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Important to be candid in the workplace

By Anna Campbell

A German colleague told me it took her someĀ time to work out the communication dynamics within the New Zealand workforce.

She gave me an example of a time when I said I needed something done and I was so vague she didn't think it was important: ''Well if you've got time, if you could have a look at this by end of this week, that would be great... but, oh, only if you've got time.''

In her mind these circular, soft instructions equated to ''not important, move down the priority list''. So, by the end of the week, when I looked a bit put-out that attention had not been spent on my item, she realised she had misinterpreted my circular Kiwi instructions.

The dynamics of workplace communication are fascinating, and cultural and personality differences are a couple of factors that can aggravate communication breakdowns.

In my experience, communication breakdowns and conflicts end in two ways: a complete blowout, which we tend to pay more attention to, and equally as destructive and hard to deal with, passive-aggressive shutdowns.

Recently, I had to go through a bunch of personal documents and found in my travels my form 1 report (equivalent to what is now year 7).

The very first line of the report said: ''For a girl with obvious ability, Anna has had a very disappointing year.'' Oh how I laughed. Isn't that telling it how it is? My poor parents would have been under no illusion whatsoever! Compare that with school reports now where it is an extreme exercise in reading between the lines and interpretation.

Some of you will be shaking your heads at ''political correctness'' gone mad, but I have come to detest the term political correctness, so refuse to use it. I will say, though, that to communicate effectively in the workplace we do need to improve our ability to be candid.

As a colleague said to me recently, ''Anna, I am working on being kind, not nice,'' and as I get older and wiser, I too, am learning to appreciate the difference.

My father used to tease me in my youth that my approach to relationship breakups was ''death by slow strangulation''. Irritation from my youth quickly resurfaces when I am reminded of the graphic and somewhat juvenile gestures he made when he imparted his observation!

But after reading books by Jack Welch (ex-CEO of General Electric), maybe he had a point. In Mr Welch's words ''the biggest cowards are managers who don't let people know where they stand''.

He believes that ''a remarkable absence of candour in the workplace represents one of the most significant obstacles to companies' success.

In a bureaucracy, people are afraid to speak out. This type of environment slows you down, and it doesn't improve the workplace.''

In order to create high-performing workplaces, people need to buy into promoting candid conversations at every organisational level.

There are many tools and courses on giving and receiving feedback, but I think the most simple thing to do, is to commit to being candid and then to practise.

When you are apprehensive about having a candid conversation, practise on someone else, prepare what you have to say and then simply say it, with kindness.

There are not many people who want to go to work for eight hours a day to be destructive and miserable or intentionally make mistakes.

Genuine, consistent candid feedback, up and down hierarchies, helps to prevent the blow-ups and the shutdowns. We also need to ensure we are not too thin-skinned ourselves in receiving feedback and do so in a constructive and non-defensive way when it is levelled at us - this can be very challenging!

I realise now that my father's strangulation theatrics were describing a wider phenomenon. In the interests of representing ourselves well and creating high-performing workplaces, we owe it to each other to strive for candour, wherever and whenever possible... but be kind with it!