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 December 3, 1999

Leader’s edge: Challenge societal lies by asking tough questions

When Toyota employees ponder a problem, they ask a series of “why” questions. They usually find the problem’s root cause by the time they have asked “why” five times.

These employees often discover that the core of the problem is miscommunication between individuals or groups. That’s true even if they are studying highly technical issues.

Think about your organization. Is poor communication causing you problems? Do baseballs fly out of Coors Field? A major reason people have such difficulty communicating boldly and honestly with one another is because of societal lies we’ve learned. Two lies have been particularly harmful by preventing people from “turning on the communication lights.”

1. Strong or weak?

Do a quick mental exercise with me. Think about someone you care about and know well. It can be someone living or dead. The person you picture in your mind is the type of person who has or would say things such as:

  • I’m going to need your help today.
  • I’m not perfect.
  • I’m sorry.
  • I blew it today but will try again tomorrow.

    Once you’ve visualized that person’s face, answer this question: Is the woman or man you pictured someone you consider overall a strong or weak person?

    I’ve done this exercise with hundreds of people across the country. Between 90 percent and 100 percent of every group answers “strong.”

    Yet, society and many corporate cultures maintain that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. That keeps managers and employees from honestly saying they need help or that they are sorry.

    A manager explains a new direction and asks if the group understands and supports the strategy. Afraid to admit their confusion, they wear a mask of confidence. Unwilling to stand alone in opposition, they nod their approval. The manager walks away thinking the team wants to forge ahead. That manager is operating in partial or total darkness.

    The team members play charades, lacking the courage to say what they really believe or feel. The truly strong person is one who seeks clarification or notes opposition publicly, willing to be vulnerable while shedding light on the situation.

    2. Good or bad?

    Here’s another quick mental exercise. Think of two or three bad feelings people have. Now think of two or three good feelings. When I ask groups around the nation to do that, they come up with words such as mad, sad and scared for bad words and happy, joyful and excited for good words.

    Let’s say I hear the call of the open road and decide to drive tonight toward the Dakota Badlands. Around midnight, I’m in the midst of a blizzard, alone on a country road, totally lost. At that moment, the oil light starts flashing. Is that good or bad? Most people answer that it’s bad, really bad.

    However, I look at it like this. I picture a little mechanic (a male, let’s say) underneath the hood checking out how things are going. At midnight, the tiny dude turns on the light, his way of saying, “Hey, Piburn, I thought you should know you’re low on oil. I’m not telling you what to do about it, I just wanted to give you that data.”

    Imagine you also have a dashboard of the heart. There’s also a little person (probably female) down there checking out the gauges. Every once in a while, she also illuminates a light, which says things such as, “Hey, Piburn, I thought you should know that you’re angry. I’m not telling you what to do about it, I just wanted to give you that information.”

    You see, there are no “good” or “bad” feelings. There are just feelings, which add much light to self-knowledge and interpersonal communication. By eliminating emotions from the conversation, we lose light on situations that deserve honesty and boldness.

    As toddlers, most of us learned powerful lessons about expressing our feelings: “Betty, you’re angry, go to your room,” or, “Billy, big boys don’t cry.” We learned that anger and sadness are worthy of banishment or ridicule. Now, as big-time adults, we’re operating on those same small-minded lies.

    Historian Ken Burns, producer of “The Civil War” and “Baseball” documentaries, says, “If it has no emotion, it has no meaning.”

    By living by these two lies, organizations will continue to suffer from the dim lights of poor communication.

    Gregg Piburn can be reached at (970) 669-0750, or visit www.LeadersEdgeCosulting.com and www.BeyondChaos.com.

  • When Toyota employees ponder a problem, they ask a series of “why” questions. They usually find the problem’s root cause by the time they have asked “why” five times.

    These employees often discover that the core of the problem is miscommunication between individuals or groups. That’s true even if they are studying highly technical issues.

    Think about your organization. Is poor communication causing you problems? Do baseballs fly out of Coors Field? A major reason people have such difficulty communicating boldly and honestly with one another is because of societal lies we’ve learned. Two lies have been particularly harmful by preventing…

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