Readers’ Question: Can we shift to more authentic communication?

by cv harquail on February 11, 2010

Last weekend Bob Sutton and I got a pair of emails from readers who are frustrated by a specific kind of inauthentic participation within their organization. They wanted some ideas on how to name this behavior, in the hopes that labeling the behavior would help them get a handle on it.

H201002111235.jpgere’s a snippet from that email:

What word can we use to describe a person who has the opportunity to participate in a discussion, doesn’t bother to participate, but then complains (often loudly) after a decision is made and implemented?

“It’s an extremely inauthentic way of communicating, and it really hurts the morale of the person who made a decision based on collaborative discussion to be complained about after the fact by someone with procrastinator’s remorse.

While Bob posted their question on Work Matters and got a great conversation going there, I went straight to my Authentic Conversations gurus, Jamie and Maren Showkeir. I hoped that folks who focus their work on teaching, facilitating and supporting authentic conversations within organizations would have some insight into this issue, and they did!Jamie Showkeir.jpeg

Here’s my exchange with Maren, in a ‘dramatic recreation’ that unfolds in a more linear way than our actual interaction (order is changed, substance is the same). Maren Showkeir.jpeg

Maren: This is an intriguing question. As a journalist, I like word play. I immediately thought of things like “backroom stabber” and “board room bomber.”

[CV: Me too. I was working with post hoc passive aggressive, ex post a–hole, ante bellum backstabber … running with the Latin theme as way to elevate the perceived importance of the behavior. The labels people have come up with are funny, and yet …]

Maren: When we talk about communicating authentically, Jamie and I actually advocate that people avoid labels. Once labels are created, the behavior is given a different kind of reality. There is a real danger that by creating the label, you begin to see and interact with the label (the behavior itself), rather than the person.

[CV: Agreed. It’s the behavior that needs to get changed. And it’s the person doing the behavior that will need to do the changing.]

Maren: As Jamie and I talked about the labeling challenge, we realized the issue your fan raised is a pretty serious one. … I know from experience that this is a common phenomenon in many organizations; people who stay silent in meetings and then bad mouth decisions create a difficult situation for everyone. This behavior is also something that rarely gets confronted in organizations.

When this behavior occurs:

Maren: Recognize that for the person behaving this way, their behavior makes sense to them. Bringing up serious doubts about a decision after having chosen to to participate in making the decision, for whatever reasons, seems like a sensible thing to do.

[CV: They may be insecure about the decision, have concerns that surfaced only after the discussion, or feel unable to contribute to the decided course of action. And, they could also just be trying to torpedo the group, the person(s) who supported the decision, and the person(s) who have to carry out the decision. You don’t know if it’s about the decision-making situation, the decision itself, or organizational politics.]

Maren: This specific behavior, and people who behave this way, aren’t often confronted, with goodwill, about their behavior and the effects it has on the people around them and the organization as a whole.

[CV: People get used to this behavior, and to behaving this way, since it seems to have no consequences for them.]

Maren: It got my attention that the person who wrote you said, “all you want to do is shout back at them.” Minus the shouting, why don’t the people on the receiving end of this behavior ask of the person doing it “Why do you care after the discussion is over?”

A Way to Begin (Maren and Jamie’s advice):

Consider exploring the issue. In an attitude of goodwill and interest, and with the intent to listen carefully, ask some questions.

For example, it might be Ok to say:
“We discussed this intently in the meetings, and I noticed you stayed silent. Can you tell me why you didn’t speak up then when you seem to feel so negatively about the decision now?”

Maybe the person feels intimidated in meetings, or maybe they have chosen to be cynical and negative in response to past disappointments. Maybe they’re introverted. At the very least, it seems worth trying to have a conversation trying to discover the person’s motives.

– Be able to share, from your perspective, the impact that this behavior has on you and on others.

Take the conversation seriously as a chance to solve an underlying problem, [CV: not to ‘fix’ the person or the behavior]. If you can problem-solve around the person’s motives, you offer up to them the possibility of making a different choice not only about the present situation, but about future decisions.

– Own your own contribution to the issue and to the behavior.

– Embrace accountability for the whole

[CV: Often people think about dysfunctional behaviors as something that occurs between individuals because of who the specific individuals are. A specific individual does something to you/the group, for his or her own reasons, and those reasons have something to do with you. Sometimes it is an interpersonal motivation, with an interpersonal solution set. It can sometimes be all about the particular people involved. And yet,

CHARM GREEN KISSING BIRDS.JPG (JPEG Image, 1772x1380 pixels)_1235680544466.jpeg

When a particular type of behavior is commonplace in the organization, it’s important to consider the organizational level issues that support this behavior and mitigate against changing it.

By initiating a conversation about this behavior, you may not be able to change the ways that the organization allows this to go on, but you can take steps yourself to do what the Showkeirs call “Embracing Accountability for the Whole”.

The organization belongs to everyone who is part of it, and we are all responsible for its success — that means the person with loud criticism that is conveniently too late, and it means you.

One additional opportunity for the readers that sent us this question, is that it was a group of them who where having a water-cooler conversation about what to do.

Together, you can take one extra step towards authentic conversations.

If you work together, supporting each other in exploring these behaviors and especially in adjusting your own behaviors to respond more positively, more constructively, more actively, and with goodwill, you can make a difference here.

It’s like what Margaret Mead said, about that small group of people whose change initiatives shouldn’t be doubted — you all working together can change this little part of your organization’s dynamics, as you act authentically as concerned, mutually accountable colleagues.


Maren February 11, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Nice job with this post, CV, and thank you!
Full confession: I was glad I couldn’t respond to you immediately, because my gut response was, “Oh yeah! I’m clever with words. I can come up with a great derogatory name for these work whiners.” Trust me, working in a newsroom, I have rubbed elbows with some of the finest Label Makers in the world. I read that question and it was like, “Yeah, coach, put me in! BURN!”
But as we started brainstorming labels, Jamie and I both realized we were uncomfortable with the whole idea, and yesterday I had a great “aha!” about one of the reasons these labels are so appealing: It allows us a convenient, shorthand way to complain about the complainers without having to take responsibility for doing something about a situation that is counterproductive for the enterprise.
Please keep up the great work!

Catrien Ross February 12, 2010 at 2:14 am

CV, from the foot of Mount Fuji, thank you for your intriguing, erudite, thought-provoking site. I am new here, drawn by your domain name and also this latest post.
Living and doing business as a woman in Japan has deepened my perspective on authenticity and inauthentic communication. I believe that inauthentic communication within the organization has been developed to a high art here. It is practiced within both business society and private relationships. Since I now write and speak about authenticity in thought and action, I find myself navigating a landscape of some very trying contours. Thank you for this discussion today. I am delighted to have discovered your website and will visit again. Greetings on this snowy day – Catrien Ross.
.-= Catrien Ross´s last blog ..Catrien Ross on How Judging Your Day Creates Your Experience – Tao Insights From Mount Fuji =-.

Sandy February 12, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Such a constructive way to evolve your thinking, and share it with us.

The question is not really “how can I express my anger at them?” but “How can I transform my anger into good?”

This is right on point for me, since I’ve been struggling to stay in conversation with some critics of our local school board and state tax system, without becoming wishy-washy on one hand, or harsh and bitter on the other.

cv harquail February 12, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Sandy, I agree with you… how can we transform our anger, frustration, annoyance, dismissal, etc ad hominem? It can be so hard to take that next step.

cv harquail February 12, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Hi Catrien-
How great to get connected, and to find another writer/blogger concerned about authenticity!
I often hear from our au pairs that the kinds of conversations we (Americans) tend to have about issues, where we strive to be clear, candid, transparent, are very culturally biased. These conversations can be uncomfortable, if not undesirable, for people accustomed to cultures that are more circumspect. Sometimes I wonder that authenticity as we Americans know it isn’t itself too western, too individually based, to be a universal ‘good’.
Then, on the other hand, I wonder whether there aren’t ways to be indirect, and circumspect, and still authentic? How can you separate out what is ‘unauthentic’ (bad) vs. circumspect (fine)? What cultural, what’s universal?
Good thing we’re working on this together 🙂 cv

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