A Frank Conversation in the Workplace

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Could something as simple as holding a conversation with your employees be the key to more satisfied and engaged workers? Nicholas Goh, CEO at Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd breaks down the need for more conversational communication in the workplace, and provides some tips on implementing better dialogue.

Could something as simple as holding a conversation with your employees be the key to more satisfied and engaged workers? Effective conversation and communication with one's staff has proven to be the hallmark of good leadership at the workplace.

Nicholas Goh, CEO at Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd breaks down the need for more conversational communication in the workplace, and gives tips on implementing better dialogue.

One may have conversations with co-workers all the time, from sharing light-hearted stories about family, hashing out last night’s game, lauding the latest TV shows, to chatting about actual work and the company.

Using conversations, or more importantly the give and take between people that makes up a good discussion, can boost workplace morale, make employees feel more engaged and motivated in their jobs, and ultimately lift a company’s bottom line.

1. Why is Conversation the Key?

Because at some point, people start lamenting about their jobs! And a lack of communication is one of the biggest reasons for job dissatisfaction. Singaporeans are mainly “under happy” with their jobs, according to the results of the National Workplace Happiness Survey (November 2014).

The Happiness survey was preceded by a June 2014 study from recruiters Randstad showing 46% of Singaporeans don’t think they have the perfect job, and 75% of the Lion City’s workers say it’s just a way to make a living. The dissatisfaction goes far beyond Asia though. 70% of American workers are either “not actively engaged” or “disengaged” in their work, according to Forbes, citing a 2013 Gallup survey of workers.

2. What’s Driving this Unhappiness?

Well, when asked to name one of the biggest challenges they face, 79% of workers said communication deficiencies, according to a survey from Emergenetics International, an organisational development company.

Getting a good dialogue going between employees, whether between manager and team member or among the members themselves, is key to fostering happier and more engaged workers. Singapore has recognised the need for good communication to improve productivity through the start up of Quality Circles since 1981 at a number of companies across the island. Renamed as Innovation and Quality Circles in 2012, these groups bring together small teams of employees, maybe 6 to 8 people, to discuss solutions to improve a company and its products.

While the Quality Circle is a step on the right path to fostering dialogue and opening communication between employees, today’s workers, especially the Gen Y youth, are looking for interactions that are less formal and don’t reek of a stodgy committee meeting.

Indeed, younger workers are looking for leaders that embrace a more persuasive style of management in order to guide changes at their companies – companies where influence is more important than simply ordering someone to do something, and where a leader’s network is crucial.

And nothing is better for persuading than a good conversation.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2012, Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and his partner Michael Slind proposed a leadership model they called “organisational conversation”.

The model flowed from research they carried out with over 150 people at 100 different organisations where the phrase “have a conversation” with the people in the organisation kept popping up. “Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most importantly, that process must be conversational,” they wrote.

3. How to Start a Conversation?

So how can companies enact a more conversational approach? Groysberg and Slind point to the “Four I’s”: interactivity, intimacy, intentionality and inclusion.

Some advice comes from Brent Gleeson, a former US Navy SEAL who now runs his own digital marketing company. Writing in Forbes, he suggests the following ways to foster better communication and dialogue:

a.    Regular Meetings. Though he cautions that meetings need to be well structured with a specific agenda.

b.    Newsletters. He suggests having one person hold the responsibility for producing one a month, and not to be afraid to include more than just accolades, upcoming events and new company programmes.

c.    Company intranet. He sees this as an important company resource for employee directories, content and documents. However, do put in the time to present a quality product.

d.    Surveys. Feedback is crucial and surveys are a good way to gain insight into employee thinking. But Gleeson stresses that it is important to follow through on suggestions.

e.    Facetime. He suggests picking up the phone or walking down the hall. Again it is hard to have a conversation through an email.

f.    Culture. Lead by example on fostering clear communication.

The most important steps at the end of the day, are those that most closely mimic actual conversation. That’s backed by anecdotes and research.

Groysberg and Slind mention Cisco System installing advanced video conferencing systems that allowed non-verbal cues to be picked up during one conversation. They also note town hall-type meetings where a CEO for a Fortune 500 company was able to quickly identify complaints about pay discrepancies.

But one does not necessarily need to spend millions of dollars on screens and connectivity or jam people into a meeting room. Pick up a phone. Walk down the hall and say hello. Sometimes the best management investment is a few bucks for a cup of coffee or a lunch. Then see where the conversation takes us.


1.    Gloysberg, Bernard, and Slind, Michael, “Leadership is a Conversation”, Harvard Business Review, June 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/06/leadership-is-a-conversation

2.    National Workplace Happiness Survey, http://www.shri.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/NWHS-2014-Result-Executive-Summary.pdf

3.    Chan, Fiona, “Singapore workers among least satisfied in Asia-Pacific: survey”, The Straits Times, 17 June 2014, http://business.asiaone.com/career/news/singapore-workers-among-least-satisfied-asia-pacific-survey

4.    Lipman, Victor, “Surprising Disturbing Facts from the Mother of All Employment Engagement Surveys”, Forbes.com, 23 September 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/09/23/surprising-disturbing-facts-from-the-mother-of-all-employee-engagement-surveys/

5.    Miller, Mark, “Survey Insights Part 1 – Communication in the Workplace”, emergenetics.com website, https://www.emergenetics.com/blog/survey-insights-part-1-communication-in-the-workplace/

6.    Innovation and Quality Circles, Singapore Productivity Association website, http://www.spa.org.sg/program_details.php?programID=rJ8=

7.    Gleeson, Brent, “What Navy Seals can teach your company about improving communication”, Forbes.com website, 16 July 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2015/07/16/what-navy-seals-can-teach-your-company-about-improving-communication/2/


About the AUTHOR

Nicholas Goh is the CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, a leading global content consulting services company. Verztec assists companies around the world to design, develop, localize and publish their global communication messages in over 100 languages across various channels.
For more information, please visit http://www.verztec.com.

VerztecLearning, the Learning Solutions division of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd, is a leader in innovative blended learning and online courses for soft skills, leadership skills, IT skills, business skills and project management skills training. Please visit http://www.verzteclearning.com

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