In the face of this severe, take-no-prisoners economic downturn, far too many organizations are responding in knee-jerk reaction to the thought of holding all but the smallest of meetings. Training budgets are slashed. Employees hunker behind their desk, hoping that no one from HR can find them or else they're huddled around a PDA, text messaging about possible layoff scenarios, pending mergers, or hiring freezes. Performance? Productivity? I think not.
Now more than ever, managers at all levels of the organization need to do that which separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom: TALK!
(1) In the absence of information, we connect the dots in the most pathological way possible.
(2) E-mail works fine for data but when emotions are involved, only face-to-face really carries the day
(3) There's a huge benefit when people gather to share ideas, brainstorm new procedures, learn more about team members, have questions answered, or explore ways to streamline work loads.
(4) Smart companies will use this downtime to cross train, to coach for performance and career development, and involve employees in corporate decisions.
(5) Diverse perspectives are critical for innovation and these are best gleaned through conversation.
Bottom Line: The organization will have a solid, committed employee base, poised to move into front position when the turnaround comes.
But this will only happen if TALK becomes the preferred vehicle of communication.
Four Communication strategies to increase your Talk Quotient (TQ).
Strategy # 1: Conduct a Talking Stick Meeting
A talking stick meeting allows everyone to hear a wide variety of ideas and inputs because each person who "holds the stick" is assured free speech, no reprisals, no humiliations, and no interruptions. Many native American tribes used the stick as a way of allowing all voices to be heard.
Talking Stick Meeting Checklist:
(1) Create a focus question to present to the group, assuring them that all are invited to speak, without interruption or humiliation.
(2) Form a real circle with everyone in the circle. This brings equality
(3) When everyone who wishes to has spoken, summarize the conversation and what you will do with the information.
Strategy # 2: Seek Out the "Orange Batons"
If you happen to get a window seat on a plane that is coming into the terminal, look out and find the man or woman who is guiding a 737 aircraft (weighing over 90,710 pounds) into position. Those small orange batons wield plenty of authority in the moment. And well they should.
You see, there's a line painted on the tarmac to show exactly where the front wheel of the 737 MUST stop. Otherwise, passengers at the gate literally would have a pilot in their laps. The problem: the pilot sits too high to see that line. The pilot depends upon the "orange Batons" -those closest to the situation-to move the craft into position.
Everyone has orange batons in the workplace. The higher up an organization a manager sits, the more crucial is the conversation. As customers, we've all been privy to disgruntled customer service reps who can't help us because senior managers have created practices that tie their hands. Recently, I asked to speak to the support service personnel on a Delta Sky Miles Account. The agent informed me that even THEY can't TALK to support personnel. "We can only use FAX and Courier service," was the response. I was angry and so was the agent. "They" had made decisions without asking the Orange Batons what the ramifications might be.
Strategy # 3: Pay Attention to Little Davids
When Patrick Harker, now the former Dean of Wharton School, was asked what made the critical difference in the school's most successful fund-raising campaign ($425 million in six years), he replied that he made it a priority to engage the next generation of alumni leadership.
Listening to the voice of David is a tradition from the Middle Ages and the Benedictines. The abbot of a monastery made decisions after getting the input from all the monks, beginning with the youngest monk. Had the elders in the Old Testament listened to the young kid with the slingshot, the giant Goliath would have been dispatched quickly. Little David was right, but it took time for the tribe to understand that young (or new) did not mean "unskilled."
Who are the newest and/or youngest on the team-your David's? It is often the newest members who ask the most discerning questions. They are not jaded by politics, the past, or protocol. Ask them for their opinions. Tell them that you expect them to teach you something at the end of three months. I guarantee that those employees will search high and wide to bring you innovation or, at the very least, an insight into some of your procedures, products, or services.
"Words of wisdom are spoken by children at least as often as scientists." -James Newman, American Astronaut
Strategy # 4: Laughter Lifts the Load
In tough times, humor is an essential survival skill. Talk can also be funny. Not the sarcastic biting humor of put-downs and inside jokes, but rather the humor that can lighten a difficult situation or put something in perspective.
A travel agency was known for helping its agents get through difficult customers by awarding the Order of the SALMON. At the end of the week, agents would know which agent had the most challenging week with customers yet still managed to keep a positive interaction going.
With much fanfare, the agent explained the challenge and was urged to exaggerate and use as much humor as possible. She was then awarded a plastic salmon for her ability to SWIM UP STREAM. Being able to talk about the week, laugh at the difficulties, and be rewarded for staying calm helped generate both fun and connection within the office.
Laughter can put people at ease if it is used to acknowledge what everyone is thinking. I was asked to speak at a convention in which the main session room temperature hovered around 50 degrees. People were wrapped in tablecloths. By the end of the second day, it still had not warmed up. When it was my turn to talk, I welcomed them by saying, "Welcome to the land of the frozen chosen."
Gales of laughter and applause burst out. It made a point. The attendees were CHOSEN to be there. It was a privilege.
Humor also lets us divide the serious from the mundane. Yes-the room was way too cold. But in the scheme of things, it was not as important as gathering to work out a new marketing strategy. Humor can also point out the trite and the silly things we all do in work, relieve tension, and probably improve a process. When one group acted out a very funny skit around the various voice mail doom loops a customer had to go through in order to get to a human being, everyone laughed...and the system changed in short order.
Break the Silence
The last challenge will be pulling people away from their PDAs and text messaging to actually have a conversation. A number of organizations are experimenting with "topless" meetings-as in laptop-less meetings. San Francisco design firm, Adaptive Path, has also put a crackdown on "crackberries", as President Todd Wilkens calls them in his company-wide blog. He claims that people now look each other in the eye, develop closer connections and meetings are more productive.
Productivity? Performance? If the talk quotient is increase, you bet. Talk might very well become the golden key.
(c) 2009, McDargh Communications.