Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Scott ’67 on Improving Workplace Communication Skills in a Crisis
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Scott ’67 on Improving Workplace Communication Skills in a Crisis

Susan Scott ’67, CEO and founder of global leadership development and training company Fierce, Inc., has spent the past 19 years teaching people around the world how to use “fierce conversations” to have honest, robust conversations and meetings that surface and resolve tough issues, manage change and get the job done. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Fierce’s approach to engaging remote workers helps them stay connected, sane, agile and productive.

Scott explains that “our most valuable currency is relationships, and conversation is the relationship. Every conversation we have with anyone either enriches, flatlines or harms the relationship in some way.”

When we are prevented from being face to face — like now when we are practicing physical distancing and many of us are working from home — Scott says it can complicate conversations. Texts and emails can also be misinterpreted. “When we can’t see one another, when we only hear a voice or see a text, we don’t come close to building or enriching that relationship,” she says.

Technology provides a bridge. Virtual meetings and video chats allow us to see each other, providing a stronger connection. “Talking with coworkers and clients as often as possible so we can see each other’s faces and get a better sense of how they’re feeling and thinking is really important,” Scott says.

When initiating a conversation, Scott explains that the first thing we should do is ask the person how they’re doing, how they’re feeling and what’s happening in their world. “Really listen to the answers,” she says, “and then probe deeper to find out more.” Scott notes that we are emotional human beings, and most decisions are made first for emotional reasons and second for rational ones. “We can’t disregard or skip over how people are feeling.”

When hosting a virtual meeting, make sure that you hear from every person attending. “Let them know ahead of time that you’ll be asking for their perspective, that you value what they have to contribute,” says Scott. “The best way to get things right for an organization is to interrogate multiple, often competing realities.”

President of Fierce Stacey Engle notes that “continuous conversations are key.” As things will not be the same when working remotely as they were in the office, she recommends that managers “be thoughtful and very clear” about expectations for meetings and what ongoing communication looks like.

And not all work conversations should be about work, Scott says. Nurturing workplace culture includes making time for fun. “It’s incredibly important for the work community to stay engaged, because the conversation is the relationship and the relationship is the culture,” she says. At Fierce, a designated culture committee plans events to help employees connect and have fun. In today’s virtual work environment, they’ve arranged an online session for coworkers to show off their pets and hosted a virtual bingo game.

Lighthearted connections like these also help to mitigate the loneliness factor of working remotely. “When our tribe meets, they see each other’s faces and hear each other’s laughter,” says Scott. “Making time for conversations like this is terribly important.”

Scott and Engle released a paper focused on the important role feedback plays in working remotely (available for download here) and are now working on one related to how different the world of work will be once the pandemic is over. Engle notes that a tremendous amount of money has typically been spent sending employees to conferences and meetings, but now that organizations are adapting to virtual ways to get people together, those practices will likely shift. Leaders will reevaluate budgets as they ask themselves if they’re investing in the right things to give their employees key skills for success.

Scott is the author of Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time and Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today. Read more about Scott’s Life of Consequence.