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Stop walking on eggshells

Conflict and disagreement are inevitable. How we handle that is up to us, however.

4 min read


Stop walking on eggshells

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

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Have you ever bitten into a warm, soft omelet and noticed a crunch that’s not supposed to be there? Ugh. Eggshells. Nobody likes eggshells. Other than chickens, of course.

Eggshells exist to protect eggs. But once they’re cracked open, they’ve served their purpose; no one needs to be walking around on the loud, sticky and dangerously sharp remains. Yet in business, we often do. Why? Maybe it’s because we’re all a little chicken inside.

My firm has done extensive research exploring the corporate culture dynamics that can make the difference between success and failure in business. Competitive strategy is critical, and by no means easy, but most businesspeople understand the need to meet market demands with smart strategy.

Too few, however, appreciate the enabling or debilitating role culture plays in the execution of that strategy, and they lack an understanding of the hidden dangers that can derail even the best laid plans. Like eggshells.

If you’ve ever had a job in which you’ve been preoccupied with trying to avoid saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, challenging the wrong person or stumbling over an invisible cultural tripwire, you know what it’s like to walk on eggshells. In companies like that, the unofficial modus operandi becomes danger avoidance, which is as unproductive as it is unpleasant. You may not even realize you’re doing it, just sort of accepting it as a hazard of the job and going home exhausted at the end of the day.

Our research repeatedly demonstrates that the first and most important cultural dynamic to get right is internal alignment among the management team. Not walking in lockstep — smart people are never going to agree on everything — but managing conflict openly and with mutual respect. Put simply, nobody should be expected to walk on eggshells.

At my firm, we have a simple rule into which every new hire is baptized: If you don’t bring up a problem, we all assume there is no problem. That rule goes for everyone, from the newest intern to the longest-tenured partner. Our default setting is that nobody has to wonder if they’ve offended someone, done something wrong or are in danger of becoming a cultural casualty.

If you’re not OK with somebody or something, you have an obligation to the rest of the team to recognize and deal with it — appropriately and in a timely fashion. Otherwise, we can all just relax.

In other words, eggshells aren’t allowed here. When something interpersonal needs fixing, fix it. If nobody confronts you with an issue, you can assume there is no issue. It makes for a much more productive (and happy) work environment.

It’s not always easy. There is an endless variety of challenges that can throw off a team, from external market pressures to ill-advised hallway comments to perceptions of personal injustice. We’re all fallible human beings; sometimes we make a mess of things, and sometimes others make a mess of our things. But no one can be expected to know what anyone else is thinking, so if something’s bothering you, it’s on you to bring it up.

Unfortunately, the temptation to avoid the issue is always strong. But whether it’s because we fear conflict, tend to procrastinate, would rather build a case against someone or take a sad sort of refuge in passive aggression, there’s really no excuse.

An issue brought to light can almost always be solved by well-intentioned colleagues, whether through a quick apology, a cleared-up misunderstanding or even a heated (but honest) argument. And if it temporarily makes matters worse, well, better to have it out in the open, where at least there’s no denying the need to clean things up.

If we allow eggshells in our organizations, sooner or later they’ll make a mess of everything. Better to sweep them up and toss them out as they appear. If we leave them laying around, they’ll make chickens of us all.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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