Water cooler (and other) chats

Communication is the lifeblood of any workplace, but sometimes it can feel overwhelming. You’d be hard pushed to find someone looking for more meetings, harder negotiations, or longer group-email threads with more participants.

You can be immersed in it virtually all the time if you find yourself in leadership roles where influence is key. Or when evaluating talent and trying to retain it – empowering unsung heroes with greater ownership. Or when you’re building trust. Or where fluid matrix teams need keeping coherent and on-track. Or when hearing best practice on how your core crew mobilises theirs.

Yet many people find the chats that matter just aren’t happening.

So instead of packing out the agendas, ratcheting up the gravity, or raising the numbers of conversations you’re having, think instead about the quality of the conversations. Think about how brief, fresh conversations enfranchise loyalty and productivity.

Even though pointed or led conversations are often vital, we often need to expand our repertoire beyond this. Conversations nearly always have an agenda, especially at work, and if you’re in a supervisory, project manager, program manager, executive, director or c-level role, this agenda normally benefits you. However, if you relax a little on end-goal focus and try opening up the conversation, you may actually boost your results and smash your objectives. Ironically.

Freer conversations not only demonstrate real investment in the other person, they can also cross-fertilise or gain us insight. It might be that an unprepared and sympathetic ear will genuinely bounce an idea with just the right amount of confidence-instilling support for something great to germinate. So your agenda here might be to simply check in, have a conversation, ask open-ended questions and stay engaged and present. You’re taking time out for them. That is enough.

If you treat people like children, they behave like children. The way London City Airport’s respectful staff respectfully coax and channel their passengers from security to departures (in stark contrast with Stansted Airport’s aggressive and patronising herding and hollering) is in itself enough to make a crowd behave with dignity and decency. Similarly at work, if you have conversations that treat people as adults and single out their achievements and talents often, they’ll rise to the challenge of being the best they can be. Positively recognising a team’s milestones met and great potential may mean its members feel driven to work smarter and harder.

Of course, to lead often means to show someone the way. There should therefore be conversations that are not just shoving people in this direction or that, but also giving them meaning and purpose. In chatting, it’s sometimes valuable to lift people up, into a bird’s-eye view of themselves, in unpacking a broader context. It’s sometimes useful to explore their drivers, pleasures and talents. The best teacher at school is the one who stops in the middle of any activity and leverages a child’s metacognition: “why are we doing this task?” or “how is all this useful to you?”.

Inspiration in life may be personal but the kind of leader willing to understand it and align it with work is the kind of leader to achieve a highly functional and productive workplace.

Physical feelings are important too. Unlike those TV-screen Duracell bunnies, our personal energy often feels like a far-too-finite resource. Serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, adrenalin and cortisol are all hormones that flux wildly during our workdays. They respond to a whole range of factors. Some are bio-rhythmic (surging or receding at certain times of day), some internal and psychological, and some environmental and team-based. Optimised energy and mapping work-streams and tasks to changing energy levels is about having the right mix of these hormones along with understanding our natural daily bio-rhythms and getting enough sleep at night. Therefore, grasping when and what makes our teams energised can help us as leaders. So, wonderful and potent conversations can also be simply about reflecting and assessing how people feel.

When did you last take a moment to reflect on the range of conversations you are having with stakeholders, colleagues or your own staff?

Tony Corballis, 2019