Purpose Built Blog
April 12, 2023
Communication Debt Part 3 - How to build in safeguards into your company
by Reini Chipman and Miles Lasater

In Part 1 of this series we discussed what is communication debt and why it matters. In part 2 we discussed how to have hard conversations as an individual. In part 3, we discuss how leaders in organizations can build safeguards into their company to avoid unwanted communication debt. 

Start Well

Use a template when bringing on new employees or having co-founder conversations questions. Here are some tools to get you started:

Let us know if you want to see the template we use for early conversations with founders.

Model the One-on-One Conversations

As a leader, how you behave has a big impact on the culture and practices of others.

The first step in this process is acknowledging the effort that someone has put into coming to you with a conversation that is important to them. We encourage everyone to take a moment to express their gratitude and thank the person for trusting them enough to come forward. This simple act can set the tone for a productive conversation and help build trust in the relationship.

Once you've expressed gratitude, it's important to actively listen to what the other person has to say. Stay curious and open to learning. Reflect back what you're hearing to ensure you've heard it correctly. It's essential to understand what matters most to them in this particular situation, and mine for the core value they are trying to uphold. This way, you can find common ground, ensure everyone is accessing the conversation, and move it forward.

It's important to remember that you don't have to agree with everything the other person is saying. You might only agree with a small percentage of what they're sharing. However, it's crucial to focus on working through and with people to get to the best outcomes that drive the business forward. Ask yourself, in what way is their feedback true? What can you learn from it?

Progress is rarely linear, and feedback can sometimes feel like a step backward. It's important to check in with your mind, body, and heart and tune in to your inner wisdom in each of these dimensions. Ask yourself, what do you need to let go of? What's a new perspective that you can choose to support your learning journey?

Finally, solidify this experience as a trust-building opportunity in your relationship. Circle back with the person and let them know what steps you'll take, and ensure you follow through on your commitments. Check-in to ensure you resolve any open issues.

When you build the habit of expressing gratitude and actively listening to feedback, the process becomes more comfortable for everyone involved. By modeling the behavior, you make it easier for others to do it.

Practice with the Team

Scheduling recurring agenda items for feedback and discussing the "elephant in the room" is a great way to make these conversations a regular part of your team's routine.

Put these conversations on the agenda, either with individuals or the team as a whole. Starting small by sharing your current emotional state or what's been distracting you lately can open the door to more meaningful conversations. This can release energy for you and your team and help you reveal more.

However, it's crucial to remember not to use these conversations as an excuse to attack others. Be aware of projection and practice the turnarounds to ensure that you are not projecting your own feelings onto others.

The practice of having these conversations regularly helps build the organizational muscle of open communication and feedback. You and your team will be more likely to bring up topics if you have done so in the past, and people learn that the sky doesn't fall immediately. With time and practice, you'll create a culture where feedback is not only accepted but sought after, and everyone feels comfortable bringing up difficult topics.

Make a Regular Inventory

Take a regular inventory of the conversations you or the team may be avoiding. For example:

  1. Performance Feedback: Giving and receiving feedback is essential to the growth and development of your team members. Without it, individuals may continue to make the same mistakes, hindering their progress and the progress of the company.
  2. Roles and Responsibilities: Clear roles and responsibilities are crucial for effective teamwork. Make sure your addressing titles and decision making power.
  3. Rewards: Compensation, including equity, is a sensitive topic, but one to address to ensure that you compensate and motivate everyone appropriately.
  4. Asking for Help: Asking for help can be difficult, but it's necessary to ensure that individuals have the resources and support they need to be successful.
  5. Addressing Discrimination: Act to address harassment, sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination to create a positive and effective workplace environment.
  6. Delicate Personal Matters: Sometimes, personal issues can affect an individual's work, and it's important to create a space for these conversations to take place.

Building Communication Debt

We know that you can use debt constructively in business. Is there an analogy with conversational debt? Yes, we believe so.

However, it's important to set a clear timeline for these delays so that the conversation isn't avoided indefinitely. In some cases, delaying a conversation can also be a way to protect oneself from feeling bad but doesn’t actually help in the long term.

Benefits to delay include:

  • Preparing Properly: You may want to take time to feel your own emotions fully so that you can see more clearly. You may want to gather examples. You may want to outline the conversation or practice with someone else. You may also need time to prepare legal documents or notices.
  • Synchronizing Communication: When multiple people need to hear the same message at the same time, you may delay.
  • Agreement from Others: Before communicating big changes, you may want to get agreement from others in the organization. 

Examples of times when you may use communication debt constructively:

  • Termination Preparation: We hope that termination is not the first performance conversation you’ve had with this employee. Regardless, there are often legal and internal requirements to be met before having the conversations. 
  • Layoff: Layoffs can drive the need for even more preparation given the numbers involved and regulation.
  • M&A: If you are merging with or buying another company, they may require that you keep the information confidential. You may have regulatory reasons for confidentiality, too.
  • Legal Requirements for Confidentiality: you may be required to keep personal health information confidential or other business information based on contract or SEC regulations for example. It is helpful to have a general conversation with your team about the need to keep some information confidential so that they are not surprised when they find out that you did this.
  • Quitting: If you decide to quit, you may want to line up a new job before telling your employer. Or you may want to prepare public talking points.

Act to Pay Down Communication Debt 

If you’ve decided to pay down communication debt, here are some steps you can take: 

  • Send an email scheduling time to talk to the person.
  • Start revealing more at home to practice
  • Make a list and sort from easiest to hardest
  • Add “talking about the elephant in the room” to a team meeting agenda
  • Start with the people easiest to speak with first
  • Ask for help from another person to be in the conversation
  • Celebrate wins big and small
  • Acknowledge team members’ skill and will when it comes to participating in  conversations


We hope this is helpful. We write about this not because we are perfect at these practices. Rather because they are important and we are still learning. We look forward to your input and suggestions.

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