When Did We Stop Speaking?

Tips for humanizing the workplace

I am increasingly distressed by the tunnels of “Dilbertesque” cubicles which shape the modern workplace. In theory these offices were designed to facilitate communication and enhance teamwork. But are they working? Employees rarely leave their stations. Emails and voice mails are the unwritten code of conduct. Face-to-face communication is rare. Meetings to share or brainstorm solutions have all but disappeared. Employees work diligently, receiving little feedback about their performance. Recognition of achievements is rare.

People hesitate to express their opinions, never mind their feelings. When I ask clients why they don’t speak up, I am told they are afraid or that it won’t matter.

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I witness managers and employees speaking in muted shades of truth; people saying one thing and meaning something very different, lacking the courage to voice what is really on their minds.

The result of this failure to communicate is significant: the breakdown of teamwork, performance issues, high employee turnover, the loss of the joy and fun once associated with work, and spiraling stress-related leaves.

We have forgotten that communication is what builds workplace community and spirit; that communication keeps all of us connected to what we do and why we do it. All of this impacts organizational productivity and the bottom line.

This is the painting of spiritual poverty I see emerging in our modern-day workplace. It concerns me. Work is an essential ingredient of a purposeful life — of making a contribution.

The solutions to building spirited organizations lie within each of us. They spring from simple ingredients — mutual respect, integrity and community building, and small actions.

Speak up

Start by speaking up. Diplomacy has its place but don’t let this interfere with saying what you really want to say. Say what needs to be said. Speak from your heart.

Meet people face-to-face

People need human contact; choose to close the distance. Engage others in dialogue. Look into peoples’ eyes. See them.


Hear what others are saying, both the spoken and the unspoken. The spoken word represents only 7% of any oral communication. Listen for tone and observe body language and facial expressions.

Be present

Turn off the mental chatter. Avoid tuning out when others are speaking, lost in your own thoughts or perhaps formulating your response.

Ask questions

Questions are a critical dialogue tool. Questions allow you to check out your perception of a situation and clarify it before jumping to conclusions. Make sure you understand what the other person means. Paraphrase or ask for more details to ensure a shared understanding of any issue.

Tell the truth

There are two ways in which truth is withheld: by commission and by omission. Commission means you say what you believe others want to hear, or you are blatantly dishonest. Omission means withholding information such as the necessary details of a given situation.

Telling the truth does not mean being brutal; it means being clear, honest, kind and forthright. A lack of truth telling feeds the rumour mill and erodes trust among managers and employees. In the end, this serves no one.

Be kind

This seems to be a lost art form in today’s workplace. Find reasons to complement others on their performance. Tell your colleagues what you see and the difference they make for others. Be genuine in your praise.

Implement “talking stick” initiatives

People benefit from opportunities to gather to hear one another’s stories and to be heard. It provides the space for sharing stories, successes and challenges that builds corporate culture and wisdom.

In Lance Secretan’s landmark book, Reclaiming Higher Ground, he states, “High tech-high touch works best when we use more ‘touch’ and learn to use the ‘tech’ more effectively.”

Today’s workplace is complex. It has been inundated by technology. It is undoubtedly challenging. As organizational leaders and managers, this is a call for each of you to step-up, and to bring the humanness back into your workplace. Decide to speak up, listen with the intent of understanding, ask clarifying questions, tell truth and foster shared understanding among your colleagues. If you do not lead the way by modeling effective communication and dialogue skills, who will?

CARE (Communicate Appreciation and Respect Enthusiastically)

Take a look around the office. Who on your team has been working really hard — someone who may be feeling overwhelmed, for instance. Or, perhaps it is someone just down the hall who you notice rarely comes up for air.

  • Take him or her for coffee and tell them how he or she makes a difference to the organization. Talk about your appreciation for who he or she is and why you respect them. Be enthusiastic and lively in your description.
  • Anonymously send cards to everyone on your team telling them how they make a difference and contribute to the work of the team.
  • Keep a set of inspiring cards at your desk and encourage colleagues to come in and pull a message for themselves for the day. I use attractionCARDS or roadSIGNS Companion Cards.
  • Try this team acknowledgement exercise at your next team meeting: Give each member a piece of construction paper and a coloured pen. Have each person draw an outline of their hand on the page and sign their name. Have everyone pass their drawing to the left. Each person marks down the positive attributes they see in that person on their drawing. Pass again, until all members of the team have added their comments and the hand has returned to its owner. Post your drawing next to your desk as a reminder of the difference you make every day.
  • Keep rolls of Lifesavers in your desk drawer. Whenever someone goes the extra mile and helps you out, give them a Lifesaver award.
  • Initiate WOW meetings. Ask each person to come with a story about how they “Wowed” a customer or colleague. Cheer heartily after each story.
  • Identify your own unique ways for building spirit at work. Remember always to Communicate Appreciation and Respect Enthusiastically.

Adapted from CARE Packages for the Workplace by Barbara Glanz

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