Why aren’t we having more conversations in the workplace? Is it because we find it easier to send an electronic message? Is there a connection between the kind of communication we have and the level of dignity in the workplace? If so, what’s this connection between communication and dignity?
To create an environment that motivates people, leaders must communicate with their colleagues in a personal way, not just via technology. They need to have conversations; lots of them. In short, authentic conversations are characteristic of an authentic workplace.
I wonder if the benefits of authentic conversations were more apparent and tangible, we’d see more leaders indulging in more conversations in their busy places of work? I think so.
At any rate, there’s a lack of quality conversations taking place in most workplaces. There’s plenty of evidence to bear this out – you’ve probably observed it yourself. Now, I recognise this might not include task-specific conversations, which are conversations directly about tasks necessary in the business: sales tasks, administrative tasks, marketing tasks, operational tasks, and so on.
Non-task specific conversations
It’s the other kind of conversations—non-task specific—that are being neglected. The conversations that refer to the individual rather than the specific work tasks they do. They’re typically referred to as developmental conversations and they are used to improve overall performance; and cover a host of topics. Developmental conversations are not counselling, although occasionally they may encroach on that turf.
Many conversations in the workplace are, of course, a hybrid of task- and non-task. For example, the delegation conversation is usually about a task that needs to be done. However, the delegation act isn’t generally considered a conversation; it’s usually a set of instructions from a manager to a team member to get a job done. But, for best effect, it ought to be a dialogue, rather than a monologue.
In practice, this means that the person being delegated to ought to be able to ask questions, make suggestions, seek clarification and generally be involved in the interaction. Apart from getting a task done, the delegation conversation—done in the right spirit—is about developing the person during the course of their day-to-day work. And it should comprise a mix of task and non-task elements.
Here’s another example: the encouraging conversation. Although not necessarily task-specific, as its name implies, it could involve inspiring an employee about a task they are undertaking, or will undertake. The purpose of the encouraging conversation? Reassurance. The leader believes in a team member’s capacity to deliver on a project or complete a task. Like the delegation conversation, it’s best done as a dialogue. The goal is to encourage someone to do (or not do) something work-related. It shouldn’t be a pep-talk; it’s a genuine interaction between two or more people. Nevertheless, it’s another example of a conversation that can be both task- and person-specific.
These kinds of developmental conversations are the type that leaders aren’t having nearly enough. Workplaces with an absence of authentic, developmental conversations are dehumanising. They’re focused on getting tasks done and place little or no emphasis on developing the people who carry out the tasks. This approach negatively impacts performance and impoverishes the people working there.
This article is an edited extract from Tim Baker’s latest book: Performance Management for the Agile Organisation.