You might not realize it, but a simple question such as, “How could you say that?” or “What were you thinking?” can stop creativity in its tracks. Such phrases activate people’s fear networks. Blood rushes to their primitive brain, designed for protection, and cortisol (a fear hormone) spreads, activating their ability to protect themselves from harm. Suddenly, and without realizing it, colleagues switch their innovation lights to “off.”
Thanks to advances in neuroscience and fMRI technology, we know that every conversation has a physiological impact. As we converse, neurochemicals are released in our brains almost instantly making us feel either good or bad. Feel-good conversations keep the blood flowing, the energy pumping, and light up our ability to see the world in new ways.
As the New Year approaches, you’ll want to ensure that your team is has the flexibility to gain access to new patterns of thinking. To grow and develop, you’ll require a culture of trust and positivity. To get you there, we’ve outlined three of the main ingredients you’ll need to create quality conversations in any environment.
Step 1: Encourage candor and trust.
Why it’s important: When we enable straight talk, candor and open conversations (without repercussions and fear of punishment), these norms create a mind shift that activates the mental fireworks for innovation. Employees need to trust that their ideas will be heard—and that they will get support, attention and proper vetting once the ideas are put on the table.
Your action plan: Find ways for staffers to talk more and with more people. Maybe it’s a regular lunch or a multi-purpose space where staffers can get coffee or meet. Bumping into one another to chat can help build engagement and understanding that underpins efficient communication and understanding.
Step 2: Eliminate politics
Why it’s important: Unwritten codes that signal, “you can’t say this,” or “you can’t do that” tell people not to change the status quo. Conversations cover the lowest common denominator and people stop innovating.
Your action plan: Reboot your office culture. Only daily practice can reaffirm concepts like “every idea counts” or healthy challenges to ideas. Make time to take input from outside your usual circle and remove the word “can’t” from your own vocabulary as an example to your team. When people know the canvas is blank and politics are not in play, they’ll be more open to take risks and to test out novel thinking.
Step 3: Promote recognition
Why it’s important: Too often employees have great ideas and no one listens. Ideas are expressed, but no one validates them or acknowledges them. There is an instinctive fear that voices will not be heard, and ideas will be pushed under the rug or their importance minimized.
Your action plan: First off, you can stop your own hour-long monologues during meetings and give staffers a chance to join a dialogue. You can then start forming small teams to challenge staffers to generate and implement new ideas, possibly for new projects or even ways to improve workflow or efficiency. Lastly, you should identify the staffers with whom you interact the least. Simple hallway hellos in the morning can make them feel comfortable speaking up and increase your circle of influence.
Judith E. Glaser's latest book is best-seller "Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results." She is Chief Executive Officer of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of WE Institute. Her clients range from IBM and Bank of America to American Express and Target.