How do you create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to have hard conversations?
It’s no secret that our society (local, national, and even global) is in a challenging time.
In the past few years, we’ve experienced a global pandemic that shut down life as we know it; we saw a domestic terrorist uprising at our own capitol; women’s rights have been threatened and stripped; we’re experiencing a mental health crisis in our youngest generations; our economy is heading toward another recession; and our own country is more divided than it’s ever been.
Regardless of one’s political views, religion, personal values, or socioeconomic status, the shock waves of division, chaos, and tragedy hit all of us. We feel uncertain, fearful, helpless.
I see this when trusted friends or mentees ask me: “Mike, are we going to have a civil war?” “Do you think it is a depression, not just a recession, coming?” Or, “Mike, how did we get to a place where women’s and LGBTQ+/BIPOC rights are being trampled on AGAIN?” and on and on.
We may even feel hopeless
A lot of this sense of hopelessness comes from feeling like we don’t have a say in what happens, or like our opinions, preferences, and desires aren’t valued by those making decisions. We don’t have trust
The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer
has some startling statistics on how little society trusts our leaders to do what is right. What stood out most, however, was that while societal trust in NGOs, government, and religious leaders is steadily declining, we trust our local business leaders more than any other category of leader surveyed (with 76% of US respondents sharing that they trust business leaders).
I always did my best when working in the corporate world to be a trustworthy leader, and now I try to do the same in my family and personal trust community relationships. This means spending time learning about what’s going on around me, and sharing truthful information with those I care about. Authentic care and transparency are critical for building trusting relationships that have the potential to grow, despite challenges.
And while leaders in the office can’t necessarily fix the chaos that’s taking place outside the office, we can learn from what’s happening around us and become better listeners, supporters, and leaders for our teams within the workplace.
This begins with conversational capacity, or our ability to have difficult conversations in a “carefrontational” way. The concept of conversational capacity comes from Craig Weber’s book, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform Well When the Pressure Is On.
We use it at Vistage
, and it’s revolutionary in how leaders approach their teams. It’s also changed the way I approach personal relationships in my own life.
We only develop a strong conversational capacity within our relationships—personal or professional—when we’ve taken the time and invested in building mutual trust and respect.
It requires creating an environment where people feel safe and comfortable to have difficult, yet necessary, conversations. We call this psychological safety.
Without that, who is going to feel safe and valued when hearing criticism, or feel like they’re able and willing to voice concerns and needs? As leaders, we can improve our teams’ conversational capacity by committing to transparency in our decision-making and showing genuine care for each of our team members, beyond the bottom line.
A prime example of this was in my work at Yankee Candle Co. 20 years ago (time flies!). One employee came to me and she said, “Look Mike, I don’t always agree with the decisions you make for the company, nor do many others on the team. When something changes or a decision gets made, you clearly lay out why you decided what you did.”
That meant a lot, and it reminded me that transparency goes a long way. I did my best to take the time to explain what is causing us to change, what options were on the table, who we discussed it with (usually members of the team), the benefits and consequences of each one, and why we chose what we did. And you know what? It made the team trust my leadership more, even when there was disagreement.
That kind of respect and trust doesn’t happen overnight; it takes investment and work, and placing value on the long-term health of our organizations rather than just the day-to-day success.
One of the main reasons I’ve started this work (peer advising, mentoring, coaching, and public speaking) is because I’m very worried about how we’re teaching leadership in this country, and what it means for our office (remote or hybrid) dynamics.
There’s this idea that just because you’re a CEO, you have total power and people will just listen and do what you want. Yes, they will comply with you, but they won’t be truly committed. I have seen studies showing more than 60% of employees are doing just enough at work to not get fired!
Now, more than ever, we need our leaders—local, community, workplace, global, etc.—to commit to real connection and trust. For my readers, this is especially true within the office (hybrid or not). When people don’t have confidence and trust in the institutions that are supposed to give them stability and confidence, it creates a vacuum.
People will assume they can’t trust their leadership (including mid-level managers all the way up to the CEO) and will simply stop sharing how they feel, not asking for what they need, and leave without warning. We’re seeing this now with the disruption in how the workforce is behaving and thinking about their jobs.
And unless the company is in danger of sinking, almost nobody addresses what’s happening or asks why. This is especially relevant now, with another potential and massive recession looming. Most CEOs know it’s coming, but it’s easier to just keep doing what they’re doing and not address the issues we have. People tend to recognize danger ahead but don’t think it will impact them, so they continue as-is until they have to confront it.
But isn’t it better to take the time and make the effort to address your organization’s health, to get out in front of employee withdrawal and loss, and build a meaningful foundation for your team?
Whether we like it or not, we as leaders have to start caring for our entire team, giving them a seat at the table, and putting the human first.
You’ve got to be aware of how your employees are feeling and what they’re thinking—and make sure they feel seen and valued—to build that conversational capacity
so you can have real, productive conversations. It doesn’t mean you cannot push for performance or drive for better results, it just means you need to do both!
And as we’ve seen from Edelman, people trust their business leaders more than pretty much any other source. This is telling, and also offers a lot of hope for how we can move through challenging times if we’re willing to put in the work.
Building this trust within the office may even lead to better health and trust on issues outside the office. Just like a strong, healthy romantic relationship, a healthy work culture can be the space for us to practice that conversational capacity, learn how to voice our opinions and concerns with confidence, and experience what it’s like to be a valued and respected member of the team.
For leaders, this work starts with ourselves. It’s overwhelming to feel like we have to improve an entire organization overnight, but we can always work on ourselves. It can be little things every day, like gratitude journaling, reading about someone’s experience that’s foreign to us, or spending 10 minutes talking with an employee we don’t know well.
If we can learn to connect with each other in the workplace—if our leaders can learn to create safe and trusting environments, and our team members can shift out of distrust and withdrawal and into confidence and communication—we can take that conversational capacity into our personal lives and maybe bring about some positive change.
If you’re a leader, my plea to you is this: Ask yourself what the health of your organization, and the strength of its conversational capacity, is. If it could be better (hint: it always can!), start working on it. And if you want ideas or support, feel free to reach out to me
. I’d love to talk.