Time for a conversation?
During a communication skills training programme for a high-tech company one of the participants (project manager) remarked that he was enjoying immensely the opportunity during these days to have good conversations with his colleagues. "Now that I think about it," he mused, "we actually never have time for a conversation at work." "But what about projectteam meetings, day-to-day conversations about progress, performance reviews?" I parried. "Yes, they take place regularly, but they consist mainly of checking off and adding to lists of action points. Really thinking together about what we are doing and what's behind it is not part of it. So in conversations with colleagues we don't get past dealing with bottlenecks and solving immediate problems."
A female colleague added, "Conversations with my manager consist are mainly one-directional. I get to hear that I need to produce results more quickly. In China they work on average 14-hour days, so why can't I work a bit longer? I feel I'm working like a machine. I spend 90%of my time behind my computer, designing. Nobody asks for my views on how we approach our work." Just to be clear, she is an academically trained, ambitious businesswoman with a Chinese background.
It is almost twenty years ago now that I too worked in a large organisation. During those years I developed many programmes around communication skills. But perhaps time has caught up with me.
Back then there was also consistent pressure to perform, but between all the activities there was time for (sometimes endless) conversations. Conversations that are, in my view, of great importance for building relationships and gaining inspiration. The remarks of the two participants set me to wondering whether in this day and age there is still time for sense-making conversations in organisations. I put the question to a wise and experienced former colleague.
He confided in me: "Erik, when you worked for Philips early in the nineties, it was still a collegial industrial organisation,with a fully integrated chain going from R&D to Sales. When Jan Timmer was succeeded by Cor Boonstra as CEO, things changed. From that moment, shareholder value, the pressure of quarterly results and contracting out production were introduced. In my view, conversations since then have focused only on covering yourself and surviving."
Perhaps the remarks of several participants under pressure and a polemical former colleague do not form an accurate barometer for the conversational climate in today's organisations. Nevertheless it feels important to me to check out the truth-value of their statements. Because if it is indeed the case that the time has gone in which mutual understanding can be checked out or the underlying necessity of imposed targets be discussed, then communication skills programmes of several days, as intensive as they may be, will have little effect. Why equip people for something which they will hardly have the opportunity or permission to use?
In order to gain better insight into daily practices I will approach several former participants to send me an agenda of a random day at work, with a brief explanation of the content and approach for any conversations that took place. I hope they will have the time for this.