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Are bad conversations holding business back?

LondonLearning NewsThrive Partners

Thrive Partners’ CEO Pam Bateson explores how the quality of the conversations we have at work every day are slowing us Brits down – and ultimately hitting UK PLC’s bottom line.

Ahead of Learning Technologies 2020, Thrive Partners explores communications in the workplace, how communicating poorly affects business productivity and proposes some steps that businesses can take to improve communications performance.

In 2018, the UK Government launched a consultation on productivity, acknowledging the country’s  “longstanding productivity gap with many of our international competitors, including the majority of the G7 countries” with output per hour worked in the UK was 16.3% below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies in 2016. Technology and leadership capability are explored as key challenges in the consultation, but in our view, there’s a big factor missing: clear conversations.  

Poor communication: a very British problem? 

Us Brits have long been known for our mannered and polite approach to communication. But there’s a fine line between polite and obtuse.  Do we really say what we mean, or ask for what we need in a way that’s clear to others? One of the Thrive core team recalls a moment in a meeting with some Dutch clients when he noticed his counterparts team chuckling to themselves whenever he commented that he found something ‘interesting.’  He pressed them on what was funny: “They explained that they knew what British people meant when they said something was ‘interesting’ – that we were acknowledging a point, but that we’re also discounting or shelving an idea during a conversation. And they were right – I was doing that!”  

One 2015 meme shared other examples of what we say and what we mean, from “that’s not bad” meaning “that’s really good,” to “quite good” really meaning “not very good at all.” What’s more it also showed what our European neighbours might understand from these comments; unsurprisingly, what we say isn’t the meaning that others might take away from a conversation. 

And while it’s easy to laugh at these communication misfires, working in a culture that never really says what it’s thinking - in a way that is both clear and straightforward - presents challenges when magnified across a large, multinational organisation.  

The three keys to high-performance conversations 

I’ve helped hundreds of British businesses cut to the chase during a 25 year career.  In my experience, better quality conversations have just as dramatic an effect on productivity as new technologies can.  Great conversations get results with less cost and less time than  technology. Great conversations help to galvanise teams at a local level, and with the overarching purpose of the business.  

So, what can businesses looking to boost productivity with better conversations do in practical terms?  Here are my top three starting points.  

Step 1: Be clear about the ask – and the permission 

This is the number 1 challenge for UK businesses when it comes to having conversations that drive productivity. It’s a remarkably common problem: too few people in too many businesses really understand what specifically they’re being asked to do by leaders and colleagues. When goals or tasks are set, there’s far too much room for interpretation when it comes to executing. 

Let’s use a simple example: talking about increasing sales is great. But are we always clear about by how much? And to whom? And do we always know which products to sell for short term cash? Or for long-term strategic benefit?  The flipside of not having clear asks is not giving people the space and permission to execute. What do you expect from them? What are they empowered to do? And when do you need them to check back in again?   

Step 2: Tighten up formal interactions 

This is about making key interactions work harder.  We’re talking about set pieces like appraisals and 1-1s: are you really using these conversations to remove barriers to an individual’s great performance – or to coach them into being more productive? Meetings are the other key formal action to consider here. 50% of people find meetings unproductive – and bad meetings have cost the UK economy a massive £44bn in lost time in 2019. And yet, our default setting is to allow an hour for meetings, with more people than we need, and with far too little preparation. By sharing an agenda and pre-reading, time spent together can be cut down and concentrated on high-quality conversation that leads to those clear actions we’ve just described – plus you’ll have more engaged and energised delegates. 

Step 3: Train your managers  

This community holds the key to the kind of high-impact conversations that drive productivity.  Give them the communications skills that create the conditions for purposeful work with clarity and a sense of empowerment in your business.  

We recently worked with ACAS, providers of advice on workplace relations law, to train managers in having high-performance conversations with incredible results.  Simply by encouraging managers to inquire about what their teams really needed in the next month, and by training a culture of ‘speaking with not speaking at,’ employees have reported feeling more informed and involved with the organisation’s work – with a 15% increase in employee engagement scores.

Minding our language in a post-Brexit landscape 

Recent research has shown some improvements in UK productivity, with some suggestions implying that our impact per hour isn’t as underwhelming as many, the government included, might have thought.  

As Britain’s businesses face an uncertain future on the global stage, sharpening our communication skills to be crystal clear is essential. In the aftermath of Brexit, already being referred to as our neighbours in Europe as “un grand mess,” it’s likely that our national eccentricities will likely be seen as bluster and incompetence, with our closest and most valuable trading partners being less accepting of our collective character traits.  

We think one thing is clear, whatever the outcome of the Government’s negotiations: we will need to redouble our efforts when it comes to clear communication. Manners and charm will no longer see us through. Arrogance and entitlement will need to give way to empathy and understanding.  Clear conversation and carefully chosen words will be essential for British businesses that want to thrive in this new and uncertain world.  

Blurb that I didn’t use

Productivity is often seen purely through the lens of output – asking “how much do we get out for what we put in?” More technology is often seen as a silver. We live in an age when automation and AI are increasingly seen as silver bullets to skyrocket our businesses’ productivity.  At Thrive Partners, we embrace the best technologies as a way of getting more bang for our buck – and as a trained lean engineer, I’ve spent my career helping companies of all shapes and sizes to increase their efficiency.  

But we also think that there’s a desperate need for British businesses to communicate more effectively with each other – and that our inability to share what we need and what we think clearly, and our inability to give others the chance to share their views – means our businesses spend too much time walking when they could be flying.  


Thrive Partners is taking part in Learning Technologies 2020, where visitors can find out more about improving communications and the services provided by Thrive Partners.