By Thomas J. Lee
Over the past couple of weeks we have been exploring ten “talk traps” and their alternative. Talk traps are conventions of internal communication (for leadership in companies or other organizations) that often prove problematic.
The ten talk traps are Small Talk, Sunny Talk, Scare Talk, Sweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart Talk, Simple Talk, Song and Dance Talk, Slick Talk, Snarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. We identified an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. Just scroll down to read all about these common talk traps.
As we explained, some of these talk traps work just fine in the right place and the right time, but they can backfire in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are always ill-advised.
We also took a long look at some difficulties that beset Straight Talk, the preferable alternative to those ten talk traps. It turns out that Straight Talk can often pose its own challenges, few of which are obvious to the leader.
Here are ten strategies to make sure that Straight Talk, not one or more of the common talk traps, undergirds your leadership communication in the workplace:
Lay a good foundation. You cannot begin talking about your business environment early enough. If you’re not in the habit, start now. You needn’t talk about future plans that are not yet finalized. Just talk about the past and the present. If you don’t begin now, people won’t be prepared when you do. The straight talk you eventually offer will very likely come as a shock to the system.
Establish a broad context. Address the weaknesses of your processes and products as well as the strengths. Talk about changes in technology, customer expectations, and speed to market. Deal openly with your culture, its advantages and its disadvantages. Discuss the business from multiple perspectives. It’s important to view reality from the point of view of customers, investors, hourly employees, even competitors.
Consider forming a small communication council consisting of articulate individuals at various levels of the organization or team, both non-management and management, who can provide diverse perspectives on what’s going on.
Recognize the fact that senior management has the luxury of time and typically a sophisticated educational background to help it absorb the need for change, while rank-and-file employees typically do not. By the time a new policy or strategy comes down, its imperative is clear to senior managers but can still be a mystery to ground-level employees.
Be sensitive to the words and phrases you use to describe the business landscape and to establish the direction and the case for change. Jargon and acronyms that are part of your own day-to-day vernacular can be meaningless to others, especially to employees who must execute your strategy. Language that has no meaning cannot possibly have any credibility or impact.
Test your stated values against the real drivers of your decision making. It’s easy to invoke a list of pretty values and nominally pay homage to them. It’s quite another thing to recognize the powerful impetuses that truly direct and shape policy. What really matters? That’s what your values are, like it or not. (One good test: Ask yourself whether you're willing to fire a senior manager you personally like but who violates a value.)
Set a high bar on standards and accountability, but acknowledge that none of us is perfect or perfectible. Make clear what rises to a capital offense and what doesn’t, and underscore the hard importance of aspirations. Don’t be impetuous or fickle. Do insist on common rules. If you expect an hourly employee to pay a parking ticket on company time out of his own pocket, the same rule has to apply to a senior vice president.
Appreciate the problems inherent in cascading. By cascading, we mean disseminating strategic information through an organization one level at a time. Cascading spawns rumors and creates a tangled web of misinformation and misunderstanding. It is a big problem in a lot of companies, yet it is routinely accepted as necessary and even desirable. It’s neither.
Take emotions into account. Emotions are a big part of everyone’s personality. Ignore them at your peril. Probably no emotion is more ubiquitous at work than fear: the fear of speaking up, the fear of questioning authority, the fear of offering an idea. If you’re not dealing with it, you’re being victimized by it.
Get into the nitty-gritty of specifics. It is one thing to lay out a grand strategy. It is quite another thing, and much more difficult, to translate that big strategy into detailed implications for rank-and-file employees. You must do this; the failure to do it is all but an abdication of management in support of leadership.
There’s more, but that’s enough to give you pause as you move forward. Don’t let it paralyze you, and certainly don’t allow it to keep you from speaking the truth. Honesty is still the best policy. Just be careful out there.