How Is the Under Ground Harming Your Business?

Discussion vs Dialogue–What is the difference?

How Is the Under Ground Harming Your Business?
Developing Common Ground

My associate, Marc Porter Ph.D, researches content shows that every organization has three distinct areas.

  • Common Ground–people are engaged, feel safe, trust each other, and the process
  • Under Ground–people are not engaged, think "why bother," sit on the sidelines
  • Battle Ground–people have checked out, sabotage, passive resistance, legal action, etc.

Most executives really don’t know where their organization fits within these three areas. We have conducted a number of C-Level workshops on this topic. We ask the executives to write down what percentage of their company is in each area. Here is a summary of two organizations, a large department within a major research university, and a law enforcement agency.

  • 60% in the common ground
  • 30% in the under ground
  • 10% in the battle ground

Most of the executives felt this was pretty good. They all acknowledged no organization is perfect but 60 percent of people on board and engaged is not terrible.

When we surveyed the personnel in the organizations we discovered a very different story.

  • 19% in the common ground
  • 66% in the under ground
  • 15% in the battle ground

The executives were shocked. 81% of their employees were not engaged, or preparing for battle. One executive said that can’t possibly be correct. We told them, this is right in line with the available research from Bain & Company, Gallup, and Marc Porter, Ph.D.

Bain reported:

  • 60% of employees don’t know their company’s goals, strategies or tactics
  • 80% of Americans are not working in their dream job
  • 15% truly hate what they do

Gallup measured workplace happiness and Marc Porter, Ph.D. research measured workplace engagement. The happiness and engagement results were the same.

  • 19% in the common ground
  • 66% in the under ground
  • 15% in the battle ground

Where is your organization? What is the language used most often in your organization? Are you talking or communicating? Are you having discussion or dialogue?

How often do you hear, or make, these statements?

  • Why is the project so behind schedule?
  • Why hasn’t this program started?
  • Why didn’t we see this coming?
  • Why is turnover so high?
  • Why is it taking so long to fill these positions?
  • They said what?

In my CEO life, I heard these far too often. This ineffective dialogue costs you money, revenue, market share, reputation, etc. Conversely, developing a common ground for positive, productive dialogue will give you a competitive advantage. The question is how? More on this later.

As a CEO, I did my research and hired organizational development professionals to help. I discovered education is the key to civil dialogue, and fear is the enemy of civility. As Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in his book The Four Agreements: fear generated words create hate between different races, between different people, between families, and between nations. Fear generated words are how we pull each other down, and keep each other in a state of fear and doubt.

I also read in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler:

"When your culture is safe, you can say anything. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning. Period. Nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. Fear stops meaningful dialogue."

Dialogue, there is that word again. I said, “We have discussions all the time about issues. I don’t hear hate speech or harassing language. Most of the time people are nodding their heads in agreement.” Therein lies the problem. Discussion vs dialogue–is there a difference?

"Discussion, often called debate, tends to be an individual defining, or defending, his/her position or point of view. The goal is to win. In contrast, dialogue promotes shared understanding instead of individual understanding. In dialogue no one is trying to win. The goal is to determine a solution." (Leslie Bendaly & Nicole Bendaly–Winner Instinct).

My associate Susanna Bravo, MA, often tells me discussion is much like sympathy, and dialogue is like empathy. Again, what is the difference?


Sympathy creates distance

"I am sorry for you"

"Let me know if I can help"


Empathy brings closeness

I am sorry and I am here with you

I am right here to go through it with you

Another way to look at this is the friend who tells you, call me if I can help, but never comes to help (sympathy). And the friend who shows up without being asked (empathy).

OK, now that we understand the difference between discussion and dialogue, how do we encourage and develop dialogue.

My good friend, Nicole Bendaly, writes there are dialogue closers and dialogue openers. What’s the difference?

Dialogue Closers:

"You have got to be kidding"

"Don't even talk to me about..."

"No way anyone is going to tell me."

"We tried that before."

"This is a waste of time."

"Let's take this off line."

Dialogue Openers:

"I'm not sure I understand where you are coming from."

"Can you explain this a little more?"

"Could you give me some examples so I can better understand?"

"I hear what you are saying, go on."

"It looks like we are coming from completely different places, how can we ensure that we really understand each other?"

"Expand on your idea."

Some C-Level people that I interact with tell me, “This is like feeding the hungry; good concept but not practical. I don’t have time for this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff. Why should I spend the time and money?” Why, because high performing organizations don’t just happen. As my associate Marc Porter, Ph.D. tells me, “Developing the civil dialogue to create a high performing organizations is not easy. It takes time, commitment and tremendous effort.” It is like building a garden:

  • You are going to get dirty
  • It is hard work
  • It is constant attention and nurturing
  • Constant review/monitoring

If, as CEO’s, we do not address civility, and growing the Common Ground, one of two possibilities are highly likely. Neither is good.

Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior. (Brene Brown–Dare to Lead). Worse yet, your best employees leave.

  • Employees may file legal action.
  • Here is some recent data on litigation costs.
  • $40,000 Average cost to quickly settle an EEOC complaint internally
  • $250,000 Average cost of legal fees
  • $50K - $300K Average compensatory & Punitive penalties
  • 67% Cases awarded to plaintif
  • $1M 10% of EEOC settlement
  • $115M Average total cost of litigation
  • $404M Annual cost to employers for EEOC cases

High profile cases:

  • Interstate Distributor Co., Case No. 12-CV-02591 0 $4.8M
  • Yellow Transportation Case No. 09-CV-7693 $11M
  • Johnson Controls (Civil Action No. 4:11-cv-03506) $62,500

Not to mention the high profile individuals who have their jobs, careers, and reputations, Harvey Weinstein, Senator Al Franken, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer.

These are frightening numbers, but they just touch the surface. The time lost preparing and defending a case, the loss of good will inside, and outside of your company. The loss of trust. The impact on your reputation with customer, suppliers, advertisers, employees and worst of all potential employees.

How Did We Get Here–Power and Privilege

Unfortunately, life and the world are not fair. Those who have privilege, don’t want to give it up. They feel they have earned their power and position of privilege. While the have nots claim discrimination and seek the law to “help level the playing field.” Strong social movements have led to laws whose intent were to create a “more equitable” environment going back to the issue of slavery.

Each group that feels they are disadvantaged, or do not hold the position of privilege or power will look to legislation for relief. Since 1962 there have been no less than 11 laws passed with the intent to level the playing field against every type of discrimination. Legislation is not a panacea. Legislations provides guidelines. Organizations now have the challenge of translating employment laws into employment practices. So on top of everything else, business leaders have to do, we now have to develop, and address compliance training, as we attempt to translate employment laws into employment practices.

Sometime around 1969, in an effort to address the successful implementation of the laws, new regulations were mandated, and we started the era of “mandatory compliance training and corporate governance training. Do any of these sound familiar:

  • Affirmative Action Training
  • Anti-harassment Training (California’s AB 1825)
  • Multi-cultural Training
  • Cross-cultural Training
  • Diversity and Inclusion Training
  • Dealing with Hostile Employees
  • Talking “Differences” using Personality Profiles (MBTI, EQ, Learning Styles Inventory, etc.)

Since most compliance training are met with massive resistance (“Another compliance training! I don’t have time for this! More training to threaten and scare us! This is such a waste of time!” We looked to make compliance training more interesting and more relatable. We started to use self-improvement Training (e.g., 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness). This training focused on “making the individual better, not moving the organizations toward the common ground."

  • After 60 years of mandatory compliance training, how much progress have we made? There has been some positive results:
  • Better awareness of difference (Including pay disparities, racial harassment, etc.)
  • A decline in violence against workers (although you wouldn’t realize it with the speed of social media and 24 hours news)
  • There has also been a large amount of backlash:
  • Increased resentment toward others
  • Belief Pendulum swung too far and the pejorative use of the expression saying someone is being “politically correct"
  • Fragmentation of functions (Gig economy–more contractors)
  • Underground support groups expanded
  • Increasing number of class-action lawsuits challenging systemic workplace discrimination
  • Rise of the #MeToo Movement since 2017
  • Divisiveness, abrasiveness become new normal in politically-charged rhetoric
  • Intolerance of others (ironically) grows wider.

Now what?

Frustrating isn’t it? How much time and money has your organization spent on compliance and self-improvement training? It has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Unfortunately making yourself a better person is not enough. The problems are complex, it is time to change the conversation.

How to improve civility at work and grow Common Ground? It will not be easy, but the starting point is by reframing and restoring shared values, goals and culture. For example:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Identity around the work itself

The three key questions to build the common ground as outlined in the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler are:

  • Do we trust each other?
  • What kind of future do we want together at work?
  • Are we sufficiently committed to the team’s and organization’s goals and our collective success?

Since we live in a “fix it right now world,” far too many managers and executives ask the wrong questions, which misplaces their focus. They become fixated with constantly changing the process or procedures. I know I did. This is too often a knee jerk reaction, which is similar to a farmer constantly re-plowing the same field every day. Rather than focusing on changing the techniques again, let start changing the dialogue.

So let’s go back to the question we asked earlier, how will developing a common ground for positive, productive dialogue give you a competitive advantage? High performing organizations don’t just happen, they have developed a thriving common ground where employees are energized and engaged. As a result they have competitive advantages such as:

  • Create space for more creative product design, process improvement, and strategy development
  • Connections strengthen around the work to be done and problems are solved together
  • Decline in an organizational culture of fear
  • Oriented less around achieving happiness, or demonstrating power and control, and more around solving complex problems together
  • Dialogues foster shared meaning and understanding
  • Revenue, profitability, market share, good will, recruitment increase
  • Time and money is not wasted preparing for violation management

Got your attention? The next step is up to you. Call us, we’ll help you.

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Frank Zaccari

Written five books based on life altering events; teaches aspiring entrepreneurs at Arizona State; mentor with the Veterans Treatment Court and University of California Entrepreneurship Academy; Radio show host - Life Altering Events

See all posts by Frank Zaccari