Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Better communication in the workplace

Consider the case of a letter an employee once wrote. After having been told that an executive position had opened up in her organisation and that the CEO already had a listing of talented people to interview, she sent a letter saying that she knew of the list and thought she was the right person for the job. Many employees resented her action. “It was too forward, too fresh,” they said and criticised her for it months later.

And therein lies the explanation in what is wrong with many of today’s organisations. The woman’s action generated considerable heat but no light on why an employee should not be forthright with an opinion. The real reason may be that in many of today’s organisation we dare not say what’s on our mind.

In many corporations employees lack not only words. They lack courage. Take for instance a corporate meeting where the chairperson babbles on and on. Meanwhile you are lost in the drone thinking all the while of piles of work on your desk. You know that what you should really be saying is “Enough already, let’s get back to work.” But you know your words may have consequences and you wade through another 2 hours of an unproductive meeting. Silent.

Employees often fail to use candour in the workplace and then wonder why nothing is ever resolved. "Most people," writes executive coach Susan Scott "would really like to have meaningful conversations at work but aren't really sure how to do that. They may have seen someone do it before and saw what happened to them, so they don't do it themselves."
Conversation is at the heart of business relationships. Yet, without talking about the issues in the workplace directly, there is little chance of finding a solution, according to Scott.
In the case of the woman with the letter, when she heard that her name was not on the list she thought she’d address the situation directly, hence the letter to her CEO. She later learnt that she would be promoted.

Analysts say that reluctance to speak candidly may have deep roots. We are given stern directions early in life in proper behavior. Girls are told not to speak until spoken to, most parents tell children to shut up unless they have something good to say. When we start jobs, the landscape may change but not the rules. Colleagues brief us on the lay of the land and we observe what is deemed the correct corporate behaviour. For instance you may notice after a few days on the job that no one talks to the boss before breakfast or that there is a list of important work issues that are just not ever discussed or that in meetings whatever one particular person says goes despite the discontent of work colleagues. "People tend to accept that these are rules through which they must navigate," Scott explains. "That means they won't ever be able to have the honest conversations needed to change things." The status quo is accepted.

The key to a successful conversation is to find ways to candidly discuss topics in a diplomatic way, without threats or accusations. This is mostly done in peer-to-peer relationships but when it comes to peer to supervisor relationships, the success of the conversations is often thwarted.

Supervisors, naturally because of the power issues involved, sometimes undermine any opportunity for a successful conversation. They may respond immediately to a worker's statement, suggesting why an idea won't work or dismissing it with a "I hear what you are saying, but ... "

Replacing “but” with “and” is a great technique for inviting discussion and building listening skills. So too is if every supervisor asks employees the most important thing on their mind and give them time to think about it. A well thought out answer means opening a door to the words an employee wants to say and not necessarily what the supervisor wants to hear.

And that’s the start.

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