Are You Speaking to Me?

“Are you speaking to me?” -“Fearless Leader

The manager of a team I was working with looked at me quizzically and said, “Of course we all speak to each other. Who do you think we speak to?”

That was, in part, the question I was there to answer. The problem wasn’t that they never spoke to one another; indeed, they’d taken all sorts of courses on communications. Unfortunately, none of those courses seemed to make any difference: decisions were still not being made in a timely fashion, brainstorming sessions had about as much storm as a sunny day at the beach, and there was almost no discussion or elaboration of ideas. As one of the more painful results of the situation, the team was spending a great deal of time attempting to fix problems that should have been identified ahead of time, and even more time blaming one another for said failure to identify the problems.

The easy answer was that they weren’t communicating. So they took the aforementioned courses in communications. The problems didn’t go away, although they did learn to blame one another much more articulately.

Easy answers are not necessarily correct answers.

In fact, they were communicating, just not with one another. If you’re talking to the wrong person, it doesn’t really matter how many good communications tricks you learn. Effective communications require a sender and a receiver. When you only have one of the two, it doesn’t work so well.

From the perspective of the manager, they were all talking to one another. After all, they sent emails to the entire team, they held meetings where they all conversed, and so forth. Thus he was quite confused at the idea that they weren’t all communicating with one another.

His confusion is excusable though, because from his perspective communication was occurring: the team members were all talking to him. Although it superficially appeared that they were talking to one another, in truth each team member would really speak for the benefit of the manager, and other team members were cueing off of his response in formulating their own responses. Even in emails, there was a strong tendency to wait for the manager to respond, and then each person would respond to him, not to the original poster-¦ or the original idea.

The net result was that decision making became a series of “me too” responses instead of productive debate and incisive questioning, leading to poor decisions and lack of commitment. Complicating the problem was that the manager didn’t fully recognize that his team of experts was depending on him to be the brain in the room. He thought he’d hired each of them for their brains! Similarly, brainstorming was all about convincing the manager to buy into the idea, rather than engage in serious conversation with one another. When something didn’t work out, failure was seen as disloyalty to the team rather than as the result of poor process and incorrect communications.

Now, to be fair, being the center of communications on your team is a normal thing and it happens quite often. Indeed, had the manager not taken on that role, the team would not have been even as productive as it was. However, as the team became more sophisticated and the problems they were working on became more difficult, their habits of communication needed to change as well. Instead of operating as what amounted to a wheel, with the manager in the center acting as the clearinghouse, they needed to become more of a star, with each person talking directly to each other person.

Making the change wasn’t easy: it involved changing some long ingrained habits, and that never happens quickly. How did we make it happen? There is no fixed formula, but here are a few ideas you can use if you find yourself in a similar fashion:

  • When someone sends an e-mail to the group, resist the urge to respond right away. If no one responds in a reasonable amount of time, assign someone to write the initial response. You may have to force feed the discussion in this way in order to get people talking.
  • Conversely, if e-mail discussions devolve into pointless running about in circles until you step in, resist the urge to hand down a solution. Instead, direct and focus the discussion, making a point of asking specific team members to voice an opinion.
  • Instead of running brainstorming meetings, appoint someone else to run it, give the team some preliminary goals, and leave the room. Later, you can have the team set the goals.
  • Instead of making a decision for the team, guide them through your process for making a decision. In subsequent meetings, instruct someone else to lead the decision making process.
  • Appoint someone to act as Devil’s Advocate in meetings: their job is to raise questions and push back on issues. Encourage your team to respond to the points the Devil’s Advocate raises, don’t do it yourself. In some cases, you may have to say, “I’m not the person you have to convince. It’s her.”

Through a combination of different techniques, we were able to significantly shift the team’s communication style, dramatically increasing productivity. Now that’s a worthwhile conversation to be having!

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. For more information, visit You can also contact Balzac at [email protected].

Richard Blanchard

Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.

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