It seems like responses to [employee questions] have gotten increasingly more lawyer-like with canned phrases or platitudes, which seem to ignore the questions being ask. Are we planning on bringing candor, honesty, humility and frankness back ... or continuing down a bureaucratic path?
Pichai's response may not be what you'd expect, but I believe it's an example of effective leadership. First, however, some context:
In the mammoth and frenzied pivot to WFH models, many companies are still struggling to figure out effective communication models. Direct human interaction, replaced in many cases by messaging platforms, no longer provides critical nonverbal nuance.
As Tricia Jones of Temple University called out in a spotlight article on communication during the pandemic, nonverbal communication "is so rooted in how we understand the other person that if we have a difference between what we're saying and how we're behaving nonverbally, we almost always trust the nonverbal." And when the nonverbal is absent? Nuance is lost -- and in some cases, like those highlighted in the Google example above, honesty is questioned.
Pichai acknowledged this, however -- including the tendency to lean on massive digital forums to address employee questions and concerns. This is not uncommon; even smaller companies take advantage of easy-to-use platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom to bring more people together than would ordinarily happen in person.
The problem? "People are always nervous to answer in this setting," Pichai admitted. This often results in pre-scripted, "canned" responses that come across as either disingenuous or gloss.
The solution? Cutting the meeting size. "I think it's been super helpful to invest in smaller forums," he said during the all-hands meeting. Studies support this; one paper specifically, put out by the Association of Psychological Science, revealed that smaller groups have more discussion-like back-and-forth. Get to a size of 10 -- the average size of Zoom meetings in 2021 -- and you end up with one person delivering a monologue. The check and balance is missing and a single participant dominates the narrative.
While it's tempting to take advantage of the logistically simple digital media that make communication both easy and fast, it's also detrimental to true understanding: Too many people in one meeting leads to a lopsided exchange while the lack of nonverbal cues often fail to convey accurate messaging.
In short, avoid the digital temptations to scale meetings. Keep them small and be intentional about giving every one a chance to speak. If safe and appropriate, hold some of your meetings in person. At the very least, make video calls part of the norm -- then, some nonverbal communication comes through.