By Dr. Lawrence S. Levin
One of the most essential yet difficult variables that distinguishes top teams from most executive teams is their ability to engage in honest, candid, and authentic dialogue. Dialogue (from the Greek dia-logos) literally means an exchange of ideas. In our work with teams, and in our observation of top teams, there is a high premium put on addressing the most important and often the most difficult issues within the team setting, with an eye toward resolving them.
Jake Jackson, retired executive of a large financial institution, talks about how teams can choose to prioritize peace over trust or vice versa. Most of us have experienced this when we have participated in polite, careful, and indirect teams. In this dynamic, issues may be noted, but they are not explored in depth. At worst, civility in public gives rise to passive-aggressive or indirect behavior in private as members of teams talk over the water cooler or an adult beverage about those very issues that should be on the table.
In top teams, the opposite must occur—trust must be even more important than keeping the peace. This requires leaders to encourage, demand, and ensure that it is safe to talk openly about anything. As Sidney Taurel of Eli Lilly was widely attributed to say when opening the dialogue up for honest interactions, “Put the moose on the table.” This is far easier said than done, as the culture of many firms is deeply “nice,” yet indirect. Periodically, we hear the horror story of the executive who was shunned, banned, or fired for being too honest. In truth, this is rare. However, political correctness, carefulness, and less-than-direct conversation are often group behaviors and dynamics that we, as experienced consultants to this process, confront and work very hard to shift.
There is an old line from theater that says, “It is easier to act your way into feeling than feel your way into acting.” For the dynamics of a team, this means that members begin, sometimes nervously, to address issues in depth and directly with one another with the clear intent of making their organization even better. The good news is that difficult dialogue becomes easier over time.
Think of an issue that you talk about privately but not with your team.
Think of a conversation that you’ve had with yourself in the car in which you said, “I wish I’d said…” or “I wish someone had said…”
Think of a time when someone brought up an issue that mattered—that everyone knew about but had never discussed.
Trust is a word that often arises as we explore the changing dynamics within a team. It has many meanings and underpinnings, but it is always a supercharged word. Driving operational excellence, representing someone’s interests when they are not in the room, or simply being credible by making and keeping agreements are all part of building trust. Trust is far more important than peace when it comes to the crucible that is a top team.
Trust over peace—the ability to have authentic and full dialogue about the issues that matter—is a critical and essential part of building top teams.
Dr. Lawrence S. Levin is the founder and president of The Levin Group LLC, a global management consulting firm specializing in executive team and leadership development. His clients include many Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies, their key leader teams and their smart, high-performing leaders. His 25 years of consulting experience coupled with his background in psychology makes Dr. Levin a sought after executive coach and trusted advisor. His approach is pragmatic and results-driven, designed to make both experienced leaders and fast-track executives more effective in their current positions as well as prepared for future marketplace challenges.
Larry received his bachelor’s degree from University of Florida and his doctorate from Georgia State University. Larry lives in Atlanta with his wife and business partner, Dr. Patricia Wheeler. To contact Larry or two learn more about The Levin Group LLC, visit www.thelevingroup.com.