Generating Effective Chutzpah

In a famous Sherlock Holmes tale, the fabled detective cracks the case by realizing that the dog didn’t bark at midnight as the crime happened. Therefore, he concluded that it was elementary: the dog knew the perpetrator. I regularly train my clients to be attuned to the quietness around them. Every post-mortem should include the question, “why didn’t the dogs bark?”

Your team likely consists of bright and talented people that you’ve put a lot of effort into hiring (and whom are paid copious amounts of money every month). It is likely that for every issue that is unfolding, someone on the team has spotted it before it has come to your attention or even foresaw it. However, many teams suffer from having people not speak up, or deliver feedback in a way that doesn’t result in positive action. We want the dogs to bark, and in a way that gets us to check what’s going on in the yard as opposed to yelling at them to be quiet. How do we get more of that?

As someone born and raised in Israel, I may be biased, but I believe that effective chutzpah is a great asset. When I was a 19-year-old corporal in the IDF, I spoke up to a Lt. General to let him know his suggested solution was dumb. I love seeing ICs question the CEO about the company’s strategy during all-hands sessions. To enjoy the benefits of chutzpah, you need to help your team with two aspects of feedback: Volume and Nonviolent communication. Let’s dissect this:

The Quiet Ones

When people don’t speak up, it does not mean that they don’t have anything to say. Frequently, it means that something in the past (either in your company or their previous roles) has taught them that speaking up might be dangerous or frowned upon. Nevertheless, the keen observers are likely noticing issues and areas where improvements can be made or with too many errors. Their volume is lowered all the way down; they’re on mute!

The second aspect is how they tend to voice their criticism in their heads. If they naturally tend towards nonviolent communication, then they might have great constructive criticism. That’s valuable feedback that you’re missing out on. On the other hand, our quiet people might not tend towards nonviolent communication. These are the people who are sitting there and accumulating pressure, frustration, and bitterness—and are prone to explode and ragequit eventually.

Our first step is to notice who these people are and work on slowly turning their volume up, no matter which kind of communication they currently use in their heads. We do this by soliciting chutzpah:

  • Ask your managers to consider who in their team seems to be on mute. These are the people who don’t participate in all-hands meetings and rarely voice any concerns during retrospectives or one-on-one sessions.
  • For each, assess whether they have always been quiet (and by “always” I refer to their tenure in your company) or whether they’ve silenced themselves at some point.
  • Their direct managers should kickoff a one-on-one with feedback about this seeming quietness, along with a suggestion to set a personal growth goal to improve on this front. For people that have become silent, as mentioned previously, make sure to inquire about this and see what might have caused it.
  • Finally, move on to soliciting feedback: start by agreeing to have them come prepared to one-on-ones with feedback about something (themselves, their team, their managers, other teams). Slowly they can move on to voice their opinions in retrospectives and bigger forums. Managers should explain the importance of feedback and learn how to acknowledge it correctly (more here and in my book, The Tech Executive Operating System). The way they express their feedback can be improved, as I describe below.

Do note that people sometimes have decided to silence themselves due to an issue related to their direct manager. That is why I advise having skip-level one-on-ones with people in general, and specifically with those that won’t seem to be improving in the process described above. They might require the involvement of someone else, like yourself as the executive or HR, in order to start healing trust.

The Offensive Ones

Now we come to those that do speak up but do so in a manner that doesn’t really cultivate reflection and progress. Even the most growth-oriented person is unlikely to accept feedback that is provided in a violent or harmful manner. The problem with those people that communicate like this is that they are likely to experience a “shoot the messenger” situation (or merely be ignored). That, in turn, can send them to the previous category and make them clam up and stop voicing their opinions.

While that might make the feelings of those around them better, as it reduces harmful comments, it means that we will lose out. Often these are also people that care deeply about what’s going on, and if they are forced into silence, they will just whither.

These situations require careful coaching from managers that view their roles correctly. I recommend checking out resources such as Nonviolent Communication and Radical Candor.

Chutzpah Galore

Finally, those precious people that speak up and do so in a way that is beneficial to creating change are amazing force-multipliers in your organization. This is where we, as leaders, have to pay extra attention to making sure that this feedback is treated with the right attitude. Even when it personally means that we have to work harder to explain the logic behind decisions, or when the feedback tackles an issue we are personally involved in, we should always treat that with gratitude first. Feedback is precious, don’t waste it.