Candid conversations strengthen organizations

By John Langhorne / Guest Column

It is axiomatic that trust-based organizations, whether they be private, nonprofit or public sector, operate more effectively and efficiently.

The big three practices are: leadership that understands and models appropriate behavior, exemplary communications and a systemic tool(s) for engaging employees and managers. Such organizations deliver outstanding services, products and information.

Communication – the management of information – is the primary driver of trust. Without timely, accurate information, people and organizations cannot function at their best. Looking deeper into communication, it is clear that communication in all its forms must be respectful. Peter Drucker said, “Courtesy is the lubricant that makes organizations work.”

Respect is values driven. Last week I was in a meeting where this question was posed: “What is your most important value?” In a nano-second I had my answer: “Treat others with respect.” For me this is the anchor value. Even those I dislike or disagree with I try to be respectful toward. When I am not, I apologize. This is a set of behaviors I learned by watching my parents.

Respectful behavior seems to me to be the basis for many other values, such as acting when you have the responsibility to do so, doing things with people rather than to them, being truthful to yourself as well as others and doing no harm.

Because people are tuned to the negative, most disrespectful behavior results from some emotional event. Neuroscientists call this amygdala hijack after the brain structure that mediates this response. Unfortunately, this type of reaction appears to be largely involuntary. Recall a time you made bad decision when upset. High levels of negative emotion, preparing us for fight or flight, inhibit the cognitive functions that produce reasonable behavior.

This article was initiated by re-reading (a skill undeveloped or lost in many people) an article by Jack Welch about the benefits of candor. He notes three results of direct, frank communication.

First, it gets people into the conversation, and with more ideas and frank discussions, better decisions are the potent outcome. Secondly, candor generates speed, a competitive advantage. Lastly, candor cuts costs by eliminating meaningless, non-contributing functions such as pointless meetings and lack of follow-through. In short, it unfreezes organizations.

Developing a candid organization is a major challenge given that candor is often punished. The Welsh article drove home how high the levels of incivility can diffuse to degrade the critical communications.

Watching the presidential primaries has been confounding, confusing and sad. Recently, an unlikely candidate won the Indiana primary with support from almost every demographic group. This morning an article in the Wall Street Journal has the headline, “I was dis-invited from campus.”

Hardly a week goes by without a thoughtful article in the Journal or the New York Times illustrating our national level of incivility. A recent article outlined the stresses of being in a marriage where spouses have differing political views. As a person who has spent most of his professional life trying to help improve communications within organizations, I wonder if we are not losing something fundamental to our society.

Incivility appears to be spreading. Many years ago I stopped telling jokes after noticing many would offend someone who would then make an ad hominem attack on the teller. As a student, one of the better courses of my undergraduate career was logic. In that course I learned that that attacking the person is a logical fallacy. Yet many persons, who should understand the logic of words, use this technique all the time. Why? Polls indicate that it works and is hard to counter in this instantaneous news environment.

Some people will say anything, regardless of how hurtful it may be to a person or group. I have a friend in politics who says the moderate middle, where I like to believe, perhaps in error, most of us reside, is being eroded. What set this polemic off is incivility suppresses candor. What are our three most important national issues? Has any candidate identified these and spoken to them with a well-reasoned plan?

John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates, His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available digitally at Amazon.