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Get Ready to Rock the Boat

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the concept of “rocking the boat”. It’s not the first time I’ve given this consideration. It’s something I think about a lot, especially when doing work with teams and organizations.  


I firmly believe that rocking the boat is not the problem folks make it out to be. It’s not to be avoided at all costs, which is the typical response when we notice metaphorical rough waters. In fact, I would argue that rocking the boat is a necessary part of team effectiveness. Here’s what I mean. 

In the typical world view of relationships and team function, rocking the boat is equated with the unnecessary creation of angst. The key word here is “unnecessary”. In actual fact, however, boats are rocked when there is a level of turmoil, friction, or angst. And sometimes, such turmoil, friction or angst is very necessary. 

When turmoil, friction or angst are present in a team, it’s a sign that something needs your attention. It’s pointing to a situation that is begging to be noticed, a dynamic that is asking to be addressed. Or, perhaps, a new way of moving forward that needs to be explored.  

The tendency in most groups, when boat-rocking is noticed, is to attempt to tamp down the angst, contain the friction, or lighten the tension. None of this actually works long-term, although things can feel calm for a moment or two. Eventually, the issue at hand will rear its head again. Because it actually needs to be addressed

When boats are rocked within a team, it’s a good sign in the grand scheme of things. It means that folks are invested enough to speak about what isn’t working. It means team members feel safe enough to share differences of opinion. It means folks are willing to speak up in service of something that matters to them, to take a stand. This is what every team needs, if they are going to be effective long-term. 

Contrary to popular belief, teams in which everything is smooth-sailing all the time are not necessarily strong. They might be. And they might just as easily be teams that are just doing the bare minimum, just coasting through, just going through the motions. Human nature being what it is, differences of approach, opinion and perspective exist and if these aren’t brought to the surface from time to time -- in other words, if your boat isn’t rocking at least periodically -- it speaks to a lack of inherent investment, commitment or feeling of safety. Trust me, you do not want your team to not be invested, to feel a lack of commitment or be unsafe.   

So, how do you invite folks to rock the boat in a constructive way? How do you facilitate a productive process? Here are a few things to consider: 

  1. Go slowly. If folks aren’t used to being able to speak hard truths safely, they’re going to need to tiptoe into the arena.

  2. Create time and space for conflict to be aired. Make it normal, and make it safe.

  3. Speak to tension when you feel it; point it out, and don’t turn a blind eye.

  4. Model a grounded approach to conflict. In other words, don’t get embroiled in the angst; instead, help guide folks through it.

  5. Welcome the difficult conversations; don’t discourage them.

  6. Celebrate resolution when calmness returns to the team.

Bottom-line: those difficult conversations you’re trying to avoid? Start stirring them up. Rock the boat a little. When metaphorical boats are rocked in service of mutual commitment and forward movement, teams are stronger in the long run.