Posted: 08 Feb. 2021 5 min. read

To accelerate progress, don't play "nice"

(This is the eighth post in the Breakthrough Manifesto series, an exploration of Business Chemistry and how to tackle solving really tough problems. If you missed the introduction, read it here.)

"When there is an invisible elephant in the room, one is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk." – Karen Joy Fowler

The eighth principle of the Deloitte Greenhouse Breakthrough Manifesto is don’t play "nice." By this, we mean to speak the truth and call out any elephants in the room.

If you're unfamiliar with the "elephant in the room" phrase, Wikipedia provides a useful definition: "a metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable or is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous." Wikipedia identifies the original source of the phrase as an 1814 fable by Ivan Krylov entitled "The Inquisitive Man," about a man who notices all kinds of little things at a museum, but doesn't notice an elephant in the room.

While this Breakthrough Manifesto principle urges you not to play "nice," it's not suggesting you should be mean. Instead, it implores you to refrain from the tendency many people and teams have of letting important things go unsaid for fear of ruffling feathers.

Author Kim Scott's Radical Candor model illustrates two forms such silence can take: Ruinous empathy is when someone holds their tongue because they're afraid of hurting someone's feelings, while manipulative insincerity is keeping quiet out of a desire to fit in. In either case, keeping your thoughts to yourself can hurt the team's efforts.

As important as speaking the truth can be, however, this is not a license to be a jerk, what Scott calls obnoxious aggression. The goal isn't to create an environment where people feel at risk of being attacked. The ideal tone, from Scott's perspective, is radical candor. This is honesty delivered with caring. When people are willing to engage in honest debate in a respectful tone, a team's problem-solving efforts can start to get more creative.

When it comes to the likelihood of playing "nice," Business Chemistry types can make a difference. Let's imagine you're in a meeting, and there's a lively discussion happening. About halfway in, a tiny elephant with disproportionately big ears wanders into the room and plops itself down in the middle of the table. As it sits, it begins to grow.

Maybe a Pioneer is speaking at the time, and everyone is pretty engaged. The Pioneer is very enthusiastic and excited about what they're saying. They don't even notice that an elephant has ambled into the room. If they saw the elephant, they might say, "Holy cow, look, an elephant!" But their focus is on their new idea, and they just keep right on going.

An Integrator may be the first to notice the elephant, since they're most likely to be scanning the room to get a sense of how people are reacting to things. But they might not say anything about it right away, maybe because they don't want to interrupt the Pioneer who's speaking. Or maybe they're not sure how others will feel about the elephant being there. The Pioneer hasn't mentioned it, maybe because they'd rather not talk about it. No one else has mentioned it either, so maybe it's a sensitive subject. The Integrator doesn't want to upset anyone and stays quiet, but pays close attention to the elephant's rate of growth rather than focusing on the discussion.

A Guardian most likely sees the elephant too, but isn't sure anyone else sees it; after all, no one is saying anything. The Guardian might think maybe there's a reason no one has mentioned it. Is the elephant meant to be there? Was this part of the plan for the day? (The Guardian checks the agenda and sees no mention of an elephant.) What are the expectations here? Is the group supposed to be acknowledging the elephant or not? Not being sure, the Guardian likely won't mention the elephant, but will be distracted by worrying about how long the table can withstand its increasing weight.

It will probably be a Driver who suddenly looks up from multitasking because some strange force is pushing their laptop off the table and into their lap. Only because their progress has been interrupted do they notice what is now a quite large elephant sitting on the table. The Driver blurts out, "Why on earth is there an elephant in the middle of the table?! It's about to collapse! We better get it out of here right away." But how to do so now that the elephant is so large it can't fit through the door?

While this story is admittedly a bit silly, it illustrates how and why people can leave something unsaid, even when that can obviously lead to problems.

In my posts about silencing your cynic and getting real, I wrote about the likelihood that Guardians and Integrators (especially Dreamers) experience less psychological safety and therefore are more reluctant to share ideas, thoughts, and opinions. They are also likely to be less direct, more averse to confrontation, and more reserved generally, all of which can affect the chances that they'll point out an elephant. And this is particularly meaningful because these quieter types may be more likely to notice the elephant while it's still small and easier to deal with, since those who speak less sometimes perceive more.

Drivers tend to be willing to point out an elephant, but they might be so focused on achieving a goal that they don't see it right away, especially if the elephant represents an interpersonal issue. Drivers don't always notice others' reactions or discomfort, so they may not realize a problem exists. Sometimes a Driver may have a hard time relating to why others aren't willing to speak up and may underestimate the importance of creating a welcoming atmosphere. Or they may not be aware of how much tone matters to others when potentially difficult issues are raised, and their typically direct style of communication can lead others to feel attacked and to clam up. All of this can occasionally mean that a Driver's style of interaction might become an elephant of its own.

Pioneers may be quite willing to speak up, but they also recognize the importance of a welcoming atmosphere. In our 2019 problem-solving study, Pioneers were the most likely type to emphasize that solving problems works best when the team environment is one of openness, where people feel safe to share their views.

A person who perceives calling out an elephant as risky is unlikely to do so unless they have reason to believe it’s worth the risk. To understand how this works, a second conceptual model is helpful here. Exit, Voice, Loyalty, Neglect (EVLN) is based on the work of economist Albert Hirschman, and it proposes that people are more likely to take such a risk if they feel committed to the group and if they think it will actually make a difference in their own experience or that of others (i.e., they feel a sense of control).

EVLN features four ways that an individual might respond to an unsatisfactory situation. If they don't feel committed to the team or organization, they will likely either leave (exit) or stay but reduce their effort (neglect). Exit is likely when a person feels they have control, while neglect is likely when they don't, or when they have other significant reasons to stay. On the other hand, when commitment is high, loyalty is likely if control is low, and voice when control is high. While loyalty sounds like a positive option, in this case the label represents staying in the situation, but not actively trying to improve things. If there's an elephant that's keeping the team from working at its best, what you really want is voice—literally for people to voice their concerns.

In order to get people pointing out elephants, you’ll likely want to focus on increasing commitment, enhancing feelings of control, or both. You might increase commitment through any number of efforts. Maybe you'll focus on building trust by getting to know each other personally, as I wrote about in my post on getting real. Or you could work on positioning team members to play to their strengths and then recognizing people for their contributions in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Or you might spend time as a team exploring the connections between the team's purpose and individuals' sense of personal meaning.

You might enhance feelings of control by setting the example and tone yourself, pointing out in a respectful and caring manner problematic issues that you see. You can share with your team expectations, techniques, and guidance on the differences between radical candor (e.g., not playing "nice") and obnoxious aggression (coming off as mean). You could ask that people let you and/or the team know when they suspect there may be an elephant lurking, especially if it's gaining girth. You can respond to such efforts by thanking people for the risk they have taken and doing whatever you can to address the issue immediately, commit to doing so at a later date and following up as appropriate, or if you can't address it, explain why that is, at the very least. Finally, you might want to share stories publicly about issues raised by others that were addressed or resolved as a result (you don't need to reveal who raised it if it's confidential) and how the team and/or organization benefited.

It may be particularly important to focus on control for more introverted types, as we have previously found that Guardians, Scientists, and Dreamers have a less robust internal locus of control than more extroverted Pioneers, Commanders, and Teamers. And enhancing commitment may be especially impactful for Drivers and Guardians, as Pioneers and Integrators tend to place greater importance on relationships generally.

One of our favorite ways to keep this principle top of mind in our Deloitte Greenhouse spaces is to reserve a seat for a big stuffed elephant. When someone wants to call out an uncomfortable truth, they can hold up the elephant or toss it across the room. One of the great things about our plush elephant is it keeps the goal of not playing "nice" top of mind, but also allows people to do so in a way that feels friendly and a little bit playful. Now that our sessions are often virtual, we sometimes feature an elephant in a different place on each slide, and we encourage participants to annotate directly on the screen when they feel there's something that needs to be acknowledged.

Actions in summary for encouraging your team: Don't play "nice"

  • Raise commitment by building trust, recognizing team members, and exploring purpose and meaning
  • Enhance a sense of control on the team by demonstrating, encouraging, and responding to the raising of difficult issues
  • Set the tone by practicing and teaching the techniques of radical candor, delivering honest feedback with caring
  • Use props (like a stuffed elephant) to make speaking up easier

To learn how tapping into emotions can help teams solve problems, read my next post, which focuses on the ninth Breakthrough Manifesto principle, dial up the drama.

And if you simply can't wait to learn more about our Breakthrough Manifesto or how the Deloitte Greenhouse experience might help your team attain breakthrough results, explore and get in touch here.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.