This is my 35th and final "Corporate Shrink" column. Your questions over the past three years have touched on the widest range of issues: difficult bosses, dysfunctional teams, competitiveness, greed, sex, death, even (perhaps most controversial of all) the use of perfume in the workplace.
My brief answers couldn't possibly have done justice to such complex matters. While I'd like to believe I've been helpful, each question would have been best addressed in a thoughtful conversation—the sort I worry is happening all too rarely in business today. So for my parting shot, I'd like to talk a bit about...conversations.
The ability to converse should be a basic building block of organizations. Healthy conversations allow leaders to lead, followers to respond, negotiators to make deals, salespeople to sell, and researchers to develop ideas. How many meetings have you attended, after all, where the first comment afterward was a judgment on the quality of the conversation? A "good meeting" usually means one in which people felt genuinely engaged, where they learned or accomplished something.
Yet large companies so often operate in ways that thwart good conversations. There are formal processes for everything, with well-intentioned manuals, training programs, hierarchies, and corporate jargon that mostly keep employees from really communicating. We typically assess a colleague's work, for example, via online surveys, psychological tests, and language that strenuously shuns direct criticism. Anything to avoid taking a colleague aside and telling him what he's doing wrong.
The best managers know that the discomfort involved in such honest conversation is well worth the resulting satisfaction. Even the well-intentioned, though, face hurdles. One is technology. I love my BlackBerry, but it is too often a substitute for talking. And the rate at which we gather and exchange information long ago outstripped our capacity to talk to each other about it, much less understand it all. At the same time, the explosion in executive coaching, while reflecting leaders' hunger for conversations about emotionally meaningful topics, poses yet another danger: It brilliantly circumvents the stigma of seeking psychological help, yet it also risks entering emotional territory that should be explored by clinicians trained in the talking cure.
At their core, most of the letters you've sent me have concerned the same problem: how to talk with complicated, difficult colleagues. There's no magic formula for that. But the surest path to a good conversation, I think, is to trust your own curiosity. If you're having trouble connecting with someone, ask questions until you understand him. If what you're hearing doesn't make sense, keep talking until it does. When in doubt, step back, look the other person in the eye, and ask directly, "What just happened here?" Or, "What are we really talking about?"
On the other hand, the hardest part of any conversation is knowing when to keep our mouths shut. The more you know and learn about the other person as a human being, the better the conversation. And the more you can listen without passing reflexive moral judgment on what you're hearing, or without prematurely going into action mode, the more meaningful the interaction will be.
Thanks for your support over these past three years. Stay curious about your work and never be satisfied by pat answers. The working world is filled with irrationality and emotionality. If you can accept and understand that—and acknowledge your own contributions, however human and imperfect—you and those around you should be happier and more effective. A good conversation is the best place to start.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, founder of the Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and corporate culture. His book, Shrink/Inc: Self-Awareness as the Ultimate Business Strategy, will be published by Random House in 2007.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.