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What “Good Communication” Means


Seven Communication Behaviors of True Leaders

“Communication is key.” You probably believe that quotation. No doubt you’ve heard it a million times in a million settings. But do you truly enact it in your workplace?

I bet you don’t.

I’m sorry if that seems rude. It is, however, an evidence-based statement. Granted, that is mostly anecdotal evidence—personal observations subject to a range of human biases. As it is consistent across my extended time in dozens of workplaces, however, and with the pattern of complaints I hear from workers, and with the occasional survey on the subject, I’m sticking with my bet.

Add in that my communication skills class was rarely requested. I think that’s because everyone thinks they are good communicators already. Yet the psychology based rules I teach in the class have been violated daily by multiple people everywhere I have worked for two decades.

If you truly believe “Communication is key,” it’s time for a reality check. To be a true leader—meaning, someone others want to follow—you must communicate often and correctly with those followers. That means routinely demonstrating the seven behaviors below.

Reply to every direct contact from within the company within four working hours. Every time you drop your car off for service, they say, “We’ll call you.” And how do you feel when 4:30 rolls around and you still haven’t heard from them? That is how your employees and peers feel when they do not hear back from you. If you get a voicemail or an e-mail where you are the only person on the “To” line, or a specific action is requested from you, you must reply quickly. At least say, “Got it.” Otherwise, according to communications researchers, “communication” has not occurred, because that requires a two-way information flow. If you have to reply too often because someone is contacting you too much, then you need to…

Confront bad behavior, in person. It’s the Golden Rule, which appears in cultures around the world dating back 3,000 years. Unless you are very lucky (or just starting your career), you have had the terrible surprise of a bad performance appraisal or of a peer going over your head without warning. You have probably also known a co-worker about whom everyone said, “Why don’t they do something about him/her?” Each example is due to a manager not willing to confront bad behavior. Leadership requires courage. How you apply that courage matters, however. For example…

Never deliver bad news in writing. It is a lie that “90% of communication is nonverbal,” but the kernel of truth to that statement is that people depend on nonverbals like voice tone and facial expressions to interpret your emotions. Without that context, they assume the worst, which turns an uncomfortable message into a threatening one. When you deliver bad news, morale and ethics demand you make it as nonthreatening as possible, meaning in person if at all possible, and by phone if not. You must also monitor your own nonverbals to keep them as soft as possible and…

Criticize rarely and in private. One of the great weapons of a parent is the public remonstrance of the child. Embarrassment adds power because it hurts. Psychologically the dynamics of the manager-employee relationship are largely the same as those of the parent-child relationship. Adults deserve to be treated like adults. Furthermore, studies on workplace motivation prove that you harm your team’s performance when members operate out of fear instead of loyalty to a caring boss. You get more of the latter when you…

Praise often, privately and publicly. Surely by now you have seen the multitude of surveys showing that appreciation is a strong motivator highly linked to employee satisfaction and engagement, even stronger than money. I don’t care if you don’t need praise personally, or if you think what you pay people should be motivation enough. Praise till it hurts, or you will never get as much productivity and worker loyalty as you could. You’ll have more to praise and less to criticize if you…

State your expectations as measurable behaviors. Imagine your boss says you have a “bad attitude” or you “aren’t aligned with the group.” How will you fix that? Don’t know? Of course you don’t. You have no clue what you did to give the boss that impression. You want specifics, examples, a list of your habits they want changed. You also want to know how to measure your progress. If you “push back too often,” exactly how much is “too” often? If you only push back on others ideas once a week, is that acceptable? Don’t do to your employees and peers what that hypothetical boss is doing to you. This will be less likely if you…

Ask about people as people. The idea of a hard line between worklife and homelife is dumb. For most of human history, we lived and worked with the same group of people. Psychology tells us every human having a bad time in one sphere is going to be impacted in the other, whether or not they show it. If you think you are better than that, find someone who isn’t intimidated by you to tell you the truth (meaning, no one who feels a need to maintain a future with you). When the behavior of an employee or team member changes, even in a good way, ask why, and listen without interrupting. This will go quicker if you already know the basics of their personal lives. You don’t have to ask deep, dark questions. Just ask what they do for fun away from the office and some follow up questions to show you recognize they have feelings.

Don’t care to do all this? Don’t try to be a leader. Find an individual contributor position you like and stick with it. As a leader, your primary daily task is communicating with people. They won’t willingly follow you if you don’t use the seven behaviors above to enact that well-worn cliché, “Communication is key.”

Venting Anger Hurts Your Team and Yourself

I am a recovering “angerholic.” After an especially angry adolescence triggered by my father’s death, I spent 20 years working hard to bring out my softer side. Progress was imperfect, but many people saw only, at worst, intensity unless they pushed me too far. Compared to most males, this happened rarely, but the content and quality of the yelling made an impression when it did. I can be scary.

Then I got myself into a bad marriage and regressed, and divorced. It made me determined that this time I would learn to control the anger once and for all. After taking an anger-management class, the question was, what else can I do? Primal scream? Vent? Throw (soft) things? Punch a pillow? These popular ideas for “getting anger out” have spawned books and businesses for decades. Most months you can probably find at least one magazine article on the benefits of “catharsis,” letting out your anger in “healthy ways.” I tried many of them.

The problem is, catharsis doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse.

Back in 1988, a researcher commented on the idea that violent cartoons provide a safe avenue for controlling anger. He said ironically, “it is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research.”

Eleven years later, three psychologists agreed that “researchers have mostly failed to find laboratory evidence of catharsis effects…” Brad Bushman and Angela Stack, then at Iowa State Univ., and Roy Baumeister, then at Case Western Reserve Univ., tested the impact of newspaper articles on the subject. They created one supposedly reporting on a study that supported catharsis and another on a study that didn’t. Actually, the contents were identical except for a few word changes, like replacing “effective” with “ineffective.” Subjects read one of these, wrote essays, and were given fake evaluations that either praised or attacked their essays. Asked to choose from a list what they would like to do next, people made to feel angry by bad evaluations were far more likely to choose “hitting a punching bag” if they had read the pro-catharsis article instead of the anti-catharsis one. This showed that media could affect the desire to vent, a finding that fits with my master’s degree research on persuasion.

In a follow-up study, people were allowed to actually hit a punching bag, and then reported on their feelings toward the person who supposedly criticized them. The authors write, “participants who hit the punching bag tended to be more (rather than less) aggressive than those who did not hit the punching bag.” After another task, people who hit the bag again were even more aggressive. “These results directly contradict the catharsis hypothesis…” the writers say. “We could not even find a catharsis effect when we led people to believe in it and to act upon that belief.” Catharsis showed up as one of the 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in a book by four other psychologists.

Bushman, Baumeister, and Stack point out an obvious danger: Popular writers who extol venting can cause people to harm their emotional health by taking the opposite action from the useful one. In the topic on stress, I said if you can get rid of a negative emotional response within 10 seconds, the body returns to its normal hormone levels immediately. If not, a second wave of stress-based hormones is released. These stick around 15 minutes to an hour, and are the ones linked to stress-related illness. In short, if your mother told you to count to 10 when you feel angry, she gave you scientifically valid advice!

Research shows that negative emotions are spurred on by negative thoughts, which in turn create stronger emotion, which in turn creates more negative thoughts, starting for example the “downward spiral of depression.” This is why catharsis does not work. To vent, you have to think about what made you mad.

What does work, then, is to get your mind off it, to “let go of” the anger. Thinking about something else, meditation, a workout, a hobby that requires your full attention—these will lead to a more peaceful place. I use all of them and more. As a result, I’m pleased to report it took nearly a year after moving back to my hometown to convince a childhood friend that I have to control my anger. She didn’t think I got mad. I think it’s fair to claim I am calmer than most folks most of the time, though I am imperfect in imperfect environments.

And what, you ask, does this have to do with teams? It is a warning to those who feel they have a right to get mad at work, “vent,” or “speak their mind” any way they want to because it would be unhealthy to “bottle up” their anger. Their behavior is okay, they say, because “conflict is good” for teams. As stated before in this hypertext, no, it isn’t. And now you know it isn’t good for you, either.


  • Bushman, B., R. Baumeister, and A. Stack (1999), “Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76(3):367.
  • Lilienfeld, S., S. Lynn, J. Ruscio, and B. Beyerstein (2010), “The Top Ten Myths of Popular Psychology,” Skeptic Magazine 15(3):36.
  • Quoted in those sources: Tavris, C. (1988), “Beyond Cartoon Killings: Comments on Two Overlooked Effects of Television.” In S. Oskamp, ed., Television as a Social Issue, p. 189. Sage: Newbury Park, CA.

Updating the Language of Persuasion

My master’s thesis was on persuasion. That may surprise you given what I do now, but there is a connection. Team members with no authority over each other can either persuade, argue, or give in. Guess which is the healthy option. Teams have to convince others in the company to give them needed help or resources, and have to persuade stakeholders to accept the team’s solutions. Managers who want the most out of their teams are listening to people like Dan Rockwell, the “Leadership Freak.” He wrote me in an e-mail, “When leaders explain why something is important, they’re searching to align organizational mission with individual values. Finding and maintaining alignment between mission and values fuels passion.”

It has been a while since I did my thesis, so I decided to update my knowledge with the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychology and marketing professor emeritus at Arizona State Univ. and president of his training firm Influence at Work. I read his Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, written with management professor Noah Goldstein of UCLA and Steve Martin, head of the company’s United Kingdom office (no, not the comedian).

First, for context, let’s cover the basics from my thesis. Persuasive writing and speech requires you to establish yourself as a believable source, engage the person emotionally by tying your position to their motives, and drive home your points through facts and logic. You can’t change everyone’s mind, so focus on people open to your idea, or if you are persuading an individual, their motives most impacted by your idea. “Many communicators do an excellent job of showing why they personally believe or accept the proposition, but they fail to show why the receivers should believe or accept it,” a persuasion researcher says in my thesis. Beliefs fit together in a complex web, which means you should aim to shift the ones on which you have some agreement rather than pushing against a person’s differing core beliefs.

A persuasion class I offered through TeamTrainers included a list of specific language tactics (see my “Recipe for Persuasion” on the Full Scale agile™ site), and these are the focus of Cialdini’s book. For example, to get people to do something they say they will do, ask them to predict whether they will do it and give a reason for the prediction. When team members seem to support your idea, “ask them if they would be willing to support such an initiative and wait for a ‘yes’ in response,” the book says. Then ask them “to describe briefly why they support the initiative.” The point is to make their commitment “voluntary, active, and publicly declared to others.” Even better, Cialdini’s team says, have members write the agreement down. The mere act of doing so increases commitment. After a team decision has been made, I have the team agree to an action item with a due date and assigned to everyone, and make sure they all jot it in their task-management tools (if not tracked elsewhere, like an Agile tracker). In a one-on-one discussion, repeating the person’s words back to them exactly—not paraphrasing, as recommended in active listening—can reinforce commitment as well.

Cialdini’s team says research suggests those who take “devil’s advocate” positions are not as effective at spurring innovative thought as genuine dissenters, and might even harden opposing opinions. Although I recommend the tactic in one limited scenario, I have seen people lose credibility by constantly taking the opposite position of whatever is proposed even if they admit doing the DA thing. The authors say leaders are better off creating an environment where workers “not only feel welcome but are encouraged to openly disagree with the majority viewpoint.”

Admitting a weakness in your argument up front can increase credibility and thus persuasion, Cialdini’s team confirms. My thesis suggests addressing possible objections to your argument as soon as they might be raised in the listener’s head. The book mentions L’Oreal’s successful campaign around the slogan, “We’re more expensive, but you’re worth it.”

If you can genuinely make information sound exclusive, you may increase its apparent value and power. When wholesale beef buyers were truthfully told that weather information affecting beef supply “came from an exclusive source and was not generally available to the rest of the public…” the book reports, “they increased their orders by a remarkable 600 percent!”

Telling the person the rationale behind a request you make tends to increase compliance, even when the rationale seems like it “should be obvious” or you have repeated it already. My thesis found that a moderate amount of repetition of your main points increases persuasion.

Giving people a psychological head start on completing a task increases the odds of their finishing, Cialdini’s team says. For example, a study found a way to get car wash customers to more quickly buy the eight washes needed to qualify for a free one. Instead of giving them a loyalty card with eight empty markers, the scientists gave them one saying 10 washes were required but with two “free” marks. Those researchers pointed out people work harder on a task the nearer they are to completing it. The book says, “if you need help on a project that’s similar to one that a colleague has worked on in the past, you can emphasize that, in essence, she is well on her way to finishing the assignment.”

Bear cultural issues in mind. In one study using the same ad with different text, Americans preferred the version that said, “Treat yourself to a breath-freshening experience.” Koreans preferred, “Share the breath-freshening experience.” U.S. culture tends to be more individual-oriented, and Korean more group-oriented. This suggests further that group motives will be more powerful for non-Westerners, Cialdini’s team says, something to recall when picking which motives to tie your persuasive message to.

As I would say at the end of my Persuasion class, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to human behavior, and no one persuasion approach is right for every situation. But following a recipe makes you far more likely to end up with the beautiful meal you’re shooting for. The same is true for persuasion.

Source: Goldstein, N., S. Martin, and R. Cialdini (2008), Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive. Free Press: New York.

What a Single Word Says about the Words to Come

The first word a person uses when taking a turn in a group discussion speaks volumes, according to Univ. of Pennsylvania sociologist David Gibson. For team leaders and facilitators, what he found in a recent study provides some surprising insights.

Gibson looked at turn-taking. He defined a “turn” as someone being the only person talking, even if for only one word, not counting interruptions that talked over the top of the previous speaker. Early in his journal article, he repeats from a 1950 researcher a fact that seemed obvious after I first read it, yet was intriguing because I had not thought of it. When two people are talking, they get basically the same number of turns, regardless of how long the turns are. Person A speaks, then Person B, then Person A, and so on. But add just one person to the mix, and all bets are off. It is quite possible for Person A to never get another turn, or Person B to take far more than anyone else. At issue for Gibson was the reason this happens, and what word choices tell us about that.

He pulled out videotape transcripts from a 1980s study. I don’t know why I find this line amusing, but I do: “The tapes were subsequently transcribed, and have since deteriorated entirely, so that only the transcripts remain.” The tapes were of 29 six-member groups asked to each come up with a problem for research subjects to solve—not realizing they themselves were research subjects solving a fake problem! Each group was made up of undergraduate students who did not know each other. To check gender effects, there were several groups of all males, of 1 male to 5 females, 1 female to 5 males, and every other combination.

A pattern emerged in the conversations. The first word someone used each time they spoke varied in similar ways based on how many turns had been taken since they last spoke. People in an active back-and-forth conversation were far more likely to start with the words okay or right. The words but or well (as in, “Well, the reason they did that…”) showed up most often when people had not spoken for two to four turns. People silent for more than four turns were most likely to use question-starting words, the well-known who, what, why, where, or how. When he combined those with the second words spoken, however, it became clear the silent folks were usually changing the topic, for example to a different solution. Though there were some minor differences in word choice between genders, the intent of the new speaker in each situation was not affected by sex.

These group discussions fit what studies have shown about two people talking to each other, Gibson says. In pairs people tend to build rapport by indicating they agree with or understand the other person’s position. He thinks this carries over into a group setting when two people are holding the floor for a while. Someone who has sat out a few turns is usually continuing that same conversation, but does not feel as constrained by the norms of two-person talks to show agreement before disagreeing, Gibson suggests. The facts that people out of the discussion for more than four turns A) often never spoke again, and B) changed the subject when they did indicates they had tuned out. Either the specific line of conversation was not interesting, or they disagreed with it. If they got involved again, it came by changing the topic.

Many researchers assume, Gibson says, that high-status people often make subject changes. No one had more official status than anyone else in these groups, so the study can’t speak to that, but the results say something else might be at play. And Gibson says the problem of groupthink ought to be studied with these findings. Presumably a group-thinking team would have short conversations on each topic in which every speaker starts with okay or right or a similar word. Their discussions would probably feature few comments started with well or but, and have a set of people that never say anything because they have given up.

This study is not proof of anything, as Gibson himself says. For one thing, only about a third of the total turns began with the words he chose to study. Here’s some interesting trivia: Including the studied words, 65 percent of turns began with one of only 21 words, “a fairly amazing thing given the tens of thousands of words in an educated speaker’s vocabulary,” he writes.

“So”—one of the 21 words, by the way—I wouldn’t make any major changes based on this study. But I still see some interesting ways we can apply the information. You know that a good facilitator invites quiet people into conversations. Maybe instead of asking if they have anything to “add,” ask if they have anything to “ask.” This may be closer to their comfort zone, and gives them an easy way to propose a different approach than the one under discussion.

Then there’s that person who seems not to say the right thing at the right time. You can’t quite put your finger on it sometimes. Pay attention to these patterns and see if they are breaking them. Maybe they fail to indicate agreement in a back-and-forth, or after sitting out a while they pipe up with, “Okay.” Even if the statement in itself is professional, the timing might break an unwritten rule of human conversation and thus seem weird. This study gives us some specific ideas for coaching the individual.

Those are my initial ideas. Do you have anything to “ask?”

Source: Gibson, D. (2010), “Marking the Turn: Obligation, Engagement, and Alienation in Group Discussions,” Social Psychology Quarterly 73(2):132.

When Laughter Hurts

When I was a kid, my beverage of choice was Thrifty Maid Grape Drink, the house brand of Winn-Dixie stores. The amount of actual grape innards was minimal, and to this day I can recall the slightly acrid taste it presented around the edge of the tongue. But it accompanied every breakfast for years, to the point where the smell was enough to turn my poor mother’s stomach.

One day when I was 8, I bounced down the steps and into my seat in the breakfast room, tossed back half a glass, and gagged. My throat and nose burned and eyes watered. “Mother, something’s wrong with my grape juice!” I yelled into the kitchen. My loving mother’s response was cackling laughter.

The date was April 1: April Fool’s Day. The “juice” was red wine. In today’s vernacular, I had just been “punked” by my mother.

She meant well, and could not have predicted the effect it would have. Already a sensitive kid, I lost all remaining joy at being on the wrong end of a practical joke. As an adult I have not practiced anything more than the mildest of forms. It took me longer to realize the damage of “put-down” humor, an art form I unfortunately mastered, to the detriment of a number of friendships. Many people truly suffer before, if not after, the “reveal” of practical jokes, though usually in private afterward. Upon seeing some new research, my position has hardened against these forms of humor when used without explicit prior permission or after a first strike by the target.

A psychologist at the Univ. of Zurich, Willibald Ruch, led a massive team that surveyed 23,000 people in 73 countries (using 42 languages). The team found that anywhere from 3% to 30% of people in each country had “gelotophobia,” defined in Science News as the “inability to distinguish ridicule from playful teasing. For them, all laughter is aggressive, and a harmless joke can come across as a mean-spirited assault.” Gelos is the Latin word for laugh.

Considered a personality trait, not an illness, the fear can nonetheless have profound effects on the person suffering from it—and therefore, one presumes, those around them. According to the study article, it shows up by causing the person to lose self-confidence, avoid situations in which they have felt laughed at, and assume that laughter in their vicinity is directed at them. Finns were the least likely to make that assumption, only 8.5%, while around 80% of Thais did.

Another pair of studies confirmed that “gelotophobes are less cheerful and characterize their humor style as inept, socially cold, and mean-spirited. They report less frequent use of humor as a means for coping and indulge less often in self-enhancing and social humor.” They also found things less funny overall. The report on those studies makes the point that gelotophobes are perfectly capable of being funny. They just don’t try, or don’t see their own humor the way most others might.

For the record, I’m not among the estimated 11% of Americans who are gelotophobes. Although I don’t like being the butt of jokes, I’m not easily embarrassed. Humor is a critical part of my presentation, training, and coaching styles, one of the ways I try to differentiate myself. And I’m a black belt, so no one ever laughs at me. (Yes, that’s a joke.)

At the same time, I am very careful these days to gauge the type of humor my audience can take. The more people there are, the less likely I am to tease someone or point them out individually, especially if I don’t know them. By directing humor at myself, I hope to convey that my intentions are honorable even when I tease.

I recommend against the use of “cutting” humor in work situations unless you are sure the butt of the joke can take it, best tested by asking yourself whether you’ve ever seen them use that kind of humor. Good-natured humor is a sign of well-oiled teams; it might even be the oil. But I think there is no place in the workplace for practical jokes. There might be exceptions, such as the small all-male team one of the members told me about where locker-room humor was used to reduce tension. However, there are plenty of ways to be funny with someone without being funny at them. Furthermore, a practical-joking team with a couple of gelotophobes would at best create unnecessary tension, and could at worst earn itself a lawsuit.


  • Gaidos, S. (2010), “When Humor Humiliates,” Utne Reader, Jan.-Feb., No. 157: 74 (excerpted from Science News, 8/1/09).
  • Proyer, R.T., et al. (2009), “Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia): A multi-national study involving 73 countries,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 22(1-2):253.
  • Ruch, W., U. Beermann, and R.T. Proyer (2009), “Investigating the humor of gelotophobes: Does feeling ridiculous equal being humorless?” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 22:111-143.

Get People Speaking Up by Shutting Up

You don’t really want people to speak up at work, do you?

Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just nodded their heads when you gave your position and dove in to make it happen? You bet it would. I’d love it if that happened in my world. And let me tell you, this world would be a much better place if all of you would just do what I say!

Just kidding, mostly. Of course, bosses can get something like this level of “agreement” in your worlds. You could order people to simply follow your orders. You could make all of the decisions yourself and tell people what to do. Fire anybody who doesn’t follow through. Granted, unless you’re the top boss, you could still get into disagreements with fellow managers and your bosses. But at least you could cut out the friction from below. That’s a good thing, right?

Team members might be able to shut off debate, too. You can talk more or louder than everyone else. You can call people “stupid” if they don’t agree with you. Many managers are too weak to stand up to you, and others won’t care as long as the work gets done. Maybe you lucked out and have that kind of boss. Then you would be happier, and because you’re usually right, the team would be better off, right?

No, science says to both questions. “Groupthink,” where everyone goes along with one or a few members, has been indicted in a large number of failures from Enron to the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. Plenty of research has shown that decisions made by a group after open and honest discussion turn out better than those made by a single individual. Not every decision is better, mind you, but on average over time, a properly trained and run team can’t be beat. Hard data also make clear that people given no voice in their working lives become demotivated, unengaged, and dissatisfied. That raises the odds of them disappointing your customers, being “out sick” a lot, and quitting. Good riddance, you say? Not if your behaviors make more people leave your company than leave your competitors, especially ones who would be good workers—and worse still if those people go to your competitors.

The irony of my little rant is that no one to whom it is directed has read this far. Those who recognize their controlling natures have already clicked to something else in a huff. The rest don’t know I’m ranting at them. Time, then, to shift gears to address those of you who are still reading because you recognize the value of getting people to disagree openly with the group and boss.

Personality often gets the blame for people not speaking up, but the research says that is overblown. (I have gotten many introverts to speak up in meetings.) Instead, scientists stress behaviors and beliefs. Studies have found that people who interact a lot with other team members, are better at their jobs, and feel a strong connection to the group are more likely to speak up, as shown in a 2010 Univ. of Maryland study.

“When employees speak up openly on work-related matters, they aid in the early detection of problems and opportunities… and help their work groups respond successfully to unexpected situations…” write business professors Vijaya Venkataramani and Subrahmaniam Tangirala. Their study in the Journal of Applied Psychology asked what factors led key workers to add value through these positive “voice behaviors.”

In a survey of branch managers and employees of a bank in India, workers rated how often they interacted with each of their team members to get their jobs done, and how influential within the branch each person was. Managers were asked to rate each employee on “quality of work, accuracy of work, quantity of work, (and) customer service.” Each employee also rated how much they identified with the group, using questions including, “When I talk about my [work group], I usually say ‘we’ rather than ‘they.'” For their analysis, the researchers also asked about and accounted for factors that could affect the results such as the number of people in the branch, job tenure and level, and age.

Workers with the highest numbers of colleagues interacting with them—those more “central” to the branch’s work processes—were more likely to speak up if they had higher personal influence and higher identification with the group. Influence was tied directly to how well they did their jobs. The authors suggest managers can encourage employees’ feedback by improving those skills and the team identification of workers.

Another factor was identified in a study by researchers at New York Univ. and the Indian School of Business. It found as others have that a team member’s feelings of connection to and satisfaction with the group were related to “voice” behaviors. However, when the team culture or “voice climate” made people feel safe to speak up, they were even more likely to do so. In a team with a bad voice climate, for instance, engineers with the highest sense of connection to the group scored a voice rating of 4 on a 7-point scale. In a good climate they topped the scale at a 7, as rated by their managers. “Hence, group leaders or members who wish to elicit more voice need to ensure that their group’s climate is one in which members collectively feel confident that they can voice successfully and that doing so will not be punished or ignored,” the researchers write.

That’s not as hard as it may seem. You can:

  • Learn and practice active listening.
  • Have the team create rules to limit overbearing behavior.
  • Use formal meeting facilitation and meeting rules to encourage full involvement.
  • Push the team to bring in outsiders on discussions affecting them.
  • Give everyone the right to delay a decision by one meeting if it can be, so introverts get time to think about it at the pace they prefer.
  • Introduce formal problem-solving and decision-making techniques using objective data and criteria.
  • Consider moving one or two new members onto the team, especially ones known for independent thinking.

Regardless of your role, modeling the behaviors that support a safe climate can impact the whole team. No matter how stupid someone’s idea seems, bite your tongue. Admit you could be wrong even when you don’t think you are. (Hey, it’s possible!) Don’t hold a grudge when someone disagrees with you, or take it as a personal betrayal when they voice a different opinion. In short, relax and be nice.

The most powerful tool for creating a good voice climate, after active listening, is to let your team make mistakes. That is, if you disagree with a decision, but it is legal, ethical, in line with written company policies, and customer-focused, shut yourself up. Yes, even if you are the boss. You will gain credibility and get more people speaking up. I suspect you will also be surprised at how often things turn out for the best.


  • Morrison, E.W., S. Wheeler-Smith, and D. Kamdar (2011), “Speaking Up in Groups: A Cross-Level Study of Group Voice Climate and Voice,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96(1):183.
  • Venkataramani, V., and S. Tangirala (2010), “When and Why Do Central Employees Speak Up? An Examination of Mediating and Moderating Variables,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95(3):582.

Is Saying What You Want to Worth Your Career?

The confluence of a 2011 news story and unrelated journal article demonstrated a reason beyond morality or ethics or law for protecting the “protected classes” as a manager. If for no other reason, do it to protect yourself.

The new commander of an American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, permanently lost the job. The cause was videos Capt. Owen Honors shot while second in command. In the videos, he used disparaging words about homosexuals and portrayed simulated sex between “chicks in a shower.” Most astonishing to me, though, is that he knew he was disturbing some employees. “This evening, all of you bleeding hearts… why don’t you just go ahead and hug yourself for the next 20 minutes or so, because there’s a really good chance you’re gonna be offended,” he says in one.

I don’t know anything about military law, but various U.S. civilian laws such as Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 make it illegal for civilian employers to afflict people or their careers based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, and disability.” Each of these are “protected classes.” This means you cannot refuse to hire a 41-year-old albino, gay, blind, female Armenian Satanist if she is the most qualified person for the position just because you don’t like one of those traits. (The usual disclaimers: Just saying what I’m told by multiple sources, this is not legal advice, I’m not a lawyer!)

But that’s not all. You also cannot allow words or actions in your workplace that single someone out for any of those reasons, or take actions against someone who complains that you have done so. In making regulations to enforce the law, U.S. government agencies have added other concerns. For example, two agencies are cracking down on companies that refuse to hire ex-criminals. Since a higher percentage of people convicted of crimes in this country are dark-skinned and male, you could keep more dark-skinned or male people out of your company by refusing to hire ex-criminals.

Now, there are a ton of scientific reasons why discriminating against protected classes, before or after the hire, is silly (among stronger words I could choose). Physically and psychologically, every human being operates on the same principles. The worst manager you’ve ever had operated from the same underlying motives you do: safety, security, a desire to prosper. The small-group dynamics I base my teambuilding on apply equally to corporate boards, class project teams, and criminal gangs. I loosely say that 80% of what I do is the same for every team. But other than choosing different parts to provide based on the team’s needs, it’s probably closer to 95%. The rest is simply customization of the words I use, based on the team members’ educations, work backgrounds, and team function.

However, humans are programmed to notice differences more than similarities, as a survival technique. Through most of human history, people who looked or acted different from us were as likely to throw a spear at us as give us a hug. The fact that is no longer true in most of the world is too new a cultural change for our brains to have caught up.

In the 1950s a psychologist went into the American South, where racial apartheid was the law and Christianity dominated the culture, and asked white Christians questions like: “Which is better, a white atheist or a black Christian?” What he found is if you are prejudiced against one group, you are more likely to be prejudiced against every other group than yours (Rokeach 1960). Most interesting to me, though, was that he only found one personality trait shared by most bigots: anxiety. Prejudiced people are scared people.

This is the scientific reason behind their unreasonable beliefs. For that reason, I can’t change anybody’s prejudice, much as I would like to. What I am recommending is that as a manager, you keep your prejudice to yourself at work. Gay people didn’t take down Capt. Honors (a truly ironic name). His acting on his prejudice did.

The journal article I mentioned focused on seven key lessons in risk management drawn from major disasters of 2010 including BP’s Gulf Oil spill. “Risk management” entails practices to predict and prepare for problems that might cause a project to go off kilter. An experienced project manager will lead his team in coming up with a list of possible risks and assigning ratings of likelihood and impact. The team should take steps to prevent or mitigate risks fairly high in both. Lesser ones the team may simply plan for, and those lowest on both scales are usually just acknowledged and accepted.

One of the lessons of 2010’s disasters is, “Contingency planning is worth the investment,” the article in PM Network says. A personal risk management plan might have saved Capt. Honors’ job. Given that he was posting his videos on a ship-wide system, and he stated that some sailors were offended, the likelihood of the videos going public was pretty high. He was in the service during an earlier Navy sex scandal (the 1993 Tailhook Convention), so the likelihood of severe harm to his career should have been obvious. But for whatever reason, he ignored those risks.

The article said another lesson was, “Create a culture of safety.” Though it referred to physical safety, this applies equally to psychological safety for your workers and career safety for yourself. The more you choose to talk about, especially to joke about, any of the protected traits or related topics like sex, the higher your risks go. One man who learned this too late will be sitting in an office chair the rest of his career instead of one of the most prized of his profession, overseeing a desk instead of a mighty warship.


  • Gale, S. (2011), “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” PM Network 25(1):22.
  • (2011), “Navy relieves officer over lewd videos,” 1/4/2011.
  • Reilly, C. (2011), “Raunchy videos starring Enterprise skipper come to light,” The Virginian-Pilot (Hampton Roads), 1/1/2011.
  • Rokeach, M. (1960), The Open and Closed Mind, Basic Books: New York.

Sex, Food, and Self-Disclosure: Why Active Listening is Hard

An exercise at the end of my Active Listening class always produced an interesting insight into human behavior.

The participants were paired off with people they did not know and provided questions to ask each other, like:

  • “What is your hometown?”
  • “What do you do during the workday?”
  • “What is your earliest memory?”

Drawing a diagram to illustrate the instructions, I explained that one person will primarily ask questions. That person should say little phrases to indicate they are listening (“I see”), but otherwise the listener’s job was to “just listen.” After that, I would tell them, you will reverse roles. The former listener will ask questions, and the former asker will talk about themselves, again for five minutes. Building rapport is not the goal; understanding the other person is. This is a meditation on the other person’s words, I would say.

Inevitably at the end of the first five minutes, at least one pair would be shocked to learn we are doing another round… that they were not supposed to take turns for five minutes. Or an asker would say they couldn’t stop themselves from sharing. Even listeners who did it right, I observed as I walk around eavesdropping, often disclosed information about themselves. If the talker talked about Memphis, the listener might respond with, “Oh, really? I’ve been to Memphis. I had so much fun!” Under the rules of the exercise, “Oh, really,” was sufficient.

One point of the exercise was that the hardest part of active listening is not the physical behaviors I touched on, but other classes often focus on (look at the person, paraphrase, etc.). The hardest part is keeping your mind focused on the speaker. In fact, when delivering the class at nonprofits, I proposed that one of the greatest gifts you can give another person is both the cheapest and the hardest to give: undivided, ego-less attention.

Now I know why. A series of studies that got noticed by the media found we receive the same kind of thrill from talking about ourselves that we do from good food and sex.

Two psychology researchers at Harvard Univ., Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, were intrigued by evidence that we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves. “Studies of human conversation have documented that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay information to others about one’s private experiences or personal relationships, and recent surveys of Internet use indicate that upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences,” they write.

Tamir and Mitchell also knew that brain scientists have identified the parts of the brain that fire up when good things happen to us, for example the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA). These release a hormone called “dopamine” which helps create a feeling of happiness or well-being. Tamir and Mitchell say this part of the brain “responds robustly to primary rewards such as food; secondary rewards such as money… and even social rewards such as learning that others share one’s opinion, experiencing humor, or catching a brief glimpse of an attractive member of the opposite sex.” How, then, they wondered, would these areas respond when a person talked about themselves?

They conducted a series of studies in which people were hooked up to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine taking pictures of the participants’ brains while answering:

  • Questions about themselves or their opinions.
  • The same questions about someone else.
  • Neutral facts, like who painted the Mona Lisa.

In some studies, participants were told their answers would be observed by another person. As you probably guessed, answering questions about themselves lit up the NAcc and VTA like Times Square compared to the response when answering about others or facts. The response was even stronger when the subjects knew someone would see the responses—that they would be sharing about themselves with others.

In some of the studies, prices were put on the questions. You could earn between one and four cents depending on which question you were willing to answer. Granting that is not much money, it’s still telling that on average, folks chose to give up 1/3 of the total they could have received so they could answer questions about themselves instead of other people. This led to one of the saddest and funniest lines I ever read in a study (not that there’s much competition): “Just as monkeys are willing to forgo juice rewards to view dominant groupmates and college students are willing to give up money to view attractive members of the opposite sex, our participants were willing to forgo money to think and talk about themselves.”

The reason we find it hard to shut up and truly listen to an employee or colleague is because we get the equivalent of a food high when we talk about ourselves and our opinions instead. But this also points to the importance of forcing ourselves to listen. By letting an employee or co-worker talk about their needs, you are providing them that same reward. In normal economic times surveys consistently show that compensation is fourth or fifth on the list of reasons someone remains satisfied with their job. That’s because people are willing to give up money if they feel they are treated well. One way to create that feeling is active listening, which I define as focusing your attention and energy on understanding the other person correctly before responding. I’ve observed many times in my team coaching that people are far more accepting of decisions they don’t agree with if they feel their opinions were heard and sincerely considered—if they feel they were “listened to.”

Now we know why. It’s all about the high, baby.

Source: Tamir, D., and J. Mitchell (2012), “Disclosing Information about the Self is Intrinsically Rewarding,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; published ahead of print May 7, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1202129109.

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