Artificial Harmony

 “Minnesota Nice” is a real thing… I was born in St. Paul.  I know.  It’s impossible for a Minnesotan to take the last potato out of the serving bowl no matter how hungry he is.  There is only one answer to the question, “How do you like this outfit?”  As a kid, my brother and I once greedily grabbed the last two pieces of toast.  My grandmother had nothing.  When we noticed this, we both offered her our own toast… her reply is now family legend, “That’s alright dears, I’ll just have jam.”  I love how my colleague David Hoyt (Atlanta GA) unpacks the dangers of Artificial Harmony in this Table Group “Thoughts from the Field” (Jan 2022).

The Danger of Artificial Harmony 
 Written by David Hoyt
While consulting with CEOs and leadership teams I am continuously taking on personal learning projects that will help me become a better consultant and make me more impactful in serving my clients.  One of those projects started six months ago when I decided to lean into the impact of artificial harmony on teams.  I’ve concluded that the “root of all evil” on leadership teams is artificial harmony.
 
As we help teams master the 5 Behaviors of Cohesive Teams (Vulnerability-based Trust | Healthy Conflict | Shared Commitment | Peer-to-Peer Accountability | Collective Results), we introduce a concept called the Conflict Continuum.  There are two unhealthy extremes on this continuum:  not holding back (potential mean-spirited, personal attacks) and holding back (artificial harmony).  We’ve all occasionally seen debates that crossed a line and became overly aggressive, mean-spirited, and/or personal.  While this is unhealthy, from my experience artificial harmony is far more prevalent on teams and can be even more destructive than mean-spirited personal attacks.  
 
What is artificial harmony?  It’s the withholding of meaningful thoughts, ideas, or feedback because it would cause you discomfort or you believe that it will not be well received by others.  Artificial harmony can exist in the Conflict stage (tough conversations about decisions yet to be made) when we have thoughts, ideas, or perspectives that we don’t share with the team because it may be unpopular or step on someone else’s toes.  It can also be in the Accountability stage (tough conversations about a decision that has been made or a person’s behavior) when we choose to withhold feedback that would make the individual or team more effective.  
 
Artificial harmony is essentially a different talk track of what we are thinking to what we are saying.  Frequently, I see team members express only a percentage of their full thinking – it is evident in their facial expressions or body language that they are holding back. 
 
In my observation there are 5 negative implications on teams when there is artificial harmony:
 
· Politics – as opposed to saying it in the meeting or directly to the person, we share our true thoughts and feelings to others outside of the appropriate context which erodes trust and creates sideways energy in the organization.
 
· Lack of Alignment – because people on the team don’t express their full thinking on a topic, they have a difficult time buying into a decision and essentially team members end up doing their own thing or choosing their own path.
 
· Mean-Spirited Personal Attacks – artificial harmony stuffed inside someone for a long period of time can suddenly erupt into a mean-spirited personal attack.  Think about the last time you overreacted; mostly likely it was because you previously stuffed your emotions and true thoughts until you exploded and overreacted.
 
· Undiscussable Topics – most teams have a handful of issues or topics that they don’t talk about because it would be too uncomfortable.  On healthy teams there are no undiscussable topics.
 
· Cynicism – this is the long-term impact of artificial harmony.  The cynicism may begin with specific team members, but over time if it is not dealt with, it will turn into cynicism among the entire team.
 
As a leader, what should you do about artificial harmony?
 
· Develop a personal litmus test to determine if you’re living in a state of artificial harmony.  Here is my litmus test.  At the end of the day, if I find myself sharing thoughts, ideas, or opinions with my wife, Lori, that I did not share in the actual meeting where we were discussing the topic, I realize I was holding back and living in artificial harmony.  The same test holds true regarding accountability.  If I find myself talking with Lori about a person and their attitude or behavior but I haven’t addressed it directly with the person, I realize I am living in artificial harmony.  On tough topics or feedback, how much of your full thinking are you sharing… 50%, 70%, 90%?  If it is constructive, push yourself to 100%.
 
· Continually push your team to embrace the discomfort and express their full thinking or feedback, if it is in the spirit of making the best decision possible or providing feedback that will make team members more effective.  At the Table Group, we call this a willingness to enter the danger.  Develop common language or “conflict norms” that are agreed upon guidelines of how to engage in a healthy way and avoid artificial harmony.
 
· Work to develop deeper and deeper levels of trust on your team.  Anytime I realize I am in a state of artificial harmony, I can always trace the root cause back to a lack of trust in being able to express my full thinking to someone.  There is no such thing as too much trust on teams.  Trust is a muscle that needs to be exercised continually so that we will have the confidence to have the tough conversations and move beyond artificial harmony.
 
Think about your team.  Are you seeing signs of politics, lack of alignment, occasional mean-spirited personal attacks, undiscussable topics or cynicism?  If so, you most likely have been bitten by the artificial harmony bug.  As a leader, don’t look the other way or ignore it.  Instead, face it head on, name it, and push yourself to enter the danger and your team will follow.