The Big White Elephant: Discussing Communication Problems in the Workplace that No One Wants to Acknowledge

20140402-The Big White ElephantDon’t make the mistake of not discussing communication problems in the workplace that may be costing your company.

You’re the boss, in most cases; your job title affords you a few benefits: a higher salary, a team working for you, decision-making powers and other cool perks. But these benefits have a price: overtime, dealing with employee problems, playing referee when teammates argue and occasionally, and being the bearer of bad news.

Perhaps the hardest of these responsibilities is your role as an elephant chaser: the one who has the uncomfortable task of bringing up an issue no one wants to acknowledge.

The way I see it, there are 3 major kinds of communication problems in the workplace:

  • Easy problems—small glitches that could be solved by employees without consulting the higher-ups
  • Big problems—complicated or time-consuming problems that can only be solved after a long discussion
  • Taboo problems—for taboo problems or “elephants in the room”, the scope or complexity of the problem varies; the only common denominator is no one wants to be the first to talk about it.

Reasons for avoiding the problem vary from:

  • “It’s a sensitive topic to discuss”
  • “I don’t want to get fired”
  • “We’ve tried everything, we don’t know what to do anymore”
  • “Everyone’s ignoring it, why rock the boat?”

Communication problems in the workplace evolve into bigger monsters from seemingly insignificant problems.

One week it’s just an issue of a team member getting special treatment, next month, employees could be resigning or slacking off because of the perceived inequality.

As the leader, you should do your role as the elephant chaser before these problems escalate.

“But no one wants to talk about it! How can I solve a problem no one wants to discuss?”

Here’s How You Can Convince Your Team to Speak up

State the problem plainly without naming names, sugar coating or exaggerating. Just tell it as it is. Oftentimes, employees don’t want to talk about a problem because they’re not even sure what it is. Sure, they’ve heard about it, but stories passed on during coffee breaks are only hearsay. Some of these supposed “true accounts” are misleading.

Start with the truth. Gather the different versions of the issue circulating in the office, then find out what the real story is and tell it to them as is.

Going back to the previous example of an employee receiving special treatment, find out what people think this “special treatment” is. Are the stories about said employee getting extra time off, bonuses and flexi-schedule true? If not, then it’s time to put an end to these stories. If one version of the story is true, then it’s time to explain the reason behind it.

Co-create a reasonable goal with your team. What would be a fair solution to the problem? This solution should be co-created by everyone involved—you, the team and whoever they have an issue with (if any) so everyone will cooperate. For now, you don’t have to zero in on an exact solution, it’s enough that you define an outcome that everyone can live with.

Brainstorming: questions first before solutions

Remember, the problem you’re trying to solve with your team remains unresolved because no one knows what to do. Hence, you can’t expect your team to start suggesting things off the top of their head. To get the ball rolling, start with compiling questions and issues related to the problem.

For the example above, the questions and issues could be:

  • Why is employee X allowed to have a flexi-schedule?
  • Is this flexi-schedule a permanent benefit or is this just a onetime thing because of an emergency?
  • What did he do to earn the right to a flexi-schedule?
  • How come other employees weren’t offered the same benefit?

These questions won’t solve the case but it’s a good way to get a bigger picture of the problem.

In this example, you can infer that employees might be okay with the idea of one teammate having a flexi-schedule, as long as the boss has a good reason for allowing it, or perhaps if the boss extends the same benefit to them.

Realizing this, you can now come up with solutions based on the information and see which solution your team likes best. The communication problems in the workplace will be minimized and your team can now focus on their work, instead of gossiping about the benefits they’re not receiving.

Employee inequalities, power struggles between employees and grievances aren’t the only sources of communication problems in the workplace. I suggest you observe your office and see where else you can apply these tips.

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