Create Culture that isn’t Bullsh*t — Part Two: Communication
Sit in a circle, wait your turn, don’t talk over one another. We had it all figured out when we were kids. Why is it so difficult now?
Welcome to part two of How to Create Corporate culture that isn’t just Bullsh*t. First, let’s revisit the definition of culture from Part One:
“The culture of a company determines who joins, who succeeds, how people behave, how teams run, and how the company performs.”
How can we create a culture where all voices are heard and valued?
The who succeeds of company culture is hugely impacted by how people behave. And while there are circumstances when how we behave is tested in extremity (conflict resolution, cases of discrimination and harassment) the day-to-day of our jobs — how we communicate and how we conduct ourselves in meetings — is the living breathing embodiment of a company’s culture. It’s the determination of who gets to contribute ideas and whose voices are viewed as valuable and important.
In part two of creating a corporate culture that isn’t bullshit I’m going to address how we communicate through 1) Who gets to speak 2) Meetings 3) Active Listening 4) Emails, text, slack.
1) Who gets to speak
The absence of structure or a code of conduct when it comes to communications tends to reward the loud, the ostentatious, and those with seniority while intimidating others who don’t want to compete in the who-can-talk-louder olympics.
Research has shown that men take up 75% of the air time in conference meetings compared to women. Women are more likely to be interrupted than men (including by other women) and when they do contribute they are considered less competent than their male peers. Smdh.
When you interrupt someone while they are speaking you are demonstrating that you 1) weren’t actively listening and 2) believe what you have to say is more important. Which means you are signaling to them and to onlookers that their voice is not as valuable as yours (interruptions by men of women happen more often in mixed group settings than in one-on-one interactions -Kristin J. Anderson and Campbell Leaper, “Meta-analyses of gender effects on conversational interruption).
Pro tip: If you witness an interruption in a meeting, when the interrupter is finished talking steer the conversation back to the original speaker. “I’m sorry, [insert name here], you were speaking. Can you finish your thought?” It acknowledges that an interruption took place while signaling to the interrupter and the rest of the meeting attendees that a disruption took place.
Remember Maria Klawe? The President of Harvey Mudd University that was able to reach gender parity with computer science graduates? We talked last week about how she re-branded the intro to computer science course to encourage more women to try programming. But she did more than just change the name of that class, she changed the dynamics in the classroom as well.
In order to create an environment where people felt comfortable sharing ideas, she asked the more outspoken students in her class to not contribute answers during lectures. In exchange, they were offered them personal office hours where they could get one-on-one time with instructors.
Maria was onto something. In a 2004 Harvard Law School study research found that men were 50% more likely to contribute a comment in class and when they did contribute, spoke two and a half times longer than their female classmates.
By asking the more vocal students to allow other people to participate Harvey Mudd created an environment that was less intimidating for students just starting out in their computer science journey. The end result was getting more women progressing through computer science courses and ultimately reaching gender parity in degree conferment.
In a classroom students know ahead of time what they will learn (via a syllabus) and what they need to prepare (via their reading list). They know that if they want to ask questions or contribute they will need to raise their hand and wait their turn. There is a clear leader (the instructor) and everyone has collectively agreed to a code of conduct.
Compared to a classroom, the modern-day meeting room feels like the Wild West. Why, instead of raising our hands, have we decided it’s better for us to interrupt and talk over each other? Like Maria Klawe, companies need to change the dynamics for how we communicate to create a culture where all voices are heard and valued.
2) Meetings with structure and roles
Kindergartners, summer campers, girl scouts, boy scouts — these kids know how to conduct a meeting. Sit in a circle, wait your turn, don’t talk over one another.
We had it all figured out when we were kids. Why is it so difficult now?
It’s difficult because we are playing a game without a rule book. So here are some ideas for ways to structure meetings so that they can run efficiently, without people talking over each other, where people’s ideas are valued equally and the loudest voice isn’t the only one that gets heard.
Who owns the meeting?
Each meeting has to have an owner, known as the “Facilitator.” This person sets the agenda and provides necessary materials for the meeting (that everyone should have read and prepared for) before the meeting.
What is the goal?
The objective of the meeting, whether it’s to present data for review or to make a decision on something important, should be communicated at the top of the meeting by the facilitator and visited throughout.
What is your role?
Not only should there be a meeting facilitator but there are also other roles that ensure that a meeting is run successfully. Those roles are:
- Facilitator — She develops the agenda, including defining the right outcome for each agenda item and allocating the right amount of time.
- Timekeeper — Watches the clock and negotiates more time for items if needed. Meetings need to start on time with all members present and ready to begin.
- Note taker or recorder — Listens carefully, captures key points, and clarifies agreements and next steps. The recorder also maintains a list of “parking lot” issues not relevant to the meeting’s agenda or objective, to take up later.
Assigning roles within a meeting makes everyone responsible for the success of the meeting. You should also take turns assuming different roles.
Whose turn is it to speak?
When during the meeting someone wishes to contribute, that member of the meeting should raise their hand. The facilitator or another volunteer will write the names on a whiteboard so that all can see, in a first-come first-served manner. This process is called “Stacking.” When it is time to contribute to the conversation the facilitator calls on people in order to speak, guiding the conversation and ensuring that people’s voices are heard equally with no interruptions. This reduces the anxiety that causes people to interrupt because they know they will get their chance, and creates a culture where everyone’s voice is valued equally. If interruptions occur than they should be called out and discouraged.
3) Listen with the intent to understand
Let’s stop for a second. I want to ask you a question from author to reader. Are you reading for comprehension right now? While reading the intro to this article have you been asking yourself questions? Things like, “Do I agree with what she’s saying? Do I like what she’s saying? Is what she is saying relevant to me?”
Don’t worry, I don’t blame you. We all do it. Our attention spans are exhaustible and prone to distraction. We scan headlines on Facebook or articles on medium while at the same time making value assessments. Yes — this is relevant and interesting or No — it is not. We do it when we listen, too. And we are often encouraged to do it in a business setting.
Think of how most meetings are conducted. If we’re lucky we get an agenda, most times there is just a meeting name giving a hint to the subject matter. Information is visualized in a digestible form and then everyone responds to the information with which they were just presented with very little time to process. This forces us into a mode of “solutions-based” listening. Which means we aren’t really listening at all.
Solutions-based listening is not listening.
When you are listening to provide solutions it means you are not actively listening. You can not actively listen and comprehend if you are at the same time computing solutions. Our brains are not built to do more than one thing at a time, so while you are computing your listening function is impaired. You aren’t taking in all the important and relevant information.
Steps to improve active listening in meetings:
Review materials beforehand: Just like in school we had reading before lecture. Study the information before having it presented in context. This may be more work for the meeting facilitator but it will result in better collaboration and feedback and make meetings more effective.
Take notes: Write down things that spark ideas during the meeting and then return to listening. Don’t try to process in the moment. This is especially important when you are not given context or information to review prior to the meeting.
Reflect before providing feedback: Your first reaction may not be the most informed. Think through problems thoroughly before providing your opinion. This is as easy as saying, “I’m going to chew on this a bit more and i’ll follow-up with questions and feedback.” Give yourself the opportunity to fully think through a problem and provide the best solution rather than just reacting with the first one you think up.
Finally, close your laptop. Put down your phone.
4) Emails, texts and chat
How we communicate is just as important as when we communicate. Unless an employee has an “on-call” job (i.e. Site Reliability Engineers, Social Media Managers) they should not be expected to be responsive to emails, texts and/or chat communications in the evenings or on the weekends. Companies need to create a policy that discourages after hours communication, and employees should not be expected to respond except in case of emergencies.
As of January 1, 2017 it is actually illegal in France to email employees during their off hours. We work so that we can live. We do not live to work. By setting rules for when it is acceptable to communicate with employees, you show employees that you respect their personal time and space.
How can we create a culture where all voices are heard and valued?
Create an environment of mutual respect so that employees feel their contributions are valuable and introduce structure that gives employees equal opportunities to contribute.
If you are a parent you know how important structure and routine are for making children feel supported and safe. The same goes for adults operating in the workplace. By building rules around how we communicate, especially in groups, you are creating a culture and environment that makes employees feel safe and supported. In the end you will have a more happy and engaged workforce, a more creative workforce, and will have built culture that promotes equity and access to growth for all of your employees.