Boulders + Pebbles: Building Effective Workplace Communication Habits

By: Dr. Kasi Williamson

When I worked as a communications practitioner, I helped to create communication strategies and structures that facilitated collaboration and innovation across departments within a large organization. This structural work is where the “heavy lifting” happens—and that metaphor has the weight of something very real. Sometimes, it can actually feel like you’re trying to clear paths by moving boulders out of the way.

A recent conversation with a former colleague had me thinking about smaller matters—the individual and interpersonal communication patterns that are like rocks and pebbles, collecting over time to form the organizational ground we walk on (and often trip over). In particular, I began to think about my own workplace communication habits.

Maybe you have experienced something similar: You know that infinitesimally small, fleeting, split second of a moment when you hear something that you don’t agree with, or think you might not agree with, or you don’t want to hear, or you know is going to be inconvenient or impossible or at the very least pretty difficult and time consuming?

As that first second is on its way to ticking by, I often take one of the following paths:

  1. I talk.
  2. I think about what I’m going to say when I begin talking.
  3. I correct the speaker’s perceptions or interpretations or proposed solutions.
  4. In one of a thousand small ways, I say “no”: No, you’re mistaken. No, we don’t do that. No, I tried that already. No, my idea is better.

To be clear, I believe that saying “no” at the appropriate times is an essential part of organizational effectiveness. Individuals and organizations alike must prioritize in order to meet their goals. What I questioned in myself was that quick and immediate, instinctive “no” that closed the door before I even looked through it.

What if, as that first fraction of a second screams by: I just listen?

What if my first reaction could be: How does this perspective deepen my perception of organizational reality?

What if that led me to consider: How might this insight make something better than I imagined it?

When our everyday work involves pushing boulders up mountains, it can be easy to forget: Though structural issues are critical, organizations are not only structures. They are also an accumulation of countless individuals’ minute communication habits and interactions. As Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, and Ganesh (2011) point out in their book on organizational communication:

Organizations do culture—or communicate culture—at several levels. … [O]rganizations are constantly in the process of constituting cultures through rituals and ceremonies. Advertising and marketing analyses are part of official strategies through which organizations relate to their surroundings. Other rituals and ceremonies take place more or less unnoticed as part of daily routines and standard operating procedures (unwritten procedures for managing meetings, recurrent discussion themes at lunch hour, or ways of joking during breaks). (p. 93)

Working to build “official” communication strategies and large-scale structures that fostered innovation helped me to observe my own individual tendencies—to talk before listening, to assert myself as most knowledgeable and most right—and to begin to shift those practices. My colleagues will likely tell you that these communication habits haven’t been entirely erased from my repertoire. But I’m learning.

And I like to consider: What if everyone’s split-second reaction to unexpected news was “listen first”? How might this small shift in a single communication habit, repeated across individuals and over time, help to build organizational innovation from the ground up? In addition to moving boulders, how might we collect enough pebbles to pave brand new roads?

Cheney, G., Christensen L., Zorn, T., and Ganesh, S. (2010). Organizational Communication in an Age of Globalization. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Conversations with Ingrid Nuttall also contributed to this post.

SLU offers an online Strategic Communications certificate and minor. To learn more about this accelerated degree program designed for busy adults, visit

The Organizational Health Initiative is also housed in the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University. Visit the SLU website for more information about how to create a healthy workplace.

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