Back in the eighties, I was working for a large aerospace company cutting my teeth as a systems analyst. My bosses were a little older than I am now, and they loved talking about the days before cubicles, pontificating on how personal computers were inferior to mainframes, and reminiscing about the days of the BOMARC missile. It was their way of telling us thirty-something kids that they were in control and we needed to respect their position. Then, as now, information was king and these lumbering ligabuesaurus were not letting it go. To earn your stripes, one had to partake in the tribal rituals, smoke cigars during three-martini lunches, and attend your boss's parties. They saw no value in email let alone the boondoggle shop floor automation project I was part of. In two words, communication sucked.
The Peanut Enters Stage Left
The office was split between the people that ate their lunch at their desks and those that drank their lunch offsite. It was a very different time with ashtrays still a fixture in all conference rooms. I was content eating the lunch my wife had packed in a nondescript brown bag and being pleasantly surprised at her occasional little additions. One day, she threw in a small bag of peanuts. For some reason, I offered them to my three cubicle mates by quietly placing them on the communal table in the center of our shared space. It was not long until Bill, our boss, missiled past our cubicle's entrance on the way to one of his ever-critical planning meetings. With hardly a glance into our workspace, he made an instant course correction to the coordinates of our peanut-laden table. He sat his papers next to the peanut bowl, freeing both hands for the delicate job of shelling peanuts. He focus was suddenly on shelling, eating, and, most importantly, talking. We heard about his upcoming meeting (which would fall into dismal disrepair without him, so he must hurry) as he carefully extracted the meat, dutifully depositing the shells in the dustbin, and slapping their contents into his mouth as one might knock back a shot of cheap whiskey. We sat in amazement of his openness. Within a few minutes, he depleted the peanuts and vanished. My cubicle mates and I stared at one another in shock—communication.
Refining The Process
Over the next few weeks, the small bags from my lunch grew to five-pound bags of Hoody's unshelled salted peanuts stored under my desk. The baggie and trash can were replace with two nice bowels—one for peanuts and another for the empty shells—both of which my wife had found at a garage sale. We discovered that shelled peanuts were ineffective—people would just grab a handful and run. Unshelled peanuts required two hands, a place to conveniently dispose of the waste, and, most importantly, time. Shelling produced only two peanuts, not enough to quench your appetite or impede conversation. It was the perfect combination of lack of satiation, effort, and tending to addictive traits to create the proper dwell time for conversation. We were exploiting people's weaknesses and manipulating our bosses' behavior.
Don't Talk With Your Mouth Full
Information flowed, people understood the goals, and anxiety waned. All for peanuts. In later years, I have found that cherries, grapes, and crackers and hummus all have the same effect. Variety of fair brought the curious. The key was to partake required two hands, or maybe pit, and cannot fill the mouth. Eating one must only whet the appetite.
The task is: do not act too curious. Let them divulge a little. Ask some small question. Then just shut up and listen. They will not be able to tolerate the silence. Splat, here comes a bunch of stuff you never would have heard in a meeting. The challenge is that we never listen enough. Those old bosses never did, they still don't, and, I have news for you, neither do we. Let people ramble and you will be surprised at what you learn.
The Peanuts in Reverse
There is more to learn from this than how to get information from superiors. Hidden in it is the value of unstructured spontaneous communication. This is at the heart of the age-old form of "management by walking around." Walk into a subordinate's office and simply asking how they are doing. The first few occasions bring skepticism, but as it becomes the norm, people open up and tell you what actually is going on. The two key ingredients are:
- One-on-one communication, and
- Time. Stopping your seemly frantic day to talk and, more importantly, listen.
Let's Hear From You
What tricks do you have to boost communications?