Doug, the division leader, was angry and frustrated. “I’d like to start by understanding why our current results are so badly below forecast,” Doug said, his moustache quivering slightly. “We’re not even close to hitting our numbers.”

Crickets. Chuck studied his shoes. Everyone else became very interested in their notes, coffee mugs, or the water rivulets on the window.

Finally, Omar spoke up. “As the new guy on the team, I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions,” he said. “Since IT gets deep into each department here, we get a good feeling for what’s going on. I’m concerned by the large number of urgent projects and growing list of critical objectives we seem to have. It’s overwhelming. We can’t possibly do it all. On top of that, urgent new priorities seem to be thrown at us every day.”

Doug glared at Omar. “We have a lot of urgencies because our situation is very urgent. Our biggest problem is lack of accountability. Managers here are not taking responsibility for delivering on what we agreed to do. What do you suggest?”

Omar pulled stapled sheets from a file in front of him and handed one set to Doug. “I, I…have made a list of the projects each department is working on that involves IT in some, in some, uh, way. As you can see, umm, it’s an impossibly long list, and there is a lot of overlap and duplication. So, I have followed that with a master project-and-priority list based on my discussions with each department head.”

Deflated, Not Debated

For the next hour and a half, Doug proceeded down the list, giving a forceful argument for the vital importance of every project. He grilled each manager around the table on the ones that involved their group. With each project, he fiercely challenged the manager – or, in some cases, two or three managers — on whether they really thought this project should be moved off the top-priority list. No one did, and none were.

After work, the team — without Doug — had drinks together. They tried to console Omar.

“But he told me when I was hired that his style was all about consulting with his management team,” Omar said. “He has emphasized that over and over in the few months I’ve been here. His e-mail to us last week mentioned getting our input and ideas to deal with our big problems. I thought I was providing that this morning.”

“Doug talks a good game and can spout most of the latest management book leader-speak,” Rosie said. “But his idea of consulting us is to get our agreement on a course of action that he’s already decided on. He browbeats us into silence and takes that as agreement. When he asks for honest feedback, he’s really telling you to agree with him.”

Moose Mess: Cowardly Conversations and Conflict Avoidance

Sound familiar? This scenario is condensed from Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communications at Work. I drew from many experiences with insecure and ineffective leaders (some bullies like Doug) in writing this book.

Many aren’t quite as extreme as Doug. But too many leaders foster a culture that smoothers healthy debate and kills softly with silence.

Healthy Teams Have Healthy Debates

Strong management teams fiercely debate options, challenge each other’s thinking, and find the optimum approaches hidden in the grey area between both sides of tough issues. That takes trust, emotional intelligence, and courage.

Top teams listen respectfully and encourage debates and contrary views to better understand each other’s perspectives and build solutions together. Strong teams leverage the synergy of delivering results and building relationships. Heated debates and honest disagreement are often good signs of progress.

Dysfunctional Arguments

  • Not listening before jumping in and cutting others off.
  • “Yeah, but” responses that don’t probe to understand where the other person is coming from or hear their views.
  • Grandstanding, lecturing, boasting, or showcasing personal/departmental achievements as the gold standard others need to achieve.
  • Biting, sarcastic, impatient, or angry tones — often greeted with eye-rolling and disengagement.
  • Using absolutes like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” etc., with few shades of grey.
  • Not giving credit or acknowledging accomplishments or progress.
  • Refusing to move from a preset position.
  • Obstinate, contrariness, and constantly playing the devil’s advocate.

 Healthy Debates

  • Focusing on the issue, problem, or behavior, not the person.
  • Guiding the discussion back on track when it wanders or moves off-topic.
  • Assuming the other person has good intentions and wants a positive outcome.
  • Acknowledging and naming personal emotions and feelings.
  • Empathy and seeking to understand the other point of view.
  • Anchoring personal and group behaviors to the team or organization’s agreed-upon values, ground rules, or norms.
  • Encouraging and supporting everyone to speak up.
  • More questioning and probing and less telling and lecturing.
  • Clarifying by seeking more information and clearing up points of confusion.
  • Reconciling opposing points of view, linking similar ideas, and looking for common ground.
  • Probing contrary points of view if everyone seems to be in agreement too quickly or easily. Are we really in agreement or avoiding conflict?

Moose on the Loose?

Arguments at least show there’s a team dynamics problem. Too often, dysfunctional teams aren’t that overt. They don’t openly disagree with each other or the leader. And that means there’s a much deeper, more insidious moose problem.

Many leaders suffer from optical delusion. They can’t see the moose because people aren’t speaking up, pushing back, or giving honest feedback. Silence creates blissful ignorance…until big problems seem to pop out of nowhere — like a moose crashing through your car’s windshield as you’re driving through the fog.

Do you have a moose problem? Take our short quiz to do some moose hunting. Do you have an open door and closed mind? How do you know? If you’re picking up sounds of moose or seeing a few tracks, click here for tips to reduce the moose.