Zoud sounds like it should be a middle-eastern city but it is actually an acronym for Zone Of Uncomfortable Debate. It’s another of those pithy little terms, like Lemon Dropping and Marmite Employee, that conveys a lot of meaning in a few words.
I hadn’t heard it until yesterday, though it seems to have been coined by Cliff Bowman in this 1995 article. I was introduced to it yesterday by John Blakey and Ian Day, discussing their recently published manifesto for a more challenging and confrontational style of coaching.
The ZOUD is that area of discussion where things start to feel uncomfortable. You come across it in coaching sessions, board meetings, appraisals, project teams – in fact, pretty much any business situation which involves a degree of change or conflict.
Most of us don’t like conflict and very few of us like open confrontation. Consequently, we develop strategies for avoiding both. Business conversations tend to take place in the Zone of Comfortable Debate. We are fine when we are in our comfort zones, focusing on specific problems and using our well-developed technical skills to solve them. But, all too often, there is a critical issue that we are just not discussing. We sometimes call it the elephant in the room.
When we start to discuss the issue, or get close to discussing it, the atmosphere becomes more tense and uncomfortable. We move into the ZOUD. Then, because we don’t like conflict or difficult conversations, we get the hell out of the ZOUD as fast as we can. Each of us has our own strategy for doing this. We change the subject, sometimes subtly by saying ‘I’d like to build on what you said’, then talking about something completely different. Or we might say, ‘Let’s take this off line’, implying that it will be discussed at some future date, which it never is. My personal favourite is the appeal for more data. As soon as the debate gets uncomfortable you say that you can’t possibly discuss it any further until you have more information, at which point you appoint some hapless individual to do a pointless piece of research, thus shelving the important discussion for another six months. I once worked with a chairman who had ZOUD-avoidance strategies down to a fine art. As soon as the discussion got contentious, he would talk around the subject endlessly, while avoiding the key issue, until the upstart that raised the problem had run out of energy, then he would set up a project group to look at it in more detail.
Sometimes a team will collude in avoiding an issue. Ambiguous language is a great way of doing this. We discuss the problem in vague terms then reach anodyne conclusions which are so open to interpretation that each person can go away with a completely different idea of what has been agreed. That’s why the outputs from management team away days are often so vapid and meaningless.
The most fascinating thing about our ZOUD avoiding strategies is that, deep down, we know we are doing it! I have walked out of meetings knowing that issues have not been properly addressed but that we have gotten away with it by fudging the language. I’ve had fundamental disagreements with colleagues yet I have colluded with them to wrap the issue up in business-bullshit so I can get out of the meeting and avoid any aggro.
And I’m not alone. This happens in organisations all the time. We get into the ZOUD and the closer we get to the heart of the matter, the hotter it gets, the more uncomfortable it gets and the more we all want to run away.
The trouble is, the issues themselves don’t go away. They just sit there waiting to jump up and bite us at a later date. By staying out of the ZOUD, I can buy myself a quiet life for a few weeks but it means that I will have the same arguments and discussions at the next meeting, and the next, and the one after that. Have you ever wondered why the same item keeps appearing on a meeting agenda only to be carried over each time? Chances are, it is an issue which would lead to some contentious debate and the team’s ZOUD-avoidance strategies are so effective that they have conspired to duck the problem at each meeting.
But those people brave enough to stay in the ZOUD and stick with all the discomfort that goes with it can achieve some great results. Sometimes, it’s that question that everybody that been thinking but no-one dares ask that gets to the root of a problem. Asking uncomfortable and awkward questions is always a risk. You might piss someone off and damage your relationship with them. In extreme circumstances, you might get fired. In my experience, though, you usually don’t. Most of the time, people thank you for clearing the air, challenging their thinking and getting the important issues out on the table.
I once worked with a group of directors in an organisation that valued loyalty very highly. The team talked around various issues for a whole day but, every time a couple of business units were mentioned, the level of tension rose. Then someone would make a joke or change the subject and talk about something else. This went on for a while but during the course of the day it transpired that there were problems in these areas, both of which were led by long-standing senior managers who many of the directors had known for years. Eventually, I realised that I was going to have to say what no-one else would. In such a close-knit organisation it was risky to suggest it but eventually I said, “It sounds like these guys need to be managed out of the company.”
“Exactly,” cried one as he banged his hand on the table. “I’ve thought that for a while,” said another. At last, we’d made it through the ZOUD and reached the subject we really needed to talk about.
Being able to operate in the ZOUD is crucial for anyone who is managing in a rapidly changing business environment. In any management career, the further up the greasy pole you go, the more time you will need to spend in the ZOUD if you are to be effective as a leader. ZOUD-tolerance is particularly important for HR managers. The most emotive discussions in organisations are on the subjects of pay, performance and status. Shying away from uncomfortable discussions might make an HR managers’ life easier in the short-term but, as sure as hell, it will store up a lot of trouble over time.
Management consultants, too, need to be able to operate in the ZOUD. When I first went from a line role into consultancy, for a well-known firm which I won’t mention for fear of reprisals, I wondered why all my projects were so damned hard and aggro-strewn. Then the penny dropped – if this was easy they wouldn’t have called me in the first place. By definition, any worthwhile consultancy project will involve spending a lot of time in the ZOUD.
Most ZOUD-resilient of all, though, are those interim CEOs who specialise in turning organisations round. They have been a feature of the private sector for years but now they are being used in the public sector too. These guys spend their entire working lives in the ZOUD. They go into distressed organisations, make unpopular decisions, crash through the existing hierarchy, demote colleagues, have hardball discussions with suppliers and investors, fire people, then move onto the next company and do it all over again. Sure, these people have great business acumen, technical skills and market knowledge but that alone is not enough. What really makes them successful is that their ability to spend most of their time having the sort of challenging discussions that most of us would find uncomfortable. Many of these people find them uncomfortable too but they are able to deal with that discomfort and work through it. They are usually extremely well paid. Developing the ability to work in the ZOUD can be very rewarding.
Next time you are in a meeting, an appraisal, a coaching session or any situation where you get that nagging feeling that you are skirting around the issue, ask yourself a couple of questions:
“What’s the subject we are avoiding talking about?”
“What are we pretending not to know?”
In too many management meetings we do both these things. We avoid the important subject and pretend we don’t know stuff. We do this to maintain our comfort levels and avoid the ZOUD.
But most of the discussions and decisions that will move you and your organisation forward are those that take place inside the ZOUD. The ZOUD is a bit like the gym. It’s a hard place to be but you get great results if you can stick it out for long enough.