In our ever-complex business environments, there are fewer and fewer roles that can be completed in isolation. Our interdependence is clear. As our worlds have become more uncertain and uncontrollable and our markets, partners and suppliers have become more global, our high performance relies on our ability to communicate. With poor communication comes costs for the connected network of us, that far outreach the individual’s performance.
We must be able to have a focus on our tasks and our relationships in order to do our jobs well. We must use the tool of conversations to do this. When I work with cultures and teams to sharpen this tool, I think the biggest threat to good communication is avoidance. Here are some common ways we reduce our collective intelligence through avoidance.
- We don’t want to hurt someone: We feel that it is kinder not to say something to someone that might distress them or make their life harder. However, this has important implications. We avoid giving people feedback, which has implications for their performance and perhaps their future. People may find it easier to talk behind the person’s back and that becomes gossipy or cruel. It would be like everyone knowing I have spinach in my teeth but no-one telling me; is that kinder than telling me the truth?
- We don’t want to be unliked: Wanting to be accepted is a key driver for us humans. However, it can push us into strange situations where we agree with things or people purely to belong. It can lead to groupthink as opposed to clever diverse thinking. It can lead to us saying things we don’t mean and can create a culture where it is hard to have conversations about accountability or disappointments.
- We don’t want to reveal a lack of knowledge in case people think less of us. This is common when we don’t want to say “I don’t know” or “Can you tell me what that means” so we appear that we do know. This leaves gaps in our communication. We don’t question the status quo or point out mistakes, because it might be us that doesn’t understand rather than a process that could be improved. In other words, we are likely to miss improvements and not call out risks we see, both of these are extremely expensive in terms of our collective performance.
- We avoid claiming our successes and our achievements and in turn we avoid building on our strengths. We tend to focus on the busy or the problems, failing to take note of the ways in which we work well either individually or together. Over time, when we are not comfortable with sharing our inner doubts or questions and very comfortable with putting on a professional ‘face’ we can start to end up pushing ourselves into a serious case of imposter syndrome.
- We avoid looking for feedback from others even though most feedback, if delivered well, has the power to change us for the better. Avoiding the chance to hear what others really think means we may worry more about what people may or may not think. We can get caught over-analysing ourselves or perhaps worse, not improving the things that we should.
- We avoid courageous conversations in favour of polite ones, sacrificing the conversations that matter. Conversations about people and not to people, going behind people’s back, silos and ‘us and them’ thinking, and lack of shared ownership can all result from not being able to face the discomfort of the conversations that matter.
- We avoid taking ownership of our own feelings, preferring instead to blame, judge or resist. Our brains put us in protection mode pretty easily when we feel challenged and avoiding the discomfort of being challenged emotionally means that we are more likely to lash out at others or get busy feeling sabotage.
Teams that work on their avoidance, a common and natural place for many of us, will be rewarded with higher engagement, productivity and service. Working on courageous and compassionate communication may at times be difficult but it will lead to a much higher level of performance for you and those around you.
Dr Amy Silver ClinPsyD MPhil MA BSc(Hons) MAPS is a psychologist, keynote speaker and author. Her high-performing teams programs enable courageous behaviour, deep interpersonal trust and a culture of conversations that count.