Conversations around the lunch table at work are great. Everyone is interactive, the whole mood is uplifting. Breaks from work are meant to exchange tips for cooking, parenting, gossip, and even blow steam off about a nagging team issue.

This is true for team meetings too. All is going well till someone says something inappropriate. It causes a shock and silence and then people either argue it out or withdraw in silence. 

When controversial topics are discussed it creates a trigger in people. Instantly, the happy faces are withdrawn. The mood gets sapped of its optimism. Such provocative conversations incite either thoughtful silences or infuriating, exasperating reactions. Some get overwhelmed, some insecure, and many feel threatened about a potential discord. Gender-related comments and sexist statements at work for sure fall into this category. 

Six reasons  why we avoid controversy at work

1.       Fear of being blamed

No one likes to be blamed, and this can cause a rift in a team.

2.       Fear of facing contemptuous reaction

Past experiences of receiving condescending responses can lead to this.

3.       Ill prepared for confrontation.

 We are pre-conditioned to only see a negative connotation to confrontation.

4.       Avoid distraction

Some cultures believe that holding provocative conversations can only do harm. It is common to mix up provocative and inappropriate.

5.       Fear of offending others.

 It could be due to a lack of awareness around the topic.

6.       Being surrounded by people who always agree with the manager.

What can Provocative conversations bring a team?

Provocative conversations can be beneficial. When we are vocal about what matters to us, these are the natural outcomes. 

1.       We get to practice inclusivity.  Companies will walk their talk when all have a voice including marginalized groups.

2.       We begin managing our fear. Fear has a way of shaming us into silence.  “I am not good enough to speak up,” “I am not important to bring it to notice,” “What if I am wrong?” We challenge our emotions when we start asserting ourselves. This inspires others also to speak with courage.

3.       We feel belonged. We feel normal when there is time and space created for us.

4.       Appreciate another. Without feeling obligated to accept one’s opinion, we can recognize their perspective. This humanizes us.

5.       Acceptance tolerance increases.  When we are open-minded about hearing other’s perceptions.

6.       Learn to trust each other. Trust develops as we hear with empathy. In this TED talk, Frances Frei emphasizes the role of empathy, logic, and authenticity in building trust.

7.       Innovation happens. Some of the most creative solutions to a breakthrough needed by a company are achieved through some of out-of-the-box conversations.

An HR Example :

This example illustrates point #1. An HR department sat together to determine upcoming holidays. The team decided on all holidays while 1 colleague was uncomfortable throughout. He belonged to a minority religion and not a single holiday chosen represented him or his festival. The person decided to call it out and the leader had the wisdom enough to hold time for such a valuable learning moment. The individual in question had chosen to speak up instead of withdrawing. Every such choice is a provocative one.  The key here was respect and care. 

Questions for the leaders

  • Are you questioning why your team does not come up with innovative ideas anymore? 
  • Are you noticing people agreeing with you all the time? 
  • Are meetings going too smoothly?

 There are many teams made to agree with everything the manager says. But there exist teams with managers willing to create learnable and teachable moments. Moments where teams are made to stop and reflect. Share and consider another’s views.

As a leader, you can call this halt in any meeting or conversation. A halt to scrutinise the systems and beliefs that are running the business of your team.

Leaders need both awareness and courage to provoke. And then you need some listening skills to navigate it.

Fearless leaders embrace controversy and hold it with ease

They get comfortable with being uncomfortable. They know that truth carries discomfort. They know when they must speak the truth, they will face backlash and they are okay.

They have very strong core values. Their moral scale is high on issues that matter to the improvement in quality and hence the growth of an institution.

They are courageous. Since they can handle their own emotions, they are empathetic and vulnerable to other’s emotions.

They are authentic. They are fixated on the greater picture of improving their environment. With being strong in their core values, they do not fear expressing it in any way possible.

They are open-minded and, open to persuasion. In this talk,  Julia Dhar says debating with a clear, productive means of confrontation, helps in finding multiple potential solutions. They are less defensive when they are conflicted with opposing evidence.

They are creative. They are conscious of the uncertainty they may not be able to find effective solutions right away. They allow the time and space needed for the solution to appear.

They allow themselves to change their minds. They are open to learning and have their minds changed when presented with compelling and persuasive content.

12 ideas for  raising provocative conversations within your team

  • How well do we listen to one another
  • What is not working and if our clients were a fly on the wall what would they be saying about us?
  • How well do we actually support each other
  • Competitiveness within a team and how we can think differently
  • What is our diversity quotient and why are we not doing better
  • How much is gut and how much are network and data-oriented promotions in our workplace
  • What is the state of exhaustion and stretch on our team and why?
  • Who are marginalized in our team with no voice and what can we do?
  • What disrespectful gender language do we use at work.
  • What processes need to change so we recognize performance better
  • What are the unhelpful politics in our teams and what need is going unattended that we need to play such games
  • Do we really have respectful communication at work?

Here is an additional resource. A  TED talk by  Luvvie Ajayi Jones on how she is a “troublemaker”. She compares herself to being the first domino that falls to spark change in a system.

Being a leader who can provoke and hold space for a rich conversation is a great facilitator skill. Such leaders are often looked up to as they bring the courage to speak up and hold complex ideas with ease.

 I would love to hear back on provocative conversations you have raised at work!


Sailaja Manacha
Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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