Forces Undermining Conversation

What frequent challenges do we face in our workplaces?

It would be remiss to discuss tackling organizational conversations if some time was not also spent acknowledging those internal thoughts, frustrating team members and systemic challenges we face when we’ve decided to have more purposeful conversations.

If you refer back to my post “Defining Conversation” you’ll recall the three hierarchies where conversation occurs – within the self, within the group, and within the organization. Let’s take a look at some significant detractors from positive, effortless and purposeful conversations at these three levels.

The Self

“Fear of failure, aversion to unpredictability, preoccupation with status – these are the prime assassins of innovation” (Neumeier 40).

If conversation was an iceberg, internal dialogue would be the very deepest, most hidden part. We often cannot control our very own reactions, curiosities, presumptions; it would be unwise for any team or organization to think they could either. 

But understanding those reactions and feelings, acknowledging our own darker thoughts that at best, contradict what we say, at worst, undermine the effectiveness of our teams and projects, is an important step in moving forward into a more honest and open space to communicate within.

A frequent culprit is fear. Fear shows up at every level, but identifying it at the deepest and darkest level (inside your head) first may help team members or leaders wrangle it before it weaves itself throughout the organization. “One of our consistent and most noteworthy observations over the past 15 years is how strong a motivator fear can be in the workplace, how it manifests in most companies, how irrational it can be, and how it has tremendously negative effects on many organizations” (Yorton 7). Per Yorton, these fears can include risk taking, new ideas, confronting a colleague, public speaking and even asking to take vacation time (7). 

Fear can immobilize, and cause you to feel stuck in the same communication patterns with the same [frustrating] results.

The Group

There are so many types of detractors in the workplace, we could probably create an entire site identifying these troublemakers. Instead, let’s just focus on a few notorious ones, and if you’re interested in reading a few more, here is a list of some additional offender profiles.

The good news is that there is hope here; the majority of people aren’t just plain and simply lousy, one dimensional characters in a movie. “…Allow me to stipulate that there are crazy (and evil and stupid) people out there, with whom the situation truly is hopeless. But that population of extreme people is actually a tiny fraction of the people most of us deal and struggle with daily” (Ebenstein 24). Identifying the type of conversational challenger you are working with isn’t about judgement; it is about empowering yourself to identify patterns, change tactics, and hopefully, shift dynamics by using different conversational styles to get unstuck.

“…no design brief, whether it guides, steers, or dictates, can address the psychology of human interaction. How do you navigate the treacherous waters of clashing opinions, narrow viewpoints, secret feelings, and asynchronous aspirations as you strive for consensus?” (Neumeier 111).


The “yeah, but” offenders can feel like a rain cloud that follows a project or team around, killing new ideas before they gain traction, keeping members from contributing, and stifling conversation. As author (and professor emeritus at University of Nebraska) Marvin Knittel, Ed.D. describes on, the behavior of the yabuts are driven by a need to feel in control and a desire to convey their intelligence (Knittel). This causes us to feel dismissed or discounted, and ensures that any new ideas land squarely inside the box.


In our busy world, it is hard to avoid being the distracted member in your group. I can think of countless meetings I have appeared to listen, but instead I’m making mental checklists, rehearsing a presentation, or stepping out to answer an important call. I’ve also been in meetings while others tapped loudly away on laptops. I’m left wondering what the hell are they doing? — allowing myself to be distracted by other distracted people. It can be a domino effect and the end result may be a purposeless meeting or a lack of clarity.


Loud, boastful, know-it-all, opinionated: we’ve all been on a team, either in school or in the workplace that included a dominator. While they often can take leadership roles, especially as meeker or less confident members shy away, they create a vacuum of powerlessness, and can detract as much from the group spirit as they may bring to it.

In Google’s years-long quest to understand and form more effective teams, one trait turned out to play a major factor in a team’s success: turn-taking. “…On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment” (Duhigg). The study’s lead author, Anita Woolley says: ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well… But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined” (Duhigg). This provides further evidence that dominators play a major role in thwarting group success, even if superficially they appear to be charming and engaging.



“Many large organizations are divided, and then subdivided into numerous different departments, which often fail to talk to each other—let alone collaborate” (Tett 13).

Research by anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that humans naturally begin to form silos around 150 people (Ro). What impact does this phenomenon have on the organization?

In terms of conversational impact, silos wreck havoc on collaboration and diversity within teams, and the outcome is often group-think (Guenther 52) as well as a short-sighted operation. Anthropologist (and journalist and author) Gillian Tett notes in her book The Silo Effect that silos no longer “just refer to a physical structure or organization” but has become so popularized in our lexicon that it is now understood to be a “state of mind” (Tett 13). When silos begin to build an us versus them mindset, it can cause a behavior we know as ‘tribalism’ – while “rooted in one of our most positive human qualities — an ability to identify closely with others and to form strong bonds of trust,” it can also have a sinister effect within organizations, breeding suspicion, and causing “group members so closely align and identify with their own unit that they see other groups or parts of the organization as competitors, obstacles or threats” (Bradberry). This scenario is a win for no-one.

Conversation suffers when people who are technically “on the same team” see each other as adversaries and refuse to see (and participate in) the bigger picture. When blind spots form within an organization’s accepted culture, it undermines and cuts across all four of our human needs (see previous blog post on “Human Needs in Conversation”). Tribal allegiances reduce our ability to empathize with other individuals and groups, build alignment on strategic initiatives and often provide those previously discussed ‘conversation offenders’ an uncontested platform.

The Organization

Conversational standards can also be set at the organizational level and trickle down, in the same way internal thoughts can trickle out and up. Let’s take a look at a few ways this can happen.


The Untouchable CEO

Look no further than the case of Uber’s leader Travis Kalanick for evidence of how a bulletproof (metaphorically speaking) and toxic CEO can infiltrate the entire organization’s culture. Sure, most of us are not working in an organization with this concentrated degree of mismanagement, but it’s a good case study about how offensive, but accepted, behaviors within leadership create a dysfunctional, corrupt and widespread dynamic (Swisher). (Read “With her blog post about toxic bro-culture at Uber, Susan Fowler proved that one person can make a difference” for a complete version of this event.)

In I Hear You, author Donny Ebenstein describes another type of untouchable: the “superhero organization” (159). He writes: “These organizations are built around and reliant on a single individual. In such a context, there is an inevitable systemic effect on how people interact with this ‘superhero’” (Ebenstein 159). Not only does this create hierarchical imbalances of power, it can lead to an environment of “yes-men” (this is only a phrase, it could equally be any gender), where there is no one willing to speak up and be a voice of dissent. On an individual level, this breeds employee resentment, but on the organizational level, when no one is willing to point out a mistake and the unwritten rule is keep it to yourself, it can create blind spots that can be dangerous or disastrous for the business.