How common are difficult conversations in your organization?
For example, giving negative feedback. Or someone sharing that they’re feeling burnt out in their current role. Or challenging a not-so-great idea even if their manager favors it.
According to research, 70% of employees avoid having tough conversations at work, and this results in a loss in productivity, engagement, and organizational trust.
This makes fostering a culture of open communication a crucial task for organizational development.
Most organizations have retro meetings, feedback talks, or something along those lines to support this. But these processes won’t be as effective as they could if people don’t feel safe enough to raise issues in the first place.
To improve collaboration, you need both structures and a psychologically safe environment where people can truly utilize them. This means you need to provide time, space, and frameworks for people to raise their concerns and suggestions openly, but you also need to constantly be checking whether people feel safe enough to use these opportunities for real talk.
Making difficult conversations part of your culture won’t happen overnight. But in my work with clients I have nonetheless learned that improving everyday interactions between people goes a lot further than organizations realize.
For example, I recently held a training session where a participant shared that she and other members of her team had to do a ton of extra work during their latest project because a colleague was neglectful of his tasks at an earlier stage of the process. When I asked her if she had talked to him about this, she said she was reluctant to do so because this person had gotten very defensive over negative feedback in the past. She hoped the topic would come up at the retro meeting.
I hear similar stories all the time, and my first thought is always, “I wish I could attend that meeting to make sure the conversation actually comes up!”
Because many times, it doesn’t. This can happen for multiple reasons. People fear retaliation, want to avoid negative consequences in a relationship, or simply don’t have the skills to initiate such conversations. Either way, the individual, the team, and the organization all suffer in the long run.
The feeling of psychological safety, a culture that encourages open communication, and engaged employees willing to have hard conversations would ideally coexist in organizations all at the same time. In my experience that’s often not the case, which negatively impacts collaboration, and as a result, performance.
So what can you do to make sure the conversations that would benefit your company the most actually happen?
That’s where working with an external facilitator can be invaluable. Someone with the right skillset and tools can get these conversations going and navigate them in a way that strengthens relationships and generates results.
Below, I’m going to give you 3 powerful ways a facilitator can help you improve collaboration, and also share why you shouldn’t simply assign this role to someone on the team.
Please keep in mind that not all facilitators are the same – the roles they can play may vary depending on their specific approach and skillset. What I share with you below is based on my own process for designing and facilitating collaboration workshops for clients.
Every collaboration I do with clients starts with an exploration phase. After we discuss their initial questions and issues, I always ask them to set me up with a diverse group of stakeholders: the team leader, other senior colleagues who might have expectations for the team, and also team members. Only after I’ve conducted short (think 15-20 minutes max) interviews with all of them will I start designing an intervention.
From the client’s point of view, this could initially seem like wasted time, but it’s actually the key to me delivering the value they are looking for in working together.
This is because looking at the organization from the inside is very different than looking at it from an external viewpoint.
Everyone on the team, including leadership, will have their own perspectives of the issue at hand.
And they are all valid perspectives, but they are also limited because people working in the organization are often too close to the questions they are trying to solve.
As an external party, I have no personal attachment to or risk involved with those issues.
Taking the time to understand multiple perspectives allows me to spot recurring themes and underlying patterns that can be hard to see from the inside.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you are going through a transition period and realize that you have to improve your feedback culture if you want to keep growing. You bring in a new platform, put some processes in place that you heard are best practices these days, and repeatedly ask the team to start using them. You might even organize some training sessions about assertive communication and giving feedback.
In the beginning you see some success and you are optimistic. But after a while, you end up running into the same issues, wondering where you went wrong even though you did everything by the book. You talk to some people on the team about it, and they all agree with you that improving the feedback culture is necessary. Your ideas on how to do it were good. So why didn’t the changes work?
That’s where the exploration phase of any organizational development project becomes crucially important. No one in the organization will tell you that the reason they aren’t regularly giving open feedback is that “there’s a lack of psychological safety in the team.” They might not even be consciously thinking that, or know how to put it into words. But there are signs, and a skilled facilitator will know how to spot them. Like in my first example earlier where a woman was reluctant to call someone out for neglectful behavior because she was afraid he might get defensive.
As a facilitator, one of my strengths is asking the right questions to draw these stories out. After the interviews, I have enough information to connect the dots and design interventions that will help you address the underlying issues you actually need to be solving.
By hiring someone who can help you get clear on what to focus on and consciously design a path that will get you there, you will see results a lot faster.
Conflict in the workplace can be scary, and most of us would rather avoid it.
But what if I told you that it’s a crucial element of a great culture?
According to research, productive conflict is essential to creating more effective, creative, and innovative organizations.*
This means the very common conflict-avoidant tendency hurts your company, and how you manage tension should be a key question for you as a leader and in your organizational development initiatives.
Being good at managing tension can be a challenge. Poorly managed conflict can at best lead to endless discussions, work disruptions, and stagnation, and at worst to decreased productivity, failed projects, and high turnover.
Knowing how to help people have constructive conflict is an important skill for a facilitator (and ideally it should be one for leaders as well). When people are avoidant, we can help them feel safe enough to give feedback, raise important issues, and share new ideas. When tensions are high and things start to escalate, we can turn blame into a productive conversation and support people in reaching a conclusion that will benefit the organization.
For example, I once facilitated a collaboration workshop where in the check-in round I asked the team to share a bit about their current challenges, and it quickly turned into them venting about their frustrations with someone from the client’s side, blaming the person for being incompetent and making their job harder.
Focusing on what the other person is not doing or doing wrong is a tough starting point for effective collaboration. I knew we wouldn’t be able to talk about solutions until they learned this mindset. When people have to be in regular contact with each other (like with a boss, a team member, or in this case a client), finding ways to resolve tension is in their best interest, since this tension limits potential both for the individual and the organization.
To help the team overcome their challenge, I asked them to talk about their perspective on the issue for 5 minutes, then spend another 5 minutes putting themselves in the other party’s shoes and defending their position. We then discussed the interpersonal dynamics they could see play out. This simple exercise allowed them to empathize more with the client and come to a deeper understanding of their perspective, making them better equipped to collaborate with them in the future.
Facilitators have a toolkit for conflict situations like these, even when they arise unexpectedly – as happened during this workshop.
Some companies have internal facilitators, rotating the role between team members or simply having the leader facilitate conversations. With meetings that are business as usual, this can work great. But when the goal is for the whole team to work together towards something, balancing the role of facilitator and active participant can be a challenge.
A facilitator’s job is to stay neutral, and that is hard to do when they are personally involved with what the outcome will be. An external facilitator, on the other hand, is only interested in helping the team reach a solution without being attached to what that solution should be.
Someone who isn’t a part of the organization is also able to say and do things a team member might not due to perceived risk to themselves.
It’s not necessary for people to like me to be able to do my part well.
For example, I can easily stop people in the middle of a discussion when I see it’s going nowhere and it’s best for them to move on. I can spot dysfunctional team dynamics, like when someone is dominating the conversation and brushing aside ideas from quieter team members, and know how to navigate that situation. It’s part of my job as a facilitator.
But for an employee, interrupting or challenging their boss and colleagues could feel like an interpersonal risk, affecting their ability to be truly effective in this role.
I’m also ready to make a fool of myself if that’s what’s going to best serve the team.
There is an exercise I really like called “riding a magic carpet” in which the goal is to make people feel valued and celebrated. I vividly remember the first time I used it in a corporate setting. I brought in an actual carpet, put it on a chair and told people they’re going to sit on it and go on a magical ride.
You can probably imagine the looks on their faces. Those looks said “there’s no way she is going to make us do that.”
Then, within 10 minutes, a woman was sitting on the chair and crying because she was so touched by the beautiful feedback she was getting from her teammates.
Again, for someone from the team to be able to do this, they would need to have very tough skin, and even then there’s no guarantee others will accept her in a role that is so different from what they are used to seeing from her.
When it’s someone in a leadership role facilitating, there is a different kind of unpleasant outcome that I often see.
Leaders driving conversations might have no problem appearing firm and decisive, but being the facilitator as well as the boss sets them up to dominate the conversation. Others will naturally tend to lean towards agreeing with them, limiting opportunities for new ideas, innovation, and growth for the whole team.
This might not be the leader’s intention, but getting people to be straightforward and challenge them in a situation like this is really hard. If there is an external facilitator in the room, the leader’s voice becomes one of many, which might help team members speak up and be more willing to share their ideas.
At the end of a successful meeting or workshop, I sometimes get the feedback that “this was something we could’ve done ourselves.”
My answer to that is yes and no. The conclusions are all theirs, of course. But the structure, the exercises, and the spontaneous interventions during the session that helped you reach those conclusions came from a consciously designed process which, if done well, is mostly invisible to participants.
Knowing how to have productive discussions about complex or emotionally charged topics is a profession. And when a team is able to tackle issues head-on, without avoiding conflict or getting hung up on blaming others, differences can become a fertile ground for creativity and innovation.
Ideally, anyone from the team should be able to suggest calling in a facilitator when they feel the need. These conversations are hard for a reason, after all. But it’s much faster and easier to have them when a skilled, neutral third party can hold space for you to do so.
So if you feel like your organization needs more conversations that are both open and productive, how about you invite me to facilitate them for you? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s have a chat about what would benefit your team the most.
*Peter T. Coleman: Making Conflict Work