What Lawsuits for $17.31 Teach Us about Communication Avoidance

Several years ago, a man in Austin, Texas brought a lawsuit against his date for $17.31. The cause of this grievance? During a showing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, he claimed his date was texting on her phone and that this clearly violated the theater’s rules. Perceived as an unforgiveable crime, the texting contributed to a less than stellar movie viewing experience.

Now, was this really about the $17.31? And, perhaps inspired by the movie, was this man truly acting as a noble guardian of the theater’s rules? It’s obvious to you and I that the man’s “presenting” reasons in this case had nothing to do with his motivations for filing the lawsuit. Beneath the surface, feeling slighted, unimportant, and disconnected from his date clearly fueled the filing. Yet instead of engaging in grown-up dialogue to try to work through a difference, the plaintiff went straight for litigation that rubbed salt straight into that wound.

As ridiculous as this lawsuit was, it runs parallel to an issue that threatens every organization’s survival. I’ve noticed this strange development in working with many different organizations over the years. Through no one person’s fault, over time people get good at ignoring the most important part of what makes their organization work—communication about the personal, social, and trusting relationships that drive every tangible result. Let’s take a good look at this.

Two ostriches sticking their heads in the ground to avoid looking at data on interpersonal dimensions
From Peter Block, Flawless Consulting, 173

If I had to name the #1 way in which this plays out, it’s when the seemingly invisible, hard-to-talk-about subtext of relational issues up, down, and across an organization (and especially those that have to do with leadership and management) get swept under the rug for the visible, easy-to-talk-about text of dealing with technical issues and tasks.  

If I had the help of a network researcher at hand, my sense is that we could look at the content of workplace emails alone and find out that most organizational talk is about strategies, policies, tasks to be accomplished, technology updates, and more. But little of that same attention is allocated to communication and what’s being created in it. As a result of that inattention, employee morale declines, conflicts erupt, fires need put out, and people leave. This all comports with a popular idea that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.

When I’ve asked people what problems they’re having at work, I’ve never heard that the copy machine isn’t working well (the classic movie Office Space more than took care of that issue). Among other problems, I hear about the challenges of working with someone who’s always curt in interactions, the length of time it takes for department X to return an email or call, or the distance felt between frontline staff and authorities.

This week I was reading a classic book by Peter Block where this challenge leaped off the page. Block highlights in the preceding image that when advisors are brought into organizations to help with a technical/business “presenting” challenge, stakeholders too often leave “relationships” (treated as a “necessary inconvenience”) outside the scope of their definitions for problems and solutions.

The truth is that both the pain points of technical/business problems and relationship problems both need to be addressed when challenges or opportunities are at hand. But avoiding interpersonal data seems like a near universal default setting for organizations. As a result, problems receive band-aid solutions while relational sores continue to fester and impact sought-after results.

We end up acting like what we’re doing isn’t primarily a relationship business, and doesn’t require communication to create, maintain, and repair the realities that we work up into existence. So, why do we avoid communication issues? Because it’s hard to talk about this stuff. It’s much easier to talk about external tasks than inner feelings, communication structures, and the intangible parts of life that seem invisible at work and in life. Don’t think this matters? Then just look at data reminding us of how much it costs to replace an employee.

So, let’s get real. What if we don’t talk head on about communication and relationships at work? Then a whole realm of interpersonal data and issues is going on anyways. Like a poorly constructed dam, what starts as spouts here and there will turn into a flood down the road.  

What to do, then? Block writes that, “To value struggle, entertain maddening questions, and live with paradox in the service of thinking differently is hard. Really hard. Our instinct is to move toward comfortable subjects, reach for the habitual way of working.” But as Glennon Doyle reminds us, we can talk about hard things. Making a commitment to engage this difficult territory provides a great start.

I can think of at least two practices that can move people a couple of steps further—and that’s where to start when an organizational culture or climates have not supported looking directly at interpersonal data for years on end.

First, when you hear about a challenge your organization is facing, ask yourself “what does looking beyond the presenting problem to the relationship/communication level show here?” You’ll often find that challenges have arisen wholly at this level, or are integrated in some way with the technical problems afoot.

Second, in both structured one-to-one dialogues or team meetings with others, insert a spot on the agenda for looking directly at how relationships and communication are going. When some bristle at this, thinking that it’s not a real agenda item and too “touchy-feely,” raise the point that every hardline result such as employee retention, trust in leadership, and commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are impacted by this agenda item.

As just some ideas, you can raise questions about how much voice others feel like they have, if meeting structures and ways of organizing teams are helping or hurting results, where disconnections up, down, and across the organization exist, and more.   

Don’t ignore your organization’s most important asset. By looking at rather than simply through communication, organizations can get to the heart of what makes every collective effort possible. And it’ll always be worth a whole lot more than $17.31.