Purpose Built Blog
January 23, 2023
Communication Debt Part 1 - What It Is and Why it Matters
by Reini Chipman and Miles Lasater

What is Communication Debt?

We’re all familiar with the concept of financial debt. You use someone else’s money to do something now and pay more money back later. Hopefully you do something productive with the money or time so that you are better able to handle repayment.

You may also have heard of technical debt. That is where you take less time now to build a piece of software knowing that it will require you to do more work later. Here’s a more technical explanation.

A new concept to many is Communication Debt - when you avoid having a hard conversation right now, hoping it will resolve itself or save you time - but then it makes it harder to have the conversation later. 

Note: We’re not focusing here on interpersonal relationships, trauma or physical violence, rather we’re talking here from a perspective of teams in business.

Common areas in the workplace where hard conversations tend to crop up include:

  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities (including titles and decision making authority)
  • Addressing poor performance or conduct
  • Handling sensitive issues like harassment and discrimination 
  • Supporting folks who take leaves of absence
  • Sharing feedback, especially if the person you’re sharing feedback with is in a position of power
  • Conversations about pay and promotion
  • Challenging big decisions or getting clarity around company strategy
  • Talking about employee exits 
  • Asking for help
  • Delicate, sensitive personal things that may be affecting one’s life and work  

In the past few years employers and employees are dealing with challenging macro-level issues such as the pandemic, social justice, and economic pressures. We’re seeing new themes emerge that can make hard conversations even harder due to significant increases in:

  • Layoffs and organization restructuring 
  • Changes in working arrangements 
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Stress and burnout 

Many leaders are getting hit by wave after wave of compounding employee and team issues. Even the most seasoned managers are on a steep learning curve as they attempt to navigate an increasingly complex set of conversations that they need to facilitate and participate in. 

At times it’s overwhelming - we get it.

Why it Matters

But, by making time and space for conversations that need to be had now, the feedback and information will (a) allow for adjustments in future behavior, (b) free up your energy for other things and (c) build trust. And avoiding hard conversations only causes existing problems to deteriorate and worsen. If you put off a hard conversation for too long, the lack of a conversation can damage a relationship, hurt team performance, and even cause your organization to fail. 

Noam Wasserman’s book The Founders’ Dilemmas popularized research that a whopping 65% of startups that fail are due to team issues. And without addressing team issues by having the conversations, companies are at a high risk of failing.

Fundamentally, business is made up of conversations. We often measure the success of business through financial metrics and production goals, but at the end of the day, conversations are the key to reaching - or missing - those goals.  Although many consider conversation a soft skill, intangible, and immeasurable, effective conversations drive our bottom line. 

The best leaders foster alignment and trust within the team by keeping the mission, vision, and north star top of mind for everyone in the company. They facilitate productive conversations in all directions - enabling the team to ideate, set collective goals, prioritize, negotiate, and share feedback. And great leaders are vigilant about building a foundation of high trust through psychological safety and transparency to enable everyone to access the important-but-hard conversations.

We’re not claiming to always do this right. Being a skillful participant and facilitator of conversations is a lifelong practice. It takes commitment and diligence to build capacity for having what feels like hard conversations. And as a business grows and becomes necessarily more complex, leaders will inevitably find themselves faced with new situations and new types of conversations that they haven’t navigated yet.  

We’ve experienced the pain of postponing conversations and feeling relationships wither or explode later. We’ve also seen the macro level impact on morale and momentum that happens when important conversations are repeatedly mishandled or avoided.  

Questions For Reflection

  • What communication debt do you have currently? 
  • What’s the scariest conversation you need to have right now? 
  • What’s at stake if you don’t have it?
  • Who can you turn to for help and accountability?

Stay Tuned…

Stay tuned for part 2 of this 3 part series as we’ll be sharing some tips on how to prepare for and have hard conversations.

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