Communication BreakdownsMost managers proclaim an open door policy. “You can always come and see me about any problems or issues” they say. Or they’ll leave team meetings they’ve chaired believing there aren’t any issues or objections to plans they’ve set since no one spoke up.

Before running a Moose-on-the-Table workshop for a management team, I had a phone conversation with the leader. We agreed to have participants confidentially send me their response to our Moose Hunting survey for compilation and discussion at the workshop. He was quite confident they had an open atmosphere and there weren’t many issues that the team wasn’t addressing. He was wrong. It soon became clear that the team wasn’t having authentic communication or courageous conversations.

As we worked our way through the workshop it became clear that a combination of fear and futility was stifling communication and causing problems for the team. In their January-February 2016 Harvard Business Review article, “Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely?” James Detert and Ethan Burris identify “a fear of consequences for speaking up and a sense of futility” as the main barriers to open communication.

That was clearly the case here. The leader used subtle — and not so subtle — ways to emphasize that he was in control; a big cloistered office guarded by a strong personal assistant, reserved parking spot, vocal and strong opinions expressed first, the most air time and control of meetings, micro managing endless details, and so on.

The more common problem is futility; people have given up raising tough or touchy issues because nothing much changes. This is often a conditioned or learned response modelled by leaders.

Detert and Burris give these suggestions for creating a more vocal culture:

  • Make feedback a regular, casual exchange
  • Be transparent
  • Reach out
  • Soften the power cues
  • Avoid sending mixed messages
  • Be the example
  • Close the loop

Courageous conversations, building a culture of open communication, and moose hunting are key themes in my only work of fiction Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communications @ Work. I’ll also discuss these further in my March 9 complimentary webinar Executive Team Building and Culture Development.