Leadership Is NOT A Conversation - Yet

nick showing off at his parent-teacher-student conference - DSC02539
Photo by Sean Dreilinger via Flickr

Father to son: “Why are you banging your head against the wall?”

Son: “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

The joke is old but the problem is fully contemporary.

Employees have trouble getting, understanding, and sharing the information they need.

They don’t know where to look.

They don’t know who to call.

They are afraid to ask any questions, or complain.

And so it is not surprising that people spend hours of time completing a task that could have taken five minutes. Or none at all, actually – had they known that someone else, in some other department very close or far away, had already resolved the issue.

Why do we continue to accept poor corporate communication? We’re in the workplace ourselves, right? We suffer from the effects every day.

And yet we refuse the medicine that could cure the throbbing migraine.

Why is this?

Even if we don’t instinctively know what to do, there is no excuse for ignorance. Leadership after leadership book, article, blog exhorts us to improve the quality of our communication.

A new article in Harvard Business Review,Leadership Is A Conversation,” is a perfect example.

It lays out in painstaking detail the meaning of “old-style” (top-down) vs. “new-style” (interactive) communication at work, the multitude of reasons why, the step-by-step as to how to do it.

It isn’t going to make a dent, at least not yet: Leaders will still want to communicate primarily in a monologue. And employees will continue to accept this.

Here are three major reasons for this:

1.   Power: Leaders gain it by gaining scarce information from an elite circle of contacts. They maintain it by choosing which information to share, with whom, and when. Opening up that circle exposes them to enemies inside and outside the organization. The risk of losing the loyalty of lower-level staff, who can after all be replaced in a competitive market, is lower than the risk of being supplanted by a powerful competitor.
2.   Culture: The expectation persists that someone in a leadership position will speak in a monologue, from on high. Watch the movie “Elizabeth” and see how an ordinary girl is transformed into a leader of the people – traditionally a man’s job - by virtue of accepting the cultural expectations that surround leadership.
3.   Psychology - The Unconscious: The theory of “repetition compulsion” states that we will continue to recreate familiar situations PRECISELY BECAUSE the dynamics they contain are painful to us. Notoriously, children of abusive parents become abusive themselves. It is our way of trying to repair the damage, first by making the crisis occur and then trying to resolve it. Thus a workplace where communication flowed freely and openly would not feel like “real work” either to boss or employee.

What will it take to turn things around? To transform corporate communication to a default setting where information is shared rather than withheld? A reversal of the factors above, specifically:

1.   Replace “power” with “influence”: Bosses tend to underestimate the extent to which employees operate as “free agents” and seek to leave unfulfilling work situations. Even in a bad economy, they are mobile. Second, they underestimate the inventive capacity of people to get things done through their own channels of communication. Both of these tendencies are magnified exponentially with the proliferation of social media and mobile “smart” (connected to the Internet ubiquitously) devices. What this means is that if you restrict yourself to “elite conversations” you are out of touch with what’s going on. Therefore it pays to engage multiple audiences as a participant, not just as a dominating force, in order to gain social capital – connectedness, credibility and trust – and find out what’s really going on.
2.   Replace the traditional hierarchical single culture with deliberately collaborative and sometimes competing multiple cultures: The goal in an army is to move like a family of ducks crossing the street, one following the other. The goal in a knowledge- and collaboration-based workplace is to move like a colony of ants, coordinated but not always in precisely the same direction. The goal is shared but the method of achieving it is always internally contested, and leads to competition to improve.
3.   Engage people emotionally in undoing the ways of the past:It is Darwinian survival logic that people will prefer to be treated well and not badly. Accepting mistreatment is not something they do voluntarily, but rather something they have come to accept as “just the way it is.” If you can model a better, healthier way – no, better yet if you can show that you are committed to struggling for that better way – commitment, productivity and the retention of good people will follow.

In the end it’s not ivory-tower platitudes that will take us from where we are now to a better place of communication. 

It is going back to "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten."

It is going back to before we learned about bullying in the playground.

Remembering when every little thing we learned was exciting, and fresh, and new, and we couldn't wait to share it with our loved ones.

In the end real communication is about joy - the joy of connecting with other people. Together coming up with more than what you could ever dream up in your own head.
Have a good Friday and a good weekend everyone, and good luck!