Try this Experiment: A little bit of Truth
Context: This experiment can help you start addressing the challenges of "Non-Profit Nice."
Goal: See if you and your team can share a little bit more than you normally do.
Overview: Pick a recent project, activity, or plan that everyone in the team is familiar with — ideally one where you sense that some people are less than happy. Try to collect everyone’s authentic thoughts and feelings about it.
Instructions: Tell your team up front that you want to see if they can get past being superficially nice and find their way to a real, authentic conversation in which they simply share what they think. Share this article with them! Ask them to give it some thought in advance, and then call them together. Let them take turns talking about the project, and capture their ideas openly on a white board. Be ready to probe a bit—they may need a little bit of encouragement or help getting their thoughts into succinct and concrete shape. Make sure to save time at the end of the meeting to ask people how it went: did people really say some things they hadn’t been able to? Was it safe to speak up? Did your team handle the discomfort of hearing different, potentially contrasting perspectives? Most importantly, would they like to do it again?
Some important notes:
The point is to let your team say what they think, not to correct what they think. You need to make sure that when people say what they’re thinking, they don’t get attacked, dismissed, or put down in some way. You’ll need to head off defensiveness or challenges if these come up. Remember that, as the leader, you are the most likely source of this defensiveness! One way you can protect against your own reactions to what people say is to have someone else facilitate the conversation.
Watch out for the bandwagon effect. You’d like everyone’s genuine perspective, but there is a natural tendency to fall in with what the person before you says. And if people have built up a lot of thoughts and feelings from weeks and months of not really saying what they think, a lot of that might come pouring out. You or your facilitator will need to be ready to (gently) nudge people out of spiraling into a gripe session or losing focus. “I hear you didn’t like (other topic) — what did you think about (the topic we’re supposed to be talking about)?” Or “OK, I’ve heard a lot of things that are wrong with this (topic). Anyone like anything about it? Anything positive we can build on here?”
You might need to act on what you hear. There’s a chance you may learn things that you’ll need to act on—problems, challenges, issues you hadn’t realized were there, or you hadn’t realized were as thorny as they are. This may feel gross, but it’s actually an awesome outcome—without this kind of conversation, how would you have known about them? Note: you don’t need to fix all problems in the moment; when these come up, just say “this sounds like something we need to do something about . . . give me a chance to think about this, and I’ll let you know what I think we should do” Or, better yet, “would anyone here be willing to tackle this with me?”