How Skilled Communicators Can Block Openness

By: Jostein van Vliet 06-09-2016

Categories:** HR Leaders Talk, ** HR Talent management ,

Many modern managers want their team to communicate openly for its beneficial effects on learning and performance. Their ambition is supported by findings in business and science. For example, a large study at Google on the effectiveness of their work teams pointed to one critical factor explaining the performance of teams: psychological safety. In high performing teams, the participants equally contributed in conversations and were able to intuit what others were thinking and feeling from non-verbal cues.

So, open communication where people share valid verbal and non-verbal information seems a good idea. Why then, do we often experience situations where things are left unsaid? In this article we will explore how managers can stimulate openness.

Good Reasons for Holding Back

First, back to that concept of psychological safety. One way to understand it is as a shared belief that it is okay to take risks, and that others will not embarrass or punish you for speaking up. ‘Shared’ is important here: suppose I hold something back, because I think you might use that information against me. You notice something odd about my reactions and you start thinking I hold something back, and you also feel less inclined to share. I notice that, and we both conclude that this is an unsafe environment because ‘there are things that cannot be said’.

In conversations about openness, I find that sometimes managers implicitly feel that it is the employee that should open up. For example: about norms, about mistakes, or about improvement opportunities. The managers, on the other hand, feel that they do share quite a few things. And for the things they do not say, they have good reasons: a discussion about strategy that is still in development, his judgment about the employee, or their opinion about what should be done ‘because I want my employee to find out the answer’.

According to social psychologist Chris Argyris who made his life work to study behaviour in organizations, our skill in business communication prevents us from opening up the conversation.

How does this work? In business we have learned to keep things goal oriented, solution focused and positive. We limit the expression of negative emotions. If something unexpected (or ‘wrong’) happens we aim to save the face of the other person and our self. Doing otherwise would be ‘unprofessional’. Just notice what kind of feedback most people give to an intern who is preparing his first business presentation: be more concise, stick to the facts, make the key message explicit; do not show your nervousness.

This ‘professional’ way of interacting has benefits. We achieve goals, we make progress and we solve problems. We reduce doubt and that encourages action. However, because we want to achieve our goal, we shy away from inquiring into conflicting views, missing creative solutions. When we have bad news, we ‘ease in’ by first talking about something else or try to lead the other person to their own conclusion (‘how do you think you are doing?’) reinforcing the idea that saying it forthright is painful. When something potentially harming is brought to our attention we start reasoning defensively, ‘it’s not our fault, another department failed to act’, which stimulates blaming rather than improving.

Perhaps you are reading this and think: not me. I am smarter than this. I am a trained professional. And perhaps you are right. Read on, because at the end of this article there is an exercise that may give you insights nevertheless.

Lost Opportunities

We lose tremendous opportunities that we are not even aware of. For example, it is not that hard to achieve results with a continuous improvement program such as Lean. Improvement ideas flow and with enough attention implementation is successful. Afterwards we celebrate: we were able to improve! But, in my experience as a consultant, most improvement ideas were not caused by the program. Most had already been thought of in the past. Someone saw an opportunity, discussed it with a manager or co-worker, and somehow did not move further.

People in organizations tend to shy away from eliciting negative feelings. So these questions are rarely discussed in an open manner: how come you needed a defined program in order to bring about improvement in your work? What prevented you from taking your responsibility before that? How am I stimulating you to do the opposite of what I intend? How can you and I make sure that other improvements will be implemented? If individuals and groups go through the embarrassment of knowing they could have done better, they could arrive at real insights on how they want to organize their improvements.

If these questions are not asked, or merely answered defensively, it is likely that the improvements will not be as continuous as hoped. And managers and employees will wait for the next program to deliver results!

You Go First

Open communication about potentially harming subjects is tough. And you cannot expect the other person to start. Why would they when they think you are holding back information that is relevant? You go first! Let us take up that challenge: what are you not sharing? What are the things that you hold back? And how could you share exactly those things to improve the interaction?

What we think we do and what we actually do are often separate things. Especially when the conversation gets tense. And tense they get when there is potential for embarrassment and feeling of failure. Here is one great way that helped me, and many others, to reflect on what we actually do: 

This exercise gives insight in what you say and what you do not say, and what reasoning you have behind this. And perhaps you will notice that you too, without intention, contributed to that feeling of unsafety you wanted to prevent.

By: Jostein van Vliet