While technology and management styles have been transformed over the past hundred years of working together in formal environments like offices, our ability to have 'good' conversations is stuck in the past. It’s important because businesses don’t just depend on the quality of their people - they depend on them communicating.
Workplaces continue to involve maintaining a professional persona, a caution in terms of what we can say to who, of avoiding disagreement and admissions of mistakes or weaknesses wherever possible, avoiding risks and difference of any kind. Conversations, as a result, can be stilted and limited. There’s a lack of openness and trust, and that leads to a worse situation, the potential for awkwardness, poor decision-making, grudges and more formal complaints as the misunderstandings and grievances escalate.
The trouble with talk
Rather than bringing about an improvement, digital forms of communication haven’t helped: less face-to-face interaction, more informality, more recourse to direct and blunt forms of messaging. Many of the long-established traditions of behaviour, subtle codes of manners and deference, have been swept away.
The issue has been made more urgent by the Supreme Court in August 2017 scrapping fees for employment tribunals. The introduction of fees in 2013 was reported to have led to a 70% fall in cases, and there are now fears that employers across the spectrum will be faced by a sudden rush of bottled-up cases. The changing context means it’s more important than ever for business leaders and management to be looking again at the processes in place to manage grievances, to anticipate problems and create a culture where minor disputes are dealt with easily, in mature and confident ways.
Time for CI
We need more ‘conversational intelligence’ among both management and staff - better conversation skills that equip us to be resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views, different people.
1. Face up to difficult conversations
It’s not just about avoiding conflict. Challenging conversations are good for business - for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and sense of motivation. Actively decide a conversation is needed - don’t be bounced into it by circumstances or in an emotional way. Plan what you want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’. And set out a clear purpose: if a conversation feels risky to you as a manager, it will be feeling risky to the other person. Find ‘something in it for them’ to talk – a mutual purpose.
2. Don’t rely so much on assumptions
It’s a curse of senior level staff. Instead of believing your experience means you already have the answers, ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what an employee thinks, believes, fears and wants. Not only is curiosity a really strong working relationship building tool, it also gives you more information which will help with the problem-solving. Really listen to their side of the story and let them know they have been heard and understood.
Recognise your version of events is composed of a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions, and try to separate what you know, what you believe, and what you are unsure of, before you open your mouth. A manager who shares their assumptions and versions of events with others, will be more clearly understood, and mistakes or misunderstandings will be clear before they take hold and become ‘facts’. People will be more motivated to commit to a manager who is open, honest and trustworthy in this way.
3. Get involved
People in groups mimic the behaviour of other people. If you’re tight-lipped and looking only to protect your position, they’ll do the same. So if there’s a problem, don’t make it just about them. It’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to the current difficulties – something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own role. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication. Ask yourself, “how might I have contributed to this?” Talking about your contribution you immediately open up a dialogue because they won’t feel you’re there to attack them. This means they are more likely to hear you and engage with what you need to talk about.
4. Do more of it
Workplace pressures, new routines and use of technology are all acting against the everyday flow of conversations. Businesses want action and efficiency without debate. But conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event - being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported.
Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of open conversations - and make it clear about support and development available; leaders need to be the role models. Put more time and resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other - making sure that you and other managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively.
5. Create a ‘clear air’ culture
It’s important to start by thinking about the values of your firm and the actual behaviours demonstrated by employees. By focusing on developing the ‘soft skills’ of people there is a closing of the gap between values and behaviours. The more aligned the two are, the closer to the organisation is getting to an everyday environment where problem-solving is free-flowing and innovation is instinctive. Beyond the soft skills training itself, businesses can support a clear air culture by putting in place a basic framework: looking at what happens to complaints and performance issues and how they are actually handled - is there a level of consistency and options that helps avoid more formal problems and the potential for resolving matters at the most informal level possible?