At a very early point in my career as a business consultant it became clear to me that what we really do in organizations is talk, or have conversations. I discovered in practical, everyday situations that what’s really at the heart and soul of an organization is “a set of conversations.” Said another way, what is happening all the time in an organization is that conversations are taking place at every level and with everybody. For example, executives talking to the Board, managers talking to employees, employees talking to customers, suppliers talking to buyers. Both the quality of these conversations and which conversations are taking place largely determines the commitments of an organization, and therefore its results. These conversations are what drives thinking, strategy, and decision-making.
In a very real way one could say that you are paid to have conversations. Since the quality of these conversations is what determines the actions to be taken, it makes sense to conclude that the higher the level of a conversation, the more value will get added to the business. For instance, if we’re “just chatting,” we will not likely be having conversations that make any change or contribution to the organization. If we are having conversations about what our business is up to, we will have an entirely different level of conversation ~ one that potentially adds value. Conversations take place prior to the initiation of action. Whether the company moves forward on a capital investment is a function of the conversation that took place right before that decision was made; whether to staff up or staff down is proceeded by a conversation; whether or not a company competes in certain markets is the result of conversations.
Obviously in any conversation there are two main components ~ a speaker and a listener. There’s what’s being said by one or more people and what’s being heard by one or more people. Typically, most organizational cultures favor avoiding confronting difficult conversations. Consequently, I am a big fan of people speaking up ~ getting things on the table to be addressed and not ignoring the “elephant in the room.” Throughout my career I have encouraged people to do exactly that: speak up, say exactly what’s on your mind, and get those issues addressed. Getting things on the table allows for issues and concerns to be dealt with in an open manner. When people are open and are willing to talk about the issues, including critical or difficult ones, better decisions get made and more effective actions take place. This kind of open communication breeds success in organizations.
However, there are some conversations that are not productive and do not move things forward. Saying what’s on your mind is not always the right thing to do. In fact, in many cases you would be better off not saying what’s on your mind because it is not going to move things forward and serves to do exactly the opposite by shutting down the conversation. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. When this is the case I suggest that we “zip our lips” and instead take a deep breath, let the cosmic energy flow through you, “grasshopper”, because what you’re about to say is only going to cause problems for you and everyone else. Therefore, in those situations the best course of action is to say nothing. The adage holds true, “silence is golden”. For example, let’s say you have a negative attitude from past experiences with the IT department in your company. There’s a discussion in the room about turning something over to IT; here’s your chance to take your well-deserved dig at IT one more time so that you can be right again with “I hope we don’t run into the typical problem we always have with IT.” Nope ~ zip it. The comment will make no difference and it will only do damage in the relationship, which is not what you need right now. Instead of building trust, it will destroy it.
What I’ve observed over the years while working in many organizations is that these conversations – which I’ll call “conversations for no possibility” – are usually had by certain people who I consider the “naysayers.” These are the “glass half empty” folks who look at the situation from what’s wrong with it while focusing on the flaws. Such people and such conversations serve to slow progress down or stop progress altogether. So many times I’ve seen these naysayers raise their hands right when we’re about to make an important decision and lob in a non-sequitur. It’s usually in the form of a question that sounds something like this: “Do we know what business we’re really in?” or “We tried this before unsuccessfully. What makes us think we can do it this time?” Full stop. Once they do this you can watch what happens to the conversation right there in the room. What was just before a focused, positive conversation steadily advancing the ball is now completely thrown off track by this “psychic bong hit” that just got blurted out and throws it into a whole other gear. It creates a kind of dizziness in the room. My assessment is that, though these people consider themselves fundamentally committed to making a difference, instead of their contribution serving to forward the action, it derails it and sends it off in a different direction which is almost always non-productive. The other people in the conversation are left with questions and doubts about what the naysayer is out to produce.
Considering the opportunity to choose the conversations we have, my coaching is that perhaps it would be best to consider what you are about to put into the conversation and ask yourself, “Is this going to forward the conversation or is it going to derail the conversation?” And if it’s the latter maybe it would be best if it didn’t get added. Another way to say that is “zip your lip.”
Kevin Cullen is President of Leadera Consulting Group, specializing in producing breakthrough business results. If you want more on this conversation or the firm, contact us at Leadera Consulting Group.