Dialogue at Work or The strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The following is part of our most recent publication released online, "IC in 2017 & 2018 FROM HOPE TO REALITY How Far We've Come | The Road Ahead." Looking back at their greatest hope for the IC profession in 2017 in terms of where the discipline should be, 21 communication professionals from different countries answer two questions: How far have we actually come in 2017? What remains to be done in 2018?
Marc B. Do Amaral, Owner, SPUP, shares his views on the progress made these past months, to what extent he believes his hope has translated into reality, and what remains to be done in 2018. To read the views of all contributors, download the free 42-page eBook here.
Ubuntu. “The problem with communication is the illusion it has been accomplished.” This aphorism by the Irish playwright and writer George Bernard Shaw seems to have lost little of its relevance today. The world seems on the brink of a perfect storm. Trust in government and the media and admittedly, in business leaders, has never been lower. Many people feel sidelined and powerless. There is growing aversion against immigration and international collaboration. Populism is on the rise, playing by its own rules. Even freedom and democracy are under attack. Political communicators across the board serve their masters by engaging in a senseless race to the bottom, feeding narratives of fear, war and retaliation.
It is my hope that business communicators will set the spotlight on an alternative way. All business is founded on trust and collaboration after all. As Desmond Tutu said, “In the end our purpose is social and communal harmony and well-being. The principle of Ubuntu does not say, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather,”I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.” It is no coincidence that in recent years traditional principles of trust and dialogue such as epitomized by Ubuntu have spread like wildfire in the business community. It simply works. Nothing is more effective in fostering well-being and collaboration than upholding essential human values such as respect, fairness, trust and openness in all interactions and communication. This is no less true of society at-large than of the work environment. So, if our political culture is sliding back into primitivism, why not let business communicators flip the narrative. How wonderful would that be?
How far we've come. Next steps.
I want to discuss a paradox. This paradox is that while the world has become a more prosperous and safe place than it used to be, levels of trust in government, media and business have plummeted in recent years. Obviously, there are many different explanations for this, some very real and others maybe less so. The point I want to make is that a lack of trust is always mirrored in a lack of dialogue and vice-versa. Trust and dialogue are mutually reinforcing. Sadly, in the public domain dialogue seems to have been all but sidelined.
Where we ought to be talking with our real or imaginary foes and seek to bridge our differences, the opposite has been happening. We massively retreat to our bubble where we are sure to enjoy nothing but the pleasant company and opinions of those who belong to our own tribes. Not surprisingly, the narratives about “the others”, that we create in these bubbles, take on a life of their own. These narratives are feeding a vicious circle of increasingly unfriendly conversations.
The organizational domain seems to be heading in the opposite direction. In many organizations leadership has been waking up to some pretty fundamental truths. Many assumptions of classical management theory and economics have been proven to be completely wrong by scientists such as Nobel-prize winner Richard Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky and many others. It has been proven beyond doubt that deeper values such as purpose, autonomy, learning and relatedness are stronger long-term motivators than self-interest and greed. And yes, organizations have found that they do need to balance the legitimate interests of all stakeholders, not just those of shareholders, if they are to protect their license-to-operate.
These ‘revolutionary’ insights are profoundly changing how organizations are managed. In short, command and control are on their way out, employee well-being, self-organization and sustainability are in. Organizations have learned the hard way that there is nothing to be gained by fostering alienation and distrust. While I certainly don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture, the trend towards dialogue in organizational communication is unmistakable.
In terms of prosperity, education, health and safety, life has never been so good for earthlings, certainly in the Western world. Yet, trust in our institutions and fellow citizens has crumbled. Our inability to connect and embrace diversity might well be at the heart of this paradox. Where there is only discussion and debate and no dialogue, people become alienated. Essential in dialogue is the intention to collectively create new, shared meaning. In dialogue one aims to understand other people’s perspectives rather than to sell one’s own. This inspires what David Bohm has called “the flow of meaning” within a group. It also strengthens feelings of relatedness.
Dialogue has become part of the conversational fabric at work, lack of dialogue has become the norm in (social) media, politics and society as a whole. Which brings us to the “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Why are most of us perfectly able to interact constructively with colleagues at work and then somehow transform into vicious cynics as soon as we take our working clothes off? Maybe because we know that in the workplace we simply have to deal with a diversity of opinions. Alienating different-minded colleagues by behaving like a jerk is very bad career advice these days. Outside of work, behaving like a jerk is what gets you the presidency or a tsunami of likes from your fellow bubble-inhabitants. At work we are held accountable and that helps to create a dialogue-friendly environment.
Could we repair the quality of the conversation in the public domain by somehow building more accountability into the system? Is that even possible? I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions. In the meantime, whenever you participate in public conversations, ask yourself this question: Who do you choose to be, Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
Click here to download the free 42-page eBook "IC in 2017 & 2018 FROM HOPE TO REALITY How Far We've Come | The Road Ahead."
Marc B. Do Amaral