Face to face is how we were meant to communicate. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’, it was our sophisticated and nuanced conversational ability that powered our species to dominance on this planet.
Harari notes that there were seven types of ‘Homo’ co-existing on Earth 70,000 years ago. But only Homo Sapiens could communicate abstract concepts and ideas. This led to the development of strategy, when every other species was limited to tactics.
In addition (you may be surprised to hear) our ability to gossip had the effect of building team coherence. Everyone developed a deep understanding of individual behaviours and worked out from that whom they could, or could not, rely upon.Nowadays we find ourselves focused on digital screens more than on the humans beings around us. So anything we can do to reverse that trend will, I believe, improve organsational productivity. Of course as soon as get your people talking again, you observe a number of unhelpful behaviours emerging. The two that we prioritise for fixing are:
- The big story (unanipea story). This is where a simple question is given a long and roundabout answer, intended to divert attention from the truth. ‘Did you manage to reconcile the accounts for last month?’ is a simple business question. But the answer, giving perhaps four or five interlocked reasons and evoking a cast of characters that would make a soap opera proud, might take ten minutes to deliver. We coach that, if that answer is ‘No’, managers should require staff to begin with the one word answer. Then say what they are going to do to remedy the situation. And finally give a commitment to when. Sounds simple, but this behaviour takes real determination to change.
- Overtalking. This happens when one individual in a meeting has a point of view which he cannot stop making. It’s a technique we sometimes see in politicians when they want to avoid a subject so they take another and metaphorically beat it to death. More often, in business, it’s a sign that someone with a limited contribution to make to a discussion feels he should command your attention until you beg him to stop. (I’m using the male prounoun quite deliberately here.) In this sitaution we coach using the ‘time out’ handsign very visibly. Reinforced by telling the windbag in question that he has made his point very well, and now it’s time to seek contributions from others.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa