Sell or be Sold: Comprehensive Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to foster a culture of open communication in the workplace? What are some ways a lack of openness can compromise team spirit and sabotage performance?

Honest, authentic, and open communication in the workplace is critical for professional relationships and career growth. If you don’t have authentic communication, bad situations (such as unfit managers) don’t get better because what’s really happening never comes to light.

Here are some pointers on how to cultivate a culture of authentic communication in the workplace.

Open Communication in the Workplace

Having open communication in the workplace is tricky. Adults have been conditioned to be appropriate and polite, protecting themselves. The hierarchical structure of a workplace means someone is always above you, watching and rating your performance, so people in low-power positions are less likely to speak up.

For women in particular communicating honestly can be a landmine. They don’t want to be seen as not a team player. They don’t want to appear negative or critical. Plus, women carry the fear of calling attention to themselves, which hearkens back to “impostor syndrome.”

Being Delicately Honest

The best communication is where opinions are shared freely but feelings aren’t hurt. It’s being “delicately honest” as opposed to “brutally honest,” understanding that you have your truth and the other person has their truth.

One tool of effective communication is stating your opinion as opposed to stating a fact. For example, saying, “You never take my suggestions seriously!” puts the other person on the defensive, triggering a disagreement. But saying, “I am frustrated that you haven’t responded to my last 4 emails, leading me to believe that you don’t take my suggestions seriously,” can spark useful discussion.

Using simple language is important when communicating hard truths. We hedge and add caveats when trying to explain a tough problem; often the message is lost. For example, when Mark Zuckerberg was learning Chinese he would spend time with Chinese-speaking employees. One tried to communicate a problem, but Zuckerberg couldn’t understand and kept asking her to use simpler language. She finally blurted out, “My manager is bad!” He got the message.

LIstening is as important as speaking; hearing and understanding what the other person is saying is critical to authentic communication. 

The Importance of Honest Feedback

As a leader, you need others to tell you when something is going wrong — and when you’re wrong. Being aware of a problem is the first step to solving it. But getting honest feedback can hurt. To take feedback correctly, understand that it’s not an absolute truth — it’s one person’s perception based on what was revealed to them. 

It’s critical for leaders to solicit and accept feedback well, be open to hearing the truth, and take responsibility for their mistakes. Persuading people to share their honest views leads to improvement in yourself and the company.

Since no one wants to offend the boss, leaders can encourage authentic communication by speaking openly about their weaknesses. Another way to foster authentic communication is to publicly reward the honesty of others.

Emotions in the Workplace Are OK

Sometimes honesty in the workplace can give way to emotion, which has long been considered taboo. But sometimes emotions do show up in the workplace, and that’s OK.

Honest, authentic communication means bringing our whole selves to work, not having a professional persona and a real persona. Sometimes professional decisions are emotionally driven, and it’s important to be honest about this.

A shift toward accepting emotions in the workplace is good news for women because it means they don’t have to try so hard to come across as stereotypically male. It’s good news for men too, because it also releases them from the stereotype. Perhaps the compassion and sensitivity that have held some women back will make them better leaders in the future. 

How to Foster Open Communication in the Workplace

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Here's what you'll find in our full Lean In summary:

  • How professional, personal, and societal hurdles are holding women back
  • Why you need to commit to your career with risks and ambition
  • How your career is more like a jungle gym than a ladder

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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