Communication is hard. It’s hard with our family, the people we have known for years, and it’s hard with friends and significant others, the people we choose to be part of our lives.
But communication is even harder when you are tossed in an office with a bunch of different personalities that you haven’t figured out yet. No one really goes out of their way to get to know each other or understand what motivates the other person. In the workplace we tend to exchange information in a way that works for us without thinking about the receiver and then we wonder why signals got crossed.
I saw this happen firsthand at Digital Surgeons, a digital marketing startup. Though we have built amazing, forward-thinking experiences for our clients, when it came to the experiences we were having with each other, we were struggling.
Our thinking is human-centered.
Our values are anchored in empathy.
Yet our communication was robotic and one-way.
We send Slacks or talk at each other, without thinking about the humans receiving the information on the other end. We tend to figure out each other’s style or preferences through trial and error and not through an actual conversation about how we like to be managed or spoken to.
As Director of People Operations at Digital Surgeons, communication was the one topic that was brought to me over and over again. Comments were being misinterpreted and feelings get hurt. Deadlines were being missed because the direction wasn’t clear.
I, personally, was noticing a communication breakdown in some of my meetings with our Founder and CEO, Pete Sena. We were both prepared and engaged in the topic at hand but we weren’t taking into consideration the other’s communication styles. The turbo-charged pace at which Pete connects dots and synthesizes information is super different from my rate of processing and analyzing. Pete is a visual thinker who speaks in drawings and diagrams and I am a kinesthetic learner who needs to grasp info by being hands-on.
Long story short, Pete and I weren’t being efficient or effective in our meetings. We were both feeling frustrated. Though we shared the same end goal, we were struggling to communicate and we couldn’t get there.
I left one meeting feeling defeated and blocked. It made me start thinking about how we could create more meaningful, impactful conversations and the reason why we weren’t. I felt like there had to be a better way.
Bare It All
So I went home and put together a document that outlined my operating system that bared it all. It spelled out how I like to be communicated with, along with what factors motivated me and what situations triggered me (#triggered). It talked through my communication style, my frameworks, and how I prefer to receive information. I got “naked”, so to speak.
I Slacked it over to Pete and since that moment, we have been making the best use of our time. There are no more misunderstandings or breakdowns in communication. We are able to share information the way the other prefers. We are tapping into our EQ and being empathetic. We are having better conversations and inspiring each other.
If it worked for us, I had no doubt that it would work for the rest of the company as well as for other organizations.
Enter The Digital Surgeons Human Operating System
The DS Human Operating System is open source. The team is able to read anyone’s page so that communication becomes two-way. All of our employees are encouraged to use this document to make human connections and provide information in a way that makes sense to the receiver. A system created to support the basic functions of our company and culture; communication, collaboration and information sharing. We are using this tool to troubleshoot and identify what might be causing breakdowns in conversations or exchanges.
I was surprised with the response I got from our team. I thought that asking everyone to ‘get naked’ and a little vulnerable would be met by eye rolls and push back. That was not the case at all. Everyone was excited to complete their portion of the operating system and to read their teammates’ sections. The exercise brought us together and has reminded us that we are humans first and makers second. We are referencing each other's pages, having better conversations, and making even doper shit.
How can you make communication better at your organization?
While I’m not at liberty to share our secret sauce, I can point you to some sources of inspiration on how you might create stronger dialogues and better communication at your company.
Ray Dalio is a huge inspiration to me. I love his thoughts on being transparent all the time and not just when it’s convenient. He introduced the idea of a baseball cards app to Bridgewater. This is founded on the idea of ‘radical transparency’ and lists each employee’s strengths and weaknesses in an application that all employees have access to. This allows managers to tap the right person for the right jobs, have clear visibility on top and bottom performers, and have easier conversations about compensation and incentives.
Many have also taken a page from Ivar Kroghrud’s simple and smart user manual. Ivar is an investor and entrepreneur and, in my humble opinion, a genius. He created a one-pager for his employees which highlighted the best ways to communicate with him. Ivar’s quest was to shorten the “getting to know you” timeframe and discover what straightforward things he could do to make communication easier and I think he nailed it.
Communication doesn’t have to be so hard. With one document and a little self-evaluation and transparency, we were able to transform our start-up. What I discovered here will work at a company of any size.
Imagine the impact scaling this process could have at a company of 4,000 people where face-to-face interactions are limited? People tend to think that organizational processes at a mid-size startup won't scale as it grows into a 100 person plus company. However, this exercise could easily be commandeered into a large, multi-division organization. So instead of getting frustrated by the lack of response from a senior product engineer you've never met, you can simply refer to the engineer’s page in the operating system and communicate in his preferred medium. This could be the difference between getting a quick answer vs getting an incident ticket and waiting at the end of the line.
Looking to improve your business with this type of thinking? Let's chat.