I love going into organisations and more specifically their staff rooms. The staff room, or cafeteria, speaks volumes about the culture within an organisation, and one of the key things I look out for is the presence (or absence of) 'the laminated sign'...

In my work, there are 3 tell-tale signs I look out for that signal your organisation has got some communication issues. One (sometimes two) of them are most visible in the staff room.

Tell-tale sign #1:

Passive-aggressive signs in the kitchen (or Pas-Ag as the young kids would say..) Signs that say "Your mother doesn't work here, do your own dishes!" or 'These are REAL PEOPLES CUPS!! General cups are in the cupboard!!! or similar. Urgh. Yuck.

Apart from the frustrating gender bias implied that only women do dishes, it's a sign that people are frustrated, keeping score, finding faults, and getting annoyed at having to clean up after their colleagues. There is often A LOT of CAPITALS and an overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!

Kitchen signs say a lot about the mood of your workplace.

What signs do you have in your workplace?

Tell-tale sign #2

The second sign, and more concerning to me than the first, is the presence of anonymous feedback. Any type of survey, feedback box, or opportunity to voice your opinion and not put your name to it is dangerous, and it needs to stop. (Please, don't get me started on 'Surveys'....that's a whole blog post for another time).

You can't have a feedback rich culture, when people don't have to take ownership and responsibility for the words that they are writing. Please, just stop this.

I've been working with an organisation recently, who have a number of different anonymous channels for staff to speak out through, and it is adding to the mistrust, suspicion, blame and negativity in the workplace. The most effective and simplest solution to this is to provide staff with the skills, tools and confidence to have what I refer to as 'conversations that matter'. To do this you need to build a culture that is based on psychological safety and trust, which opens the door to more powerful conversations and communication.

Do you have anonymous feedback channels in your workplace? If so, why?

Tell-tale sign #3

And lastly, my all time least favourite is 'the 3 meetings'. This is where you have a main meeting - be it a weekly team meeting, or monthly company meeting, project meeting etc, - and there are little splinter groups of people that have 2 other meetings. They have the meeting before the main meeting, to talk about what's on the agenda for the meeting, what they think Murray will say in the meeting, and how they disagree with the approach, (or insert other undermining comments).

Then they attend the main meeting, and afterwards, have their third meeting, after the main meeting. This is the meeting where they talk about all the things they disagreed with that Murray talked about (but they stayed silent on in the main meeting), and how 'it will never work', and what they really think about it. It generally goes a little something like this: "It's totally the wrong approach, but I'm not going to say anything, I'm just going to sit back and watch it fail like the train wreck that it is!" (And, no doubt, afterwards, step in and say "I knew this would happen, it was never going to work - we should never have done it").

Urgh. It's below the line behaviour, and it's ugly.

I call them 'splinter groups', because, much like a splinter, they need to be removed, with a sterilized and sharp needle. The sharp needles, are the people in the workplace that overhear these conversations and are prepared to speak up, say something to the splinters and call out the unhelpful behaviour.

Got any splinters in your organisation?


So, this week, as you are wandering around your workplace, start to notice if any of these things are present. Kitchen signs, anonymous feedback, and 'the 3 meetings'. If they are, take it as a little nudge to have a conversation with your colleagues about this. Conversation starters could include:

Staff room signs:

Why do you think we need these signs? What could we do that would help address this issue? What would it take for us to NOT need these signs in the kitchen?

Anonymous feedback:

Why do you think we have anonymous feedback? Is it helpful or hurtful to the organisation and it's people? What could we do to help staff have more confidence to have conversations that matter? What would happen if we took it away?

The 3 meetings:

Best approach for this one, if you think it is happening in your team, or organisation, is to call it out. It's the hardest one to spot - splinters can be sneaky - so the best approach is to have a conversation at the start of your team meeting. Reset the guidelines for discussion, reiterate that if you have something to say, or disagree with something that's been said, that it is a safe space to speak up in, and be clear that what you don't want is people leaving the meeting with things left unsaid. Invite them to come and talk to you afterwards if they have something to say that they didn't feel comfortable talking about in front of the group. It's a start, and a step in the right direction.

Remember: We are always communicating something - be it verbal, visible or visceral. Start to notice what's being communicated in your organisation, how it's making you and others feel, and then talk about it, with conversations that matter.