?  No doubt you want your company to prosper. What level of “Got your back” do you and your team need to play at in order to reach your goals?

Levels 7 and 8 require a whole culture of got-your-back. I can only bring my best, and truly be committed to bringing out your best, if I’m confident you’ve got my back. Someone’s got to look out for my best interests. If I know the team is looking out for my best interests, then I don’t have to.

What are you doing to move your team along the continuum? Leadership coach, Cy Wakeman, suggests a single question for the arsenal of every leader. When the shit hits the fan… When an employee complains about a peer… When a deadline is missed… “What did you do to help?”

Adeptability training is another way to move everyone up through the levels of got-your-back habit. This is simple, but not easy. Each of us plays at different levels at different times and in different circumstances. Each of us has moments where we fall off the Got Your Back track altogether. With practice, repetition, awareness, and intention, you can enhance your relationships — and (as Lon said at lunch today) “who you are,” in relationships — in business and beyond.

 

____________

Communication and collaboration are some of the hardest things to get right in any company culture, and the difficulty increases exponentially as you add more people to the team. Adeptability Training gets teams communicating and collaborating effectively as a matter of habit and mindset. Book a call today.


One Tool. A Competitive Advantage.

By Aaron Schmookler, Adam Utley, and Rachel Lionheart (in collaboration)

 

Most leaders, when asked, say that their team has the skills it needs to perform better than average. When asked specifically about communication, however, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about teamwork, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about innovation, they say it needs to get better.  When asked about the ability to cope with the unexpected and with change, they say it needs to get better.

This article will arm you with a powerful tool for making work on your team better indeed.

Would you like communication, teamwork, innovation and coping with the unexpected to improve on your team?  Do assumptions gum up the works of effective communication? Does fear prevent people from communicating when they first realize they’re likely to miss a deadline?  Are your people satisfied with the status quo when you know growth is essential for outpacing the competition?

Incremental improvements at work often take too much work for too little return.  But our clients easily make substantial improvements to communication, so they reap unprecedented cohesion on their teams, enjoy lucrative innovation, and take change in stride. You can make strides too, with a single tool from Theater Improvisation.

Why improvisation? Life isn’t scripted. The unexpected happens. Change happens. And Darwin can tell you, if you don’t adapt to change, if you can’t respond relevantly to the unexpected, you won’t survive.  Most companies do ok with the unexpected. Most companies respond ok to change.  But ok is not going to bring your dreams for the future to fruition.

The tool I’ve promised, and one of the principles we teach in our workshops, is BE OBVIOUS. Webster says obvious means, “easy for the mind to understand or recognize, clear, self-evident, or apparent.” Once you and your team try it, you’ll agree… BE OBVIOUS is a superpower.

“Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.”

We coach our clients to BE OBVIOUS in a few distinct business arenas–the three C’s:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Conflict management.

Collaboration is communication. And it works best with a constant flow of ideas to build from — a flow of ideas generated by each all team-members. No idea can be formed in a vacuum. No ideas are born from nothing. Every idea in the history of ideas has been inspired something else. You can’t stop ideas from coming.  Blockages of ideas don’t exist–only blockages of expression, of communication.  Fear stops the communication and proliferation of ideas.  Fear of failure.  Fear of ridicule.  Fear that one’s idea is not original enough…

Keith Johnstone, improviser extraordinaire, says, “The more obvious you are, the more original you appear.”  So many simple but profound business opportunities are lost in striving to come up with “clever or disruptive ideas.”  One idea leads to another. Give attention and voice to your idea, no matter how simple, and it will lead to another idea, either in your own mind, or in the mind of a collaborator. Speak the obvious associations your mind is making, and they will lead to others. If your collaborators do the same, you follow one idea after another, down the rabbit-hole, and into Wonderland.

Consider the Post-it note.  On the face of it, this was a failed attempt at 3M to create a strong adhesive. But upon encountering this “failed” adhesive, someone spoke what was obvious to them, and this lucrative use for a weak adhesive is now found in nearly every home and office in the country–indeed around the world.

Take one of the most successful toys in history — the slinky.  It too was a failure, intended to stabilize ships’ instruments.  The inventor, dejected, put it on a shelf. His wife later knocked it off, and saw it’s remarkable stepping ability. And a toy was born.

Take the case of a truck which got stuck under too low an overpass.  Engineers, police, and towing professionals scratched their heads, trying to devise a strategy for removing the truck that would not destroy the bridge, or further damage the truck. Evidently, it took the obvious observation of a ten year old boy who said, obviously, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?

Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.

Conflict is communication.  Conflict on a team often results from one team member judging the ideas and contributions of another.

“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”

“What…..That’s just stupid.”

The Siberia office idea generator is likely to feel defensive and either shut down or fight.  Witnesses to the interaction are likely to perceive an unfriendly environment for their own ideas and clam up themselves. And it needn’t be so blatant as this to degrade the ‘culture of contribution.’  Something as seemingly bland as, “Really?  Siberia?” is enough to shame people into silence, or gird them for battle.

BE OBVIOUS has the power to completely transform the interaction from one that degrades relationships and productivity to one that builds them.

“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”

The knee-jerk judgment that that is stupid results from an earlier thought.  Maybe, “Siberia’s really cold.  Siberia’s really far away.”  So, instead of, “That’s just stupid,” the OBVIOUS response to “Let’s open an office in Siberia,” is, “Siberia’s really cold and really far away.”

Now, there’s information in the room that can help everyone, the original speaker included, to assess the idea’s merits in their own minds.  The relationship has not been degraded.  The fight or flight response has not been triggered. The environment still welcomes new ideas. The idea generator may respond, “I thought of Siberia because real estate there is very cheap.”

Then someone else may respond, “Well, the real estate in North Dakota is pretty cheap too.  And it’s not as cold, and it’s not as far away.”

And then building on that, someone else might add what’s obvious to them. “My family is in North Dakota, and I’ve been wanting to move there.”

And in one fell swoop, you’ve got a location for the satellite office and the person to spearhead its opening.  A bad idea is refined to a good one, and other ancillary problems are organically solved along the way.  And relationships are strengthened in a process that breeds group pride in its accomplishments.

Many of you may know the story of Kitty Genovese: She was stabbed to death in 1964 outside her apartment in New York City while bystanders stood by–didn’t even call the police.  This failure to respond has been widely cited as evidence of the heartlessness of New York’s citizens and the general degradation of society.  Social science has since shown us another explanation.  Bystanders likely did not call for help, not because they didn’t care, but because each person presumed someone else would surely call.  Someone else surely had already called, was on the phone even now.  With this diffusion of responsibility, each individual can shrug off personal responsibility.

Who among us has not had a work-project fall to the same fate as Kitty Genovese.  Some detail critical to the success of the project has been overlooked.  Bob knows he’s never heard anyone discussing the obvious problem that the building design the whole team has been working on has no front door.  No one will be able to enter the building.  But doors aren’t his department.  Cathy’s seen the door problem too.  But she’s windows.  Bob and Cathy both assume, “Surely someone is on it. Someone knows, and even though I haven’t heard about it, obviously, someone is fixing this.  Then the design goes to the client.  If the firm is lucky, the client notices and says, “There’s no door.” And the firm suffers embarrassment and delay. If the firm isn’t lucky, the building is erected from the drawings… without a door. And the firm suffers humiliation and is never hired again. All because each person in the chain presumed that it was so obvious that there must be a hidden solution.  Often, the obvious goes unspoken because people are afraid of the ridicule that may come from saying what’s clearly obvious to everyone, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.”  Or they’re afraid of being embarrassed by demonstrating their own incompetence or ignorance of the obvious by saying something that shows they’ve missed what’s as plain as the nose on their face.  “Duh!  The door’s. Right. Here.”  This is an extreme example, but we’ve all wasted work because no one spoke what was obvious to them.

How do you get people to speak what’s obvious?  Get full commitment from everyone to BE OBVIOUS, and to WELCOME the obvious from others.  Will there be redundant communication?  Sure.  But in places that matter, we all install redundant systems.  We drive carefully AND wear seatbelts.  We lock the car AND set the alarm.  We save our files on the local server AND to the cloud.

With a BE OBVIOUS culture, Kitty would still be alive.  And with a BE OBVIOUS culture in your company, projects are delivered on time and under budget.  BE OBVIOUS gets your back.

When everyone has committed to BE OBVIOUS, each person has the responsibility to respond to every obvious need. Not to personally address it, but to at least mention it to the relevant person.  Every manager, every team leader, every executive I’ve asked would rather hear too many times about a growing crisis in the company than not to hear about it at all.

BE OBVIOUS starts with a willingness to say what is plainly and immediately on your mind, beyond the trap of judgement, and build off of the information that surrounds you, in the environment, from your coworkers, from clients.  It takes open-mindedness, commitment to transparency and practice to create a functioning habit in your burgeoning culture of contribution.