Breaking the Silence in Teams


Q: How can I get members of my team to speak up and improve communication?

A: Encourage them to stop assuming how others feel and start owning the interpretations they create.

To see American management 20 years ago, visit a company in India today. Like many other developing countries, India imitates American business.  Yes, U.S. businesses have leaped forward in many ways.  But we’ve also taken several steps back. Today in this country, we often avoid conflict by tiptoeing around issues and discouraging debate. In an effort to be sensitive to others we’ve stopped speaking up.

My nephew’s wife, Netu, worked for a large financial firm in India. At her job in Delhi she tells of real teamwork, dynamic and open communication and the debate ideas; American ideals, that two decades ago, were more of the norm than the exception in U.S. companies.

Netu has recently been relocated to the firm’s Phoenix office, and the difference in open communication between the two locations is quite apparent.   At the Arizona location, employees defuse issues and get reprimanded for unpopular ideas, while communication training does little to open dialogue. In the Delhi location, team members confidently share unpopular ideas and comments are not taken personally.

Not all U.S. businesses have become regressive in communication. But in general, we are in an era of avoidance. We’re much more frightened to speak up than two decades ago.

Certainly, the scarcity of jobs, the fear of being sued by disgruntled employees and stricter financial accountability has added to this trend. And, there is much we have learned about communication we should keep.  But there’s one skill we need to adopt: Separate  facts from fiction.

If a stenographer followed us through our day he or she would record the facts: What was said, what was done, by whom and when. But we humans don’t live in facts. We create meaning out of facts. “My boss didn’t smile at me today, I must be in trouble”.  “Thank God it’s Friday because that starts a weekend of fun”.

Recently I worked with a team to combat their fear to communicate by developing the following three principles:

We won’t assume what we can’t confirm.  We’ll give people the benefit of the doubt. We’ll not gossip nor form an opinion until we can understand the intentions of the person involved.

We’ll be responsible to our interpretations.  In a conflict we’ll share our interpretation on what was said or done.  “You didn’t respond to my email and I created the interpretation that you thought my idea was dump”.

Feedback and ideas are not seen nor given as a personal attack.  All ideas and concerns are welcomed.

When we stop assuming how others feel and start owning the interpretations we create, trust can be restored. And with trust, it’s safe to share the crazy idea or discuss the un-discussed.  If we’re going to thrive, not just survive this recession, we must speak up a lot more and business leaders must model the commonly held value of open communication.