Your Organization's Success Relies on Taming the "Mokitas" Within

Failing to address the issues internally will only weaken your company

"Mokita" is the Papua New Guinea word for that which everyone knows and no one speaks of. They judge the health of any community by the number of mokitas that exist within it. Families have mokitas. I won't talk about your drinking if you won't talk about my weight. Companies have mokitas. Our strategy is failing. Our product is flawed. Gradually, then suddenly, one missing conversation at a time, we arrive at a devastating outcome. Think emissions scandals, flawed airbags.

When a company nears disaster, people who work there admit they knew it was coming, based on the reality with which they were confronted daily. In spite of the CEO's exhortations to the contrary (the official truth), all was not well at Enron, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, GM, Ford, Chrysler. Have we learned our lesson? Apparently not. Think Volkswagen. So why don't we speak up?

We suffer from alethophobia - an intense, abnormal or illogical fear of the truth. It sounds like a rare and serious psychiatric disorder, but I'm betting that two out of three people suffer from alethophobia. How many times have you told someone - your boss, a colleague, a customer, your spouse - what you thought he or she wanted to hear, rather than what you were really thinking? Painted a false, rosy version of reality, glossing over problems or pretending they simply didn't exist? Tossed out the first ceremonial lie?

Telling it like it is, speaking the ground truth as opposed to the official party line, which we know to be bogus, is no one's idea of exalting. It's so upsetting, alarming, and risky that we're willing to place a FOR SALE sign on our integrity to avoid it. After all, we've all witnessed a kind of violence - a lost promotion, raise, or place at the table - visited on those who've spoken their minds, and it's raw. The fact is, in many corporate cultures, bringing up mokitas is not a career enhancing move. Remember when George pointed out the flaw in our CEO's strategy? I miss George. He was a great guy.

What might you notice in a company harboring mokitas?

• Only the usual suspects are invited to the table. It's always the same people, the same distractions, the same argument for the same strategy, which nets the same outcome. The leader's goal is to be right, rather than to get it right.
• The "corporate nod" is prevalent. When people are asked what they think of a leader's plans, heads lower, eyes are averted. If called on, people adopt a thoughtful expression and nod their heads, which is mistaken for agreement.
• We declare war on the wrong things. The problem isn't HERE with me, with us. It's over THERE. It's YOU. It's THEM. It's THAT. It's THIS. It's not our competition's brilliant products. Nor our lack of innovation. Not our unworkable plan.

Clearly, a willingness to name and address the issues at the heart of any topic, truthfully and courageously, is the sign of a healthy culture and a predictor of success. And it starts with the leader. I witnessed a marvelous leader in action in London. When the managers of the European branch of a global company headquartered in Seattle arrived at a two-day strategy session, there was an enormous white board with this question at the top. What are our mokitas? And in a corner of the room was an inflatable elephant.

Their leader had asked me to kick off the session by reminding everyone that fierce conversations are conversations in which we come out from behind ourselves, into our conversations, and make them real. That if a problem exists, it exists whether we talk about it or not. And that, as Carl Jung said, "What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate."

He continued the session by saying, "We are being asked to deliver some knee-buckling goals to the organization. I believe we will be successful to the degree that we name and address any and all mokitas, the elephants in the room. So let's begin by listing them. I'll kick us off with one I'm aware of. We don't believe the U.S. strategy will work here in Europe and we don't think our U.S. leaders value our input."

There was stunned silence in the room, breath holding, then a collective sigh and the conversation began. As each additional mokita surfaced, the leader thanked the person who named it and said, "Say more about that." Fresh air. Candor. Everyone was engaged emotionally and intellectually. No one checked emails. The results? Collaboration, partnership. Sound decisions and strategies, followed by a highly successful year for the European division.

If you would like to have a similar experience, declare a mokita amnesty day and then extend it indefinitely. Let people know you want to bring to the surface anything that isn't being talked about that needs to be talked about relative to whatever topic is on the table (and also topics that aren't on the table because they may very well be in the way), so that you can work on resolving them.

Consider that a careful conversation is a failed conversation because it merely postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place. Tell people you don't value careful. You value honesty. People will say things with which you disagree. That's to be expected. We need contradiction to get to the truth, so surface and use it rather than push it out and pretend it doesn't exist.

The answers are in the room. You and your team have them.

To make the concept of mokita light-hearted and something to be celebrated, make and serve mokita cocktails, which I discovered actually exists.

MOKITA COCKTAIL
2 centiliters amaretto
2 centiliters cognac
1 centiliter strawberry syrup
1 centiliter gomme (sugar) syrup
4 centiliters coffee
2 centiliters cream

Shake together amaretto, strawberry syrup, gomme syrup and coffee. Pour into chilled cocktail glass. Float the cream on top.