Calling Bullsh*t

by: Doug Michaelides

High-performance teams get that way by building mutual trust.  However, sometimes in the interest of building trust and camaraderie, the “truth” can get suppressed.  We’re afraid to present our ideas forcefully, disagree or debate important topics for fear it will lead to animosity and reduce the cohesion of our team.

How do you avoid groupthink and address the elephants in the room without damaging team dynamics?  The trick is to focus on issues rather than people.  One of the best techniques I know (a variation of the “straight talk” ethos introduced to Nortel by Dave House the CEO of Bay Networks) is something I describe as “calling bullshit”.  OK, so it’s not as elegant as “straight talk” but it’s equally effective.

The process goes like this:  When a colleague says something outrageous, ill-informed, inappropriate or just plain wrong, you can’t just let the issue lie.  But saying “you’re wrong!” or “I disagree with you!” challenges the person, not the idea, and will probably elicit a defensive response, setting up a confrontational situation.  It’s much better to good-naturedly “call bullshit” on the idea instead.  Immediately your disagreement is registered but now the debate that is provoked focuses on the issue not on the person.

In fact, the phrase “I’m going to have to ‘call bullshit’ on that statement” becomes code for disagreement that automatically elevates the discussion above the personal and empowers people to debate issues without damaging their relationships.  In a high performance team, healthy debate leads to better decisions.  This contrasts with teams struggling with the accumulation of disagreement, resentment and animosity.

Try introducing this practice into your work group.  It may just lead to better decisions and a more constructive work environment.  I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s much better to “call bullshit” once in a while than be stuck wallowing around in it all the time!

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