Is your business too damn quiet? A guest piece by Mark Hodgson

We’ve all see films where, in an eerie quiet scene (typically just before all hell breaks loose), the hero says something along the lines of, “it’s quiet out there … too damn quiet”. It’s a well-worn cinematic cliché – from John Wayne at ‘The Alamo’ to episode two of this season’s ‘Game of Thrones’, prior to the battle of the ‘Long Night’. And whilst you don’t want an invading Mexican army or white walkers running roughshod through your business, there’s a good chance that a bit more noise could actually be a good thing.

Why a quiet life can be bad for business

For too long, we’ve been conditioned to minimise conflict in our workplaces. We prize consensus and agreement. Meetings are often about smoothing over differences or finding a compromise. Problem is, it’s easy to end up in either ‘groupthink’ (where neither opportunities nor risks are fully explored) or ‘false agreement’ (where dissenters stay silent – taught by experience that ‘resistance is futile!’).

This may make for a quiet life and convey a sense of systematic progress. It can be particularly comforting in the project-management-based world of construction and engineering. But chances are this ‘peace’ is coming at a price. At best, you are missing out on the chance to harness the collective smarts of all of your people. At worst, you could be laying the foundations for under-performing individuals and failing teams.

Want great teams – start a fight!

In his excellent business fable, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, Patrick Lencioni identifies five tiers of dysfunction, each negatively building on the last. The first of these is Absence of Trust. The second, Fear of Conflict. To fix this, Lencioni says we need to engage in productive conflict. In other words, we need to encourage our teams to have conversations that are passionate, energetic and possibly quite heated.

Time for some creative abrasion?

Harvard Professor, Linda Hill agrees. In her recent book, ‘Collective Genius’, she argues that to get the best from our people we need to in-build ‘Creative Abrasion’. We need passionate people from all levels of the business sharing their ideas, unfettered and unafraid. We need to be ABRASIVE – in a good way!

As Hill’s model shows, to make this workable, we need two further elements. ‘Creative Agility’ tests and refines the resulting ideas and ‘Creative Resolution’ which is a patient and evolving process that allows the best solutions to arise over time.

Crucially the role of the leader is flipped in this process. His/her focus is on nurturing and maintaining the environment in which all of this can happen – not to be a central figurehead who sets the vision and leads the charge.

What’s happening at your place?

Do your corridors and meeting rooms resemble a library? Are raised or animated voices heard or encouraged? Is there a sense of creativity, energy and occasional friction?

These are good questions to ask. The social norm is very strong. We are conditioned to polite order. Whilst not condoning rudeness or aggression, I think there is plenty of upside in encouraging our people to be more energetic and unfiltered in expressing their ideas. Yes, it will raise new challenges. You will need to positively manage this new dynamic to prevent negative excesses. That done, I believe the upsides will far outweigh potential negatives.

Mark Hodgson is a leadership and change expert

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