Snakes in the Carpet
Last week's post was a bit of a milestone moment for this blog, taking me over 10,000 individual views! It's very much appreciated and I love seeing the discussions and sharing of ideas that come up each week on the various social media sites I share my ideas on. I've also taken this opportunity to set up a page on Medium.com where I'll be repurposing and re-sharing some of the articles which have had the most reads and generated the most conversation, so if you're a user of that website, I'd love it if you could give those articles some love!
This week I've been working on a reflective essay as part of my final assignment for the Professional Certificate in Team, Board and Systemic Coaching which I've been studying with Henley Business School since last Spring. The studies have been challenging, eye opening and rewarding in equal measure. Part of the process, which tied in nicely with my own established practices, was journalling and preparation for the reflective essay has involved going back through those months of journal entries in search of insights from the journey I've been on.
In doing so, I rediscovered a video I'd watched last year, with a coach called Manfried Kets de Vries, talking about team coaching, where he used a phrase that I'd written in my journal: 'Snakes in the Carpet'. In this reference, he was taking about the unspoken conversations that should take place within teams, but don't. The frustrations and challenges which are never surfaced. The things that turn into bitching and moaning behind one another's backs and which breed mistrust and animosity. I've worked in and with a lot of teams over the years where this happens and I suspect that you will have experience of it to. It erodes not only the camaraderie and cohesiveness within the team, it ultimately impacts upon their productivity and effectiveness too, as people (consciously or subconsciously) find ways to make one another's jobs harder.
As a team coach, surfacing the unspoken and bringing these snakes from the carpet to the table where they can be properly addressed is often an important part of the work. It requires a delicate approach but the results can be dramatic, with team members talking about feeling like a weight has been lifted, giving them much more energy to focus on the things that really matter, like doing the work to serve their stakeholders and customers well.
But what if you're in a team or a group without a coach? How can you do this yourself? Well here are a few tips to get you started.
Firstly, you need to listen, and I mean REALLY listen. This is a skill I wish was given more attention in early years education - listening beyond just the content. What's being said? How is it being said? Do the non-visual cues match the words? What's not being said? This is important for all of us, but particularly if you're a leader. Minimise distractions, find a good place to talk, maintain eye contact. All of the things that help a person feel heard.
Next you need to offer space for not what's being said and tease it out. Often this is better done in 121 environments initially (and as a team coach, that's often where these snakes first poke their heads out of the shag pile). It can be as simple as asking that question, but you may find it easier to ask retrospectively, about a previous conversation. 'I reflected after we spoke last week and I sensed that there may have been things that weren't said. Was there anything on your mind or which you'd have liked to raise, now you look back on it?' All of this shows that you genuinely care. I've known leaders who hate difficult conversations and will do anything at all to change the subject when it looks to be veering close to something contentious. It doesn't take long before these leaders end up with a real disconnect from their teams, because everyone realises it's a waste of their time expecting the leader to help make things better. Leaders who don't listen quickly find themselves surrounded by people with nothing to say.
When something does come up, then you need to address it. Finding there's an issue and doing nothing about it is MUCH worse than not finding the problem in the first place because you've moved from 'She maybe doesn't know' to 'She definitely doesn't care'. Make sure that if the snake has been surfaced by someone privately, you protect the self image of that individual. Having 121s like I've described above, with multiple people on the team makes it much more likely that the topic will be raised again by someone else, helping to anonymise each person who raised it, but there might be value where appropriate in raising the topic as though it's something that you've identified, rather than something that's been brought to you, because it keeps others heads below the parapet and show's it's safe to talk to you.
And a final tip for today is just to raise topics yourself, in a team environment. Role modelling is so important in leadership, after all 'what's interesting to my boss is fascinating to me' and so by showing that you're willing to surface the unspoken, you tacitly give your team the permission and guidance to do the same. That might even mean taking time to reflect on your own leadership and recognising that there are things which YOU are doing that are causing frustration or upset. It's never nice to have those realisations, but if you do, it's even worse to pretend they're not happening or hope they'll go away. Raise them directly. Show humility. Encourage dialogue and you'll have the chance to give any context which might have been missing, and to find a way forward that helps the team grow.
Difficult conversations lie ahead, there's no getting away from it. You'll feel like one of the Billy Goats Gruff, crossing a bridge with a Troll beneath it, but for once, the grass on the other side really is greener!