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The digital world has given us more and more tools for communicating with each other, and the internet, in many ways, made the world a lot smaller. In less time than takes to commute to an office, an idea can travel across the world and change markets. While the cross-pollination of ideas and norms always have occurred as people migrated and societies changed, this happens today much more rapidly.

Because of this, our world has also grown larger. Different cultures and generations share virtual spaces online (as well as communities and institutions), and ideas are no longer filtered through a single lens.

The dominance of a homogeneous, normalizing culture that dissolves differences as superfluous has never been more hotly contested, in practice as well as in theory.

The best of worlds

Our international, multicultural world doesn’t privilege a single outlook or perspective but is truly a marketplace of ideas. The opportunity to learn from each other and to expand our worldviews is huge, but there is also the temptation to retreat into our own space and to shut out the unfamiliar. While social media potentially exposes us to diverse views, it also gives us the tools to filter, censor and moderate these views.

Online spaces, at least the most popular ones, aren’t always very balanced. Context can easily get lost online. Social media and popular sites trend towards binaries and oppositions, while more nuanced views tend to become obscured. Research shows that emotionally charged posts are shared more frequently, while more thoughtful or critical ideas don’t have the same social value.

At the same time, the sheer volume of data, much of it emotionally potent, can quickly overwhelm our cognitive resources.

Controlling our exposure to information is necessary if we are to remain focused and be productive.

As a result, most people have adjusted to the digital age by adapting the tools it has given us to control and limit our exposure to information. In this sense, our communication strategies are, at least partly, defensive.

Controlling information flow

Asynchronous communication tools such as email and text allow us to control the flow of information and respond at our own pace. And yet these same tools, which are not necessarily ideal for communicating complex, high context information, can create more confusion than clarity.

In addition, we each have a distinct communication style, and we would prefer to be accommodated in it.

For example, what kind of communicator are you?

  • Do you like to send off long emails, copying every potential stakeholder, and including all the details in the interest of full disclosure?
  • When you receive a message that doesn’t make sense, does it seem easier to just pick up the phone and talk?
  • Is your deepest desire simply to be left alone to work, and to only receive the most vital and pared down updates?
  • Are you frustrated because your coworkers seem unable to comprehend your signals, and are all too willing to read agreement into your silence?

Or do you have a different outlook entirely?

The future of work is diverse

The modern work community brings together many, many different histories. Each partner, employee, and customer brings a personal and collective history. From family traditions to religious or cultural observances, what is viewed as acceptable or unacceptable may vary. For example, some families openly air their differences, while others rely on more subtle forms of negotiation. Workplace culture varies also and has a formative impact on its workers and customers.

Two workers coming from different backgrounds may have difficulty communicating because one is used to direct confrontation, while the other communicates using cues like body language or passive tactics. Likewise, some cultures are more authoritarian and others more egalitarian. Not to mention, the millennial generation, while far from a monolith, shares some broad characteristics that are shaping a new workplace culture. Gender, class and other social differences introduce even more nuance.

Consequently, different attitudes towards conflict and decision-making are inevitable. A diverse workplace can use these differences to attack problems from different angles, using different methodologies, and to be more creative, resilient and relevant. Or, they can ignore them, to their peril.

Empowering people, managing information

Leaders empower people and manage information. The two are very closely related. Information empowers people but waiting for information, information overload, and communication breakdowns create substantial barriers to success. Ultimately, poor communication results in disengaged employees and demoralized customers, a loss of vital momentum, and poor positioning in the market. It’s estimated that poor communication costs even small companies an average of $420,00 a year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

It may be difficult, however, to fully estimate the impact of poor communication, or to calculate the loss that results. Poor communication has many deleterious results, including:

  • Loss of valuable insights about customer experience from the front lines (the most valuable source of market research)
  • Lost opportunity cost from poor or underutilized data
  • Wasted resources on duplicate processes and redundancies
  • Diminished credibility with both customers and employees (resulting in a weak culture)

Knowing what information is valuable, how it is useful, and who needs access to it will probably preoccupy leaders well into the future, as information management becomes even more complex. AI, deep learning methodologies, and functional databases will play a key role in managing and allocating data. But humans will serve as a bridge between machine and human learning.

It’s easy to understand why empathy and other soft skills are emerging as the top leadership traits in the future of work. Without emotional intelligence, it will be very difficult for leaders to moderate these differences in their workplaces, without marginalizing and disenfranchising some views, and the value they bring.

After all, if a leader can’t successfully and respectfully moderate differences within their own workplace, how will they navigate and find footing in a highly segmented, niche marketplace?

The enduring value of conversation

In our digital world, having conversations with each other may be even more important than it was before–even if it’s getting harder. Conversations allow a great deal of high context information to flow rapidly, and for critique and feedback to occur instantly. A conversation is the ultimate social platform for exchanging ideas, challenging our conceptions, and building the kind of consensus that drives projects and innovation forward.

In a fascinating study, European researchers found that the rhythms of brainwaves between two people in a conversation actually sync up with each other.

This interbrain synchrony, which they called “entrainment,” appears to play a central role in facilitating successful communication.

The experiment involved strangers on either side of an opaque barrier, to verify that the effect was a result of voice alone.

The spoken word still has a great deal of power to move, persuade, and motivate.

The digital age has opened up endless pathways for ideas and concepts to intersect and converge, and automation will free us up from repetitive, mundane tasks that bring a high cognitive load with little reciprocal value. But making connections, having conversations and sharing ideas will have even greater value.

The greater number of perspectives and outlooks that participate in the conversation, the greater insights and innovations these conversations will yield.