In June of this year, Blind—an app that surveys employees about HR issues and trends—asked tech company employees about retaliation in the workplace. Forty percent of respondents said managers or HR had retaliated against employees who reported an incident. Employees at one of the tech companies reported an even higher incidence of retaliation: 56 percent. Hey Airbnb, that’s what we in the business call a big, big communication problem.
We can all agree that discrimination and harassment exist in the workplace. There have been many many public examples in the past year. How pervasive is it? The stats from Blind seem staggeringly high. I propose we take a step back and look at the possibility of a more fundamental and common problem – employees don’t know how to talk to each other. I believe we are suffering a crisis of communication in which most employees have no training in direct, honest, constructive, respectful dialogue. And it’s wreaking havoc on companies’ operations and productivity, in addition to their reputations.
Communication is Not For The Faint Hearted
Human communication is complex and full of nuances. Even the simplest message is colored by the words you use, the medium you choose, body language, intent, emotion, all of it floating in a vat of human personal issues: fear of conflict, wanting people to like you, or fear of not being respected.
If an employee complains to an insecure inexperienced manager who lacks the skills to communicate effectively and constructively, the manager may blame the employee for calling attention to an issue they don’t know how to fix. If this manager is not emotionally prepared and professionally equipped to deal with such issues, they are naturally going to prefer employees who go along to get along, no matter how bad that is for the company. I don’t know how often I’ve pointed out that an employee was wrecking morale or even committing illegal acts and heard that person’s manager say, “That can’t be true.” To which I have to reply “Just because you don’t want to believe it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
Managing isn’t easy. It pays more because it’s a difficult job that requires a higher level of emotional intelligence and social adeptness. But too often I talk to leaders who are not comfortable with the role they’ve taken on. Direct and supportive communication like saying, “That was a good idea, but we aren’t going to run with it” causes them anxiety. It’s worse with, “We need to have a frank conversation about your performance.” Because they lack the tools to make the needed changes in their departments they ignore bullying, passive aggressive behavior or slipping performance. The hiring executive may have assumed that manager would learn the skills on the job. That’s a big risk. What other roles would that same hiring executive expect employees to learn on the job? Managers, even experienced managers need training.
Tacos Do Not Equal Culture
It’s a pet peeve of mine that too many companies will invest in obstacle courses with trust falls and rope climbs, or Margarita Monday and Taco Tuesday. But they don’t want to invest in teaching their managers how to effectively communicate their expectations and hold employees accountable for those expectations. Maybe they just hope the tacos will create enough of a bond that everyone will perform the way they should? News flash, it doesn’t work that way.
Every business has conflicts and managers who say their business has no conflict are sweeping the conflict under the rug. Just like whatever happened in Airbnb, the problem will rear its ugly head—maybe through an article on the internet, a lawsuit, a regulatory action. Whatever route the toxin takes, it will be more costly than hiring a professional to assess your managers and teach them the skills and mindsets they need to manage others so that you have productive, positive teams.
Retaliation is a clear sign of an unhealthy culture and a negative signal to candidates, investors, and customers. If you want help teaching managers how to communicate and how to handle problems the right way, contact us. And if Taco Tuesday is how you roll, our lunch-and-learn sessions can be taco-friendly.