Tell the Truth
“High Performing Teams Require a Focus on the Truth” – Robert “Cujo” Teschner, Debrief to Win
The project was 8 months behind schedule, my subsystem was on the critical path, and I worked with my engineer teammates to complete a root cause analysis on what had happened. After some fish-boning and 5-Why analysis, we came to a simple but important conclusion: our team had stopped saying the truth. Risks and issues that might have taken weeks to address had manifested as a fantastic poop show. It was all my fault because I didn’t see it or help fix it early. The lead engineer felt as if he was constantly being punished for raising risks because of schedule pressure from the program. Things progressed from, “Todd, you always raise risks, and we don’t have time to run down every rabbit hole” to “Oh, here we go again. Why are you in the way?” The program team started to move around the subsystem lead, making decisions and pressing on without seeking input in the interest of maintaining a schedule. Todd, a great technologist and fantastic human, did what almost anyone would do—he became more selective about the risks he raised. He “chose his battles” so he could minimize the amount of time he got his butt handed to him. In an environment where truth is avoided and even attacked, people will stop speaking it. One of my teammates was put in a position where he was told he had to own his stuff and be accountable for it, but then was pushed to a place where he chose to exercise his right to remain silent.
Over the years several of my teammates have heard me say, “puke out the truth,” a non-flattering but fairly accurate metaphor. In an effective, efficient, and collaborative team the sharing of truth is essential. If the team is comprised of mere mortals, the sharing of even perceptions of truth is essential; after all, perception is reality, especially to the owner of the perception. Sometimes—and maybe often—these truths and perceptions are hard, for your teammates may have to highlight realities that elicit strong emotions or have negative consequences. They may be delivered as challenges or unprofessional outbursts or they may even be perceived by others as “whining” or “risks without solutions.” Tough cookies. Either the team can allow roadblocks and constraints to fester and boil inside their guts or they can get them all out and shine light on them for the benefit of the team—puke them out. If you call yourself a leader and don’t desire that uncomfortable candor with all your heart, then you are neither a leader nor a teammate. Once the truth is out there in front of all creation, it can be understood and managed.
Vomit and Sunlight
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” – Louis Brandeis
There is a reason that many writers today are discussing the need for psychological security on teams, which is merely the freedom to be able to articulate truth and perception without fear. I posit the axiom that if your team cannot air out the truth, then trust on a team is impossible. You need a team because your mission success depends on leveraging the diverse skills, experiences, thoughts, and perspectives of multiple people; you expanded on the industrial revolution’s concept of division of labor to incorporate division of ideas. It’s absolutely what you want and need to thrive and achieve the mission objective. Each person’s idea is different, and some are disruptive, but the point is that this diversity contributes to the production of value that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Our teammates and we are emotional, biased, stubborn, independent, and sometimes right. Puke is messy, but cleanable. When held inside, it destroys from within.
Samuel was listening intently as I (his rater and team lead) was describing a major shift in the objectives for our team’s project. Sam suddenly got red in the face and tried to deliver as a joke the words: “f--- off!” I knew him well enough to know it was no joke. It would have been easy for me to get immediately angry at his delivery, at his lack of professionalism, at the pure emotion of the statement. I calmly (really) said, “Whoa. There is a truth in that statement that our team has to understand. Say everything.” Clearly, Sam was unhappy with my direction and had truth that was stirring in his belly, bubbling and brewing with increasing acidity—a homemade burrito full of ghost chilis and greasy horse meat. I and our team needed to see it vomited up into the bright sunlight so we could clean it up together. Maybe there was too much pressure being placed on an individual. Maybe the change did not consider the impacts to the entire system. Maybe it was a sign that I needed to stop micromanaging—to stop shoving street-meat burritos down other peoples’ throats. In all cases, we needed to see it vomited up in all its glory. This led us to a series of meetings and meaningful discussions with our customer to ensure we all understood all the potential impacts of the change. We chose a different path that was less onerous, less disruptive, more collaborative, and completely successful. The method for getting this out was not appropriate for a professional team, but the emotion involved was no less true than the information. I would have been a fool to push in the wrong direction right away.
“Saying ‘your work is shit’ is way better than saying ‘you are shit,’ but it’s still totally obnoxious.” ― Kim Scott, Radical Candor
Of course Sam and I talked later about how his truth might have been better shared—I do not advocate that teammates should tell each other off and establishing that pattern would be totally destructive. We should be able to air out our concerns way before we reach such a high emotional state. A foundation of trust allows truth to be shared before the bile of emotion rises to an Exorcist-like level of projection. The best learning arises from conflicts that are truthfully and professionally handled, which means the damned conflict should be allowed to exist and get discussed early and often. The business world talks about metrics and controls to improve effectiveness and efficiency; in all reality, truth is required on a team because it removes nonobjective factors from the mission so the team can be effective and efficient…like, at all. As with so many things, the leader sets the stage by her example.
This environment of open and honest feedback should be purposefully planned, planted, and cultivated. It should be expected, and the only way to do that as a leader is to take your own medicine. Vomiting truth is sometimes the first step on the road to building a team, and like its allegory it often elicits an identical response from those who are around it. A team that sees its leadership willing to drop filters and diodes in communication will see and appreciate that vulnerability. Let them put sunlight on your ideas and communicate the ideas they own and have been keeping inside. They will also find filters and diodes unnecessary and inefficient. If the team is good at trust, it can work together to kill the diseases and make the organism healthy. It becomes self-healing, but you must go first if you want to lead the team.
Before you get too comfortable, consider as a leader that you also must admit your flaws and mistakes as part of this process. Just last week I was in a situation where I pulled the rug out from under one of my teammates. Sharon was just made the team lead for a new project and so far, she has been exceeding all expectations! We were in an approval meeting with a Vice President and the VP turned to me and asked, “Buster what do you think of all this. Are you okay with it?” I immediately answered the question. Stupid and selfish. It took two full minutes for me to realize that that would have been a great opportunity to prop up my teammate, transfer responsibility, and let her shine. After the meeting there was some small talk and the VP was following the conversations and I made sure to tell Sharon, “look I messed up. When Joe asked me what I thought I stepped right in; I should have let you answer because you are leading this and are killing it without my help.” Joe heard it but it wasn’t for him—it was for Sharon and me. It’s well worth it to acknowledge when you are wrong; after all, it’s not like the team doesn’t know it before you say it, but saying it is important. Like the rest of it, leadership is more about your example than it is your direction.
The unfortunate consequence of the “puke” metaphor for truth is that vomit is gross, and the act is generally painful. It’s all negative imagery and therefore there is a tendency to focus on only negative truths. I get it, but that’s not the focus. Instead, the focus is on the fact that we put up barriers to communication—both positive and negative—that are nonproductive and that get in the way of the team’s success. Add to that the fact that humans focus more on where they suck than where they rock, and you can hurt your team with this model. Take a second and visualize your direct supervisor stopping you in the hall and saying: “[your name], that was freaking impressive; I have no idea how to do what you are pulling off, and I am so glad to have you on my team. You are all kinds of kick-ass.” If you are like me, you think this at least once a week about one or more of your teammates, so just say it. Note: if you are tempted to add a “but…” then walk away and flog yourself with the largest engineering textbook you have in your office. Throw up good truths as often as you are able and then the team will lead itself.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” --Ernest Hemingway
How can one operationalize a trust environment where truth can/must be spoken? Do it yourself. Be vulnerable. If your team isn’t ready to puke, then puke yourself—as I said before, it often leads to an identical reaction from others. Sometimes I will skip a team meeting and deputize someone to have a “firing squad” feedback session at the end. The mission is to find out what is in the team’s way, even if it is me. The deputy is not authorized to attribute those comments to anyone; I am not allowed to defend myself, others, the organization, the company, the aerospace industry, deities, demons, or Mondays. I repeat what I hear and then I work on it. Teammates must really hear each other for this to work. Your teammates knowing they are heard without response, judgment, or even a solution is a great first step. Your team seeing you open yourself up to this, as well as placing your known shortcomings on the table is almost miraculous. Your team getting to the point where they can openly and honestly congratulate each other on successes will make your team unstoppable. Puke out the truth. Bring thunder chunder!