The silent treatment can be deadly

4 Dec

I’ve been involved in a sticky organizational matter that boils down to communication. Actually, it boils down to relationship, but how communication factors into that seems key. More specifically, it has to do with communication models and expectations.

As a Taekwondo master in a traditional system, there are certain expected communication and behavioral protocols that are rooted even deeper than the rank or status per se; they are rooted in Korean culture with it’s particular regard for hierarchy and it’s higher Power-Distance Index. Rank, position, age, authority and other factors are all part of the interaction and communication equation, in ways both more dominant and more subtle than American interaction. We, in essence, not only practice the Korean art, but also follow it’s cultural norms of interaction and relation. It actually can get very stressful at times, and to think we choose to do this as an activity, if not way of life! I suppose in many ways it’s akin to choosing to live within the military, with it’s unique and formal protocols.

The thing with communication models and expectations is that they differ, whether by age, gender, social class, profession, culture, or other norms/standards. Culture is a big one, of course, whether small c culture — say, working at Apple versus a Catholic school — or BIG C culture, as in Korean versus American modes of interaction. On many levels, the dominant entity — the country, the organization, the boss — gets to set the model and expectations. The guest, the employee, the subordinate, the visitor, is usually the one who has to fit into the established or expected culture or model.

Yet, it’s not quite so simple as “who’s the boss” because communication is, by its nature, a two-way process. Even if things aren’t equal, they have to find an equanimity — a balance, a mutually-acceptable arrangement. I think when communication, or the expectations, becomes too imbalanced, whether in terms of actual delivery of the messages or in terms of establishing the particular dynamic, the Low-Man-Out will often eventually choose to stop communicating, if not actually just Get-Out. Organizations and teams are less effective when communication is problematic, when information is hoarded or selectively shared, when an open door policy is an excuse for not reaching out, when people are overly cautious to address concerns. Heck, people just quit, and oftentimes the best talent goes to search for less barren pastures.

I think the bottom line for communication in various settings, whether an organization or a marriage, is that, first, it has to be happening and, then, it has to be substantial or consequential enough to result in something real and mutual, such as matters being clarified or problems getting identified and solved. Or joys being shared, and dreams & visions being expressed/articulated. Otherwise, people check out, mentally and emotionally, at the least. Or they quit. Or leave/walk-out. Or die in plane crashes.

Since I’m talking Korean here (so to speak . . .), let me reference Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, wherein Gladwell (controversially) presents the case that the inordinate number of Korean Airlines crashes that occurred thereabout the 1990’s was the result of Koreans’ particular mode of communication. (Here’s another discussion reference.) It seems ridiculous that people would let planes crash because they didn’t want to speak up, and rebuttal to Gladwell’s thesis exists. However, even in rebuttal, one can see how the particular cultural context can, in fact, result in caution or uncertainty, which could then result in mishaps. If you follow the Ask A Korean rebuttal link, be sure to read the comments; it’s far from a done deal, IMO, and coming from my Taekwondo context of 20-plus years, I can relate to it the notion of overly-cautious communication.

Recently, I asked a Taekwondo colleague and friend in my school for some input on what he felt were areas of improvement for me. I have only known him through Taekwondo, meaning that we did not know each other before meeting in the dojang. Further, I have always been ahead of him in rank; we are both Masters, he 4th Dan and me 5th Dan, and he is “under” me at my school. However, professionally he holds a position of great prestige and we spend time together socially outside of the Taekwondo gym.

Yet, he was at first reluctant to give me the feedback. He was in a dilemma; he neither wanted to be honest and risk offending me, nor refuse my request and thus be disrespectful. Therein are the complexities and pressures of our type of situation. In any case, I was a bit taken aback by this colleague’s, this friend’s, hesitation to offer the feedback. Such a hesitation might not be uniquely Taekwondo, but in this case, that is what it was rooted in.

My big concern, as an American-Living-Korean, is to not simply default to those protocols to the points where good communication isn’t happening, growth and development aren’t occurring, caring and support aren’t expressed or noticed, and problem solving isn’t happening. I want to step and look outside of the usual protocols, to humble myself, in order to be sure that what needs to happen does so. Master, Major, CEO, boss, teacher, spouse, whomever; when you simply default to “the way it’s supposed to be” and ignore what’s actually happening in regards to communication and interaction — and it’s results (or lack thereof) — you can easily end up in a very worrisome situation. Communication takes attention, intention, diligence, work, sacrifice, and more.

In his book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership retired General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State, talks of the relation and distance of superiors and subordinates. He had this to say:

If your desk is clean and no one is bringing you problems, you should be very worried. It means that people don’t think you can solve them or don’t want to hear about them. Or, far worse, it means they don’t think you care. Either way it means your followers have lost confidence in you and you are no longer their leader, no matter what your rank or the title on your door.

I want to be a good leader. Maybe even great someday. I know that communication and all that is entailed with it are of utmost importance. Master or not, I don’t want to default to master-mode. Taekwondo or not, I don’t want to default to Taekwondo/Korean-mode. I want to make things work really well, and am willing to take the extra steps needed to help that happen. Are you in your own default mode? We all are, to some degree. We’ve got to step out to make better things happen.

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