An Experimental Conversation

I’m going to propose something that may seem a little off the wall.  What if we had a conversation in the workplace that we may not have had before?  It could be kind of weird, kind of awkward at first.  It might not even work, but hear me out.

Think of it as an experiment.  I’m wondering what would happen if we tried an experiment with a different kind of conversation, just to see what happens.  There’s no risk.  If it doesn’t work, no harm done.  We can just move on and try other things.  If it does work, then we all benefit because we’ll develop a new capacity and maybe new skills to work together, and we’ll contribute to making our workplace more like we want it to be.  So it’s all up side and no down side, as far as I see it.

The experiment I’m suggesting is to discuss something non-essential in our workplace.

Why pick something non-essential?  Because we want something that’s not entirely hypothetical but doesn’t hold a significant emotional charge.  The intent is that, by picking something real, people will actually be willing to invest and engage in the conversation.  But by selecting a topic without a lot of baggage attached to it, something where the stakes are relatively low for the participants, we can use the subject as a kind of conversational practice ground.  If it’s a topic that generates a lot of heat or triggers people or where there’s a lot of polarization, people probably won’t be able to open up and practice in a productive way.

For the purposes of this post, let’s use the hypothetical issue of how we handle our workplace common areas and housekeeping-type situations (this may or may not meet the above criteria in your workplace).

Here’s the unusual part: let’s not jump right into talking about the actual substance of the issue, such as the expectations or rules, at least not yet.

Instead, let’s first discuss how we want to handle conversations about these situations.

So, rather than having a discussion along the lines of, “I think that a certain writer of blog posts should vacuum up the crumbs that fall on the floor when he’s shoving donuts in his mouth,” my proposal is to try having a conversation about how we want to handle conversations about our shared expectations and how we want to handle holding each other accountable for those expectations.

Does that sound strange?  Does it sound like a waste of time?  Does it make you uncomfortable and irritated to even think of having a conversation like this?  Are you thinking, if there’s an issue, let’s just deal with it and get on with business?  If so, that makes complete sense.  I understand that approach, and I applaud your practicality.  That is efficient—at least in the short term.

But let’s think this through together in a little more depth.  In this scenario, there are probably a variety of ways to approach just getting on with it and dealing with common area matters efficiently.

One way might be to just not deal with it directly and let things work themselves out. That has the advantage of being efficient because you spend virtually no time on the matter. This can work really well in “uniform” groups—groups where everyone pretty much shares the same expectations. The downside is that the more differences you have in the group, the more friction there will be as a result of different expectations and different behaviors. Another downside is probably the added uncertainty created when these irritations arise. There’s more uncertainty because no shared expectations have been established that can be pointed to, and there’s no agreed-upon mechanism for dealing with these differences. This uncertainty can create stress and animosity if the issues remain unresolved. And when animosity and resentment go unresolved, the environment can turn toxic, and relationships can be damaged. Let’s call this the disorganized approach.

Another way to approach it, which is probably at the opposite extreme, would be to have someone in a position of authority establish and enforce a set of rules. This approach has the advantage of clarity in terms of both the expectations and the mechanism for addressing violations. This is undoubtedly pretty common and largely unquestioned in many of our workplaces. Among the downsides, I suspect that the system doesn’t always produce the consistent accountability it seems to promise, and the experience of holding or being held accountable in that system tends to not be uplifting. Let’s call this the top-down approach.

Presenting those two extremes was obviously an oversimplification of the alternatives, but I’m not above oversimplifying to make a point. The point I want to make is that neither of those contrived-yet-not-entirely-unrealistic “efficient options” represents an ideal kind of workplace. Some of us probably lean more towards preferring one of these alternatives or the other. But I imagine that neither of those pictures is entirely consistent with our vision of what we want for our workplace.

So, if we don’t want our workplace to look like either of those alternative efficient scenarios, it might be productive for us to ask ourselves some questions as we consider how to move forward: What do we want our workplace to look like? What kind of relationships and interactions do we want to have with each other? What’s important to us? What values do we hold that might relate to those questions?

“Hey, mister! You’re tricking us into talking about shared vision! But we’re not going to fall for your silly ploy because this is just stupid, insignificant housekeeping (or some other non-essential) stuff that we don’t want to waste our time on!”

Fair enough. This is just housekeeping (or some other non-essential thing). But let me ask, how do we figure out which stuff “really” matters? More to the point, can we be a certain kind of workplace when doing our core, externally-focused work and simultaneously be a different kind of workplace when dealing with each other on internal matters?

I don’t believe we can. I don’t think people can compartmentalize that well. No group of people trying to accomplish something meaningful together can be dysfunctional (Note to reader: I’m not saying you’re dysfunctional.) in their internal operations without sacrificing effectiveness in their external operations.

That’s just to say that, while in the big picture it may not matter much whether there’s a persistent trail of donut crumbs leading to a certain blog writer’s office, it does matter whether his team has the systems and the collective and individual capacity to address crumb-gate effectively when someone sees it as a problem. It matters not because the crumbs themselves are necessarily a big deal but because being able to deal effectively with a “small thing” like that is a reflection of the overall culture and health and functionality of that group.

We need to spend time discussing the discussion because it’s not the [insert non-essential issue] that really defines and reflects the quality of our culture—that stuff is just on the surface. The question of whether and how we can go about working together to establish a set of shared expectations is a key in determining whether our workplace is the kind of place what we want it to be. Whether and how we handle this deeper conversation is the key because it will be reflected in other aspects of how we do our work together.

That was a long-winded way of saying, “Yeah, it really is worth taking some time to talk about this.”

In order to carry out this experiment, I think we’ll need to consider together a number of questions. I’ll go ahead and throw out a bunch of questions that might be helpful to consider.

As you ask yourself these questions, consider what’s most important to you and what you really want for yourself and the company and your co-workers.

  • What values do you hold that are related to this discussion?
  • It may also be valuable to consider what concerns you, namely, what do you worry about and what fears do you have in connection with this conversation?
  • What negative outcomes are you afraid of for yourself or for the organization?
  • Going back to those two alternative approaches, if we don’t want the problems of disorder or the rigidity of a top-down system, what principles do we need to keep in mind in order to approach this conversation effectively?
  • What would it look like for us to handle this conversation in a way that matches our vision for our workplace?
  • What principles do we need to keep in mind in order to approach this effectively?
  • What’s your vision for how the people in an ideal company would handle setting expectations for themselves?
  • How would it handle differences of opinion and different perspectives on such issues?
  • How would it handle holding each other accountable for those expectations?
  • What would these conversations sound like?
  • What kind of systems and structures and mechanisms would need to be in place to support this going forward?

There’s no need for everyone to answer every single question. Just have everyone pick a handful that stand out to them and share their thoughts.

Most of all, like I said, try to remember a couple things: One, remember that it’s just an experiment. Two, remember that we’re really talking about more than crumbs on the floor (or whatever non-essential issue has been chosen).

Engaging in this kind of conversational practice will likely expose thoughts that and ideas that are important elements in developing a high-quality workplace.  You may even be able to take the results from this conversation and use them as a foundation for other conversations about more important topics.

If you’ve tried this in your workplace, what came out of it? What was valuable? What worked, and what didn’t? How would you do it differently in the future?

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