Have you ever observed a team and felt like you were watching a real-life episode of a TV drama? You know the one: two star-crossed lovers continually failing in their efforts to tell each other how they feel because they continuously misinterpret the actions of the other? The one where you want to scream at the TV “Just tell him how you feel already!” But, instead, you continue on watching as, time after time, the opportunities to have those deep and meaningful conversations are wasted.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
When we don’t have the information we need, our minds struggle to fill the gap so we can process our complex world and its relationships. The filler of choice is assumptions – they are convenient and plentiful. A lot of the time we don’t even realize we are making so many random assumptions and we accept these assumptions as fact. Unfortunately, we’re not always perfect at coming to the right conclusions.
I observed an example of this in my team at my previous company. We had two people that often paired on work and, thus, worked away from the team in collaboration rooms a lot – usually each afternoon. Our cube setup at the time didn’t really provide for frequent and easy collaboration. One of the problems with this is that the rest of the hard-working team just saw that they weren’t around for large chunks of time each day. The assumption from some was that the pair of missing developers must be off having fun while the rest of the team toiled away and felt really slammed with work.
Sometimes these bad assumptions can breed discontent and be left to fester – and that’s what happened with the onlookers in our team. Without consciously understanding what is happening, teams and organizations can become hotbeds of resentment if the assumptions are never validated. To alleviate or prevent this from happening, we can use the most available and underrated tool in our toolbox: communication. Commonly overlooked, simple conversation is often the only tool that can truly fix these kinds of situations.
“Just open, honest communication is the best thing in the world” – Brett Davern
So, what can we do to help foster meaningful communication within our teams and organizations? There are many blog posts and hack lists out there that can tell you some tactical tips (see some of these links at the end of this post).
But, in my mind, they all roll up into two major themes:
- Make it safe to communicate
- Show that communication impacts future decisions
If team members don’t feel that they can say what they truly think and feel without retaliation (even if it’s indirect or subtle retaliation), a team or organization will never get the information they need to truly reach its potential. Similarly, if nothing ever comes of communication – if people feel like their insights go into a black hole and are never seen again – they will stop bothering to share. There’s nothing more frustrating than an exercise in futility. When that happens, we see people stop caring at a deeper level and their work starts to feel like no more than a path to a paycheck.