Psychology Today

By Judith E. Glaser |
Published: February 1, 2015

Every person has instincts for greatness. We instinctively want to do well, to contribute, and to be included on the winning team. No one needs to teach us to have these desires; they are built into our DNA.

Yet many organizations often become toxic environments filled with politics, power, and control, arrogance, and competing egos. They develop into unwelcoming places with invisible street signs that say, “Don’t go there,” “You can’t do this,” “You don’t know that,” “Save face,” “Blame,” and “Protect.”

Allowing ourselves to get sucked into territoriality can lead to cycles of behavior that erode relationships and take energy away from being productive, healthy, high-performing individuals, teams, and organizations. When we are stuck in territoriality, protecting what we have and fearing loss, we are living at a low level of effectiveness, which ensures we will never achieve our greatest aspirations.

In the face of negativity, positional power struggles, and self-limiting beliefs, our courage and ambition shrivel up and die. Companies lose their spirit, and mediocrity becomes a way of life. Often, without seeing it until the pattern becomes a death spiral, we put out the very flame needed to thrive.  So what can we do about it?


Every conversation has an impact. You may not see it at first. It takes place inside of us at the speed of .07 seconds. It takes place at the cellular level.  Cells talk with each other, and if a conversation feels bad—our fear networks are activated instantly. Blood rushes to our primitive brain, which is designed for protection, cortisol (a fear hormone) is spray-painted everywhere, and our ability to protect ourselves from harm is turned on instantly.

Did you ever notice that, during a meeting or brainstorming session, one comment from a powerful voice can stop the innovation process?

Simple comments such as, “how could you think that,” or “what where you thinking?” activate our fear network and without realizing it, colleagues can inadvertently and unintentionally turn the “innovation lights out.”

The quality of conversations does matter. Quality conversations establish the environments and readiness to support innovation, to foster partnering, to elevate trust and to enhance relationships.  

In fact…

“To get to the next level of greatness, depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations.  Everything happens through conversations!”

So what is the pathway to successful, quality conversations? It’s a roadmap we all need to internalize and practice every day…

Pathways to Success 

STEP 1: Encourage Candor and Trust  …  Straight talk, candor and open conversations (without repercussions and fear of punishment) are the operating norm for innovative, transformative co-creating conversations. Employees need to trust that their ideas and feelings will be heard—and that they will get support, attention and proper vetting once the ideas are put on the table. Shaping the quality of the conversational environment enables employees to speak up, and share their innovative, and often very unique thinking.

STEP 2:  Eliminate Politics … Organizations have unwritten codes that signal people that: “you can’t say this,” or “you can’t do that.”  These signals tell people they are unsafe to challenge the status quo. People are afraid to speak up. Conversations go to the lowest common denominator—people stop innovating. However, when shaping the quality of the conversational environment for safety and appreciation, employees trust they will get quality feedback on their ideas, and they will speak up.

STEP 3: Promote Appreciation & Recognition … Too often employees have great ideas, and no one listens. When ideas are expressed, no one validates them or acknowledges them, or even asks more about them. There is an instinctive fear in many of us that our voices will not be heard, and our ideas will be rejected, pushed under the rug, or their importance minimized. Shaping the quality of the conversational environment with conversational norms that enable employees to be celebrated for having great ideas changes the amount of great ideas that show up. When employees can trust that they will get the recognition from the top for being “idea catalysts,” management will find that people have a lot to say! 

Getting to the Next Level of Greatness

Your role as a transformational conversational intelligence leader is one of the most important roles you can play in activating growth in our 'world of moving targets.' To move into position to advance and elevate your organizations ability for quality conversations....

Ask Yourself…

  • What does your organization need to know but does not know because people are afraid to speak up?
  • What are you doing to create trusting, non-toxic work environments?
  • What are the unwritten codes or norms that are at play that may be inhibiting open, candid, trusting conversations?
  • What can you do as a leader to create trust?


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