Compliments of Paul Shank via Flickr

We spend most of our day doing it. Sometimes it’s deliberative, and at other times it’s seat of the pants. But in whatever format it’s the glue that holds organizations together.
The way that we say what we mean or fail to convey our sentiment determines if we accomplish our goals.
Have you thought about the way you come across? Or more importantly, has your firm conducted an analysis to examine the impact of conversation at work? A communication audit takes stock of how people convey their message.

The translation of thought into the written or spoken word can lose something in translation. People who are low in emotional intelligence (or lacking empathy) may express themselves in a clumsy fashion. This may be done as a matter of ignorance, or in some instances with malicious intent. Your coworker’s level of conscience will impact whether they go along (and become a part of the angry mob), or whether they choose to behave as upstander. In “How One Person Can Change the Conscience of an Organization” a singular person can have a monumental impact at work. Conversely, bad apples inject toxins into the organizational communication well. Powerful managers act as mirrors–refracting subordinates’ demeanor until they see a version of themselves in the reflection.

In a survey of communication styles organizations should examine how routine back and forth makes workers feel. If there is a pervasive sense they are steamrolled then maybe a good place to start is by explaining the importance of civility, and the consequences for non-compliance. Organizations should educate employees about EQ (emotional intelligence) and encourage them to express their true feelings at work. Workers at Bridgewater use a company issued iPad “pain button” app to transcribe their emotional experiences. Open sharing allows for employees to consider their role in creating bruised egos, and to address the situation. Kegan, Lahey, Fleming, and Miller (2014) explain that this type of instantaneous sharing prompts personal reflection, and revelations such as “I spent the meeting trying to make myself look good instead of focusing on the business objective.” Managers need to pull brusque people aside and explain their impact. In a Bloomberg interview bond king Bill Gross explains that his coworkers, as a result of his personal style, thought he was angry when he may have felt neutral.

Motto: Pain + Reflection = Progress

Behavior is shaped by its consequences and rewards. Do workers receive time off so that they can volunteer? Are they penalized if they do not serve as mentor, or if they receive poor ratings in a 360-degree performance feedback? Are managers encouraged to have face to face, Zoom, SKYPE, or video conference calls instead of firing of an e-mail? One of the most telling signs of whether communication problems exist is whether a few people dominate meetings and if they act in tandem to bully certain people—those with whom they disagree or those who for whatever reason they feel have no right to speak. It’s the responsibility of managers to see that meeting rules are enforced, and that every person in the meeting is solicited for their opinion.

Effective dialogue begins with developing a repertoire of interpersonal skills. Knowing how to read faces, deciphering how we come across, and getting to the root of a problem — instead of becoming defensive. If I don’t know how someone perceives me I will continue to do more of the same unless I’m challenged, and/or I receive appropriate training.

The Wall Street Journal reports that only 20 percent of organizations train their employees to be empathetic. Does your company survey whether workers feel respected? And if they don’t, what would it take to change course? A managerial head in the sand approach that assumes there is no problem (because no one says otherwise) suggests that leaders don’t care enough to dig beneath the surface. People may keep their mouths shut just long enough to get their next job, one where they don’t feel dishonored. Inclusion begins at the micro level and extends outward. As a manager:

  • Try to involve people in the conversation. Instead of dictating terms ask what they would like to see. Membership grows by encouraging everyone to become a part of the club. Conversely, employees who are bypassed will take the hint.
  • Behave as unleader; toss the baton and remain open to surprise. You will see gratitude in your colleagues’ eyes.
  • Address people who behave poorly. A modus operandi of pretending like nothing happened aggrandizes abusers; emboldens bullies; humiliates targets; communicates that misbehavior is not only tolerated, but encouraged; and forces people to take sides with silent assent and quiescent silence.

Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller and coauthor of Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring, states says that everyone is somebody’s precious child.

    With that premise in mind, how can you ensure abused employees are made whole on the tail end of poor conduct, and how can you prevent interpersonal abuse from occurring in the first place? An elevated position should not be a ladder rung from which to denigrate and abuse people scot-free. A leader should:
    • Learn from everyone they meet. In that spirit you will choose to speak less and listen more; ask follow up questions and invite people with expertise other than your own to provide lessons. Even the untamed are a learning opportunity. How can that person teach you to be a more compassionate manager? Abusers no doubt have issues themselves that may be the underlying cause of their dysfunction.
    • Put parameters on e-mail. The original intent was for routine correspondence and not for personnel matters.
    • Provide training on non-verbal gestures. Smiling can for example make someone as happy as eating a total of two thousand chocolate bars. The mere act makes people more approachable.
    • Train on intercultural communication. Not all cultures think that jockeying for position and hyper-competition is appropriate. Leaders must create environments that welcome, embrace and appreciate a variety of styles.

A communication audit should begin within in our minds and terminate before we talk.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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