The 80/20 Rule and More Substantive Conversations at Work

I was reflecting yesterday over a great conversation I had with my 20-year old son Saturday as we ran errands and grabbed lunch on his last day of winter break before he headed back to college. In the past when my son was much younger, I had a tendency to jump right into the topics I wished to discuss: “How was school today?”, “How did you do on your History quiz?” and the ever annoying dad question: “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”…you get the picture. His responses were typically “yes”, “no”, “fine”, “I don’t know” or “I guess”. Sound familiar?

As my son entered his late teens, I worked harder at meeting him where he was in our conversations. Saturday’s conversation was an example of this transition as we talked about sports, the books he is reading, his impressions on the events of the day, Spring Break plans and a number of other topics that interest him. I tried to just ask topical questions and let him talk without interruption while I practiced active listening. At some point in the conversation, when he felt comfortable, we touched on weightier and more substantive issues like life after college, internships, friendships, faith, grades, etc. But, this substantive part of the dialogue was at most only 20% of the conversation. The other 80% of the conversation was on lighter topics that were an important and necessary prelude to the deeper conversation we had later. Sometimes in these conversations we don’t get to what you and I may deem “important” issues at all, and that is perfectly fine because I have learned that eventually we will discuss these weightier matters when the time is right. The groundwork needs to be laid first. Plus, I really enjoyed the first 80% of our discussion!

What does this have to do with work? I often observe that leaders in my network forget the 80/20 Rule applies to work conversations as well. We are typically so busy that we don’t feel we have the time to invest in a conversation that deviates from the business at hand.  What a missed opportunity! We often fail to learn about how our colleagues are really doing, especially in the age of Covid and with the lack of civility so pervasive in our country. We may be getting perfunctory answers to our work questions, instead of the more honest and open discussions we crave. Perhaps the answer is more patience and better listening on our part. Perhaps we should meet our team members and colleagues where they are and invest in getting to know more about their interests and lives outside of work. We may need to simply ask their opinion with a sincere desire to hear their thoughts…and just absorb what they say without judgment. By the way, this investment in curiosity, listening and discussing the personal side of life builds trust, which is an essential building block of strong relationships.

I can’t think of a single business leader who would not benefit from more substantive conversations at work. If this is a challenge you face, like many of us do, consider the lessons of the 80/20 Rule. Take time to invest in meeting people where they are and be more patient. Be intentional about scheduling 1:1 conversations where work is only a sliver of the agenda and the rest is good old fashioned conversation filled with life, family, struggles, successes, and hopefully a little humor. Ask questions with a desire to learn about the other person. Show sincere interest. Be empathetic. The 80/20 approach is not always perfect, but eventually you will achieve richer and more meaningful discussions with those around you at work. 

Doesn’t this payoff justify the effort?

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