Dialogue@Work

Issue One • September 2013

The latest thinking on dialogue and its critical influence on organisational performance

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up

Taking steps toward greater openness in organisations is much easier than many leaders make out

Hardly a week goes by without the leader of some organisation being trashed by government, the press, the consumer or the regulator. Whether it’s the high risk ‘casino culture’ of investment banks, miss-selling in retail banks, bribery in defence or pharmaceuticals, phone hacking in journalism, safety shortcuts in oil, turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct at the BBC, or bullying and cover-ups in the NHS, the script is the same:

“I want zero tolerance of bullying and a culture where people feel able to raise concerns and have the confidence that they will be dealt with appropriately.”

Lord Hall, BBC
  • The executive in the dock did not know about the problem. A contrite apology is offered, usually along with assurances that lessons have been learned, an inquiry is being held, or steps have been taken. The problem is now a ‘legacy issue’.
  • Sceptical critics condemn the executive for presiding over a ‘toxic culture’, characterised as some mix of; greed, complacency, blame, impunity, bullying, secrecy. They demand root and branch ‘culture change’ to make the organisation more open and ethical.
  • Trust in the organisation slips another notch, the employee brand is tarnished, the personal reputations of the CEO, Chairman and non-executives are in tatters.

“There has to be a change in the culture of these institutions.”

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England

But why do so many leaders seem to be ‘out of touch’, and what can they do to create more ‘open cultures’?

This article explores what lessons we can draw from recent events and suggests some very practical steps all senior executives can take to promote greater openness in their organisations.

Lesson 1: Ignorance is no excuse

Firstly, ‘not knowing what is going on’ is a classic failure of leadership.

Leaders are ultimately responsible for all aspects of an organisation’s performance. The plea that they cannot know everything that is going on simply leads to the accusation that it’s ‘too big to fail and too big to manage’.

Although the size of our leading companies has steadily increased, scale in itself is not the main issue. Management thinkers accuse some leaders of ‘Imperial disregard’ and ‘centralising power that reduces influence at the periphery’ (Gary Hamel, London Business School LabNotes, 2011) This is enabled by management information systems, targets and processes to monitor activity across the organisation.

This remote style of management produces an illusion of control. People always find ways to ‘game the system’, so that the stats reviewed at the centre disguise the truth. And when strategic objectives focus on cost containment or short-term shareholder value, it just increases the pressure, promotes perverse incentives, and invites short cuts – setting the stage for the next scandal.

Lesson 2: Culture trumps process – every single time

“Culture will trump rules, standards and control strategies every single time.”

Don Berwick, Improving the safety of NHS patients in England

When leaders are faced with calls to ‘change the culture’, the typical reaction is to revert to type, to do more of the same – re-structuring, reviewing targets, tightening up systems and processes.

Research shows that most CEOs have a background in finance and are ‘process-driven, not ‘people-focussed’. (The loneliness of the CEO, and the dangers for their businesses. The Independent, 21.08.13) This means they can have problems when it comes to the cultural part of the equation; they are on uncomfortable and unfamiliar ground.

Using the word ‘culture’ can easily complicate and confuse the issue. The simple truth is that a lack of open and honest dialogue – i.e. straight talking – is both the problem and the solution. If you want a relationship based on trust and respect, you need honest, open talking.

In other words, for ‘Open culture’ read ‘Open dialogue’.

Leaders must create an environment where people at all levels feel able to contribute; where they feel free to talk, and where their opinions are heard and valued. And that is about changing attitudes as much as it about changing processes.

Lesson 3: Openness has to start at the top

The final lesson is that driving for greater openness and transparency has to come from the top. In organisations where there has been an excessive ‘command and control’ culture, leaders must personally ‘break the ice’ to kick-start dialogue.

In this sort of environment an ‘open door’ policy on its own will not work. Why? Because it takes courage to flag up a problem or challenge your boss. People know about problems but keep quiet out of fear, or because speaking out is seen as futile. Whistle blowers care about the organisation they work for, but have no confidence in the formal channels that should pass information up the chain of command.

It is no surprise that new heads at the BBC and the Quality Care Commission of the NHS recently used external companies to interview staff about bullying in their organisations.

Leaders cannot delegate this ‘soft stuff’ to their HR, Leadership Development and Communication teams – although these specialists must help. A top-down corporate communication campaign or training programme to promote values like ‘openness and honesty’ is not enough. People have heard it all before. They need re-assurance and a clear invitation from the top that their opinions are welcome.

While a leader cannot talk personally to everyone in the organisation, effective leaders recognise and use the symbolic power of their words and actions.

So what practical steps can a leader take?

Step 1: To learn more, listen more

Effective leaders value constructive criticism and conflicting views – they do not just try to persuade, they listen.

The first step is simply to get out of the ivory tower and listen.

“He sought advice from everybody he could get his hands on: cabinet ministers, congressmen and columnists, interest groups and partisans, citizens and friends”

Joseph S Nye, The Powers to Lead on Franklin Roosevelt

Effective leaders are open to multiple sources of feedback and information. They go out of their way to stay ‘in touch’ by tapping into networks and sources beyond their immediate teams. They try to listen to the conversations that take place in the ‘white spaces’ outside the formal forums and meetings, where people say what they really feel. They go out and talk to people on the front line. They set up their own feedback channels to ensure they stay in touch and can receive unfiltered bad news.

In other words, they make sure they are ‘out there’. Contrast this with the leadership style of Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers, who arranged his schedule so that he never met an employee without a formal appointment.

“Blind loyalty meant that Gordon (Brown) was only ever told that which he wanted – or could bear – to hear and that meant that, ultimately, he was badly served. Speaking truth to power never came into it”.

Alistair Darling, Back from the Brink

Step 2: Focus on how the ‘Top Teams’ talk

The way that top teams work sets the tone for whole organisations.

Effective leaders carefully manage the way their own teams talk. They nurture challenge and free debate, based on all available evidence. By adopting this style they ensure that decisions are jointly owned, and they are setting an example for leaders across the whole organisation.

Leaders must recognise that their behaviour has the power to draw colleagues out or shut them down. Under Fred Goodwin at RBS; “People were intimidated from speaking their own mind because they feared Fred’s reaction. This created an atmosphere around him that inhibited even the most senior people in the bank from expressing their views”. David Appleton, Head of Media Relations RBS, speaking in a BBC documentary.

“People in positions of great power inhabit a bubble. These people are surrounded by others who wish to please them and hope to acquire power by doing so… it is the responsibility of the powerful to ensure that they surround themselves with independent thinkers and critical allies who have the freedom and moral courage to tell them the truth”.

Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness

But it is not just about personal leadership style. Teams quickly fall into comfortable routines with regular agendas, fixed points of view and little genuine dialogue. Meetings can easily become stale rituals where team members are at risk of group-think.

Effective leaders recognise this and encourage the teams they lead to reflect on the way they talk together – to pay attention to their ‘conversational habits’. They find ways to shake up established habits. They promote open debate in leadership teams across the organisation and they take steps to review and audit the health of these teams.

3. Have the courage to open it up

Listening to the organisation and nurturing openness in leadership teams can be low profile and discrete, but ultimately a leader must encourage openness and participation at all levels – and this is high profile.

“In a study of Ghosn’s turnaround leadership at Nissan, a fellow executive offered this observation: ”In old Nissan, there was hardly any discussion in most senior management meetings… Today our meetings are different. We actually debate issues. We openly disagree with one another. It took some time for all of us to get used to it, but our meetings are much more productive”.

Conversations can Save Companies Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind, Harvard Business Review

It is all about communication, but the right type of communication. It involves moving away from delivering messages to asking big, open questions and throwing the agenda over to the audience. Leaders can use any number of interactive media, but should include large-scale meetings, organised with Open Space Technology or a similar approach. The high visibility, immediacy and authenticity of these events is invaluable.

Just as speaking up requires courage from employees, opening up debate across an organisation requires courage from a leader. Senior colleagues often question the value of the exercise. They want to avoid being put on the spot by ‘difficult questions’. They are concerned that it will undermine their authority and encourage the airing of grievances and disruptive demands. They would prefer to stage and script communication.

When it comes to the crunch, an organisation’s espoused commitment to ‘openness and honesty’ is usually heavily qualified.

In our experience, these fears are exaggerated. More than anything, the hierarchy tends to under-estimate the innate goodwill and sense of responsibility of ordinary employees who want to contribute and want be constructive.

In conclusion…

“The standard format of any important IBM meeting was a presentation using projectors and graphics… I switched off the projector and simply said, “let’s just talk about your business”.

Lou Gerstner, Who says Elephants can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround

It is a fact that regulators, consumers, employees and shareholders increasingly demand greater openness to improve accountability. Leaders of today’s organisations need to acknowledge this and lead by example. And the simplest way to do so is not to launch full-scale ‘culture change’ programmes; rather it is to focus on improving the freedom and openness of dialogue inside the organisation. To make it OK for employees at all levels to talk about issues that are important to the organisation, without fear of retribution.

Not only will this go a long way to satisfying different stakeholders – but there is a bigger prize. Opening up dialogue can transform culture; it can drive high performance through employee engagement, learning and innovation. And that surely is what all leaders ultimately want.

By Dik Veenman, Founder of The Right Conversation, and Graham Hart, Senior Consultant

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on On Dialogue by David Bohm.
read more →

Looking for Licensees

Interested in helping leadership teams to engage in more productive dialogue? The Right Conversation is looking for experienced HR/OD professionals to become licensed to use its highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™.
become a licensee →

Case study

How the National Express UK Coach business improved performance management by putting conversation at the heart of the process.
read more →

Talking Points

Conversations can save companies →
From Harvard Business Review – a study on the importance of authentic dialogue in effecting a successful corporate turnaround.

The Dangers of “Willful Blindness”→
‘85% of employees say there are issues in their organisations they are afraid to raise’. In her much acclaimed TED Talk Margaret Heffernan explains why.

Previous Articles

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

Reflections on David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’

Many of the patterns of the modern era, such as the rush to solutions, power-centric decision-making and communication as a series of ‘parallel monologues’, are at the heart of this seminal work. Bohm, in his quiet and rigorous voice, explores the consequences of our habits of mind and how they inform what we notice and what meaning we make. He is an understated revolutionary as he unpicks the consequences of these habits, inviting us to explore the assumptions that underpin our ways of communicating with each other.

Rather than paraphrase him, let me try and give you a flavour of his thinking through a few selected quotes that highlight some of the essential qualities of his work.

On the nature of dialogue and how challenging it is to the Western adversarial mind… “In a dialogue… nobody is trying to win” (P7). Many of us have been conditioned to have minds that are tuned to win the argument – to ‘beat’ the other person – rather than seek out understanding and embrace common ground. All too often our goal in communication is to become unassailable rather than transparent or accessible.

On the nature of sense making… “To make a ‘world’ takes more than one person, and therefore the collective representation is the key” (P60). Communication and sense making are social and participative experiences, to see them as something done by individuals in isolation makes no sense. Bohm argues there is no communication without the presence and participation of others.

“…‘society’ is not an objective reality – period. It is a reality created by all the people through all their consciousness” (P88). To think we can change how people think through the use of over-rationalised and simplistic vision statements is to trivialise how meaning gets made – a consequence that can be seen in well-intentioned posters, meaning little, that decorate so many offices and public spaces.

At the heart of Bohm’s insight are two points. Firstly, how we know the world is a function of our habits of mind – and we haven’t ever really paid attention to this. As he puts it: “We have engaged in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content, not to the process” (P9). Secondly what any one of us can know is only limited because: “All knowledge is limited, because it is an abstraction from the whole” (P77).

His work is perhaps even more relevant to our modern world than when he wrote it, because our culture continues to actively undermine the habits of noticing and suspending judgement, muddling together ‘truth’ and ‘opinion’. We are all being encouraged to dance harder and faster without ever questioning whether this pattern is helpful.

The consequences for how we go about changing our organisations are profound, because Bohm argues it is not systems and processes we need to pay attention to, but our habits of mind – and this we can only do in communication/dialogue with others. For him “any change that really counts has to take place in the tacit, concrete process of thought itself” (P78)

His final challenge is to develop the capacity to empty our minds so that we can be open to something else. We have a cultural habit of filling ourselves up with endless thoughts and mental ‘to do’ lists. We need to let go of this and of our knee-jerk reaction of treating everything as a (simple) problem to be solved quickly. Doing more, faster needs to be replaced by a capacity to suspend a rush to premature, individually-based resolution. Which means taking the time to really listen and understand.

‘On Dialogue’ by David Bohm, Edited by Lee Nichol (Routledge 1996)

by John Higgins, Research Director of The Right Conversation

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up

Hardly a week goes by without the leader of some organisation or other being trashed by government, the press or the regulator for being ‘out of touch’ with their organisation and being urged to create a more ‘open culture’.
read more →

Looking for Licensees

Interested in helping leadership teams to engage in more productive dialogue? The Right Conversation is looking for experienced HR/OD professionals to become licensed to use its highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™.
become a licensee →

Case study

How the National Express UK Coach business improved performance management by putting conversation at the heart of the process.
read more →

Talking Points

Conversations can save companies →
From Harvard Business Review – a study on the importance of authentic dialogue in effecting a successful corporate turnaround.

The Dangers of “Willful Blindness”→
‘85% of employees say there are issues in their organisations they are afraid to raise’. In her much acclaimed TED Talk Margaret Heffernan explains why.

Previous Articles

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

Putting conversation at the heart of performance management

Case Study

Many of us will recognise this – the performance review meeting that feels more like a tick box exercise than a constructive dialogue designed to improve future performance. A meeting where completing the form is more important than the content of the discussion.

The HR Team at National Express recognised that the key to a great performance management meeting lies in the quality of the conversation and not the process, and committed to train 150 key line managers to become better at this core skill.

Conversations are based on a distinct set of skills and attitudes – and some people are clearly much more effective than others. Working alongside the Learning and Development team, The Right Conversation developed a bespoke course to introduce managers to the 5 ‘Super-Skills of Effective Conversations™’ and to apply these to the specific context of the performance management meeting. The resulting one-day course was shared with the National Express training team who subsequently rolled it out to the business.

“The team from The Right Conversation worked really flexibly with us to shape their material to meet our needs in supporting our managers to have great performance conversations. They trained our trainers so that we could cost effectively deliver a programme which really hit the mark and is making a real difference.” Jenifer Richmond, HR Director

Dialogue – why leaders need to open it up

Hardly a week goes by without the leader of some organisation or other being trashed by government, the press or the regulator for being ‘out of touch’ with their organisation and being urged to create a more ‘open culture’.
read more →

Looking for Licensees

Interested in helping leadership teams to engage in more productive dialogue? The Right Conversation is looking for experienced HR/OD professionals to become licensed to use its highly-rated diagnostic tool, the Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic™.
become a licensee →

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on On Dialogue by David Bohm.
read more →

Talking Points

Conversations can save companies →
From Harvard Business Review – a study on the importance of authentic dialogue in effecting a successful corporate turnaround.

The Dangers of “Willful Blindness”→
‘85% of employees say there are issues in their organisations they are afraid to raise’. In her much acclaimed TED Talk Margaret Heffernan explains why.

Previous Articles

Get your business talking: The value of having the right conversations

Spotlight on Dialogue, The Right Conversation, 2011

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think