“How We Talk To Each Other Around Here” – Communication and Company Culture

As the parent of a teenage daughter, I have watched the movie “High School Musical” more times than I care to count, which includes the song “We’re all in this together.”  (If you are very lucky, this song will not cycle through your mind the rest of the day.) When thinking about what makes an organization successful, I wondered, does it matter if employees think “we’re all in this together?”  

Aristotle said, “The sum is greater than the whole of its parts.” A recent Google study, aptly named Project Aristotle, surveyed the behavior and results of hundreds of Google’s teams and found that the most efficient teams foster a strong sense of collaboration, camaraderie, and consideration.  

The ability of employees to communicate and work together impacts a team’s effectiveness and therefore, the company’s success. An organization's communication style can vary from extreme political correctness to over-the-top brutal honesty.     

Nice vs. Radical Candor: Set the Tone

In their book “The Power of Nice” Robin Koval and Linda Kaplan Thaler, found “nice” to be the “most powerful four-letter word in the dictionary.” The duo notes that showing empathy and kindness to clients, employees and even their competitors contributed to the success of their advertising firm Publicis Kaplan Thaler, which created the Aflac Duck and “I’m a Toys R Us kid” advertising campaigns. 

However, a culture of nice can also have its pitfalls. “Terminal niceness” creates problems in an organization because the result is superficial support and respect. Without honest feedback and productive criticism, employees are not motivated to improve or innovate in their roles.   

A different approach, Radical candor, a newer communication style championed by Kim Scott, founder of Candor, Inc. and long-time director at Google, focuses on being honest with coworkers and setting aside superficial support. The purpose of radical candor is to improve communication and performance at all levels, setting aside political correctness and empty compliments. Instead, it provides a safe space for honesty and constructive criticism. Radical candor is not the opposite of nice, but merely emphasizes honesty and feedback delivered within guidelines of kindness and compassion. 

Scott was on the receiving end of radical candor when her friend and mentor, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, informed Scott that her overuse of the word "um" made her sound less intelligent after Scott gave an important presentation. Scott appreciated the feedback.

Company Cultures in Action

Zappos’ implements a “culture of happiness” and seeks out employees who will be a good culture fit. Values like “Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit” reflect back to a culture of nice. Zappos even has a department to promote its culture, Zappos Insights

In contrast, Kalypso, a consulting firm, has adopted the idea of radical candor, even dedicating its blog to radical views on virtual workplaces and a culture of honesty. A Wall Street Journal article pointed out that Kalypso employees are instructed to use “culture of candor” as a safe word when sharing criticism, so it will “land more softly.” 

Deutsch, Inc.
, a leading global digital content, and advertising agency adopted an even stronger version of radical candor, known as “front-stabbing.” As the name implies, front-stabbing requires giving “sometimes painful critique.” Employees are expected to give and receive critiques of work and behavior. Deutsche CEO, Val DiFebo, is a fan of the technique and employees are “expected to confront someone” on issues, which can range from “taking advantage of a client’s strategy [to] copying too many people on e-mails.” 

Whatever the Communication Style and Culture: Set Reasonable Expectations and Clear Guidelines

Company culture is established from the top down. Company leadership must set clear ground rules and expectations for communication and criticism. However, the human element can derail attempts to do so as skills required for a particular communication style or may not be innate to all employees. If giving and receiving criticism are not someone’s nature, these skills can be learned.

Whether your organization opts for “radical candor,” “culture of nice” or something in between, the following guidelines will help everyone adjust to the communication standards or “how we treat each other around here”:

•    Emphasize empathy and business success as the driving force in giving and receiving feedback or criticism.
•    Focus on the importance of employees being open to criticism as opposed to requiring them to develop a thick skin. (Suggestions for improvement tend to bounce off thick skin.)
•    Ease the company into profound culture changes by teaching employees required skills and providing opportunities to practice.
•    Realize not everyone will fit into a company’s culture despite its leaders’ best efforts.

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