"I've got parsley in my teeth? Oh no! I knew it! I'm useless! I just can't cope with this whole salad eating thing any more. I'm just not cut out for it. I'm such an idiot for thinking I could do it. Excuse me, I just need some time on my own. I feel so stupid..."
Or perhaps this:
"I've got a poppy seed between my teeth? How dare you! Who do you think you are...? You always think you're SO superior. Well you're not. Everyone thinks you've got poppy seeds between your teeth. They're all talking about it. So back off, because you're not so perfect yourself. And by the way, I quit!"
Okay, so both of these scenarios are ridiculous... I hope.
And yet, so many people seem to agonise over the poppy seed moment. (Dear world, I grant you a general licence: please tell me if I have a remnant of my last meal clamouring for attention while I'm trying to sound vaguely intelligent.)
So here's the thing. You not telling me is about you and your ego. It's about you not wanting to look or feel awkward. And that's just a touch selfish.
Let's crank this up a notch: There are some relationships in which you can't justify putting your ego before my poppy seed. One of those is if you and I are on the same team. I don't mind what kind of team that is (business, sport, music, marriage) but if it's going to be a high performing team, then everyone needs to be calling out the poppy seeds.
I like to think of these moments as Catalyst Conversations.
Catalyst Conversations are those conversations which spark a positive change: in me, in you, in the team. That might be because there is something glaringly wrong that needs fixing. Or it might be because I’m stuck and need shifting. Either way, it's a conversation that I may find challenging, as may you, but that's no reason not to have it.
Leaders need to be capable and confident of having awesome Catalyst Conversations. They need to recognise the moment for having them and then just get on with it. They have to be able to do so honestly, with respect and with a catalyst mindset (not simply a feedback mindset). Leaders can't deliver subtle messages and hope people will simply find the catalyst for themselves. If leaders don't do this well, then they can't expect others to do so, and can expect a whole lot of "same, same".
But most importantly, leaders need to be great at having Catalyst Conversations with each other. The best leadership teams leave their ego at the door, and call out one another's poppy seeds without worrying about how people will react. Not because they don't care how they react, but because they've spent enough time aligning themselves around the idea that Catalyst Conversations are bloody important.
Of course, you can't simply go around saying, "Today is Catalyst Conversations Day!" (Well, you could, but I'd probably point out you were being weird.) There are a few variables at play, and you need to exercise judgement around all of them: timing, context, trust and skilful communication are all things you need to be good with.
But deep down, I think instinct has a lot to do with it. Just as you might embark on that internal dialogue about whether to mention the poppy seed, you may have a conversation with yourself about whether or not to mention their odd behaviour, or their lack of drive, or their apparent reluctance to ask for help. Somehow, in the hope they'll thank you for not saying anything. Well, here's my suggestion: use that instinctive twinge as your catalyst.
So, over to you: what are the Catalyst Conversations your poppy seed detector knows you should be having? And why are you avoiding them? Just make sure you check your ego at the door…
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