Why a culture of violent politeness is killing your teams
“If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.” — Ed Catmull, Pixar
Teams live or die by the quality of their communication, and I’ve become particularly interested in the notion that some of our biggest problems arise from phenomena like wilful blindness and conflict avoidance. So when I came across this phrase “violent politeness” in “The Leading Brain” by Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann, I had a moment of pure delight. The authors describe violent politeness as “the silent killer of effective communication.” It’s a term coined by Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France, which describes “situations in which people in groups would rather bite their tongues than openly express their disagreements or misgivings.”
It reminds me of the model devised by Kim Scott (formerly of Google) called Radical Candour. Instead of “violent politeness”, she uses the term “ruinous empathy” to refer to a culture in which people care for each other personally, but there is a lack of challenge or holding each other accountable. (Fun aside: if your a fan of TV comedy show Silicon Valley, Radical Candour got a mention in a recent episode.)
For sure, we don’t want cultures of obnoxious aggression or manipulative insecurity, but I’ve discovered that many teams I work with are just as held back by an overactive desire for things to be friendly and harmonious.
The trouble with violent politeness
Here are the problems with violent politeness (or ruinous empathy) from a neuroscience perspective (again, taken from The Leading Brain):
“Problem solving and decision making suffer because the high cost of cognitive inhibition…robs the brain of the resources that would normally be devoted to rational analysis. Meanwhile, the undercurrent of distrust triggers the threat response, which saps the energy from fruitful collaboration. In one fell swoop, we lose both our ability to speak our minds and our capacity to build meaningful relationships. Another problem with violent politeness is that it doesn’t fade; it festers. Pulling your punches for now doesn’t give you extra time to build up courage and resolve. Instead, it’s more likely to make this damaging deference a permanent part of your corporate personality. The aversion to candour becomes a well-worn neuronal pathway. Hesitancy becomes a habit. Rather than consciously holding your tongue, you eventually do it without thinking. The higher you rise in the ranks, the more common violent politeness becomes. In fact, CEOs are often the unfortunate recipients of the bulk of this well-intentioned disingenuousness. As one executive observed, “The neighbourhood almost always seems to be free of crime when you view it through the windshield of a police car.” Leaders who don’t learn to tell the weather themselves may unwittingly wind up with a warm and sunny forecast for what in reality is a cold and stormy company climate.”
“All confrontation is a search for the truth. Who owns the truth? Each of us owns a piece of it, and nobody owns all of it. “ — Susan Scott, “Fierce Conversations”
How to break the cycle of violent politeness
Here’s a simple exercise you can use from the book “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.
- Write down some official truths in your workplace.
Often these are sentences proudly displayed on the company website or phrases leaders frequently spout at company town hall meetings or in interviews with potential candidates. For example, it might be something like “We have an open and honest culture here” or “We are totally committed to delivering exceptional customer service.”
- Write down some ground truths in your workplace.
In other words, what really goes on in the organisation. And be unforgiving. You might write something like “Actually, most people are scared to speak up for fear of getting fired or punished” or “Sure, we deliver great customer service but we don’t have the autonomy to really delight them.”
The idea here is to notice the gap between the official truth and the ground truth. Spend some time facing reality as it is; be curious, ask questions, listen deeply without explanations or justifications. From there, you can ask the question: “what would it take to close the gap between the official truth and the ground truth?” Or perhaps you might snuff out the old official truth and create a new one. Draft some agreements together about how you can continue to have honest conversations about the way things are around here. Sometimes creating a code word helps as it produces a sort of short hand that people can refer to. Or you could even appoint someone to be the truth guardian — when the bullshit-o-meter reaches a certain level, they will call attention to it and the others promise to listen. In fact, I once read about a CEO who hired someone to be a sort of court jester whose sole role was to tell the CEO the cold, hard truth, no matter how much his ego protested, in order to keep him grounded.
Confronting the truth in teams isn’t easy, in fact it’s usually painful. And it’s never something that’s finished, but rather something you must honour and uphold constantly. I’ll leave you with this anecdote from “Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday:
“My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”
If you enjoyed this, you might like some blogs I’ve written on similar topics: