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  • Neil Sullivan, Table Group Principal Consultant

The Expanded TSA Rule




"If You See Something (in a meeting)..."


Thirty-five thousand miles…10 days last month.


That is a lot of miles, a lot of airports, a lot of flights, and a lot of security in a short period. Once, an airline asked me to show my ticket and ID at the bottom of the boarding stairs and again at the top, as if something nefarious might happen on the way up—lots of security.


Thoughts From the Field are exactly that…thoughts that strike us as we travel to client locations. All this security had me thinking about the TSA Rule – we all know it, see it, and hear it if we travel, but we may not recall it. The phrase is simple; "If You See Something, Say Something." We just need to do it. Every day. Everywhere. This same rule applies if you want to be a healthy, high-performing team. However, it is also challenging, especially on a team.


When I work with teams, presenting truths from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a crucial moment often occurs during the conflict section when I ask a simple question. What is the difference between these two words? 


NICE and KIND


They seem similar--and we often use them interchangeably--but they are different. Take a moment and think to yourself. What is the difference?


Teams will frequently explain that "nice" can be shallow or polite, as sometimes we 'play nice' but are not authentic. On the other hand, "kindness" involves being genuine, heartfelt, and caring. I care enough about you as a person, or us as a team, or where this company is going, that I will speak the kind truth in real time.


SPEAK THE KIND TRUTH IN REAL TIME


That is the Gold Standard, the litmus test of a healthy, high-performing team--that we are simply going to say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. We go there in real- time during meetings, in the hallway, and in one-on-one sessions, whether good things, hard things, controversial things, risky things, or whatever needs to be said is said. I like to call it the expanded TSA Rule. "If You See Something, Think Something, Feel Something in a Meeting…Say Something!"


For many of us, this is not easy. I grew up in a very polite family. So much so that my mother stood up at Thanksgiving and said, "I'm so glad we never had any conflict in our family!" I sat there thinking, "Doesn't she know what I do for a living?" I strive to get teams to have more conflict! (I didn't say it because we are so incredibly polite). I grew up thinking I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by being too blunt or direct, especially in a group setting. Then, one day, I realized it wasn't about others' feelings, it was about my feelings! I didn't want to feel uncomfortable about where the discussion might go and how others might react.


What I was really saying was that I didn't care enough about you as a person, or us as a team, or where this company is going, to push myself into the 3 seconds of courage that it would take for me to start that conversation--a discussion that could have a critical impact in your life, our team's direction, or the company's success. Or maybe even the nation's future.


I work with hundreds of executives and their teams in critical national security realms. These are the most intelligent people in the world in their areas of expertise. Every day, they make critical decisions and take crucial actions that impact and influence the future security of the nation and the world. But they needed help. As I got up-to-speed in my work with them, I kept hearing a self-descriptive phrase, “We are dysfunctionally polite.” And they were right. They were intelligent, educated, and respectful, but they did not have the critical conversations they needed to have when they needed to have them. And when you think of what they do, you kind of want them to have these critical conversations in a timely fashion! Fortunately, they have made fantastic progress over the past couple of years, and they now use the phrase “Speak the Kind Truth in Real-Time” frequently with each other and in their meetings. Given the global threats and conflicts occurring at this moment, this small change can literally make a world of difference.


At Table Group, much of our consulting focus--as seen in the Team Assessments we run and the books we publish--comes down to two things: behavior and structure. Clients find structure in how to run a meeting (Death by Meeting), how to establish clarity (The Advantage), and how to organize roles on a team (The 6 Types of Working Genius), which are all critically important to increasing the effectiveness of a team. However, the key driver in the success of these tools is behavior. You can apply all the structure found in Death by Meeting, but unless you change behaviors, you can end up with really well-organized, crappy meetings. The hard part is not the structure, it is the behaviors.  


I often say to a team that everything we share is simple. We could teach it to a high school class in 30 minutes. It's just hard to do. Especially as leaders. If we want to lead well, we need to begin with a gut check and ask ourselves, "How am I, as a leader, doing in these behaviors, and what do I need to do differently?" Then, collectively ask, "How are we as a team doing in these behaviors, and what do we all need to do differently?" Our Team Assessment is a helpful resource in answering these questions.  


This centers on a key segment of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: accountability. When we hear the word accountability, especially in work settings, our minds often jump to performance. We all have jobs and get paid for them, so it is reasonable that there is some level of accountability around how we perform our jobs. But there is always something that impacts performance, and that is behavior. Behavior impacts performance. Table Group works with several professional sports teams (NFL, NBA, MLB); if some athlete is not performing on the court or the field, it is usually because of some behavior. They needed to work harder in practice, didn't read the playbook, or stayed out partying too late. There is always some behavior that impacts performance. On a business team, you want to ask, "What behaviors are helping us succeed?" Reinforce those and ensure they stay. You also want to ask, "What behaviors are limiting our potential or tripping us up?" and make sure you do something about them. We use a very powerful Team Effectiveness Exercise to build this skill on a team. It is an excellent practice for speaking the kind truth in real-time.


When you have built this skill into your team, it helps you avoid many detrimental behaviors, such as:

  • Artificial Harmony – when everyone in the room nods their head "Yes," implying "Yes, boss, let's do it!" but in the back of their minds, they think, "No way…no way am I going to help. No way am I bought in. No way is this going to work." If we see, think, or feel something, we need to say something right then to help the team understand all the ramifications of a decision.

  • Meeting After the Meeting – when you think everything has been said in a meeting, but afterward people are questioning things with each other in the hallway, in the parking lot, or over texts. In real time, we need to say everything in the meeting to have better discussions and make better decisions as a team. TSA wants you to inform them immediately if you see something askew…not three weeks later.

  • Meeting During the Meeting – a corollary to the above point has become more prevalent in the post-COVID period: conducting side conversations during virtual meetings. Whether in the video chat box, texting, or email, side conversations detract from participation in the main dialog, impacting the meeting's effectiveness. Just say it in the meeting.

  • Triangulation – when you are talking to me about someone who is not in the conversation, and your comments are not positive. Triangulation is toxic on a team. I can help you speak to that person; I can even go with you if you want. But on healthy, high-performance teams, members have real-time, direct conversations with one another.


Like I said, healthy behaviors are not hard to understand, just hard to do, especially in certain cultures. I have an office in Hawaii, one of the world's most wonderful, complex, generous, and beautiful places and people. While speaking the kind truth in real time is hard everywhere, it is especially hard in Hawaii. The culture is one of deep respect, and it is more respectful of you if I speak to a third party so that they can share my thoughts with you, especially when the opinions might be critical. When I work in Hawaii, we spend extra time understanding and practicing the skill of speaking the kind truth to build the muscle memory for it to become a habit. It is profound and powerful when used in the Islands. Schools run better, airlines fly better, law firms perform better, tech firms innovate better, design firms create better, retail stores sell better, and churches serve better. It is a blessing to work with so many incredible companies within Hawaii and watch them courageously implement this Gold Standard in their organizations.


While it might be hard in Hawaii to have candid, direct conversations, the culture is typically great at the fifth behavior: a collective results mindset. Hawaiian team members tend to readily sacrifice for the whole, for the good of the team or company, the community, and the 'Ohana.’ My family and I were in Lahaina when the wildfires broke out and tragically consumed the town. Over $500 million has been raised for Maui, including numerous local individual and organizational efforts, as the Island begins the long recovery from this tragic event. What makes this all possible is the first behavior from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and the foundation of all our work: Trust. Specifically, vulnerability-based trust, where it is safe enough in the room for us to say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. Brene Brown calls this Psychological Safety. Simon Sinek calls it a Circle of Safety. However you describe it, it is critical for team members to continually build trust with one another so they can have increasingly candid dialog.


It is good to be off the road for a bit, but I know I will hear the TSA Rule again soon! In the interim, I would like to share a few quick actions you can take to build the skill of speaking the kind truth in real time.


  1. Invest in Trust – Use tools like personality profiles (Working Genius, MBTI, DiSC, Enneagram, and others) to understand how everyone is wired. Use trust questions to understand each other's background more deeply. All these tools help eliminate jumping to conclusions about a teammate's character and intent.

  2. Three Seconds of Courage – Care enough about each other, the team, and the organization to propel yourself into the needed conversation. Admitting that it is hard for you can help take the edge off starting the conversation for both parties. There are many good resources for holding these conversations (i.e., Crucial Conversations), but every significant journey begins with the first step, even if it only takes 3 seconds.

  3. Team Effectiveness – Use this powerful exercise where each person shares something their teammates do to help the team succeed and something they might work on for the team's benefit. Although a bit of anxiety can build up prior to the exercise, it is one of the most powerful experiences for a team. Just be sure you are investing in #1 above deeply!

  4. Leaders Invite Input – As a leader, you can increase your team's willingness to speak the kind truth by asking for feedback on your own behavior. Doing so consistently, without retribution or retaliation, will teach the team that you value candid feedback and that it is safe for them to do so with you and each other.


Speaking the kind truth in real time is the gold standard of a healthy, high-performing team, no matter where you work. Give it a try, or perhaps try it again and lead by example!

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