Jeff Bezos is not the only CEO who has urged his employees to engage in frank and candid but also constructive criticism. Princeton-based communications consultant Tamara Jacobs addresses that subject directly in her new book, “Your Ultimate Success Plan” (www.careerpress.com), and reports that such internal communication is an elusive goal:
We live in a culture that frowns on dissent and prizes agreement. Our body language may indicate agreement — we may be silent or deliver a tepid “yes” — when on the inside, we are in complete disagreement. Regardless of the relationship (friend, colleague, family member), most of us prefer to smooth over differences rather than be confrontational. We also value speed over deliberation, and feel that it’s important to get our work done as quickly as possible to preserve relationships and avoid conflict.
This is in direct opposition to the notion that growth and innovation are dependent upon a certain amount of “constructive tension.” In my previous book, Be the Brand, I discussed the importance of taking mere informing to persuading and getting people to act during any conversation. There’s always a certain amount of conflict when trying to persuade someone to do, think, or act differently, and if we avoid these temporary moments of discord, then very little gets accomplished.
As Noel Coward said, “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
The truth is that bosses, for the most part, don’t like a lot of dissent and do not foster a culture of communicating differences, despite the heralding of a corporate “speak-up” culture. What is often fostered is an environment where loyalty is measured by how much one accepts corporate decrees and policies — with only superficial challenges. If we want to hold on to our jobs and move up in our organizations, stifling conflict is the safest way to do it, or so we believe.
And lying to avoid conflict in the office is quite common, according to Carol Kinsey Goman, author of the new book “The Truth About Lies in the Workplace.” She conducted a survey of business professionals which found that 53 percent admitted to lying to cover up job performance issues or as a means of career advancement.
I can’t tell you how many companies I visit that herald a “speak-up” culture, but really don’t advance the notion of sharing or expressing differences. On the contrary, it’s common to see a more “top-down” culture where employees are considered loyal if they tow the company line, values, and decisions with minor dissent. I think it’s safe to say that as a result of the signals sent by corporate hierarchies, if they want to advance, or even keep their job, avoiding conflict is the less risky avenue.
And although it’s appropriate to point the finger at bosses, they are not the only ones who raise the fear of dissent. Our brand is on display for everyone, with potential consumers everywhere, and our concern about our image extends to subordinates and peers alike. We can be rejected or scorned by them as well, so we don’t want to risk creating a negative impression or a potentially embarrassing incident.
The problem with this is stifling conflict often elevates the odds of the negative impact we fear the most — that is, work streams taking longer to perform tasks, sometimes unsuccessfully. Also, when key issues are not properly vetted due to unexpressed conflict, it can potentially ruin and/or devalue good relationships.
Every time we crush conflict, it sets a more concrete precedent: that it’s good to be silent. The downward spiral continues, and although we may think that it makes relationships relatively safe, the conflict doesn’t go away. It gets suppressed, and the work suffers. We feel less satisfied and less engaged. Potential disaster looms around the corner as a result.
Not being constructively honest (dissent with a viable alternative/solution) cuts across all organizations, regardless of size, influence, industry, or location. And when the economy goes south, it gets worse because everyone is worried about possibly losing their job-so, creating a pseudo-”kumbaya” atmosphere.
It is really quite simple: Say what you mean and mean what you say. The ramifications for not doing this could be dire, especially in business. The potential for wasted time and effort as a result of poor/ineffective communication is considerable, along with the additional collateral damage of anger and frustration. In fact, a career can be significantly derailed when you are unclear, are disingenuous, or contradict yourself.
Jacobs, founder and CEO of Tamara Jacobs Communications Inc., offers executive coaching, leadership development, personal brand awareness, and communications workshops to small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she began work in broadcast journalism and later became vice president of communications at Johnson & Johnson. Her 2006 book, “Be the Brand,” focused on the best ways to present yourself and achieve confidence. Jacobs was featured in the December 31, 2013, issue of U.S. 1.