The First Seven Breakdowns in Work Conversations

For those who have read my earlier posts, you know that I have a particular interest in the structure and quality of work conversations.  The smallest element of any achievement is not a task; it’s a conversation.  Any team or organization is nothing more than a network of conversations.  These person-to-person conversations can be thought of as the exchanging of information and energy much like the cells in your body.  The quality of these exchanges determines the effectiveness of the whole organism/organization.  It follows, therefore, that the most powerful way to improve performance of an individual, a team, or a company is to improve the quality of the dialog.

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfill the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective.” (Fernando Flores)

This is intended to be the first of a series of articles that provide more specifics about how to improve the quality of work conversations.  It’s one thing to state the general premise that conversations matter.  My intent is to be more specific; I intend to describe specific behaviors that evidence good and bad conversations.  Let’s begin with recognizing some of the most common breakdowns in work conversations that create miscommunication, low engagement or even resignation, and poor execution.  Note that 5 relate to the Requester’s side of the conversation and 2 relate to the Performer’s.


1)    Not Making Requests – Wanting or needing something from someone else and not making the request.  A request is a clear statement of a desired result within a time frame.  It is surprising how few managers are able to make requests, but it is not hard to explain.  Making a request acknowledges dependence and exposes vulnerability.  In addition, we each have a built in reticence or fear of hearing a “no” response and feeling rejected.

2) Living with Uncommunicated Expectations – A pernicious form of “not requesting” occurs when an individual lives in a world of “shoulds” and expectations that are really unexpressed requests.  This amounts to private conversations with ourselves about what others should and should not do.  There is some inherent dishonesty in this behavior.

3) Making Unclear Requests – Lack of clarity and precision in a request generates breakdowns.  Others do not see the world as you do.  Effective requests are specific, precise and detailed.  Note, however, that making effective requests requires more attention and commitment from the requester.

Making clear requests often requires extra effort to think through more precisely what outcome is desired.  A preliminary conversation with the team is sometimes needed to achieve better clarity about what’s needed and who can do it.  The requester, therefore, shares the accountability for the outcome.

4) Not Observing the Mood of Requesting – Making a request like a demand or like a beggar.  The mood of your utterance affects the listener as much as your words.  If the mood is demanding, your performer might decline your requests because they see you as arrogant and righteous, or they might make promises to you out of intimidation, not choice, and these commitments are weak and rarely fulfilled.

5) Promising even when you aren’t clear of what was requested – Committing to something you are not clear about is foolish.  More, it is also a breakdown in integrity to take on a task that the performer knows is unclear.  Failure to meet expectations is built in from the start.  Not being clear about what will be delivered will guarantee wasted effort.

6) Not Declining Requests – The ability for a performer to decline requests is crucial for health, dignity and well-being.  This is a common sense notion, but radical at the same time.  Most managers operate from an implicit position of “I pay my people well and I expect them to do what I ask of them.”  And perhaps even more important, team members/staff people have no experience nor confidence in the possibility that they could actually decline a request.   And yet, if there is no room to ever say no to a request, how can either the manager or the performer ever trust a yes.

7) Breaking Promises Without Taking Care – Promises are not guarantees that deliveries will be made on time, but breakdowns do need careful handling.  The requester implicitly trusts that the performer is sincere, competent, and reliable to do what they’ve promised.  Breakdowns occur, but so as not to undermine that trust, the performer must honor their original promise by immediately notifying the requester and being open to making a new promise.  In this way the performer is staying accountable and behaving in integrity with what they have said.

Getting task-related conversations off on the right foot is an important beginning to an effective “conversation for action”.  Future blog posts will describe guidelines for how the conversation should progress to maximize the chances for a successful outcome.


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