Leaders need to create a context where authentic communication can take place without real or perceived consequences for anyone
Workplace presents a typical case of a communication conundrum where the word appropriate has multiple definitions. While on one hand one is required to keep the engine going by fuelling in right information and authentic inputs, on the other hand it is easy for friction to creep in if this is done inappropriately.
Jack Welch in his book The Winning speaks at length about the importance of candor at workplace. He encourages individuals to speak their mind and warns that if this is not put into practice regularly it can have severe consequences for the organization. “Lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer.” He calls lack of candor “the dirty little secret of business”.
However offering a candid piece of communication is not a cake walk. Often we fear hurting the other individual and try to present our feedback/opinion in a way that is deferential with the recipient. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg notes - authentic communication that forms the basis of workplace success is often challenging to achieve as every organization has some kind of hierarchy. This is especially true for people at low-power positions who often hedge their statements due to the fear of sounding criticizing, insulting others, offending someone, jeopardizing relationships and so on.
She shares a lucid example in her book Lean In. “Rather than stating – I disagree with our expansion strategy, people say, While I think there are many good reasons why we are opening this new line of business and I feel confident that the management team has done a thorough ROI analysis, I am not completely sure that we have completely thought through all of the downstream effects of taking this step forward at this time.” – Eventually making a concoction of caveats that is difficult to decipher and often makes no sense.
Most of us have a tendency towards avoiding a conflict. A high context culture like ours where compliance (when elders or superiors talk with us) is seen as a virtue, we are more prone to hedge or worse, keep quiet! As a result, organizations often end up taking decisions and creating strategies that are set up for failure, because they haven’t been thought through. What leaders in such organizations need to do is create a context where authentic communication can take place without real or perceived consequences for anyone. Here, the notion of critical thinking as a higher-order thinking skill will help. Critical thinking, as a coveted ability, will help overcome cultural barriers that foster hedging communication by presenting itself as a workplace fundamental skill that gives rise to competencies such as decision making, problem solving and strategic thinking. The leadership in the organization would find it difficult to discount communication that is founded on critical thinking.
Critical Thinking helps us look at situations from a very objective perspective. Critical Thinkers don't blindly follow the conventional thoughts or assumed best practices. The aura created by the designation of the recipient of the communication plays minimal role in formulating the final communication. However, for candor to sustain and the practice of authentic communication to prevail Critical Thinkers need to be at both ends of the communication. When the recipient is a Critical Thinker as well, the two parties in the communication understand that there is nothing personal but authentic communication is in the larger interest of the organization. A Critical Thinker is able to keep the thoughts and the person bearing them as separate entities. Although, critical thinking is consistently rated by employers as being a skill of increasing importance, a recent study showed almost half of employers rate their employees' critical thinking skills as average or below average.
Organizations that understand the importance of appropriate and authentic communication at workplace and want to accelerate their growth momentum need to challenge their current ways of communication and foster a culture of critical thinking among their employees.