As many businesses are now embracing social media and trying to influence their customers in more varied ways, there is often an overlooked and very important element of business success: what your employees are saying to each other.
The success or failure of a new initiative is always directly dependent on the people in charge of implementing it. If those people are undermining the process, deliberately or inadvertently, then you will probably be hitting brick walls and left scratching your head as to how it managed to go so wrong.
Discontent and content – contagious conditions
Imagine this: you are the manager of a team of 12. You have called a meeting and asked three members of your team to present their progress on various projects. In the two days before the meeting the people presenting are showing signs of frustration and irritation at having to do it. They might be saying things like “I’d prefer to get some work done than sit around talking to everyone about doing work!”
This sort of frustration is common. Frustration over frequency and length of meetings is still one of the most common workplace complaints. But the outward venting in view of the entire team undermines the manager’s efforts. It shows a discontent with their workload, their requirements and presents an example of frustration to the team members with less senior roles.
People often bond over the frustrations they have with other people. The discussion at the water cooler or coffee machine is a surprisingly accurate barometer of the overall culture of a business. If people are griping about a new system upgrade, a lack of support, evaluation processes, or any of the other large scale implementations of a business it makes them more difficult to carry out.
What about contentment? We all know those high energy people that seem to be in a hyperactive state from 9-5 and beyond. These people drag entire teams upward. They can, without even trying to persuade or influence people, create excitement that is almost impossible not to catch.
But what can you do to make sure you have more of the high energy people and less of the discontented people? And what about those in the middle of the spectrum – how can we make sure they’re supporting the company and saying constructive things to each other?
One simple answer is to talk to everyone individually and regularly, know what they are feeling and see what you can do about it before a negative mood spreads.
Consistency of treatment
Nothing frustrates someone more than the perception of unfairness. If someone feels that they should have had a perk or a promotion or pay rise and didn’t, you can almost guarantee they will start to show their frustration in their actions and daily conversations. The best way to counteract this is for everyone to know the rules of the game. Who gets the new project, who gets promoted, who gets the overseas conference? If the criteria are clear then it will be obvious to all who gets the job.
This consistency needs to carry through everyday conversations and interactions. A manager can’t be giving one person a really hard time and scrutinizing their work while letting others work unimpeded. Personality differences are part of any social group – perhaps more so at work than anywhere else due to people not choosing who they work with. Consistency of treatment despite this is essential.
You can have a very high expectation of performance, you can drive your team particularly hard, but if you show favouritism to some individuals it is a recipe for discontent. Make an effort to talk with the ones that are not the main favourites. As long as the treatment of everyone is consistent, the discontent will be limited.
Culture leaders within the group – who leads the conversation?
Usually within a team there are one or two people that really lead the conversation and tone of the entire group. These are the people that speak up at meetings, that are outgoing, persuasive and often opinionated people. In any group these culture leaders are very easy to spot – and they can be positive or negative forces. It can be worthwhile to make sure you have a frequent and open communication channel with these people. They are natural communicators. While you should always aim to communicate thoroughly and effectively with your entire team, it is important to make sure the culture leaders are armed with accurate information to address doubts within the group.
This becomes particularly important when a company is going through tough times, or a time of change. Don’t just explain what’s happening, present the justification for it. It is much better for your team to consider the actions of a company to be tough but understandable, rather than being unjust.
Individual versus group approaches
One of the most challenging aspects of managing people is that we don’t all fit neatly into boxes. As much as I promote ideas of fairness and consistency of treatment to all – the other side of the coin is that different people respond to different management styles. The grey area is what separates great managers from good managers. If you take an individualistic approach then you are backing your judgement of how to get the most out of each relationship you have. If you get it wrong that door of discontent opens.
Encourage disagreement and transparency
There are still too many managers out there that see agreement and conformance as the high point of team work. The more people in your team, the more opinions and disagreements there will be. If you have a team that agrees with everything you say then you have a very big problem. They are either disagreeing behind your back or are far too homogeneous as a group. Disagreement is healthy – it challenges our positions. In terms of this discussion though, disagreement provides an avenue of venting. When people have a place to present their disagreement without being shot down they don’t need to gripe about it later.
If there is a new initiative being launched that is going to put a lot of pressure on a few team members and you see them squirming in a meeting, ask them what the problem is. Get them to vocalise it. Explain how the new initiative will benefit the business and the customers, and show some understanding that they’ll be squeezed for a while. Maybe work with the group to talk about shifting responsibilities to other team members. Make ground rules for meetings e.g. allow a specific time for venting and negativity – say first 5-10 minutes then move on to production action-oriented discussion.
Don’t allow wallflowers
Although there are culture leaders that can influence the group more than others – it is important to realise that everyone’s opinion is important. Whether it is spoken aloud or kept private, everyone has an opinion, everyone has a perspective. Allowing people to stay quiet and not express their opinions means that they can drift away from the social experience of the group. Unchallenged opinions become facts, so these people that harbour private opinions (at least in a manager-team member interaction) can have some very strong feelings towards management or colleagues. Regardless of how quiet someone is, there is always someone they converse with in the workplace. If these unchallenged opinions are being discussed as fact it influences the overall culture of the business, albeit in a small way. If it’s left to happen on a large scale then it can become a major determinant of a company’s culture.
Overall, the conversations that are held within an organisation are what gives the company its pulse. Corporate communications teams can try and influence these conversations with internal marketing initiatives, but ultimately it is a transparency of process and a focus on encouraging open dialogue that will create the most positive conversational environment possible within a workplace. Lead the way to have everyone talk up the business, not down!
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.