Having had the opportunity to observe many conversations in organizations, I have come to understand that the greatest knowledge deficit in organizations is not the lack of sharing nor is it poorly designed repositories. Rather it is the inability to hold authentic conversations. What I have too often observed is teams and units where members do not offer their best thinking out of fear; fear of not being viewed as a team player, fear of being seen as incompetent, fear of embarrassing themselves or someone else, fear of acknowledging that they do not understand something. I find team members unwilling to say they disagree with the boss or saying they agree when they do not.  

When I say fear, I don’t mean shake in your boots fear or fear of being immediately fired. I mean the everyday reluctance of individuals to say what they know or believe, because of the threat of embarrassment or a negative response from others.  I see it both at the highest organizational levels and with front line employees. When fear exists, critical knowledge is lost and serious problems remain hidden. The time waste is both enormous and expensive. Rather than speaking honestly to one another, people invent costly workarounds, delay, procrastinate, or make agreements they don’t intend to keep. This problem is so long standing in organizations that people have become resigned to it as, “just the way things are.” We hear that resignation in the familiar phrases people use to explain not speaking out, “You have to choose your battles,” “You just don’t tell the boss that he’s wrong,” or, “Saying that would be career limiting.”  

But at a time when “critical shifts have taken place in the wider culture away from hierarchy towards networks, from top-down to widespread engagement with greater emphasis on innovation and creativity” (Gilmore) the need for making use of the knowledge of all employees has become a major imperative.

Fortunately, along with the knowledge demands made by these critical shifts, has come a richer understanding of how to access this hidden knowledge (Edmondson, Kegan, Turco).  These new perspectives demonstrate that it is possible for authentic conversations to be the norm in organizations or even within a team that is embedded in a larger organization. But they also illustrate that such a deeply embedded deficit does not succumb to quick fixes such as a simple workshop or admonitions for authenticity from the C suite.  Rather to address the problem requires a sustained focus on three elements 1) developing a culture of psychological safety, 2) members’ gaining awareness of their own blind spots, and 3) building learning routines in everyday work.   

It is possible to find case studies of organizations that have accomplished this. They include some that I have written about and some that others have detailed, Kessels & Smit, Bridgewater, Next Jump, Decurion, TechCo (pseudonym in The Conversational organization),  Lake Nona Project, The Defense Intelligence Agency.