Look around the workplace, and it's clear that conversation isn't what it used to be. Across the office, people are frantically reading, typing, and hitting "send" on emails, texts and social media. We're communicating all the time, perhaps more than ever before. Ironically, everyone's too busy to have an actual conversation.
Communication, as it tends to play out in workplaces, is a structured affair. We monitor our words carefully, give polite (if perfunctory) feedback and do our best to not offend. Commonly, communication is seen as getting a message across - a one-way activity that is designed to get the answers we need efficiently so we can get on with our to-do list. Given the choice, we'd much rather communicate in memo-speak, via technology.
Which means, we're starving ourselves of conversation. And it could be making your organization unhealthy.
Why conversation matters
Once upon a time, effective communication consisted of barking instructions from the top down. Workers sat in their cubicles or stood on the production line, and all that was really expected of them was that they did as they were told. In an economy of mass production, following the process was the best way to get the most work done in the least amount of time.
For some time now, the economy has been transitioning away from traditional command-and-control modes of working. Today's economy is increasingly based on creativity, knowledge and innovation - conditions that are achieved by harnessing the value of the people, relationships and networks held within the organization. In simple terms, you innovate by sharing ideas through conversation.
Google has famously mastered the art of "having a conversation," and the strategy has been credited with stoking such innovations as Google Earth and Google Chrome. Chief among the benefits is that conversation allows emotional proximity between employees and leaders, boosting trust, empathy and listening skills. Research suggests that conversation can improve any number of work practices such as building team relationships, influencing and inspiring others, managing gossip, and making people feel safe and included. When people have the confidence to say what's on their mind, they move to a deeper level of engagement with their work, and are significantly more loyal to their organization.
Managers should never underestimate the power of a short, satisfying conversation.
What is conversation anyway?
When we talk about "conversation," what do we mean exactly? Well, we don't mean ritualized chit-chat about last night's TV that adds no value to anyone (although the conversation may start out that way). But we don't mean purposeful, agenda-driven debate, either.
Authentic conversation is not about solving a specific problem or passing on information. It is simply the act of thinking together and sharing ideas, spontaneously and without judgment, and seeing what shakes out of the dialogue.
Stop talking and get to work!
When we consider the power of conversation to build relationships and generate new insight, its importance in our work lives becomes quite obvious. Yet many managers still struggle with the concept of an open-dialogue workplace; some banter may be tolerated, and after that it's "shut up and get to work!"
The problem lies in the way we define productivity. We may have done away with time sheets, but there's still a rigorous, task-driven accountability attached to most jobs. Professional staff are expected to work longer hours and achieve against the backdrop of a defined set of goals. This leaves little time for conversation, especially conversation that has no specific purpose.
And time is not the only barrier to conversation. Consider the following:
Violent politeness - in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post entitled Why Work Is Lonely, Gianpiero Petriglieri coined the term "violet politeness" to describe the phenomenon whereby workers avoid raising a difficult issue in order to maintain harmony within the group. He argues that voicing your true opinions always comes with risk - you may be seen as blunt, or difficult, or simply not nice. And there are (often legendary) stories around the workplace of people who were put down for raising a dissenting voice. Violent politeness blocks the conversation, leading to flawed decision-making and groupthink.
Ego - the opposite of violent politeness, ego is observed when conversations are dominated by certain personality types who are more interested in point scoring than exploring the issues. Ego-drive teams are often fueled by competitive relationships and conflict; rarely do these debates give rise to anything creative.
Hierarchy - despite the move towards flatter hierarchies, there will always be managers who prefer to command and control. It is unrealistic to think that people will engage in authentic conversation when, in reality, neither party believes that the conversation will change anything since the senior people in the organization will always control the message.
Technology - while technology has the potential to connect, it can also be a barrier to authentic conversation. Workers are often encouraged to hide behind technology in the name of efficiency - using email to communicate with someone in the same office, for example, or using "check box" online performance reviews to give and receive feedback. Exchanging dozens of emails a day is no substitute for quality interaction. In fact, it turns our communication into ritual, detached from the human side of business.
How to get the conversation flowing
Once you have identified a need for conversation in the workplace, it's up to leaders to kick-start a cultural change. Here are some suggestions for getting the conversation flowing, either within teams or across the wider organization:
- Invite employees to contribute to regular strategy sessions. Allow them to speak openly about the team's goals and culture from all sides and identify opportunities for action.
- Encourage managers to focus more on asking open-ended questions rather than handing down answers. Swapping stories around a particular topic makes it easier for employees to speak up about their experiences.
- Provide information and training to those who lack interpersonal and communication skills. Investing in training programs sends a clear message that dialogue is a priority for the organization.
- Lead from the top. Senior executives who take the time to engage in genuine conversation can help to create a culture that supports dialogue and consideration of dissenting views.
- Appoint a devil's advocate. Forming teams and peer advisory groups with a good variety of personality types is an effective way to open communication channels and set the stage for employees to respectfully share opinions.
No matter who you are, and who your people are, we all learn by talking with each other. Yet in many organizations, conversation seems to be undervalued and underused. It is hard to get the conversation flowing when the focus is more on talking than listening.
The simplest way for organizations to include, engage and motivate their employees is through good, old-fashioned conversation. When we talk, we become allies with each other. We look into each other's eyes, laugh, and we read each other's emotions. We become, in that moment, supremely human. And that's when the magic happens.