A Simple System CEOs Use to Raise Concerns & Help Teams Do Better Work

max yoder system conflict

"But my boss."

It's the most common objection to doing better work, whether we’re the boss and need to root out problems to solve (which teams may not wish to vocalize), or we’re practitioners trying to communicate with our bosses. Today, we find a communication framework that anyone can use to have difficult conversations — all in the name of doing better work. This system, known as “non-violent communication,” helps people in the workplace do the seemingly unthinkable: turn potential conflict into something objective and simple, instead of emotional and messy.

You can listen to the story using the embedded player below, or read some of the key points beneath that. This episode features Max Yoder, author of Do Better Work, and cofounder/CEO of Lessonly. We address concepts like finding conflict and communicating it, the structure for doing so, the issue with “but my boss” and the lack of control it creates, and the feelings of imposter syndrome that people of all levels often feel (and how to work around it).

You can also subscribe to Unthinkable wherever you get your podcasts, like Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or Spotify. The show is a narrative-style podcast about conventional thinking that forms at work and the people who dare to question it.

The Instant Excuse Plaguing Teams

I give keynote speeches and run a media and education company for marketers. Both of these things require me to raise my hand and say confidently, “I think there’s a better way to grow our careers and companies.” In every single instance of me doing this, however, there’s one pushback I dread from others: “That’s all well and good, Jay … but my boss.”

This comes in other flavors too: “but my team,” “but my client,” “but my…” insert whoever you like. When faced with the prospect of doing better work, even when that prospect is distilled into a helpful framework or practical approach, it’s tempting for teams to cling to the status quo. Often times, there’s one underlying issue: We don’t feel we’re in control.

This lack of control is often in our own heads, at least in part. (Increasingly, too, I think it’s the BIGGEST part.) Over the years, especially when stepping off stages following a talk, I always felt I had to prepare some kind of clever methodology or big, new idea for handling the “but [others we work with]” pushback. Now, I wonder:

How many of us are actually willing to sit down with others and have an honest conversation? How many of us push through conflict successfully, rather than avoid it entirely?

Part of the issue is we lack a system to communicate our way through these tougher chats. We might be the CEO or CMO, or we might be an intern. It doesn’t matter. As humans, we don’t enjoy conflict. We feel isolated, or lost in the details, or wind up too self-serving when speaking — rather than bringing others along with us, inspiring better work because we’re objective in our conversation. We’re here to solve a problem, not start a fight.

Whatever the case, we often avoid conflict not because we haven’t identified the need to push through something (like stale work), but because of the way conflict FEELS — to us, or to others.

In the book, Do Better Work, Max Yoder helps us work through a simple system called non-violent communication. This approach to conflict holds the keys we need to raise our hands internally and say, “There’s a better way. We can get better results. We can serve our audience and ourselves by doing better work.”

This all starts with managers and leaders assuming a different role than top-down instruction givers.

“It’s incumbent on the manager of a team to provoke those conversations,” Max says in the podcast episode. “What am I missing? What am I not seeing? A manager that comes at a situation with a command-and-control style, where they just tell people what they need them to do, that manager is just going to implicitly suggest that THEY know the answer, that they know the way. Humans will respond to that by following whatever they suggest they do without questioning it, and that’s incredibly dangerous because what you’re doing there, is you’re relying on one set of eyes.

“If you have six people on the team, you can multiply that by 6x, but the manager has to set the expectation and the tone that they are willing to be challenged, they want to be challenged, that they don’t necessarily know the way, that they’re making their best guess right now. Everybody’s making their best guess right now. All the time, we’re making our best guesses.

“Some managers hide that fact, because they believe that a leader should know the answer, should be able to dominate life and know the way. I believe leaders should LEARN the answer. If we set a tone that learning the answer is what is real, and what’s expected, then leaders can start asking questions, they can start being more unsure, they can admit what they don’t know. That starts this cascade of behaviors that are incredibly valuable. We start having conversations that we’d otherwise might not have. We start having teammates come to us and point out potential answers that we’d otherwise not have seen, or pointing out potential icebergs ahead that we’d otherwise not have seen, but that all starts with, How is the manager behaving?”

The process of non-violent communication is outlined in more detailed in the episode, but there are two supporting ideas I’d like to discuss in this article that we must first tackle in order to use non-violent communication in the first place. (They’re discussed in greater detail in the episode as well.)

Those supporting ideas are…

1. Using agreements to meet and exceed expectations.

2. Overcoming imposter syndrome.

1. Failure to meet expectations

Because we avoid conflict (which non-violent communication seeks to solve), we rarely know how to address a pattern when expectations weren’t met. Practitioners might massage the data or try to pretend everything is great, when in reality, voicing that there’s an issue might help the team work through it the next time, and thus improve. Meanwhile, leaders who avoid conflict with their peers, their own bosses, or yes, their teams, kick the can down the road, which lets problems fester or even compound.

In short, as Max says, a failure to communicate when we sense conflict prevents us from creating, in his words, “agreements.”

“I’d be frustrated with a teammate, but I’d never have set an agreement with how they should behave, and yet I was still frustrated that they were behaving a different way than I wanted them to.”

He didn’t realize that THAT was the true source of his frustration: He needed someone to do something, and he hadn’t communicated it to them.

“That’s pretty basic, right? But I was comfortable living with the expectations that they should do something and they should just KNOW, instead of going to them and saying, Hey, can we get an agreement that going forward, here’s how we do things? What do you think of that, and do you have any perspectives yourself that you can add in so we can make this something that’s mutually agreed upon?”

Nobody teaches us about getting agreements instead of merely having expectations (and perhaps telling others what those expectations are). Taking it one step further and cementing those agreements — which creates mutual consent and accountability, by the way — can make or break the team’s ability to exceed expectations over time.

“When I finally got agreements from the team, I was like, WOW! My whole world was broken open in a positive way.”

2. Overcoming imposter syndrome

Listen to the full episode to hear how Max and I work through feelings of imposter syndrome, and why it’s a necessary barrier to overcome to address moments of conflict in our careers. We also outline the exact steps needed to deploy non-violent communication, as well as dive into the empowering story behind Max’s career. He’s philosophical about the workplace in the best possible way, and that’s a direct result of his own life and challenges he overcame.

You can also subscribe to Unthinkable wherever you get your podcasts, like Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or Spotify.

Posted on May 27, 2019 .