Welcome¬†to Part 3 of Don St. Clair and I’s discussion of leadership.

You mentioned communication. Some of my background is in communication training and such, and what I have researched and noticed is that you could say one word in a meeting, which now creates a stress response in everybody. You already alluded to is that are people actually being honest and open during the actual meeting or do they say that to do gossip afterward? The communication, or the lack thereof, can create toxicity, right?

Don St. Clair: Absolutely.

Rick S.: How do you … I don’t want to say encourage, but how do you create a culture where communication is safe to give feedback?

Don St. Clair: That’s hard, but it’s vital. The first thing is that does come from the top, that if I’m the boss, if I’m the CEO, if I’m the president, and I say we have open communication here, and you come to me and tell me something that I don’t want to hear and I react inappropriately, you can say that you have open communication all you want, but when you react that way, it teaches people not to bring you bad news, not to challenge your ideas. That’s not healthy.

I think there are some simple techniques. You look at a staff meeting. You have seven or eight or 10 people around a table. I think you can be very intentional in making sure that you’re drawing people into the conversation. When people are sitting there and they’re shaking their head yes, one of the very simple things you can do is pick somebody across the room and say, “Hey, Jack. I see you’re saying yes to me, but I’m sensing that maybe there’s something you’d like to say.” Invite that person. Give that person active permission to speak. Give that person active permission to present a different viewpoint.

You can do other simple things. You can assign somebody in the room, “Your job in this meeting is to tell us what’s wrong with the ideas we’re coming up with. That’s your job, and you need to do that.” The idea of rotating that is good because that way no person in the group, no person on the team becomes that person that’s always finding the problem because you don’t want to be that person.

Rick S.: Yeah. I love the idea. It used to be criticism, right?

Don St. Clair: Yeah.

Rick S.: Now we call it feedback.

Don St. Clair: Absolutely.

Rick S.: Now we’re trying to make it as safe a word as possible so people don’t get offended, yet, in reality, a leader does want to know what’s going on. They want the truth. However, we want to define that. I like the word you said, inviting them to … Giving them permission, but it’s a safe environment where you’re not getting offended and that you’re not immediately reacting because now maybe you value an open line of communication.

With communication, I think being a little bit less face-to-face and more digital and such, is there anything that you’re seeing, from a leadership standpoint, where either how to use technology in communication, or do you try to get back to basics of face-to-face?

Don St. Clair: I don’t think there is nor will there ever be a substitute for face-to-face conversation. Now you’re absolutely right. We work in diffused, distributed ways. We’re not together all the time. My hair’s gray, but I’m not that old. I get it. But there’s not a substitute for face-to-face communication, because with face-to-face communication, you see body language, you sense … You have this sensory perceptions that you miss in email.

Digital communication is okay for distribution of factual information, but an email argument or an email disagreement or an email debate is the worst idea possible. It’s the worst idea possible because you can’t get the context, you can’t get the nuance. You can’t do that. It’s cowardly, too. People will write things in an email or on a Facebook post or pick your social media platform; they’ll write things that they would never say to you in face, in person, and that’s not healthy.

I’m going to say one more thing about this. It’s about conflict and your organization’s attitude towards conflict. If you do training, you do consulting, you go out to an organization. They’ll give you, “These are topics we’d like for you to talk to us. We’d like for you to train and work with our staff on it,” and lots of times you’ll see conflict resolution, wrong question.

The problem with conflict in most organizations isn’t that there’s too much, it’s that it’s the wrong kind of conflict and there’s not enough conflict. The conflict around ideas is healthy and vital to organizational growth and sustainability. Conflict of ideas fuels creativity and innovation.

That’s why you want a safe zone. You don’t want a safe zone because you don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. You want a safe zone where it’s okay to have differing ideas. Conflict around who went to lunch longest, who got the closest parking spot, who has the corner office, who talks to who too much, that’s bad conflict.

Rick S.: Sure.

Don St. Clair: Most organizations don’t have enough healthy conflict. They don’t challenge each other’s ideas enough. That’s what you want a safe zone for.

Stay tuned next week for Part 4 of Don and I’s discussion, as we talk about innovation in leadership.

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