Updated: Sep 5
At Untapped.AI we understand the power of talking. Especially when it comes to uncomfortable conversations. Our clients tell us time and again that simply saying those difficult or long-buried words out loud can be life-changing. It means the weight is lifted, the churning thoughts get aired and the first steps towards doing things differently are taken.
Of course, it’s not easy. There are so many elements that need to be in place for a person to feel they can truly open up. For starters, trust; then courage and self-awareness come into play. It can be a tricky process to navigate, and for many people, it’s far easier to stay quiet. But in this silence dwells the loss of more than a voice. Not being able to have open conversations erodes relationships, and on a wider scale negatively affects the culture within organisations. At Untapped.AI we hear our users say that when they don’t feel heard, they lose belief in their leaders, and separate themselves from the common goal. Consequently, attrition tends to increase too.
A report from McKinsey & Company, Help Your Employees Find Purpose or Watch Them Leave, states, ‘Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were re-evaluating work…’ The report goes on to recommend, ‘Look closely at your managers and leaders. Do they cultivate compassionate leadership, or is the attitude more akin to “stop whining”? Ask yourself: Is my team comfortable sharing personal things with me? Few things are more personal than one’s purpose in life, and if psychological safety is low at your company you will never learn that first-hand. When employees in our survey said they experienced little psychological safety, they stood a 0.5 per cent chance of saying their purpose was fulfilled at work.’
Deep listening is a skill. It means avoiding judgement or stepping in to fix the situation (often a sticking plaster), and it requires commitment and time to make sense of what is going on for that person. Perhaps most importantly – and it sounds obvious – it is crucial to ‘see’ each person as an individual with their own quirks, insecurities and methods for coping. The persona they might put out in their professional life could be far removed from what is really going on in their head.
However tentative the first attempts at a difficult conversation might be, it will provide a sense of actually doing something; a connection is being made and a willingness to be more authentic is happening. So, it is important for leaders to pick up on the cues that suggest someone is in need of an attentive ear. There is little more damaging than ignoring a cry for support or cutting short a dialogue that is on the verge of illuminating a problem.
Julia is a CFO at a leading finance company. The arrival of a new CEO meant she had to build their relationship from scratch. She found his crazy schedule, and tendency to be a process over people leader, hard to manage. “There was never any time in his schedule to sit down and build a personal connection,” she says, “I appreciate he’s busy but the impact on me was significant. I started to feel he didn’t value my opinion or was interested in the work I was doing. Difficulties with my team weren’t getting discussed and so they escalated. I didn’t have any idea of what was expected of me either. Then my mother became seriously unwell and the CEO didn’t even ask me how she was doing? I found myself feeling furious with him and resentful of the hours I was putting in.” Julia is currently looking around for another position elsewhere. She also acknowledges the negativity she has experienced has filtered through to her team. Like the proverbial sponge, the emotional toxicity has been soaked up.
How conversations are handled is vital to the far-reaching culture of the business. New research published in the academic journal, Rationality and Society reveals: “The communication styles we use can also make a difference. Speaking in a way that signals solidarity and authority will strengthen the group’s collective identity and establish a norm for cooperation. Humour and warmth help too. On the other hand, we found that groups that used more formal and self-interested communication styles, such as those associated with the world of business and politics, were less cooperative. In short, showing strong leadership through assertive statements, expressing encouragement through motivational phrases, and making people feel part of your group are good first steps in getting others to cooperate.”
And so, when a member of your team initiates a dialogue, try to really listen to what they have to say - but also keep the conversations going. It might do you, them, and your business, the world of good.
* July is the Samaritans Talk To Us awareness month.