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Leadership in Action: The Four-step Program to Identify & Address Silent Barriers to Business Success

By Francine Carlin |

Silent barriers are negative attitudes and behaviours - gossip, apathy, favouritism, competitiveness, anxiety - that lead to mistrust, disrespect, misunderstandings, cliques, and other counterproductive workplace situations.

When ignored, silent barriers like these can become embedded in an organization's culture, producing serious inertia to change and undermining even the best of business plans. It is not always easy for leaders to recognize silent barriers at work in their organizations - especially if the leaders are part of the problem. But recognition is the first step to resolving the situation and moving ahead.

In Part 1 of this article series, Dave, a senior executive, couldn't understand why the proven management strategies he had implemented had not improved the low morale and apathy of his team. But after realizing that silent barriers may be at the heart of his problem, Dave adopted an established approach to identify and address the issues in a positive way. Although each organization's unique needs influence program specifics, the approach usually involves four main steps:

  • Give people the opportunity to speak their minds.
  • Provide a private way - a one-on-one interview with a neutral party, a confidential survey - for people to express concerns about specific individuals, their needs of those people, and the things they appreciate about them. Ask for frank specifics; generalities aren't sufficient to uncover silent barriers.

    In Dave's organization, interviews with him and his senior team revealed deep-seeded resentments of all kinds. "Sam procrastinates." "Alice is a know-it-all." "Josie always takes advantage of situations to make herself look better." And on and on. People's entrenched opinions about each other were being used as excuses for their own negative behaviours.

  • In a safe group setting, acknowledge the issues.
  • The first aspect of this step is to establish a safe, respectful environment where people can collectively explore their thoughts and feelings about each other and the workplace they share. This involves setting ground rules to ensure open and respectful discussion.

    The second focus of this step is acknowledgement. You can't undo the past, but you can move beyond it by acknowledging the legitimacy of people's feelings. People who feel heard are more likely to participate in finding solutions than people who feel ignored.

    For Dave's group, there was a day-long dialogue about the interview findings. Everyone was encouraged to suspend doubts about the process, step outside their comfort zones, and keep what was said within the room. The unattributed statements people had made in the interviews were reviewed, and each person was allowed to absorb and talk about the concerns and appreciation others had expressed about them.

    As the day wound on and emotions ebbed and flowed, a number of breakthroughs occurred. "I feel like the negative vapours are disappearing," one participant said. "This was a tough but good session; I think it has brought us closer," another offered.

    Dave, hearing that people felt he was presumptuous and overly aggressive with the amount of change he'd introduced so quickly, said, "It's not easy to receive feedback, but I'm committed to being more visible and transparent with my decisions."

  • Once the silent barriers are identified and acknowledged, develop a concrete action plan for moving past them.
  • Uncovering silent barriers can be an emotional journey, but the end result isn't a group hug where everyone just agrees to get along. Once you know the issues constraining business success, you need to find professional, tangible ways to ensure those issues don't continue to get in the way.

    At the end of their dialogue session, Dave and his group agreed to some specific action items as well as some senior team ground rules: No gossip. Be open and present at meetings. Even if someone disagrees with a group decision they should still uphold it in the organization. Express issues respectfully and honestly as they occur as opposed to allowing things to fester.

    These ground rules may sound simple, but they hadn't been followed before and were directly related to the silent barriers Dave's group had uncovered.

  • As a group, revisit the action plan at regular intervals to address new or resurfacing silent barriers.
  • Staving off silent barriers is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. It takes commitment and practice to adopt new behaviours. A routine tune-up session serves to reinforce the actions that are working and amend those that are not. It also allows for new silent barriers to be acknowledged and addressed.

Three months after the initial process was facilitated at Dave's office, the group held the first of what became semi-annual tune-up meetings. While little had changed on the surface since the team had started the silent barriers process, now the energy in the room matched the engaging environment. People seemed more relaxed and welcoming. Many were smiling.

As the senior group gathered for the session, Dave talked about a new program the organization was preparing to launch. The two senior team members most dismissive of change were in charge of it, and they were doing an outstanding job. Though they still tussled over turf sometimes, they were open and professional about it, and they no longer tried to get others to take one side or the other.

"What we learned about silent barriers has transformed our entire leadership team," Dave said. "Once people in this organization - including me - became aware of the barriers and began to address them constructively, we became a higher functioning group. There's a completely new level of trust, respect, and excitement around here that is finally producing the results we've been looking for."

Read Part I: Low Morale, Stalled Productivity, Apathy: Could Silent Barriers be Undermining Your Business Success?

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