Talking about that Pile of đź’© in the Corner

Julie Penner
Soul of Startups
Published in
4 min readFeb 1, 2022

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It’s a gross analogy, and it’s effective for naming what happens in companies. You’ve experienced it. There’s a problem at the company, everyone knows there’s a problem, you all gossip about the problem, but no one wants to be the one to bring it up in the group. Everyone is hoping someone else will deal with the pile of poop. So instead of dealing with it, everyone pretends like it’s not there, and it gets worse.

Photo by Pixabay

There are good reasons no one is talking about it. It stinks. If you don’t talk about the pile of poop, no one gets upset, no one points fingers, there is no blame, no one is angry, you can be nice and have a nice meeting while you are collectively ignoring the poop in the corner. The second you talk about the poop, you have to talk about how it got there and what you’re all going do about it, and those meetings can be really uncomfortable. Somebody has to clean it up, and no one wants to.

You’ve probably also been in a meeting with someone who has no problem bringing up the poop in the corner. They are tired of it stinking up the room, and they want it dealt with. They are not afraid of conflict around it. The real question in your organization’s culture is what you do when someone starts talking about it. Do you get angry with that person? I know companies that have fired people who talk about the poop in the corner. On the other end of the spectrum, I know companies that actively ask about what’s not going well, they invite the conversation on a regular basis about what might be stinking up the place.

Most companies are somewhere in the middle. They know there’s something uncomfortable they have to talk about and they delay. Eventually, they can’t ignore it anymore. The most skillful companies avoid the human temptation to lay blame, they instead look for a learning moment. People are rarely the problem in organizations, usually it’s the structures, the incentives, the processes or a combination that could be improved that lead to the poop. The poop is a byproduct of bigger issues. Learning organizations seek the root cause of the problem so that the underlying problem is addressed, or if it can’t be fixed, it can be better managed.

Your company’s ability to talk about the poop in the corner is what Patrick Lencioni calls Healthy Conflict and what Kim Scott calls Radical Candor (or Obnoxious Aggression depending on how it’s delivered), and it’s a big factor in whether companies are able to address their biggest challenges. Lencioni got it right that healthy conflict is built upon trust. It’s trust that helps us believe that our coworkers are not out to get us and rather are serving each other and the company by bringing up the problem. There are bad actors who act to manipulate and that can’t be trusted, but in my experience they are few and far between. As a leader, it’s your job to find out who these people are and correct their behavior or exit them from the business.

How are you deal or don’t deal with a pile of poop in the corner is part of your culture. Can people talk about the things that are not going well, or do they get punished for doing so? If you’re a leader who likes to be “positive”, how do you reward the people who bring up the pile of poop and ask you to talk about it? More than once I’ve met a CEO or a leader who can’t stand talking about things that aren’t working so much so that they get rid of the people who insist on bringing it to their attention. (A propensity for shooting the messenger is one of many ways CEOs can limit the growth of their company.) There’s always a hazard being a truth teller, and there’s some skill involved as well, but the companies that are committed to learning figure out ways to reward rather than punish them (without reinforcing constant negativity / the-sky-is-falling behavior either).

Not wanting to have the uncomfortable conversation about the pile of poop is a frequent byproduct of likeable leaders that have a strength for peacekeeping and bringing people together. It’s the shadow side for leaders that don’t like conflict or who shy away from causing others discomfort. They tend to be wonderful human beings, and a lot of their professional success has come from being collaborative and building relationships. Those leaders have to watch out for their shadow, which is not getting into the topics that might be turbulent out a fear of creating negative emotions. It’s usually an unconscious fear, it could also be described as deriving security or safety through harmony with others. The unconscious story for those leaders is that to upset relationships is to not be safe. Living in that story, it makes perfect sense whu leaders would shy away from conflict. Great leaders are able to catch themselves in that pattern and either correct for it themselves or put someone or people around them that will balance or compensate for their shadow. The greatest of these leaders also learns that it’s possible for conflict when it’s healthy and done skillfully to build rather than destroy relationships.

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Julie Penner
Soul of Startups

Founder and author of Soul of Startups and #Ruleof5. Venture Partner at Frazier Group. EIR at Techstars Anywhere and Watson Institute.