May 20, 2019

Does your company have a conversation culture?

A company with a “culture of conversation” is one where all employees feel comfortable and safe having tough conversations, giving and receiving feedback (even to and from their leaders), and building effective working relationships.

Unfortunately, 70% of employees are avoiding difficult dialogue—a phenomenon we call the Conversation Gap. We’ve found that many employees would rather leave their jobs than face the issues they’ve been avoiding.

So how can you cultivate a conversation culture? Here are our 10 best tips for creating an environment where healthy conversation can flow.

1. Feedback matters—a lot.

While experts disagree on a “perfect ratio” of positive to constructive feedback, it’s clear that employees thrive when they receive both, and that most feedback given should be positive. To keep feedback meaningful, make it timely, specific, and actionable.

2. Performance and growth should be an ongoing conversation.

When employees are only given the space to discuss it once a year, there’s plenty of room for uncertainty and the perception that growth is out of reach. Consider building more regular goal-setting into the employee lifecycle, and providing opportunities for employees to discuss their progress toward their goals.

3. People will address their situations head-on when they feel that it’s safe to do so.

One way to create this psychological safety is by offering a neutral, unbiased outside resource like a coach, who can prepare employees to have difficult conversations with confidence.

4. The “truth gap” that can exist between leadership and the rest of the company is usually based on perception, not reality.

Due to fear of retribution, employees may think that their managers (and their managers’ managers, etc.) need to be dealt with delicately. To show them that truthful communication is better for everyone, make “managing up” part of your company values, and encourage managers to lead by example and acknowledge (publicly) when they’ve made mistakes.

5. Effective conflict resolution strengthens relationships.

It’s only when the parties involved don’t have the right skills that end result is more hard feelings. Conflict resolution is one of the most important soft skills that you can help employees learn, and overlaps with skills like active listening, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. Consider trainings or workshops led by a dispute resolution expert.

6. We’re socialized to fear failure, and to avoid it at all costs.

So it’s understandable that people are often inclined to ignore failures, rather than address them and learn from them. With the level of risk-taking that’s vital to innovation, not every idea can succeed. Celebrate innovation and initiative the same way you celebrates performance—in your weekly all-hands, for example, require people to share one win and one ‘opportunity for learning’ with the room.

7. Everyone’s communication style is different, so no single channel will work for everyone.

Provide as many different channels as you can manage, preferably in a variety of methods (spoken vs. written, anonymous vs. public, inside the company vs. with an outside resource). To limit confusion, consider listing your employee communications channels in one visible and prominent place.

8. Digital communication and face-to-face meetings can work together.

It’s usually not possible (or worthwhile) to formalize boundaries between communication methods, but managers can model purposeful channel use. A Slack saying, “Let’s take this conversation to a meeting,” or an effective email preparing participants for a face-to-face check-in, can get employees thinking about communicating thoughtfully.

9. Though we often think of them as very different, remote employees have many of the same needs as in-office staff.

They want clear goals, positive working relationships, and to feel like part of the culture. Your company can avoid the trap of “other-ing” its remote staff by making extra effort to get to know them as individuals. Encourage video chats when possible, add dial-ins to every meeting, and designate someone to always ask “Any feedback from anyone on the line?” during group gatherings.


10. Recognition is among the top drivers of employee engagement.

It doesn’t have to cost anything to show employees that they’re valued, and it pays off in increased engagement. Managers may need support and training to get comfortable giving meaningful recognition. And it shouldn’t be limited to performance—recognition for exemplifying company values is just as impactful, especially when those values are tied to mission and goals.

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