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Can Your Team Tell You When the Bus Starts Tipping Over?

· team culture,communication,risk management

The movie Speed features a city bus wired with a bomb that will explode if the speedometer falls below 50 miles an hour. Events have led to Annie driving the bus while Jack tries to figure out how to rescue the passengers. As the bus heads to a corner, Annie warns "I can't make it. The bus is going to tip over!"

At first Jack tells her it will be fine. She repeats her fear, and he suddenly sees the reality: "You're right. We're going to tip over!"

In this moment the remarkable thing about Jack is that he manages to hear what Annie has to say and to see what she means. This is a constant challenge for managers and leaders. When your project or your enterprise is a speeding bus, with customers, employees and investors all on board and desperate to keep the momentum, it's extremely difficult to hear anything above the noise of the wheels. You can't take action on issues that haven't penetrated your own consciousness.

You may be thinking "Hah, that would never happen to me."

"... I would be like Jack. My team would shout loudly if there was a disaster brewing and I would hear them." Unfortunately this is a non-trivial problem and there are plenty of examples that illustrate the difficulty, including Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed with 78 fatalities when the co-pilot could not make the pilot recognize that they were not safe to take off.

I had a speeding-bus moment when I was reviewing a planned event with a newly promoted manager. The event had been planned for some time and would require Kate* to travel for a period of three months or so to pull things together. As we discussed I detected that Kate was ambivalent about the plans, but I didn't sense why. This was a great opportunity for Kate to demonstrate her leadership in her new role. The demands of getting it done had been no secret. This was no time to get wobbly! I reiterated the experience that we were trying to create for the participants and what was at stake for the business. Our review came to a close with no change to the plans.

Later on I was still ruminating on the review with Kate. Had I chosen poorly when I promoted her? Was her passion for the project or the business lacking? Then I realized what I was doing.

I was thinking of Kate as an object.

She had stopped being a person in my mind and instead I was focused on my expectation that she would be useful. We can see people as objects in one of three ways: as useful tools, or as obstacles, or as irrelevant items of scenery. My concerns about the project were leading me to wonder if she was not a useful object but actually an obstacle that I would have to manage. Whatever Kate/Annie was trying to tell me about the bus, I wasn't hearing it.

I got in touch with Kate and asked to revisit our discussion. I explained my suspicion that my focus on the event had led me to miss something important and reframed the conversation to give Kate the space she needed to bring the problems she could see to light. It turned out that there was a personal situation brewing and Kate could see the bus of her private life was at risk of tipping over.

How could this have happened differently?

This time it was lucky that I had the "aha" moment, and of course I can work on being more present and more sensitive. But that's not really enough. It supposes that I can always be the "hero manager", better than anyone else at never being distracted. It doesn't engage my team as equals in the challenge of being present together and hearing each other clearly.

If Kate knew me better, or was more bold, she might have felt safe to redirect my attention more forcefully. This requires some courage from Kate and isn't easy to do if you're not accustomed to redirecting conversations with strong personalities.

What else could be done to help my team culture be more robust to prevent missing important messages like this one?

A tool called the Three Attentions works to provide team members with a vocabulary that they can use to set or change the focus of a discussion. Attention can be in one of three places:

  • Attention on self: for example, if I am being coached, my attention should be on my self so that I notice my responses and deal with them.
  • Attention on other: for example, if I enter a session where I am the coach, I should remind myself to put away attention on myself or distracting subjects and focus on the other person present with my full attention.
  • Attention on field: here the focus is on the wider space - it could be the marketplace, the community or the business.
three attentions

With this tool in common use, Kate might have been able to say "Hang on Johanne, we seem to be having an 'attention on the field' discussion here. I need you to shift your focus to 'attention on other' for a moment." Then Kate could have shifted to 'attention on self' and we would have talked about what she needed as a person, not an object.

Of course Kate could have said something like that anyway, but when I introduce a tool like the Three Attentions:

  • I explicitly acknowledge the need to channel my (and others') focus from time to time, 
  • specifically give permission and welcome the team to do it, and 
  • give them a "catchphrase" that makes it easier to do.

That's a lot more proactive than just trying to be a better listener, or telling the team "You can feel free to yell 'hold up' if I'm off topic."

In a situation like this Kate will only use the tool of the Three Attentions if she is accustomed to using it and getting the desired result.

  • If Three Attentions isn't in common use in the team, she's not likely to remember it or try it at a moment when she's feeling the pressure and her manager already seems locked into a business conversation. The Three Attentions has to be a part of daily language - for example, one-on-ones can start with a reminder "OK, this is an attention on self / other meeting". 
  • She's also not likely to use it if she has ever experienced that her manager dismissed the tool. The manager has to be sensitized that playing the Three Attentions card is an interrupt that has to be honored.

This is a very small tool and clearly not the only one a team will need, but little connections like this are what help a team member get their point across when everyone around is distracted by the hurtling bus.

Lastly, what happened to Annie and Jack on the speeding bus? Watch the movie!

* Names have been changed

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