Monday, April 25, 2016

The Early Origins of Problem Workforce Communication

My goal in this blog is to promote effective messaging. This is the first post in a series about transforming the way we use messaging within organizations in order to transform business culture and business results. Please read on and enjoy!

We were all about this little guy's age when we figured out this monumental truth:

I can't do it by myself.  To transform my big ideas into reality, I need the help of others.  And to get that help, I need to pack my ideas into these strange packages called words, and ship them out into the world.

In the world of a toddler, success hinges on getting other people to meet your needs. You have to communicate.

In the world of business, success hinges on getting, and keeping, whole groups of people in sync to meet the needs of the business. We have to super-communicate.  This involves:

  • explaining concepts;
  • expressing goals;
  • training processes;
  • establishing expectations;
  • evaluating progress;
  • providing feedback.

All told, an extraordinary bandwidth of information needs to be exchanged and received in order to work together.  But this information exchange does not come easily to us. 

In fact, the problems of communication on the job start when we are in the nursery.    

Early Biases, And Their Effects On Everyday Business

Brain scan studies have confirmed that as early as 5 months, infants are observing the speech of others with their prefrontal cortex fully engaged.  That means that before we can sit up by ourselves, and months before we articulate our first word, we are already mentally rehearsing the dynamics of communicating. Awesome, isn't it?  

By the time we are two years old -- the age of the child in the picture above -- we are ready to give our first verbal messages to the world.  And each of us has the same two messages to tell.

Our two first messages set the tone for all our messaging to come -- and that tone is most certainly NOT one of cooperation and respect.  

Want to guess what those first two messages are?

Think.  What are the two words that all toddlers fall in love with first? 

Parents, you probably got them right away:  "No"  and "Mine."   Remember when your precious little one discovered these?  

Think about these messages and what they mean. 
  • The first one, No,  is an outraged protest against anything that doesn't fit our immediately-perceived best outcome. 
  • The second, Mine,  is a territorial declaration that erects a verbal barrier to retain personal advantage.  
Please understand, as boundary-setting tools, these are necessary and healthy concepts for a growing child to put into play.  But as platforms for exchanging ideas, they aren't exactly award-winners. They are arbitrary, one-way messages, used for projecting power and quelling dissent.  And that's where we start to see a fatal limitation.

We basically carry this "No/Mine" communications bias throughout life.  Most of our natural messaging tends to fall into these two categories.  In fact, if left to ourselves, each of us would only default to alternatively communicating outrage ("No")  and defensiveness ("Mine") for the rest of our lives.  

But we are not left to ourselves. Life happens.  We undergo a rigorous socialization process, in our family, at school, and among our peers.  Then we leave this childhood and adolescent socializing experience, however good or bad that may have been, and we enter the workplace. 

Now, for the first time, communication equates to income -- or to put it in toddler terms, our "No" will have a direct impact on our "Mine."  We have to message as though our lives depended on it -- for certainly our livelihoods now do.  

By this point, we've acquired some further skills for communicating. Most of them, though,  still revolve around our first two favorite words.  

We've learned a spectrum of more sophisticated ways to say our "No" to get our own way.  We now know how to charm, cajole, persuade, manipulate,  ingratiate, appease,argue, accuse, lie, sneer, scoff, and shame.   

We use the same set of skills to create more elegant versions of how to say our "Mine" to keep our advantage, once attained.  We can add that we also now know how to avoid, divert, stonewall, threaten, attack, and when all else fails, sue.   

As you may have already surmised, the skills based on our "No/Mine" bias are not the best tools for achieving cooperation, respect, and results in the business world.

Grow And Tell

To corral our inner two-year-olds and get them to work together, we need to fundamentally alter our early "No/Mine" assumptions. We have to make room for someone else.  We must realize two truths: 

  1. Getting my own immediately-perceived best outcome may not be in my ultimate long-term best interest.  In other words, my "No" might need to become "Yes" -- at least for a while. I may have to do some things I don't want to do (hard work that someone else assigns me) in order to get the job done and get my reward (a paycheck that someone else pays me).  This is called delayed gratification.  And in operational messaging, it translates into taking direction.
  2. Preserving my own advantage may equate to meeting the needs of the group.  Or to put it in toddler-speak, my "Mine" might need to become "Share" -- at least for a while. I may need to allow undesirable elements (boss, co-workers, tasks, projects) to infiltrate my territory (my time, my attention, my choices) in order to retain my advantage (economic stability, status, material goods).  In operational messaging, this called establishing buy-in
We can see that much of what happens on the job is counter-intuitive to our earliest motivations.  If you're looking for the main insight of this post, that's it.  I said all that to say this: 

The dynamics of effective on-the-job communication involve the intentional undoing of basic human biases that have deep, deep roots.

What do you think?  Do you agree with that statement?

If you do, then you are beginning to realize that workforce messaging requires strategy, delicacy, and artistry that goes way beyond what we use in everyday life. We don't just tell people what to do and expect them to do it.  To get our best results, we need to work much harder than that. We need to super-communicate:

We need construct a message that gives the other person the tools they need to de-construct their own inherent resistance and re-construct a collaborative platform.  And we have to do this with every message, every time.

Challenging?  You bet.

Actually, with this post,  I am trying to do some intentional undoing of my own.  Dear reader, I am trying to undo your own deep "No/Mine" underpinnings.  

My goal is in this blog is to promote effective workforce messaging.  And to do that, I need to get you to reframe how you look at your own job environment.  The first step is to get ahead of your own inner two-year-old to identify the fact that your own basic wants and defenses are usually the very things that subconsciously make you resist the work required for effective workforce messaging.

Evaluating Your Own "No/Mine" Mindset

Is your two-year-old self calling your communications shots?  Take this test. Give a ranking between 0 and 5  to each of the following statements (0 equals Never, 5 equals Always):

1. My interactions with people at work are dominated by conflicts.

2. I carry grudges against one or more coworkers.

3. I have not submitted a new idea for process improvement within the past year.

4. I just want to be left alone to do my job.

5.  My baseline mood at work is one of annoyance.

6. I have to play the boss card to force people to cooperate.

7. I know other people are after my job and/or are trying to make me look bad.

8.  I have favorites among my team, and they know who they are.

9.  I refuse to put up with incompetence; I won't tolerate bozos, and I work to get them fired.

10. I came up short in the last round of raises (or bonuses, or promotions, etc.), so now my attitude is, why put in the extra effort?

If any of these statements are 5's by your estimation, then you may be carrying a toddler mindset into work every day.  You may need to take some steps to develop new super-communicating skills that will truly get your best outcomes and preserve your deepest advantages.

But how do you do that?

The answer, in my opinion, is a little thing I invented called Compassionate Communicating.  It involves escaping beyond our own "No/Mine" bias to give your co-workers and colleagues a higher quality of messaging.  It means modeling a "Yes/Share" open communications model.   It's all about turning each person's inner toddler into a willing teammate.  

Compassionate Communicating is a way to come together to form passionate  bonds that turn work relationships into trust relationships -- and transform resistance into results. 

If you are interested in this concept, browse through my earlier blog entries to get a feel for my approach. Then, watch for my next post.  In it, I will describe the role and responsibilities of a Compassionate Communicator -- and the advantages of becoming one.

Meanwhile, if you have some insight to add - especially if it's a Yes or a Share --  please leave a comment!


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