Most of us in business probably understand the benefits of effective communication in the workplace. When the purpose, mission, vision and values of an organization are clearly stated and everyone is in alignment with them, the business culture thrives. Why? Because it creates an opportunity for all stakeholders to make sense about how they can be in harmony within themselves, each other and the company.
In short, this boosts morale. It is for this reason alone that effective communication in the workplace cannot be overstated.
But what does it mean to be effective in business?
Some might say that business effectiveness is how well a company and its people perform, and in that, how business functions work together (or not). In this, the words “effective” and “efficient” are often used interchangeably; but I do not see them as the same thing.
Many years ago, someone said something to me around this very topic that I believe links to a quote by Peter Drucker:
"To be efficient is to do the thing right. To be effective is to do the right thing."
Linking to effective communication in the workplace, if there is no clear message about what that “right thing” is, not only will morale be low; productivity, trust and engagement will be nearly non-existent.
This is where Dialogue can be extremely helpful.
From 2014—2017, my business partners and I worked with a mid-sized financial institution in the US, a franchise of a parent company overseas. We were initially called in by the CEO because he was concerned about the low morale that was present in the firm. Business conditions were uncertain. There was a perceived lack of fair compensation. And very few felt a sense of connection and meaning with their roles, functions, colleagues and the overall vision of the organization as a whole.
After a series of more than 50 generative interviews, we synthesized what we learned from the collective into five themes and held a 2-day workshop with the top 50 to present those themes; share our findings; and have a Dialogue to observe, reflect and uncover dormant opportunities.
At the beginning of the session, there was a lot of silence—and I’m not talking about the silence I typically mention relative to Dialogue. I’m talking about that uncomfortable kind of silence—that long moment in time that seems to last an eternity when people are scared, frustrated and resistant to authentically communicate what is in their hearts and on their minds.
As we facilitated a deeper space of safety and the few first brave souls began to speak, over time, we eventually got into a flow—and at one point, about 90 minutes into the conversation, the big ah-ha emerged: “We should run it like we own it.”
This was a huge motivating and meaningful moment for the group. What emerged during the Dialogue was that being a foreign financial institution in the US comes with a lot of restrictions because of compliance, requirements and controls put in place by the parent company and the government. What was discovered was that employees were feeling very restricted and micro-managed with little to no room to create their own destiny.
Yet, once the group was able to authentically and vulnerably share and thereby effectively communicate what they felt to be limiting to them, they were able to make the shift toward owning their destiny versus being a victim of it, and in that, began to consider how to create their desired culture—linked to—but separate from the parent company. The notion that this was even available to this US-based institution had never occurred to them.
In the end, post Dialogue, my colleagues and I helped this group to co-create a roadmap, moving forward, which included mission, vision and purpose statements for the franchise, linked to the mission, vision and purpose statements of the parent company. In addition, we discerned the four strategic priorities that would propel the organization forward, one of which one was effective communication.
In short, this group was able to shift from feeling under the thumb of their parent company to a new understanding that—despite regulations and compliance—they could still own their desired culture and play a role and influence its unfolding and development. As part of the 4 strategic pillars, what was also realized was that this would not happen without effective communication in their workplace.
In a survey by SHRM, findings show that effective communication shows up as one of the biggest factors toward job satisfaction. Fifty-five percent of employees studied say that effective communication in the workplace is “extremely important”.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons as to why:
High Morale: A culture of high morale encourages new ideas to be freely exchanged. In my business, we call this “freedom within big rules”, meaning that there are healthy and legitimate reasons for certain rules to be set in place toward safety and saving lives, for example; but outside of those rules, giving employees free reign to explore out-of-the-box ways of thinking has a direct link to the level of morale in the organization.
Trust Building: Creating an environment of safety where effective communication in the workplace is seen as a priority fosters an exchange of differing ideas and viewpoints in a way that feels valued. In a culture where people feel seen, heard and valued, trust expands.
Team Cohesion: When team members clearly understand and align with the mission, vision, purpose and goals of their organization, there is a certain kind of camaraderie that emerges as stakeholders work together to realize their objectives.
Employee Engagement: Where there is trust, there is engagement. When employees feel engaged, productivity is enhanced; turnover is lower; morale is higher; and business results are enhanced.
Improved Relationships: Effective communication in the workplace means better relationships. Better relationships create higher performing teams. Higher performing teams create a healthier organization. Healthier organizations contribute toward a more sustainable world.
Let’s now consider some of the ways in which Dialogue helps to open up these important qualities:
Dialogue helps to create a space where out-of-the box ways of thinking can be explored safely without judgment. That’s not to say that our brain isn’t going to quietly think something is good or bad; that’s what our brains do—they protect us when we feel threatened, intellectually, emotionally, physically and even spiritually. Yet what Dialogue brings to the table is an opportunity to share those different points of view without defending your opinion. Defending divides; holding others’ views—especially when we disagree—provides for and encourages new ideas to be exchanged. In that exchange, new understandings are birthed.
Trust is the foundation of all healthy relationships. And there are two types: predictable trust and vulnerability-based trust. As to the first type of trust, I can trust my mail person even though I’ve never met him or her. Why? Because I know that every day, Monday—Saturday, if I walk to the mailbox after 4 pm, my mail will be in it. This is predictable trust; it’s about reliability and consistency and is very important in establishing trust. Over and above predictable trust, what Dialogue allows for is vulnerability-based trust where people are genuinely open with one another about their strengths and excitements as well as their mistakes and weaknesses and feel safe to share both.
When Dialogue is present, everyone’s contribution is valued. That doesn’t mean that others in the group necessarily agree with what I’ve shared, but there is space to hold it, creating an interpersonal bond—a feeling of cohesiveness—which has the power to shift groups from “Me” to “We”.
Gallup defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic, and committed to their work and workplace.” In 2018, the number of engaged workers in the US was 34%, the highest in Gallup’s history. The poll also showed that 13% of US workers are “actively disengaged” (a new low). So, if 34% of employees are engaged and 13% are disengaged, I’m curious about the other 53% and how we can move them toward feeling more whole-hearted about their work and the company for whom they work. Dialogue can be a powerful tool here, given its ability to honor and connect people at deeper levels.
Relationship is the foundation of everything. Human beings are gregarious by nature. We tend to feel more fulfilled when we have loving, trusting, connecting, joyful experiences with one another. Dialogue helps us to do this because it brings people together in a way where—in David Bohm’s words— “there are no winners and no losers” but more of an even playing field from which to share.
David Bohm also shared that “people say ‘all we really need is love.’ If there were universal love, all would go well. But we don’t appear to have it. So, we have to find a way that works.”
Maybe Dialogue is that way…