Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Vicarious Conversations

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was wondering if you could share your insights on a perplexing issue: How can I devise a plan to creatively/effectively communicate with workers on shift (those who can’t attend regular face-to-face meetings with supervisors, all-hands meetings with plant managers, etc.)? Our managers/supervisors are finding it hard to have crucial conversations with shift personnel because of their odd schedules. As a result, these employees feel “disengaged” and not aligned with our company’s strategies. Can you help?

Indirect Communication

Dear Indirect,

Thanks for the question. The problem you bring up is shared by thousands of people worldwide. It highlights the challenges often explored under the behavioral science category known as “propinquity”—that is, physical distance and frequency of interaction. It turns out proximity and interaction have a greater effect on likeability, collaboration, respect, and inclusion than virtually any other variable. Research on friendship patterns reveals that distance and the frequency of interaction account for a great deal (often almost all) of the variance. You like people you see all the time. People you don’t see, you don’t care for as much. In more common relationship terms, “Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder.” The more likely outcome is “Out of sight, out of mind.”

As a consultant, I worked on this very issue long before we ever wrote our books. The finding was always the same. A lack of face-to-face time typically creates problems. People who work on different shifts in the same workspace (usually sharing the same equipment and production line) suffer twice. First, they don’t see each other. Second, they share the same space, so they’re constantly causing each other problems. One shift doesn’t clean up or does all the easy jobs, etc. Under these circumstances you have the unsavory combination of high interdependence with almost no direct interaction. It’s a near perfect formula for backbiting, stereotyping, and infighting. And as you pointed out, people who don’t work on the day shift typically feel less included and often act less engaged.

So, what’s a person to do?

Beware of e-mail, voice mail, and other electronic solutions. These modern technologies aimed at resolving propinquity problems can be both an aid and a challenge. E-mail may make it easier to share information—and that can be good—but it keeps people from ever talking face-to-face—and that’s generally bad. “We’ll just drop them a note,” people think to themselves. That way they don’t have to stay after work to hold an actual conversation. If you’re merely sharing information, it’s a good use of the medium. If you’re trying to replace an actual conversation, it’ll never work.

Of course, when people start to talk about problems via e-mail it can be a real disaster. You don’t have the normal give-and-take you would have in a tête-à-tête. You can’t read nonverbals. You can’t make quick adjustments. Problems end up going unresolved and relationships typically grow worse. Like it or not, you can’t hold a crucial conversation via e-mail.

The same is true when giving complicated or tough assignments. People resent being given additional assignments through an e-mail that implies they have plenty of free time when, in fact, their plate is full. People want to be able to discuss priorities, push back where it makes sense, and otherwise discuss what should happen. It’s hard to do this when you can’t read each other. Even a phone conversation doesn’t completely suffice.

The solution to a lack of face time, as you might imagine, lies in offering more actual human contact. Everything else falls woefully short. With shift work in manufacturing, many companies now schedule the two groups to overlap one afternoon every couple of weeks. They pay one team overtime to come in early or to stay late and then discuss common challenges and the solutions. This has proven enormously effective in reducing conflict.

When it comes to supervisors having to deal with people who are working different hours, there is no royal road to helping those who are on different shifts feel included—short of meeting with them fairly regularly, even if for just a few minutes. If you want to find a group of really disgruntled people, talk to employees whose boss works in a different town or isn’t on the same shift. This same boss writes these people’s performance reviews, and as you might imagine, employees almost always feel unfairly judged when they’re being evaluated merely on output measures by a person from afar. These folks don’t only feel excluded, they also typically feel mistreated.

Until leaders schedule time to meet and work with people on different shifts, don’t expect much to change. The presence or absence of the ability to rub shoulders and get to know and respect one another is such a powerful force that almost nothing can replace it. In your efforts to create a sense of commitment and inclusion you can give fancy speeches, write clever memos, even put together engaging videos; but nothing will ever replace meeting informally, chatting, problem-solving, and just having actual time together. So, meet informally and share your views of what can be. Jointly celebrate your successes and mourn your losses. It’s the only cure to the propinquity problem.

Best of Luck,

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