Beware of False Harmony


In 2010, I moved to SF after living in Paris and working in the BRICs for 10 years. Upon my return to the US, I noticed a spike in the use of the directive leadership style and the existence of bullying. I also noticed that false harmony has creeped into the team cultures of many organizations.

False harmony seems prominent in organizations where people actively invest in curating positive team cultures, often providing symbols of generosity and love such as happiness initiatives, team harmony as a value embedded within the performance review process, free food, free iPhones, playful work spaces, team development activities and the like. Some people perceive these goodies as ways to lure employees to work longer hours and that might be true, but in this blog, we’ll take the perspective that they’re sincere attempts to nurture a warm and creative team feeling.

Amidst all this effort to nurture happy and effective teams, unspoken rules have become the norm around avoiding or suppressing problems, obstacles, concerns, failures, conflict, fears, anxieties and anything that might be considered a threat to team harmony.


Harmony = an environment that looks and feels harmonious in which people work well together while solving problems, removing obstacles, responding to conflict, learning from fears and concerns, and getting fun things done

False Harmony = an environment that looks harmonious but doesn’t feel harmonious in which people work together to get things done, but somehow feel like they’re not supposed to talk about problems, obstacles, conflict, fears or concerns

Exploring False Harmony

False harmony is created because of today’s legacy industrial model that assumes that logic is the only reliable human intelligence. When emotions are suppressed and their logic not accessed (emotions’ logic), fears around dealing with emotions intensify and oft-times, intensified emotions that have been suppressed surface in the most inopportune times (reinforcing the notion that emotions are bothersome and random). Even if people make an effort on the conscious level to deal with emotions, yet have not dealt with the assumption on the subconscious level that logic is the only intelligence worth using to solve problems, the subconscious mind always wins. In this case, attention to emotions loses, even when emotions are the key to team harmony.

An Example of False Harmony

It is common to observe or experience surreal discussions (like the one below) between people who collude to avoid conflict, yet don’t want to engage in useless conversations. This is an example of false harmony because it looks like people are getting along and solving problems, but they don’t feel good with each other and the core issues are not being addressed.

This discussion is between Manish, the CEO of a SF startup of 400 people and John, an engineer in the same firm:

John: Manish, thanks for meeting with me. It’s taken us a few months to schedule a time to sit down together and I appreciate that we’re doing it now. I wanted to chat with you about a salary increase. I haven’t had one in two years and my job description continues to expand.

Manish: Ok, good point, John. We don’t have the budget for salary increases since we didn’t win the last project we bid on, but I’ll keep your request in mind.

John: Ok, well I’d be willing to be patient if I got some mentoring. I value mentoring as much a salary increase as I’m keen on learning about our business from all its aspects and would love some hands-on time with you and/or the other execs. Is that possible?

Manish: Wow, I hadn’t known this, John. Of course, this sounds like a great idea. We’ll organize it.

John: Ok, great. Are you free next Friday to talk about the last bid from various perspectives?

Manish: Great idea — I already did a debrief with the other execs, but I’ll get back to you around mentoring. I’ll talk to the others to see what we can do.

Knowing this real-life scenario (modified to maintain confidentiality), I can say that John left the meeting feeling like nothing he asks for gets met and he fell into judgment thinking: “Manish is incompetent,” “he never listens,” “he always avoids salary discussions.” Manish left the meeting feeling like his staff ask for more and more and he can’t give more. He fell into judgments such as: “my staff are unappreciative,” “they always ask for more.”

From the outside, they both look like they’re getting along and working together well, but they don’t feel heard, respected or appreciated. Leaving these feelings unexpressed for long enough and John will likely quit and Manish will likely become resentful and bitter.

Disrupt False Harmony

The easiest ways to disrupt false harmony and nurture true harmony are to:

      1. move toward emotions
      2. see emotions as useful tools in solving conflict, removing obstacles, dealing with concerns

No emotion is useless, although many of them reflect past situations that pop up in the present. In any case, each emotion has something to offer and can be used to understand which inner human needs need to be met. The reason that’s important is that everything people think, feel and do seek to meet the basic human needs (love, certainty, significance, variety, growth, contribution, hope — a variation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

A more sophisticated version of the above talk is outlined below. You might chuckle, snicker, laugh or howl because such a real conversation might be rare within a work setting in today’s world, but this is where the work world is going. More leaders in every strata are learning to develop their emotional capacity to be able to use the logic of emotions and speak about their needs without collapsing into fear or avoidance. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.

Now, before continuing, remember that moving toward emotions doesn’t have to feel like a psychotherapy session. The WHY isn’t the focus, rather WHAT TO DO WITH EMOTIONS’ INFO. You can use the sister theory of emotions to access emotions’ info and then use it accordingly to make decisions. The sister theory of emotions = see each emotion as a sister who is telling you something you need to know about your needs, á la the human basic needs. The more you understand your own emotions, the more you can talk to others about what you need AND talk to them about their emotions and needs.

John — having understood that he worked for two years without getting a salary increase, while accepting increased responsibilities, he takes responsibility for accepting these terms even when he thought they were unfair. He did so because he feared that he wouldn’t be able to get another job (although he didn’t try looking for one for that long). When John accepts responsibility for his choices and asks his emotions what they’re telling him (frustration, anger, resentment, feeling unappreciated), he learns that he betrayed himself by accepting unfair terms because of fear, while wanting Manish to make things better for him. When John didn’t get his needs met by Manish, he felt angry, resentful, used and the like.

Manish — having understood that he’s been asking his staff to do more with less, he realized that he’s betrayed his own sense of fairness. He also fears not asking his staff for more with less because the firm hasn’t won any large bids in two years. When he accepts responsibility for his actions and asks his emotions what they’re telling him (frustration, feeling unappreciated, stressed, anxious), Manish learns that he’s been avoiding the feeling of failure that would come with layoffs. In wanting to avoid that feeling and avoid laying people off, he kept “squeezing” John and others for more. He could have talked with the exec team and staff to explore options instead of taking the responsibility for everything on his own. Although he didn’t intend to exploit, his “do more with less” looked and felt like exploitation.

An Example of Harmony

After both John and Manish take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and behavior, they could have the following discussion:

John: Manish, thanks for meeting with me. It’s taken us a few months to schedule a time to sit down together and I appreciate that we’re doing it now. I wanted to chat with you about a salary increase. I haven’t had one in two years and my job description continues to expand.

Manish: Ok, good point, John. I hear you. I’ve been thinking about this issue, too, and wanted to have an entire firm discussion about what to do with the fact that we haven’t won any major projects in the last two years and so, can’t easily increase your salary or anyone else’s. At this time, we don’t have the budget for salary increases, but I know that you’ve been working hard for two years and doing a great job. I acknowledge and appreciate that and ask that you be a bit more patient until we collectively find a way to move forward. Would that be ok?

John: Ok, Manish, thanks for sharing that. We’ve all known that we haven’t won major projects and we were wondering what’s going to happen. Are you going to lay people off?

Manish: That’s what I want to avoid. While we find out how to work through our current cash flow crunch, is there anything else that I or the other execs can do to make you happy?

John: Well, yes. I’d appreciate mentoring to learn more about the business and it would be great to have one-on-one time with you or the other execs on a regular basis. We could make it informal and talk over lunch, too.Would that work?

Manish: Great idea. Do you know what kind of mentoring you’d like? The more specific you can be, the more likely I and the others can make it happen. Do you want to write up a few topics that you’d like to explore and send it to me by Friday? Then, next week, when I call an all-hands meeting on Monday to talk about how to move forward, we can factor mentoring in. Does that work?

John: Yes, thank you.

This conversation could have gone a million ways. What it’s trying to show is that there’s a facility in talking about any topic when you’ve sorted out your emotions and taken responsibility for your thoughts, feelings and actions/decisions/choices. Doing that disrupts false harmony and nurtures true harmony, regardless of the fact that problems still exist.

Do you notice false harmony at work? What would happen if you sort through your emotions around a particular issue, as a start, and then chat about the topic from a sense of having already sorted out your feelings?


[Image from Freepik]