Have you ever been in the desperately uncomfortable position of having a “buddy” conversation with your supervisor, or being in charge of an employee who treats you more like a therapist than a manager? I’ve never experienced the latter, but know several colleagues who have. The former has happened to me in a few situations, and each time was so writhingly awkward that I never wanted to repeat it again.
That’s the problem with intimate communication among employees within a business. It is its own type of intimacy peculiar to that environment. It matters where people are within the organization’s hierarchy. Even if the organization is relatively flat, there are still underlying pecking orders and relationships that inherently affect the types of conversations that can be held.* Generally speaking, intimate conversations within a business should be just about that – business. It isn’t that we shouldn’t learn about our peers or our supervisors or our employees; it’s that the power structure of a business affects the relationships up and down the ladder. That can change what we are comfortable discussing with our co-workers.
In one industry I worked in, “buddy” type relationships between managers and those working beneath them were encouraged. The idea was that if you could develop a fuzzy, cuddly relationship with your underlings, they would be more likely to be open and honest with you when discussing work.
It was a nice idea in theory. In practice, it muddied working relationships and created a climate of agonizing phoniness. Get-to-know-you conversations with new managers were saccharine in the extreme and did not improve working relationships. People wondered why their managers wanted to know so much about them. Instead of creating stronger and more personal relationships, people began mistrusting the motives of managers acting like their buddy. Would private conversations be shared? Could something they said about their personal lives be used against them?
The difficulty with this approach was that the development of personal intimacy was forced. It was as though merely working with one another in the same industry and the same company meant that you had – or should have – a ‘friend first, manager second’ relationship. If that sort of relationships develops naturally between two co-workers, than that’s great. But it cannot be created quickly in staged situations.
I believe that intimate communication within a business should be about just that – business. You can have intimate conversations and not delve into your employee’s personal lives or play armchair counselor. Intimate business conversations involve discussions where people are able to express their joys, their irritations, and their passions about their work. Fostering this kind of communicative intimacy does not involve becoming your co-worker’s buddy. It involves developing your co-worker’s trust. They need to know that you will allow them to express their feelings and actual opinions without adverse impact on their job or your working relationship. This climate of trust doesn’t depend on your knowledge of their kids’ extracurricular activities or their fondness for off-hours geocaching. It depends on a climate of respect and consideration in which opinions are solicited and considered without fear of backlash.
The type of intimate conversations that happen within a business will change depending on the relationships of the people involved. Conversations held up or down the hierarchical ladder are naturally more constrained than those that happen between equals or peers. Managers are often concerned with revealing too much high-level information to their subordinates. Subordinates are worried about criticizing their managers. There is more opportunity for peers to express their actual opinions to one another, provided they trust the other to not mention those opinions to their supervisors. If the relationship changes, so will the conversations. It is not uncommon for friendships between co-workers to dissolve when one person gets promoted and moves higher up the corporate ladder than their friend. The risks taken when having intimate conversations change are amplified. Conversations end up changing along the same lines as the friendship itself, often becoming more cautious and less open than they were before.
If relationships within a business affect conversations, and conversations are affected by the relative power held by workers, how do you know when you are having an intimate conversation with a co-worker? Look for the degree to which they express emotion. Will they openly express excitement or nervousness? Consider the degree of risk they take when talking to you. Are they willing to challenge your opinions or ask for explanations of your decisions? Pay attention to the content of their statements. Do they make lots of “I” statements and use strong emotive words like “I believe” or “I feel”? These are markers that the person you are talking to trusts you to consider the meat of their points without taking personal affront to what they have to say. This is hugely advantageous; if the people you work with know that they can challenge and debate with you, and then listen to you in return, then you know you can have intimate business discussions with them. These conversations foster a worker’s passion and buy-in, and can result in productive and challenging exchanges that could hugely benefit the company.
Don’t try to force friendship. That won’t always result in intimacy. Try, instead, to create trust. Trust is the absolute foundation for intimate conversation with the people in your organization.
*Let me make the following very clear: when I’m talking about the kinds of conversations that can be had, I’m referring to conversations that are fairly “normal” in nature. If someone is having non-work issues of a nature that require them to have a serious, personal discussion with a peer, supervisor, or other colleague, than that conversation needs to happen. It should be treated with the utmost respect and discretion.