Brain power

The importance of conversations at work

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Companies that strive to be innovative often go to great lengths to ensure conversations happen. Workplaces are designed to encourage serendipitous encounters. Digital tools are offered to provoke conversations in the hope that ideas will percolate and inspiration strike.

While this concept is fairly well accepted, it’s less well understood just how enduring networks are forged at work. Why is it that while some interactions flourish and lead to ongoing connections, others fall flat?

Verbal cues

Research1 from INSEAD highlights how conversations come complete with verbal cues that can affect how we perceive each other. The researchers analyzed interactions in a large tech firm to try and understand what it is that makes some connections endure better than others.

As with many firms, the Covid period saw a rise in remote working, but this was a trend that had begun long before the pandemic made it widespread. Nonetheless, the company was keen to explore ways to help employees make connections across the organization and share their expertise and knowledge.

To try and stumble across ways to make this happen, the researchers devised an experiment whereby the 1,100 or so volunteers were connected with a random colleague and instructed to discuss possible ideas for collaboration. Each volunteer was asked to disclose information about themselves that was either work-related or non-work-related. The researchers then studied the linguistic cues used by the participants.

Guided conversations

To help them, the volunteers were given one of two sets of questions that were themselves adapted2 from a series of questions designed to help generate interpersonal closeness. One set was based on work-related questions, with the other based on personal questions.

Each volunteer was asked to try and answer five questions:

  1. Given the choice of anyone [in the world/in the workplace], who would you want as a dinner guest and why?
  2. What would constitute a [perfect day for you/ perfect day for you at work]?
  3. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of [doing/doing at work] for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  4. What do your [friendships/friendships at work] mean to you?
  5. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life [outside of work/at work]?

The hope was that the experiment would provide insights as to whether these initial self-disclosures would help people from unfamiliar groups bond and reduce any possible anxiety caused by future interactions. The researchers were also keen to understand whether there was any difference between discussing work or non-work-related topics in their effectiveness in helping us to bond.

Lowering anxiety

The results suggest that any kind of conversation is usually effective at lowering our anxiety levels, but the topic of conversation is nonetheless important. For instance, when the conversation was work-related, people would often use words typically associated with the need for achievement.

When we use verbal cues that signal a more self-oriented and competitive motivation, this can be off-putting to other people as they may perceive us as being less supportive of them and even less interested. Indeed, work-related conversations themselves can dehumanize us and make our conversation partner feel objectified.

When we focus our conversation on non-work matters, however, this tends to form the basis for further conversations as they foster more closeness and trust, which are the bedrock of sound relationships.

The authors explain that while there have been numerous initiatives designed to promote connectivity with our colleagues, from office parties to hackathons, there remains a clear need to encourage connectivity, especially during a pandemic in which the workforce will have changed so much.

The study reminds us that while these efforts are undoubtedly welcomed, organizations should also give some thought to how people engage so that more lasting and meaningful relationships are formed. A focus on human-to-human interactions rather than “talking shop” could go a long way.

Article source: The Importance Of Conversations At Work.


  1. Martin, S. R., Harrison, S. H., Hoopes, C., Schroeder, J., & Belmi, P. R. (2022). Talking shop: An exploration of how talking about work affects our initial interactions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 168, 104104.
  2. Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.
Rate this post

Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

Related Articles

Back to top button