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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • March 3, 2024
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The Importance of Being Ruthlessly Constructive 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

One of the tenets of Predictable Success is the importance of being ruthlessly constructive

The concept is simple, and self-explanatory: seek to be constructive and positive in all your interactions, but do it without fear or favor, and always for the better good of the organization as a whole, not for your personal benefit, or that of your project, or your team, department or division.

Easily said, but tough in practice.

Being ruthlessly constructive is particularly difficult for passive-aggressives, emotional manipulators and bullies (and is one of the reasons it is so powerful – it shows them up and if practiced consistently by others, eventually calls them on their behavioral dysfunctions).

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of being ruthlessly constructive. Why? Because about 80% of the leaders I work with have asked me some version of the same two questions:

“How do I and my team do any sort of realistic planning in the current climate – short and long term?”, and

“How do I keep the morale of my team high right now?”

Now, both questions deserve longer treatment than a single blog entry will allow, but it has struck me how often the importance of being ruthlessly constructive comes up in answering both questions.

Let there be no misunderstanding – times are tough, and for some, they’re going to get tougher before they get better. But when it comes to the vital importance of good planning and high morale (two interconnected drivers of Predictable Success), there’s no point wallowing in negativity, and there’s certainly no point in throwing in the towel.

"When it comes to the vital importance of good planning and high morale (two interconnected drivers of Predictable Success), there’s no point wallowing in negativity, and there’s certainly no point in throwing in the towel" - Les McKeown

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In order to lead your organization to scalable, sustainable success, it’s vital that you and your leadership team address hard issues head on. However, these conversations can be difficult – even toxic – if approached the wrong way.

By introducing the concept of being ruthlessly constructive and using the checklist below to apply it you’ll have a proven framework for tackling even the toughest of challenges.

CHECKLIST: my top 12 tips on how to be Ruthlessly Constructive:

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1. Start with laser-like clarity about the topic/issue.

It's hard to be ruthlessly constructive when you're not 100% clear about what's being discussed.

Write out precise wording for the issue or topic to be addressed. You'd be surprised at the degree of unsurfaced mistrust that lurks behind unclear, ambiguous (or worse, shifting) topics of conversation – this will head it off at the pass.

2. Ask your team to write out their thoughts before discussions begin.

Here's a rarely used, but incredibly powerful tip for having ruthlessly constructive discussions: Rather than just plunging in to discussion, invoke a few minutes of thoughtful quiet contemplation by the group. Have everyone write down the key contributions they want to make to the discussion.

You'll be amazed at the increase in the quality of discussions resulting from a mere 3-5 minutes of preparatory thought.

3. Structure your discussion.

Structure provides a safe zone for discussions. Put another way, a lack of structure encourages vagueness and ambiguity – the antithesis of a ruthlessly constructive discussion. Even if there are only two of you (and more so if it’s a larger group), use a framework to structure the discussion.

Of course we recommend our 4D Process, which is designed specifically to encourage ruthlessly constructive discussions.

4. Invoke the Enterprise Commitment.

The Enterprise Commitment is at the very core of being Ruthlessly Constructive, so begin all non-trivial discussions by invoking it:

"When working in a team or group environment, I will place the interests of the enterprise ahead of my own."

You can read more about The Enterprise Commitment here.

5. Allow others to finish their thoughts.

When we’re facilitating a group discussion, there is always a clear first moment when being ruthlessly constructive begins to fray at the edges. That moment is usually when one team member ceases to feel that they are being heard by one or more colleagues.

To avoid this happening, resist the temptation to zone out, or butt in, when colleagues are speaking. Stay focused, stay engaged, and if someone is rambling or heading off target, gently ease them back to the topic. (See point 1 above.)

6. Don’t speak out of emotion.

Being ruthlessly constructive is not the same as being harsh, rude or unpleasant. If you feel a rush of emotion (particularly a negative emotion), pause before blurting out what you’re thinking and/ or feeling.

Again, a notepad is your friend. Note down what you’re feeling and thinking. Separate the content from the emotion, and share your thoughts, not your feelings (One of my friends calls this being 'charge neutral'.)

If necessary, take a short break to cool down before contributing. 

7. Don’t presume. Ask.

Ascribing thoughts or motives to others is a shortcut to a ruthlessly un-constructive discussion. Stay curious – ask colleagues to explain or clarify anything about what they’re saying that you don’t quite ‘get’, even if you think you know what they meant.

8. Remember: Data is data, and feedback isn’t criticism.

Two common category errors that hobble our ability to be ruthlessly constructive are:

(1) Feeling the need to attack (or defend) data. Remember, data is just that – emotion-neutral information. Focus on constantly improving the quality of the data you receive, rather than attacking (or defending) it when you do.

(2) Confusing feedback (e.g., "This process isn't working") with criticism ("And you're an idiot for designing it that way"). Accept feedback for what it is - just that - and don't infer hidden criticism.

9. Flag what's coming.

If you're about to make a statement that's ruthlessly constructive, flag it up ahead of time so it can be received in the right spirit. Feel free to use our terminology: "In the spirit of being ruthlessly constructive, I'd like to share that..."

10. Give your colleagues time to process.

Some leaders - especially Visionaries and Operators - have a tendency to drop ruthlessly constructive observations into a discussion, then blow right past it on to a different topic, leaving their colleagues puzzled and unable to process and respond appropriately.

Slow down. Stop, in fact. Wait for everyone else to catch up. When being ruthlessly constructive it's important to give your colleagues time to process your thoughts.

11. Seek positive outcomes.

Ruthlessly constructive discussions should never end on a ‘down’ note (there’s nothing too constructive about that) – so encourage Enterprise Commitment-based brainstorming to come up with positive, actionable solutions, rather than dwelling unduly on negative autopsies.

12. Move on.

There’s no denying that at times, ruthlessly constructive discussions can be a little bruising, even when handled positively using all the tools discussed above. It’s tempting, at times, to spend time and energy ‘making it alright’ with everyone at the end.

Resist this impulse. Instead, help your team build a muscle of ruthless constructivism that allows them to move in and out of this mode without feeling that they’re having their feelings hurt.

Dwell a while on the importance of being ruthlessly constructive, and how you might incorporate it more in your organization’s interactions. You will find it a powerful tool in these difficult days.

What about you? What framework are you using to have difficult conversations?

Let me know in the comments below!


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