A culture of excellence rooted in professional dialogue will launch and sustain any organization’s growth and development. But too often “people sense that they [are] missing needed information, [and] they blame lack of communication for the problem” (Markman, 2017). The fact is that proper communication and dialogue rest at the heart of a great organization’s infrastructure. How the organization communicates to deal with the realities facing them will be the basis for either growth, stagnation, or even failure. The problem is not information but rather how well we communicate that makes the difference.
Everyone Loves Jim, But…
Beloved Jim possesses the interpersonal skills and positive attitude that everyone loves in a coworker, yet his “hard” or technical skills are lacking. His technical competency and depth of knowledge are both limited, and when it comes time for problem solving and analysis of complex issues, Jim simply falls short.
We would love the situation to be straightforward and suggest that a simple conversation will do the trick, but we know that growth and development take time and resources. Jim is loved by his co-workers and possesses a great energy. So, we need to ensure Jim’s on board and that he recognizes his need to grow. Not only is Jim’s attitude toward growing critical to his success, but ensuring that the organization’s culture supports growth is vital.
The need to ensure that managers are in their employees’ “corner,” establishes and systematizes professional dialogue in the workplace. This dynamic transforms the difficulty and complexity of performance reviews and creates manageable, meaningful, and growth oriented opportunities. But, it’s the leader in the organization who sets the tone through professional norms and organizational culture specific to communication and dialogue.
Leadership and Setting the Norms for Communicating
As leaders, it’s critical that we focus on the growth of others and on our own. This means that the organization’s core values are present in all of our actions, and the communication structure ensures that the values are clear in our daily work. In turn, our feedback and dialogue are always moving toward a common goal, and as an organization we are getting better together. It also means that we have core values around what drives performance, and one of those values has to be the professional conversations we have about the work and the feedback that we give each other regarding the progress we’re making. These norms have to be established in the culture, and modeled by the leader, first and foremost. There are three critical norms that the leader must set and that everyone must accept for any communication model to work:
- Accept the norm that feedback is candid and welcomed by all.
- Accept the norm that feedback is frequent and meant to drive changes in performance.
- Accept the norm that we must review and reflect on what we’re writing and saying to one another on a regular basis so that feedback improves.
This means that all communication efforts are grounded in an effort to be candid, frequent, and of quality with feedback and professional dialogue.
We interviewed teacher-leader, Dr. John Tanner, and he talked about taking a candid approach to feedback but also communicating that you care, that you’re in the person’s corner before you hit them with something they need to change, but that the change needs to then also be immediate. But before we develop a model for crystal clear communication and professional dialogue, we need to address common assumptions about the lack of information sharing in an organization.
The Assumption: Information is the Solution
Too often, when communication is pinned as the culprit, we jump to conclusions that there’s a lack of information sharing in our organization. Folks even say things like “had I known…” or “no one shared that with me…” And, as leaders, we tend to believe that “greater access to information is the solution” (Markman, 2017) so we develop stronger procedures for communicating, like newsletters, bulletins, and handbooks. But that’s not the problem. It’s more likely to be the way we communicate and what we communicate, which brings us to a model for professional dialogue that can work in any organization:
The 5Cs of Professional Dialogue
Be in their Corner: Does your feedback communicate that you’re in the person’s corner no matter what you’re saying?
The first C of the professional dialogue model is communicating that you’re in the corner of the person with whom you’re feedback is directed. People are not always going to like what you say, especially when it’s critical about an aspect of their performance at work, but they’ll be far more likely to accept the message if they know that you’re with them in their efforts to make improvements. Consider Jim, his technical skills need work, and the only way he’s going to get better is if someone points that out to him. He’ll likely respond in one of two ways: defensively, which is a result of his feeling alone in his efforts to improve or acceptance, which is the result of his feeling like the message is coming from someone who stands in his corner with support and resources. The difference looks like this:
- Jim, you need to make some changes or we’re going to have to talk about an improvement plan for you.
- Jim, you need to make some changes, and I’m here to support you with some strong advice and a few resources that can help. Let’s work together on this so that you can improve your performance with the technical side of this job.
This first example is almost an ultimatum, and sometimes people do need real documented improvement plans, but it leaves Jim hanging out there alone versus the second example, which commands the same message but shows that the leader is there to help and not just to evaluate. This takes us to the next C, which allows these messages to be very direct.
Be Candid: Is your feedback specific, candid, two-way, and ongoing?
The second C is candor. Being candid and still maintaining a two-way, open dialogue requires skill. It also requires a high degree of competence with the aspects of Jim’s performance that you’re addressing. Too often, candor has a negative connotation because it is associated with a difficult message. We maintain that candor is simply direct and specific feedback, which everyone needs, and can and should be presented in a manner designed around openness and honesty. In an interview with one of the greatest boxing trainers ever, Angelo Dundee makes it clear why his relationship with Muhammed Ali was so successful: “I was always very honest with him. And him with me.” Dundee recalls how he could simply mention how Ali’s jab looked and how Ali would work on it until it was right. Embracing candor as the vehicle for improved performance builds a culture that accepts and expects feedback for improved performance. Candor also increases the speed of the desired improvements. It accounts for specificity with the needed changes versus the flowery and ambiguous feedback that leaders sometimes provide in an effort to “be nice.”
Communicate Clearly: Are your organization’s goals clear enough to use in a conversation regarding performance?
The third and fourth Cs are communicate clearly. We define these two uniquely in the following way:
- Strong communication of the mission, vision, and goals of the organization is critical. Leaders must over communicate the purpose.
- Extreme clarity with feedback to individuals or teams that is tied to the mission, vision, and goals. The leader’s evaluation of performance and effort should be tied to the mission, vision, and goals.
Achieving clarity around the goals and values is the backdrop for quality feedback concerning an individual’s personal actions or a team’s accomplishments. This type of clarity with communication allows for all professional dialogue about performance to be more objective. In the case of Jim, it means pointing out his strengths and weaknesses based on pre-defined organizational expectations, which are not the arbitrary personal standards of the supervisor. Remember that this means two things: the mission, vision, and goals have been communicated, and that the feedback is clearly tied to them. Too often we fall into the trap of assuming that the goals are clear when they’re not or we give feedback that isn’t clearly linked to the goals. In either case, we’re not communicating clearly and subsequent improvements won’t be made.
Demonstrate Care: Do your words and actions demonstrate care for the people in your organization?
The fifth and final C in this professional dialogue model is demonstrating care. If the leader truly cares about the people in the organization and demonstrates that care through actions and words, the people will be motivated and inspired to put forth effort and improve the quality of their performance. We can’t just want Jim to improve for the sake of the organization. We have to care about Jim–his personal needs, his sense of efficacy, and his feelings about the job he does–before we can spend any time enhancing his performance through critical feedback. Leaders who care do so with specific actions and words. Sinek metaphorically describes this by saying that “leaders eat last.” By eating last, providing food, making work fun, and uplifting others, leaders can demonstrate that they care about people.
If you’re in the corner of the people you evaluate, if you’re candid and specific in your written feedback and on-going conversations with them, if you communicate clearly the goals and vision of the work and how worthwhile it is for their time and effort, and if you care about them as people, you’re professional dialogue will propel your organization into the future.
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Markman, A. (2017). Poor communication is often a symptom of a different problem. Harvard Business Review.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. Penguin Group: New York.