Management In Real Life

Why Workforce Talk Tells You What You Got
by: Kevin Herring

People do things in the workplace nearly every day that make us shake our heads and wonder, "What were they thinking?" Sure, there's a small percentage who may simply be a bit clueless, but most people thrive or dive depending on the kind of workplace they're in; it's more about culture than capabilities.

Finding out what makes a culture tick is as easy as listening to the conversations people have when they're working. Aside from obviously dysfunctional workplaces where people yell at each other and make work life miserable, there are essentially three communication and performance levels that characterize what we would consider to be normal workplace cultures—Functional, Collaborative, and Personalized.

A typical workplace

If you're like most people, you work in a Functional workplace. There, you hear supervisors assigning work and coordinating schedules—nothing unusual. Conversations are rarely confrontational. When there's a problem, people ask the boss what he or she wants them to do. When there's trouble, employees keep their heads down and try to stay out of it. When people disagree with the boss, thy keep it to themselves or share it with co-workers in the restroom. For the most part, the work seems to get done.

It sounds like an okay place to work, but don't expect to see a lot of energy and excitement. In Functional workplaces, employees are generally tethered to their assigned tasks and find that employees who ask a lot of questions, or make suggestions, fail the team player test and get passed over for promotions. 

A step up

In Collaborative workplaces, conversations deepen. To use the tired, but popular pop business lingo, there's plenty of synergy. Here, people talk about the bigger picture, goals, challenges, and innovations. Difficult issues are more often discussed with less tiptoeing around, so the elephant in the room gets talked about. Teams express more passion for achieving. Naturally, these workplaces are more productive than Functional workplaces.

Making it personal

Personalized communications occur in companies operating at the highest level, meaning employees talk and act like they have a stake in the outcome. They fess up when they make a mistake and don't hesitate to sacrifice their own agendas for the success of the greater good. It's a culture where team members work together and talk like members of a championship team. When employees take risks and things don't work out, they get support instead of grief. Employees aren't afraid to point out problems, share opinions, and give direct feedback to anyone regardless of title since there is no hierarchy when it comes to having conversations the business needs to have. If you've worked in an organization like this, you know what it means to truly love your job.

As I said, it's not tough to see which type of culture exists in a company because the workforce talk will "tell you what you got." Not only that, but it will give you a good idea of the performance that culture can produce. The higher level the conversations, the more collaborative and personalized the culture. And the more collaborative and personalized the culture, the better your business performs.

How to get there from here

Here's the irony. Even though cultures drive workplace performance, and conversations reflect culture, changing conversations is one of the best ways to change culture. That's why knowing why people do what they do is so important—not just to understand it, but to do something about it. So, those with the moxie to help teams climb higher—who understand the difference between Functional, Collaborative and Personalized workplace conversations—should have a pretty good idea of the conversations to start having.

Keep a journal of your experiences during the coming week listening to workplace conversations. Listen for Functional, Collaborative, and Personalized communications and identify the level that most closely matches your experiences. Jot down opportunities you see to move conversations to the next level. Then consider your own conversations and make a plan for how you can replace lower level conversations with higher level ones to take advantage of those opportunities. Remember, aggregate change is created one conversation at a time. Record your experiences in your journal and keep applying what you learn about changing culture by changing conversations.

Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

Kevin Herring

Kevin Herring is co-author of 'Practical Guide for Internal Consultants', and President of Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd., a firm specializing in performance turnarounds of work groups and business units.
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