Career & Success

Be Better at Work: How to Communicate Better with Coworkers and Employees

In this podcast episode, two experts discuss where leaders should and shouldn’t focus their attention when it comes to running group communication.

July 06, 2020

Most of the work we do requires coordinating and collaborating with others. But how can we ensure the benefits of working with others, while avoiding conflict that’s inherent to communicating within groups?

In this podcast episode, Matt Abrahams speaks with management expert Robert I. Sutton, who is a professor of organizational behavior (by courtesy) at Stanford GSB, about maximizing productivity while minimizing what he calls “friction.”

“So many organizations make the right things too hard to do and the wrong things too easy,” Sutton says. “A big part of a leader’s job is to be clear about where people should focus attention and where they should not focus attention.”


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business and hosted by Lecturer Matt Abrahams. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

Okay, let’s be honest here. How do you feel, I mean, really feel when a meeting on your calendar gets canceled? Might you sport a big smile, give yourself an air high-five? If you’re like most of us, reclaiming some free time at work brings a sense of joy and relief. Yet, we all know that most of the work we do requires and benefits from coordinating and collaborating with others. How can we maximize the benefits of working with others while avoiding the friction and challenges that often come along for the ride?

Today I am super excited to be joined by Bob Sutton, who is both a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford School of Engineering, as well as a professor, by courtesy, of organizational behavior at the GSB. His research and practice focus on how to improve the way we work. He is the author of many books, including Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, and The No Asshole Rule.

Welcome, Bob.

Bob Sutton: It’s great to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks. You know, we’re recording this at a safe social distance so I know you can’t see the smile on my face. But for a while now, I have been so eager to chat with you on the podcast, because I’ve really enjoyed our previous conversations.

Bob Sutton: Me, too. They’ve been fun.

Matt Abrahams: Let’s jump right in. In your work in collaborations, you refer to friction. What do you mean by this? And how does communication or the lack of it contribute to friction?

Bob Sutton: Boy. Well, that’s quite a question. So the friction stuff, essentially my buddy, coauthor Huggy Rao and I, we just got interested in the notion that so many of the organizations that we know, that we work with would essentially make the right things too hard to do and the wrong things too easy.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, no.

Bob Sutton: The classic thing I, and many, I’m sure, of your listeners can relate, I don’t really understand why some organizations I know very well make it so hard for me to get $25 reimbursed that I don’t even bother. I just pay for it myself just sort of at the most basic level.

And to things like for us, as customers, when we have a journey through an organization that’s much more difficult than it needs to be. For communication, to me, a lot of what a leader’s job is is to be clear about where people should focus attention and where they should not focus attention.

And just somebody who comes to mind immediately, one of the most effective CEOs at one point I knew well, was AG Lafley, who was twice CEO of Proctor & Gamble. And one thing he realized was there’d be a lot less confusion about where people needed to focus their attention if, as he said, I did two things: I kept things Sesame Street-simple; and I said it over and over and over again until it was done.

And so, to me, that’s part of the friction challenge for a senior executive, is to get people to understand where they should focus their attention and where they should not focus attention and what they should do now and what they should do later or not at all. So that’s just one example of how communication would get you to friction.

Matt Abrahams: I see. So it’s all about keeping it clear, keeping it concise and simple and just repetition. So collaborating, connecting, and coordinating with others is absolutely essential at work. Yet, working with others, our peers, our bosses, our subordinates can be so draining and frustrating. How can we maximize the benefits of working with others while avoiding some of the down sides?

Bob Sutton: Two things. When I think of collaboration problems, two things come to mind that I think that people really need to focus on. One is the notion that in your team, look at the notion that there are often people who are just on the sidelines and they’re never asked to be involved, sort of who are ostracized or not viewed as relevant.

And then there are people who suffer from collaboration overload. There’s all sorts of evidence, including from my research on the East Coast, that essentially you’ve got 3 to 5 percent of the people who do 35 percent of the work on many teams.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, wow.

Bob Sutton: And those beleaguered people, if you are one, well, please see if you can get people to help you. And if you’re thinking of that person in your group who you always ask every question of, maybe you should try to help them more. And those people are essential. They get beleaguered. They get burned out. They quit. They get cynical. So that’s the first one, is to sort of look at the uneven distribution of who does what.

The second thing, and if you look at those of us who study organizational systems, and I know you do as well, Matt,

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Bob Sutton: I’d look for any place where there’s hand-offs, because when there’s hand-offs between people, between silos, those are the places where the conflict, where the misunderstanding happens. And as a leader, what your job is is to have everybody, for example, in every silo and in every shift understand what it feels like to be the giver and the receiver in the hand-off situation.

So I guess hand-offs and collaboration overload is where I’d start. But we’re not going to solve this in this brief podcast, unfortunately.

Matt Abrahams: Right. You know, thinking about where those transitions are is critical. We have on this podcast talked a lot about transitions, transitions within an individual communication from point to point, transition between individuals in the communication interaction.

And what you’ve added to this now, Bob, is this notion of transition between organizational and function. You really have to think about, What is it I’m passing off? How do I do that in a way that’s clear and concise? How do I make sure that that information was received? It’s really, really critical, and I appreciate that.

And also having the awareness of where all of the action and work is being done also helps. So I think that’s great.

Clearly work has changed dramatically due to COVID-19. What are you seeing as some of the biggest challenges? And how can business leaders address them?

Bob Sutton: One of the things that’s really striking me, as so many of us have switched to work from home, is that we’re starting to realize that we’re more complete people. Literally we are bringing a more complete version of [ourselves] to work. So that’s both a challenge for the more pressure that people have when they’re in a situation where it’s hard for them to work. And it’s also an opportunity for us to design our organizations for people that have complete lives. So that’s one thing that really does strike me in terms of organizational design. So that’s sort of a good thing

Then there’s sort of a bad thing. And it’s interesting, we were talking about collaboration overload a little bit before.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Bob Sutton: One thing that I’m seeing, there’s a number of organizations I’m working with, and I think I may even be seeing this at Stanford, too, is that in general what happens is that a lot of the companies I know are moving really fast. A number of the technology companies I’m working with are moving really fast.

And part of it is because with the online stuff, there’s not the opportunity for the informal gossip, for people to get together after work to bump into each other. So you’re ending up with a small group of decision-makers moving really quickly who are not getting as much input from people who are kind of on the sidelines and not officially pulled into the conversation.

Matt Abrahams: That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Bob Sutton: Yes. It’s kind of a recipe to move really fast and to kind of have, if you will, organizational debt, where you think everybody’s on board because the same seven people you talked to in the Zoom call every day all agree. But there isn’t even hardly any communication with anybody else at all.

And I’m seeing this in Fortune 10 companies. And it’s really cool how fast they’re moving now. And the smart CEOs are worried that the chickens [aren’t] going to come home to roost.

Matt Abrahams: I want to turn our attention to meetings. And you and I have had some interactions about meetings before.

Bob Sutton: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: You know, one way we coordinate our work is through meetings. And most people report that most of their meetings are not very useful or productive. You and I spent some time a while ago discussing how we can improve meetings. Do you want to share some of those thoughts that we discussed?

Bob Sutton: Well, there’s lots of different thoughts. One is — the first thing I look for in addition to the usual sort of size of meetings and so on is that when you are a leader and you’re in a meeting, there’s three measures that we use. And, in fact, we use this in our classes, even we get a class with startup CEOs, and we had our students analyze their worst meetings and helped them improve them.

And the three metrics that we tend to look for, this is Huggy Rao and me, is just pure talking time. So if we go to a CEO and he or she talks the whole time, that’s a bad sign.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Bob Sutton: The second thing is we look at the proportion of statements they make versus the number of questions they ask. And if I was going to pick a model CEO, you know, back in the ’90s I used to go to a Monday-morning meeting at IDEO, a famous innovation firm that was —

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Bob Sutton: Led by David Kelley, who founded IDEO, founded the Stanford d. school, astounding person who’s won every award there is just about. And as an ethnographer, I’d go there, and it’d be a one-hour meeting. David would talk six or seven minutes of that whole hour. And he’d start out with a self-deprecating joke, maybe tell a story, 60 people in the room. He would go around, he’d ask 25 or 30 of them questions.

And so if you look at that criteria it was, he probably talked 12 minutes out of 60. And he probably would ask 30 questions and make 10 statements, and then probably tell 15 jokes in response to what people described what they did over the weekend.

But I think those are some of the standards for me. So if you’re a boss, shut up and ask more questions.

Matt Abrahams: I actually recommend that people, on their agendas or their meeting invitations, they actually send out questions to get it even started before you meet, so people come in —

Bob Sutton: Ooh.

Matt Abrahams: — ready to engage and answer those questions.

Bob Sutton: I love that.

Matt Abrahams: And one of the other things you and I talked about was this notion of psychological safety. I’m wondering if you can comment on that. So if people feel safe, they tend to feel better about contributing in meetings. Isn’t that right?

Bob Sutton: Yes. So this comes from research. Harvard Business School researcher named Amy Edmondson, she’s been studying this for 30 years. She’s got a new book, The Fearless Organization, a wonderful book.

And essentially what Amy — and now there’s large-scale surveys at Google, too, that they found this was the hallmark of great teams was psychological safety. So if you have a situation where people are afraid to speak out, afraid to argue, then you end up having, well, fewer voices involved, and you end up having more mistakes made. And you also end up — people get alienated, they try less hard. And there’s evidence even that when people don’t speak up, you end up with terrible fiascos, like the space shuttle’s exploding, more surgical errors, more drug treatment errors.

So as a leader, your job is to make it safe. And one thing that I always kind of like to say to bosses is kind of like, Who annoys you the most on your team? Okay? And those people, the typical solution response is to kind of like not listen to them, to shut them down. Well, the most annoying person might be the most useful person, too. So that’s one way to sort of ask them about it. How you handle your most annoying coworker might be a sign of how much psychological safety there is.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I like that. And so what I’m really hearing you say, Bob, is that as somebody that runs meetings, you really need to spend time not just focusing on the content and the specific agenda, but also how people feel and show up.

Bob Sutton: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: And a lot of people don’t. They’re just so focused on the task and not on the actual socioemotional well-being of the people involved. Yet, that really matters.

Bob Sutton: Yeah. And one thing I would say to add to that is one of my many mantras is “silence is not golden.” And if you have a meeting, and it’s the classic thing. The people who are silent, one of the advantages, and there’s all these disadvantages to this online stuff, but in the Zoom stuff, when you have that layout where you can see everybody’s faces, you actually see who is not talking.

And one thing that I’ve started doing with my classes — and it sounds like you have, too, I just did it yesterday in a meeting with about 15 students — there were three people who didn’t say anything out of my 12 students. So I took an extra five minutes and I called on each one of them. And I said, “You haven’t spoken.” And each one of them really appreciated being called on, and they said something really smart and probably smarter than the rest of us because they’d actually been listening.

So this notion of, I think, what good leaders do is that they make it safe and encourage the people who talk less to sort of add something, too.

Matt Abrahams: I love that. I love that. And I do spend a lot of time calling on people who are silent. And you’re right. In the virtual world, you can see that more readily than when we’re in person.

Speaking of this transition to remote work and remote communication, what best practices can you provide beyond the calling on the silent people that help us not just survive, but thrive in our Zoom, Skype teams’ hangouts, WebEx menagerie?

Bob Sutton: Well, I think we’re all struggling in this journey together. The first thing that I would start out with — and this is for those of us who are teachers, who are executives and also just having control of our calendar — is that for emotional and cognitive reasons, we’ve got to pace ourselves and encourage people to pace one another. So this means the meetings have to be shorter. This means there has to be breaks. This means — and some of the folks of the design school are really cool about this — consider doing 35 percent of your meetings audio only.

Matt Abrahams: Oh.

Bob Sutton: Because you get emotionally exhausted by seeing people’s [faces] in front of you. And there’s a bunch of evidence, because what happens is you’re both more emotionally aware and you have thinner cues at the same time. So, to me, there’s a thing about the pacing.

Oh, and then the other thing – and I’m learning this in my classes and maybe I should have learned this before. And I’m also at home with a CEO, so she’s leading all sorts of different meetings. And sort of one of the standards that we’re using, back to the percentage of questions versus comments, is that anytime anybody talks more than six minutes, it’s too long. Or seven minutes.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right.

Bob Sutton: And maybe I’m committing that sin right now. I’m talking too much. But it is interesting because it’s, I think, because we have more incomplete cues, that it starts sounding like [unintelligible] a few minutes earlier than in live meetings.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Bob Sutton: Those are some of the things that come to mind. But a lot of it is just tending to the emotions and dealing with the fact that it’s just more cognitively and emotionally exhausting.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. And just to echo a few things that you said, there’s research that I’m aware of that says that after eight to 10 minutes, you really need to change something up just so people are reinvigorated. So it could be change a speaker or ask a question, show a video, just something to re-stimulate people.

And with regard to looking at all the faces on the screen, not only is it demanding to look at everybody else’s faces, but we also see ourselves more frequently. And that self-awareness is draining, too.

And so one of the things that some of the research I’m aware of has suggested is at the beginning of meetings, show your image, make sure people are connected face-to-face, and then if you have slideware or demoes, go to that, remove the faces, and then come back to faces when you’re actually doing interaction.

Bob Sutton: Oh.

Matt Abrahams: So you give yourself a break within the actual meeting. And that, I think, could be helpful, too. But the psychological drain of just having to be on with fewer cues is absolutely a true challenge for people.

Bob Sutton: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Now, Bob, you’ve written many books, and they’re all incredibly insightful and helpful. Let’s imagine you’ve been contracted to write the definitive rulebook for effective teaming and work. What would rule number one be in your new book?

Bob Sutton: Well, I’ll steal rule number one from my worst-selling book, Weird Ideas That Work.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Bob Sutton: Weird Ideas That Work is about how to create creative teams and organizations. And the rule is find some happy people and get them to fight.

Matt Abrahams: What?

Bob Sutton: Yeah. So, first of all, when you bring a team together, I’m not sure “happiness” is the right word, but you want trust, you want psychological safety. But there’s all sorts of evidence that when people argue in an atmosphere of mutual trust, that they’re more likely to bring different perspectives. They’re more likely to develop the best ideas.

And the person I think of here as sort of the hallmark or the star of this is Brad Bird, the Academy Award-winning director Pixar, The Incredibles movies, for example. The way that Brad describes it and we’ve seen him, we’ve got video of him. Essentially when you’re on a team with Brad Bird, essentially you’re involved in, if you will, loving conflict, as one member of team put it, every day. And that’s what you do. You do that because that’s how you come up with the best solutions. And Brad’ll make a decision because he’s got to make a movie. But you’ve got to have constructive conflict.

And so I guess that’s sort of what I would say. Find some happy people and get them to fight. And also related to that, the best teams know when to fight, how to fight, and when it’s time to stop fighting and implement the decision even if you disagree with it.

Matt Abrahams: I love that your first rule is counterintuitive. Most of us just want happy people so that we don’t have conflict. But if people feel safe, if they feel supported in sharing their different viewpoints, I can totally see how you can get more creative, more diverse ideas and actions coming out of that. Thank you.

Bob Sutton: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So, Bob, before we end, I like to ask all guests the same three questions. So I’m hoping you’re willing to answer my three questions. Let’s get started.

If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Bob Sutton: Oh. How about, “Be confident but not really sure”? And the reason I say that — and this is other related sayings, this is from research on wisdom — is have strong opinions weakly held. So I like people when they communicate and when they’re leaders — and we’re certainly seeing this in COVID — to express confidence about what they believe to be true right now and to sort of inspire us all to action, while at the same time to acknowledge to themselves and others that we don’t know everything, and they’re always open to new input.

So, to me, I don’t want a leader who’s insecure about everything. And I don’t want a leader who, if you will, has strong opinions strongly held, who won’t update no matter what. So either strong opinions weakly held or to be confident, but not really sure. That’s sort of what I would start with.

Matt Abrahams: I like that notion of confidence with humility and being open.

Bob Sutton: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Very cool. So you’ve mentioned a lot of leaders that you’ve worked with. I’m wondering, is there one particular communicator that’s really impressed you and you admire? And why is that?

Bob Sutton: Right. So you asked me this question a little bit before and I’ve been fretting over it. The first person who came to mind was President Obama. The second was Kara Swisher, The New York Times columnist, who is really entertaining.

But the person I settled on actually is one of my own bosses, which is sort of amazing. If you ask some of my bosses at Stanford, they’ll tell you I don’t admire them. But in going through the COVID crisis with my dean in the School of Engineering, Jennifer Widom. She has been so down to earth, so human. And back to this confident, but not really sure stuff, she’s confident, she’s empathetic, but at the same time, she will say to us is, “We’re in a changing situation. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the world. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the university. So let’s do the best we can and move forward.” And this is somebody who I’ve had some kind of communications with every two weeks or so. So I actually am shockingly picking my own boss.

Matt Abrahams: I am shocked. I know Jennifer and she’s wonderful. I’m just shocked that you picked your boss. That’s awesome. And Jennifer is great. And I’ve had an opportunity to see her work, and she is very empathetic and down to earth, for sure.

Bob Sutton: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: So our last of the three questions is, What are the first three ingredients in your mind that go into a successful communication recipe?

Bob Sutton: Mmm. Mmm. Well, I’ll pick kind of a COVID one.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Bob Sutton: Especially we’re at a time when a lot of difficult decisions are being made and being implemented, not just layoffs as many people are doing, but doing things like shutting down buildings, opening and closing and stuff.

And one of the things, and there’s a bunch of research to support this, is that when you’re leading people during difficult times, a lot of what your job is is to give them as much predictability as you can give them, as much understanding, and as much control.

And sort of the headline of that would be something like there’s a difference between what you do and how you do it. So let’s just say that you may have to lay off people or do pay cuts because of how difficult it is. But having them understand when it’s going to be happening, having them understand why it’s occurring and to understand what elements of control they have over the way the decision is implemented. To me, that’s a hallmark of a good leader. So prediction, understanding, and control.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Very helpful. And I can imagine that would lead to much more success even if the messages and communications are challenging.

Bob Sutton: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you, Bob. You certainly didn’t disappoint. Your ideas for helping us work better, meet more effectively, and taking care of ourselves and others have been really insightful, useful, and, quite frankly, a lot of fun.

So thank you for your time and I wish you well.

Bob Sutton: Thanks, Matt. It was really fun.

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