Estimated read time: 12 minutes
Better culture needs better communication.
Everyone agrees with this, but not everyone understands the factors involved with better communication. It’s not just about skills; it’s also about the character of those communicating, specifically how they view each other. If I hate you, your communication skills are not going to matter very much.
I consistently teach and model three principles, no matter where I am or who I am with, principles that I have found to be consistently true no matter where I am. These principles work wonders for improving organizational culture. When internalized by a group of people, conflict disappears. In its place arises constructive communication, better work relationships and, most importantly, teamwork.
These principles exist in every healthy culture, just as they exist in every healthy relationship. I come back to these principles time and again throughout my writing. Here I summarize them.
So, without further ado…
Principle #1: There is always one more thing you don’t know about another person.
Have you ever known someone for years, only to discover something new about that person? It could be a historical fact from their past, an opinion, a preference; anything, really. This happens in all relationships, even between two people who have been married for decades (of which they will likely admit, albeit grudgingly).
The human species has a tendency to subjectively gather data, draw conclusions, and insist that their conclusions are correct. It’s a logical and rational approach applied by illogical and irrational people. When it comes to human beings, there is always the possibility of one more piece of data, a fact that was either unknown, unseen or ignored. This forever missing piece means you can never be too sure about your conclusions regarding other people.
When we assume we know everything there is to know about another person, we close ourselves off, not only to new information, but to the other person in general. We no longer interact with that person: we interact with our perception of them.
A full understanding and acceptance of this principle is what separates the scientist from the apprentice, the spiritual sage from the acolyte, and the leader from the manager. A refusal to either accept or practice this principle is what undergirds the formation of groupthink, cults, and even whole religions.
In fact, most of society’s arguments revolve around this refusal. Both sides present what they see as a conclusive whole, while both attack the other side with the data not included in their rival’s conclusion. Both sides make the error that, because the exceptions and uncounted data disprove the other’s conclusion (in their opinion), this makes their own conclusions correct while the other side is false.
The reality is that the whole truth (and nothing but the truth) is often somewhere in between, just beyond our grasp. To accept there is always one more thing we don’t know is to keep reaching for the one thing we don’t know. When a group adopts this attitude, they stop forming (and acting upon) judgments concerning others. Instead, they begin to search for the missing data, producing better solutions to problems.
And when we keep reaching, we are open to learning more about the person across from us. When leaders do this, opportunities become endless.
Principle #2: Everyone is trying their best.
I can almost hear the scoffing now. “Sure,” you say, “but you don’t know about Suzie in the next cubicle: she’s lazy, incompetent, and consistent only in her failure!”
Sorry to break it to you, but I’m including Suzie as well. And there are a variety of reasons for why this principle is true.
We often make the erroneous assumption that incompetence and lack of effort is intentional. The problem? I have yet to meet someone like this. Have you ever met someone who strives for epic failure all the time, proudly boasting whenever they achieve it? Neither have I.
Go back to principle #1. Incompetent? Maybe nobody took the time to teach her better. Maybe Suzie suffered through an abusive childhood impairing her scholastic performance. Maybe Suzie is going through an intense and prolonged personal struggle which has marred her performance since she was hired. Maybe Suzie was never trained properly.
And lazy? Even if her incompetence is deliberate, it may be her best answer to a previous situation: in other words, a defensive posture. Maybe Suzie was disempowered in her previous employment, learning through behavioral reinforcement that more effort only undermines her health and happiness. It happens all the time in corporate America: someone puts forth that extra effort, only to be taken advantage of; that innovative idea, only to have it stolen.
Note what I am not saying here. I am not saying Suzie’s effort is acceptable or even “good enough.” Suzie may very well need to improve her performance. What I am saying is that Suzie’s efforts, even if they do not meet some benchmark, is still the best she has to offer, and that her best is more than likely improvable.
Employers everywhere are lamenting the lack of available talent for their job openings, while constantly on the lookout for employees who come “labor ready” from day one, even raiding each other for suitable talent. Many do not see the irony between their laments and behavior.
The labor pool is shrinking because fewer are taking the time to develop their employees, all while providing excuses for why they cannot, mostly associated with cost while ignoring the long-term damage from this approach, both to themselves and for society as a whole. The problem is so pronounced, it’s becoming a tragedy of the commons.
Those able to adjust are valued; those who cannot are discarded. In a world in which the speed and complexity of innovation continually increases, more and more are being discarded.
Maybe nobody has taken the time to gently ask Suzie why she struggles?
If someone did, they would find a human being who is not happy with herself or her performance, but struggles with improvement. She needs someone to make a human connection with her, build a relationship with her, and patiently show her a better way. With the right questions and leading, Suzie might surprise you, becoming the most efficient and productive employee in your organization. She might even remain loyal to you, because you took the time to help her.
This is not to say that an organization should not have standards of performance, or that the organization should be unlimited in their patience. What I am saying is that the willingness to see people as human beings (instead of mere cogs) is lacking, the patience to give people the space and time to develop is noticeably absent, and empathy for the complexity of modern life is practically nonexistent. All of this is true at all levels of almost every organization.
For those arguing in terms of cost and ROI, I would point out that many of us only need one simple skeleton key (the “A-ha!” moment) to unlock our own inner riddle. That key is often possessed by someone else, and the attitude of knowing that everyone is trying their best produces opportunities for presenting that key for someone else’s improvement.
When employees start with the assumption that everyone is trying their best, they start looking for ways to help each other as an organic whole. When leaders adopt this attitude, true leadership emerges.
Principle #3: What is hard for me is easy for you (and what is easy for me is hard for you).
Easily accepted, but not easily understood. To understand this principle means taking a tour through our cultures and communities.
There was a time, not too long ago, when work (and society as a whole) was more homogeneous. Families were often nuclear (husband, wife, kids, dog, picket fence, etc), single-income families were the norm, employment was long-term, pensions were an actual thing, and various institutions (church, government, social clubs, and more) were unified in teaching a homogeneous ethos. Although this homogeneity was artificial (i.e., often exclusive; not inclusive), there was general consensus on what constituted the “good life.” Many came from similar backgrounds, were on the same page with each other, and were working towards the same general goals.
That’s gone. Families are distinctly heterogeneous (the very definition of “family” has radically altered), single-income families are an oddity (not to mention single jobs – hello gig-jobs), long-term employment with a single employer is often a fantasy (forget pensions), and various institutions are either crumbling, focused on their own survival, or have outright vanished.
These changes are only the beginning. More troubling examples are on the horizon, including the abandonment of short-term employment in favor of contract labor (inhibiting long-term relationships for mentoring and teaching); the democratization of knowledge (leaving the learner to figure out what is true and what is not); the disambiguation of morals, ethics, and values (who is left to teach our children?); the ever-increasing speed of technological change (will the term “status-quo” become archaic?); the increasing disconnect between higher education and the workforce (computer science engineers are rolling their eyes right now); and the constant focus on profits at the expense of human development.
These are but a few examples of the continual tectonic shift in today’s workforce, all boiling down to a fundamental question. Who is teaching and training your employees?
Common sense is not so common nowadays. Why? Because the sources traditionally teaching “common sense” have largely fractured or disappeared, replaced with an ad-hoc collection of dubious sources.
Illustrating this is easy. Let’s take the example of “work-ethic.” Many employers lament the lack of work ethic in the next generation (Suzie, from above). Although each generation has decried the one behind it as “lazy”, this criticism has become more pronounced in not so subtle ways, such as through attendance, reliability, and productivity. Those who oversee organizations staffed with mostly uneducated or unskilled labor see this more than most.
But ask yourself: where would they learn the value of work ethic?
Their parents? Only for the genetic fortunate. Parents are increasingly absent, consumed by careers and technology devices in the palm of their hands, nevermind the now normal social maladies of teenage pregnancies, drug addictions, and so many other things. If you live in a place like Florida, you need only count the gray hairs at the next open-house at your child’s school.
The education system? The deplorable state of public education as a whole is well documented, as the virus of “woke-ness” works its way through higher learning.
The church? Besides the growing number of religiously unaffiliated, many churches abandoned this role long ago, a group of teachers with few practitioners.
Social clubs? Replaced by social media and the Internet.
In short, everyone is on their own, and that means everyone is trying their best, in spite of an avalanche of new challenges not faced by previous generations.
This rate of change is leading to a fundamental disconnect, not only between generations, but intergenerationally. Older generations struggle to relate their wisdom to those behind them, and younger generations increasingly struggle to understand what grandma is babbling about. Even the oldest brother or sister is having trouble relating to the world of their younger siblings right behind them.
Sure, there are some who demonstrate deftness in navigating this titanic upheaval, and you may be one of them (millennials call it “lifehacking”). You may have been fortunate in your upbringing, found that one mentor, or maybe you’re just smarter than the average.
And while good for your career (read: competitive advantage), there’s only one problem: you have to work with others, many of whom are not as successful navigating these challenges and changes. Even if you did have all of the answers today, tomorrow is another matter.
So how do you pass life’s courses when the content and rubric keeps shifting? You share notes with your classmates.
And what is hard for me is easy for you, just like what is easy for me is hard for you.
Nobody has all the answers, but everyone has a missing piece to the puzzle (even Suzie). The organization which encourages and fosters interdependence is the one who walks away with the prize.
It’s also easy to do because it’s already happening in your organization. Your employees share information and knowledge with each other all the time, whether about parenting techniques, or how to avoid making that one cantankerous boss more angry that (s)he already is. You just have to draw that process out and refine it for universal application.
Tying this last principle in with the first two, that one thing you don’t know about your coworker, colleague, employee, or manager may be the one thing you need to know. If you also accept that s/he is trying their best, just as you are, then you recognize they may have something unique to contribute.
And when you recognize you don’t have all the answers, you’ll be willing to receive what they have to offer. If they do the same, there is always a chance to reciprocate.
In summary, the first principle fosters a non-judgmental attitude, the second empathy, and the last humility. When these principles are working together, you have a culture focused on the needs of others and not on themselves. Communication improves, relationships are formed, teamwork is born, and culture shines like a bright sunny day. Even the Suzie’s of the world flourish in an environment like that.
All you have to do is draw Suzie and her peers out into the sunshine.