Modes of discourse

Some groups have a dynamic wherein certain forms of communication are more valued than others. This phenomenon holds true across broad swathes of human endeavor — and the workplace, not least of all. This prompts a question: What is the appropriate response for a person who does not subscribe to the dominant mode of discourse in a given social context?

I ponder this as I struggle to arrive at a coherent response to some ongoing disruptions in the workplace. Healthcare has its own rhythm, and mixing revenue-cycle operations with clinical care can sometimes lead to curious cultural hybrids. But my hospital in general, and my department most especially, is moving along a path that is offering a privileged place to one particular way of communicating. And I’m not sure this is a good thing.

In brief … My department is hewing ever more closely to a communications culture that elevates relationship building and indirect influencing as the officially prescribed means of discourse. It is a very feminist model — the highest virtue is preserving relationships and avoiding direct conflict. It also encourages multilateral negotiation over unilateral assertion, and legitimizes a wide range of emotional responses to workplace stresses as not just valid, but encouraged. More masculine modes of discourse — especially those that give pride of place to logic, authority, stoicism and bluntness — are frowned upon, and practitioners thereof are de-legitimized as being difficult, arrogant, or power-hungry lone rangers who don’t care about the team.

To be sure, there is great value in building relationships and in finding indirect means of encouraging a particular outcome short of direct conflict. But however valuable these skills may be, they do not represent the source and summit of professional behavior. The feminist modes are excellent tools in one’s communication toolbox, but they cannot be the only tools, and they cannot be used indiscriminately. Sometimes, persuasion and consensus-building is appropriate; sometimes, someone just needs to make a decision and be done with it.

It amazes me, still, to see the number of times that logic is trumped by the desire to avoid “burning a bridge” — especially when the logical position must yield to an irrational emotional response (actual or anticipated) by others. And I lose count of how many times a conversation has shifted from the “what” to the “how” of communication; when concerns about “trust” are permitted to cloud the substance of a disagreement, everyone loses.

It takes only the briefest survey of the day’s headlines to conclude that society is increasingly incapable of channeling natural male aggression to socially useful ends. Suicide bombing, prolonged “college” adolescence and inner-city gangs provide ample evidence of a certain degree of widespread social decline. It does not help when traditionally masculine behaviors are banished from the pale of professional behavior and feminist approaches to communication are considered normative, deviation from which is considered to reflect poorly on the transgressor.

A healthy approach to workplace communication recognizes that there are several (often contradictory) approaches that are equally valid. Superior communicators realize that there are many different tools in the idea-sharing toolbox, and have an understanding of which tool is right for a specific job.

But all this notwithstanding, it is a difficult task to move two dozen leaders away from the Kool-Aid of feminist discourse and toward a more healthy and comprehensive understanding of communication excellence. What an adventure this should prove to be!

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  1. You must be delusional. To think you can “sway” your group of leaders away from team-think is an impossible dream to dream, indeed. One might question why a team member would feel the need to single-handedly turn around the team’s agreed-upon method of communication. Is it for the advancement of an agenda that, as brought before the greater group, would surely perish? Is it because you have self-aggrandized yourself into the role of all-knowing rogue, who “knows what’s best” for the team? A smarter bear in the woods of corporate America might better utilize his time calculating how to use groupthink to his advantage…

  2. Delusional? Moi? Surely you jest.

    The issue is less conversion and more acknowledgement that there is more than one way to communicate that is appropriate in the workplace.

    But you knew that already, no? 🙂

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