Conversation Starter: How Intimate Are You?

All too often, the root cause of organizational dysfunction is distance — the distance between leaders who communicate in a top-down fashion and employees who develop a sense of estrangement from those leaders. When that distance remains wide, the work of moving crucial information and key ideas across an organization becomes harder and harder. This gap can grow until it becomes a chasm: As leaders lose touch with their people, they lose the ability to maintain the sort of feedback process that enables organizational effectiveness. They neither truly speak to employees nor hear what employees have to say.

This communication gap is, in fact, a leadership gap. And it’s evident at all manner of organizations. When we surveyed a group of 200 hospital workers in 2009, for example, we asked them to respond to the proposition that their “organization communicates appropriate and relevant information about the organization to employees on a timely basis.” Roughly one-fifth of respondents (21%) disagreed with that statement, and one-quarter of them (25%) said that they were “unsure” about it.

We, for our part, are sure about one thing: When it comes to communication, if the people you’re trying to reach are “unsure” about what you’re telling them, then you’re not doing very well. We also know that this problem doesn’t just afflict people who work in hospitals. From manufacturing to services, in companies large and small, people frequently report that their leaders fall short as communicators.

To narrow the distance that makes real communication impossible, leaders must learn to exhibit a more intimate presence within their company. By doing so, they can set in motion a virtuous cycle: Greater intimacy will enhance the quality of their communication efforts, and better communication will in turn increase the capacity of people in their organization to work closely together.

Don’t let the word “intimacy” throw you. Intimacy is just the first element of what we call organizational conversation, and it encompasses various ways that leaders work to close the gap between themselves and their employees. (In later posts, we’ll touch on the other three elements of this model.)

Here are four conversation-starting ideas—four ideas that will help you get closer to the people with whom you need to communicate.

1. To learn more, listen better. Leaders who earn a reputation among their people for communicating well don’t just say that they listen to employees. Nor do they simply open up a Q&A session at the end of a town-hall meeting and leave it at that. Instead, they create regular, intimately structured occasions when leaders resolve to shut up, and when employees at every organizational level are able to speak up.

2. To have a big impact, meet in a small group. It’s a well-known meeting dynamic: The larger the group, the more reluctant some people will be to step forward and speak out. Leaders who want to hear about what’s really happening in their company, and to hear from more than just a few “usual suspects,” make an effort to meet with people in an up-close-and-personal setting.

3. To build trust, show trust. The main ingredient of intimacy, arguably, is trust. But conversationally adept leaders know that trust runs in two directions. Before they ask employees to trust them, they take steps to demonstrate that they trust employees — by, for example, entrusting employees with potentially sensitive financial information.

4. To be a better communicator, be who you are. One way to get close to employees is to show a willingness to get personal. Leaders who take organizational conversation seriously appreciate the value of authenticity, and they understand that being honest with people sometimes means being vulnerable. They don’t hide behind a veil of corporate authority.

Today, the limits of communicating with employees “from on high” are becoming ever more clear. Effective leaders, therefore, aren’t afraid of conversational intimacy.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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