Dialogue@Work

JULY 2014

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

Open dialogue – it’s all in the mind

When asked, most leaders will say that open, honest dialogue with employees is a critical enabler of an effective organisation. The seemingly never-ending stream of revelations of illegal behaviours, poor decision-making and the triumph of the short-term greed of a few over the long-term needs of the many means that leaders are no longer trusted. And not just business leaders – in the UK levels of trust in policemen, journalists and politicians are also at record lows. Most leaders instinctively understand that honest, open dialogue with employees and other stakeholders is a vital component of restoring this trust.

They also recognise some other trends – that employees and other stakeholders increasingly expect to have a ‘voice’ in matters that concern them (one only has to witness the recent political turmoil in Europe to see what happens when people feel their leaders are not listening to them), and they understand that collaboration and innovation – the very foundations of the knowledge economy – can only work if employees are able to talk and engage freely.

So it seems a no-brainer that creating a culture where people talk openly should be top of most CEO’s ‘to do’ lists. Well yes and no. Our research suggests this is easier said than done and that there are significant barriers to overcome, barriers that are largely in our own minds.

The 7 Barriers to Open Dialogue

There are very good reasons why people do not engage easily in open dialogue, even if invited to do so by their leaders. They are as follows.

  1. People are cautious‘Truth does not easily speak to power’
    Humans are innately cautious. Evolution has taught us to be careful about who we speak to and what we say, until we know it is safe. So just asking people to ‘speak up’ will not work unless they believe that those in charge are genuinely willing to hear the truth. And in many cases experience tells us this is patently not the case. As a result there are still far too many senior people who do not know what is going on in their organisations
  2. We don’t like to upset other people
    We are sociable creatures and belonging to the tribe is hard-wired into our psyches. So being open and honest is risky as it can damage the relationships we have with those around us. Hence the reason people sign up for workshops that train them to have so-called ‘difficult conversations’.
  3. We are taught that dialogue is win-lose
    Western society has long prized the art of debate and the notion that dialogue is about attempting to persuade others that we are ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong’. We award prizes at debating clubs and admire those who can win an argument. This win-lose model lies at the heart of our legal and political systems and it is played out in Boardrooms up and down the country.
  4. ‘I’m the boss’
    There is in most people a deeply held mental model of what it means to be the ‘boss’. For many of us it equates with ‘knowing the answer’ and ‘being in control’. And it is not just bosses who think this – many of us actively place these expectations on those who lead us. The challenge this presents to creating an environment of more open dialogue is that this old model comes with some unhelpful behavioural baggage – i.e. the tendency for leaders to want to work from a script, to be in control of the message and, most importantly, to focus on providing answers, not asking questions. A great conversation starts with a great question. Despite the moves towards more a participative style of leadership, many leaders still worry that not having the answer will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.
  5. Belief that feedback = dialogue
    The default to most organizational problems is to introduce another process. In the case of dialogue all too often this means a survey or a focus group. But just because people have filled in a questionnaire does not mean you are engaged in dialogue with them. It merely means you have created an opportunity to start one.
  6. Lack of time
    Especially in Western business culture there is a strong tendency to rush to action – ‘cut the bullshit’ and ‘let’s not waste any time, what are we going to do’ are phrases used by leaders who like to see themselves as ‘dynamic’. No time to waste on talking!
  7. Lack of skills
    We all know it is true that some managers are better at engaging in dialogue than others. But these are skills that can be learned – we can all become better at this (5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations). Yet how many organisations recognise that this is the case and invest in training? Not many in our experience.

Conclusion

Our research suggests that the solution to more open dialogue lies not in creating more process, but in acknowledging the barriers to true openness that lie within all of us – i.e. our behaviours, attitudes and skills. This applies in particular to senior leaders who set the tone for the rest of the organisation. This is not issue they can delegate, but instead is one where they need to look critically at how they themselves behave and to ask the question ‘How willing and skilled am I as a leader at engaging in open conversations with those around me?’ The answer will go a long way to deciding how open the rest of the organization is likely to be.

By Dik Veenman, Founder of The Right Conversation

Classic Texts

In this edition we review another classic text in the field of organisational dialogue, John Shotter’s Conversational Realities… Constructing Life Through Language (1993), where he argues that changing an organisation means changing the way people talk about it.
read more →

Flaming E-mails

How to avoid e-mail conversations that lead to trouble

We have all done it – fully intending to have a sensible e-mail conversation with a colleague but instead sending one those ‘heat of the moment, later regretted’ emails…
read more →

Offers and Blocks – a case study

Find out how Old Mutual Wealth used some of the techniques of improvisational comedy used by The London Comedy Store Players to help line managers have better performance management conversations.
read more →

Talking Points

First US Licensing workshops
We will be running our first workshop in the US on 7th July in Boston to license around 20 Executive Coaches and OD Professionals in the use of our Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic.

The strategic importance of conversations →
Read this article we recently wrote for Developing Leaders magazine

Previous Newsletters

March 2014
December 2013
September 2013

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

Conversational Realities… Constructing Life Through Language by John Shotter

In this book Shotter argues that how we talk together lies at the heart of how new patterns of organisational life do and don’t get created; if you want to promote change then you have to change not only what gets talked about but how it gets talked about, as he puts it… to talk in new ways is to “construct” new forms of social relation, and… construct new ways of being for ourselves’

Right from the start he challenges our belief in the existence of shared meaning, instead arguing that ‘… in practice, shared understandings occur only occasionally, instead it is develop over a period of time, in the course of a conversation (P 1).’ Relying on a series of set piece, one-off Town Hall speeches is unlikely to achieve anything beyond sustaining a illusion of control amongst those delivering such messages. If an organisation really intends to create an environment of meaningful connection and communication then it needs to work from an understanding that ‘… our ability as individuals to speak… arises out of [being] responsive to the others around us (P 6)’.

This view of the power of talk and its fluid nature is based on his belief that the world does not exist as a thing outside of ourselves; we quite literally create it by how we talk (and argue) about it. Not taking talk seriously is therefore not to take the world we live and work in seriously – and disable any serious attempt to change it.

However, within organisations the quality of conversation is too easily wrecked by the naïve belief in words having readily defined and objective meaning. For Shotter ‘…to insist words have pre-determined meaning is to rob people of their right to participate in developing a conversational topic with others (P 28).’

This insight has simple and obvious implications for those of us involved in corporate communications, because it argues that communication is an active, living process and not a series of uni-directional, ignorable announcements. Conversations are moments of truth (or rather truth making and remaking), because ‘…all the words we utter serve to make crucial differences at crucial moments (P34).’ Organisational life is a conversation; the livelier and more engaging the conversation, the livelier and more engaged are the people who work in the organisation. ‘Individuals can have a sense of “belonging” only if others around them are prepared to respond to what they do and say seriously (P39).’

Putting conversations centre stage of organisational life also challenges one of the central views that is widely held within Western corporations and institutions, namely that ‘…people are atomic individuals living in isolation from each other… this is an illusion (P58).’ Shotter argues that ‘life by its very nature is dialogic. Corporate communications is therefore to be seen as a continuous process where shared understanding is only ever fleetingly achieved and which is best assumed only rarely to exist. Our confusion with how people make sense of the world arises from an unhelpful belief that we can expect people to arrive at and stick to a fixed meaning. Ongoing conversation is the only hope we have to live with this world of partial and inter-dependent sense making.

In Conversational Realities, Shotter draws heavily on a wide range of philosophers (especially Wittgenstein and Rorty) to argue the case for a much more enlivening and ongoing understanding of conversations. For him conversations are something that exist in the hurly burly of people’s everyday lives; they can never be tamed and turned into some definitive text where a single and enduring meaning is set in stone. The implications for corporate communications are profound – communications is about engaging with a plethora of different conversational patterns, not trying to enforce common understanding by rolling out a standard message to be delivered through a standard, managed process.

Conversational Realities… Constructing Life Through Language by John Shotter (1993 )

by John Higgins, Research Director of The Right Conversation

Flaming E-mails

How to avoid e-mail conversations that lead to trouble

We have all done it – fully intending to have a sensible e-mail conversation with a colleague but instead sending one those ‘heat of the moment, later regretted’ emails…
click here →

Open dialogue – it’s all in the mind

Most business leaders recognize that an organisational culture where employees feel free to speak openly is essential to success in the modern world. And yet achieving this is easier said than done. It turns out that the solution to greater openness and collaboration lies not in creating more process, but in acknowledging and addressing some very real barriers that lie inside all of us. It turns out it is all in the mind.
click here →

Offers and Blocks – a case study

Find out how Old Mutual Wealth used some of the techniques of improvisational comedy used by The London Comedy Store Players to help line managers have better performance management conversations.
read more →

Talking Points

First US Licensing workshops
We will be running our first workshop in the US on 7th July in Boston to license around 20 Executive Coaches and OD Professionals in the use of our Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic.

The strategic importance of conversations →
Read this article we recently wrote for Developing Leaders magazine

Previous Newsletters

March 2014
December 2013
September 2013

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

Flaming e-mails

How to avoid e-mail conversations that lead to trouble

The twin illusions of efficiency and effortlessness make e-mail communications at once beguiling and problematic. The potential speed and reach of the medium promises to better our output and to simplify our work. E-mails can often approach the synchronicity and spontaneity of face-to-face conversation. They help us move mountains of information with ease and afford us countless opportunities for workplace creativity and connection.

Yet e-mails filter out a myriad of social and contextual clues that make real conversation possible: the exchange of non verbal cues in gesture and voice; the subtle construction of sense and meaning; the attribution of intent or emotion; and the ability to provide ‘real-time’ explanations that can correct negative assumptions and interpretations – something we are able to do when we speak face-to-face, or on the phone.

Without these crucial dimensions of social interchange, at best e-mail provides limited textual information and at worst lead to the misinterpretation of other’s communication and to the possibility of spiraling conflict with so called e-mail ‘flaming’. Whether we take ‘flame’ e-mails to be those “heat of the moment, later regretted replies” or to be communications that the receiver (for whatever reason) considers to be aggressive, hostile, insulting or otherwise offensive.

E-mails leave out a huge amount of information that we need to make sense of conversations and relationships. The gap this leaves for assumptions, fantasies, misapprehensions and paranoia to fill, is enormous. Carrying the promise of ease and efficiency, e-mail also carries a set of unique risks. The lure of apparent anonymity; the seduction of self-disclosure; the pleasures acknowledgement and attention; the dangers of being recruited, deployed and manipulated in a labyrinth of coalitions, factions and interest groups; and the indelible audit trail, can all contrive and contribute to conflicts that end up being much bigger than the sum of their parts. No wonder then that e-bullying is reportedly on the rise; that managers say they are spending 43% of their time on resolving conflict in the workplace; and organizations like the NHS citing e-mail as the most complained about source of stress, after poor morale.

E-mails are different from real conversations

By contrast to e-mails, real conversations confer immense advantages: of rich cues of gesture, emphasis, expression and tone and the potential for empathy, connection and genuine exchange, all of which build resilient individuals and strong relationships that underpin healthy organizational cultures. Successful organizations are increasingly those that install conversation and dialogue at the heart of what they do. Those same organizations are also turning their attention to the negative impact that e-mail communications can have and to establishing good ‘netiquette’ (net etiquette). Moreover, the psychological research tells us that there is more to the art of e-mail communication than short subject titles and spell checking.

  1. Watch your speed. E-mail technology is fast and some of the messages you compose and send can be quick, casual and informal. For others you will need to be much slower and deliberative about what you say, how you say it and about your intended audience. So check before you press ‘send’
  2. Apply neuroscience. Be careful about the length, density and visual layout of your e-mail to avoid cognitively overloading the recipient, make your e-mails more brain friendly by writing less, in shorter sentences and by breaking up the text into bullet points. State clearly and simply what you want by way of action or response at the end.
  3. Context is key. Just as you would in a real conversation, use your social and relational ‘intelligence’: that is what you know about the existing state of the relationships and the bigger social interconnections that form the context for your e-mail to determine how it might be perceived and received by others.
  4. Know your purpose. Ask yourself what your intention in sending the e-mail is and what you want to achieve. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the intended recipient. How might it land with them? If you are trying to resolve a disagreement or dispute, or trying to gain agreement on a complex issue- then face to face dialogue is much more likely to work better.
  5. Have a face-to-face conversation! If in doubt have a brief conversation before you send the mail or make sure you do so after sending a potentially controversial message. Resolve any post e-mail conflict, difficulties or unease, by talking things through face to face.

Remember: E-mails are a part of the conversation, not a substitute for it!

Want to find out more?

Contact us to learn about our workshops on ‘Great E-mail Conversations’ at info@therightconversation.co.uk

By Tammy Tawadros, Associate of The Right Conversation

Open dialogue – it’s all in the mind

Most business leaders recognize that an organisational culture where employees feel free to speak openly is essential to success in the modern world. And yet achieving this is easier said than done. It turns out that the solution to greater openness and collaboration lies not in creating more process, but in acknowledging and addressing some very real barriers that lie inside all of us. It turns out it is all in the mind.
click here →

Classic Texts

In this edition we review another classic text in the field of organisational dialogue, John Shotter’s Conversational Realities… Constructing Life Through Language (1993), where he argues that changing an organisation means changing the way people talk about it.
read more →

Offers and Blocks – a case study

Find out how Old Mutual Wealth used some of the techniques of improvisational comedy used by The London Comedy Store Players to help line managers have better performance management conversations.
read more →

Talking Points

First US Licensing workshops
We will be running our first workshop in the US on 7th July in Boston to license around 20 Executive Coaches and OD Professionals in the use of our Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic.

The strategic importance of conversations →
Read this article we recently wrote for Developing Leaders magazine

Previous Newsletters

March 2014
December 2013
September 2013

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

Case Study – Offers and Blocks

What ‘improv’ comedy can teach us about having better performance management conversations

Question: What do great performance management conversations and improvisational comedy have in common? Answer: Both are unscripted and free flowing, with success entirely dependent on how well the different parties listen and respond to each other.

The best ‘improv’ artists rely on tried and tested techniques to ensure the unscripted conversations they have on stage in front a live audience flow and don’t grind to painful halt. Contrast this with the stilted nature of many performance review meetings and it quickly becomes clear that there is much the world of business can learn.

The context at Old Mutual Wealth

The backdrop in this case was the arrival of a new HR Director who was keen to change the performance management process from one that had become dominated by process and ‘form filling, to one based on an ongoing dialogue between managers and their teams. To support this transition the business invested in a series of one-day workshop to help managers to think about how to have better performance management conversations.

Working with one of our partners, Neil Mullarkey (www.improvyourbiz.com), co-founder of the world renowned London Comedy Store Players, we helped the HR Team at Old Mutual Wealth to embed some of techniques from the world of improv into a series workshops on the ‘5 Super-Skills of Great Performance Management Conversations’.

The Workshops

The one day workshops covered the 5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations and included sessions on the two basic principle of improv comedy – known as ‘Offers and Blocks’ and ‘Yes And…’

Offers and Blocks – a conversation between two people consists of a series of statements made by one person to the other, each of which can be received either as an ‘Offer’ or a Block’. An Offer is a conversational gift that can be accepted and used to expand the conversation. Great conversations are those where both parties view what the other says as an offer and respond accordingly. The opposite of an offer is a ‘block’ – where one party rejects an offer made by the other by saying ‘No’ or disagreeing. The challenge in this case is to look for opportunities to turn what feels like a block into something constructive.

As Neil puts it – “On stage we talk about offers – small verbal (or non-verbal) cues or hooks or threads - for which we are listening with intent. We try not to block – i.e. let the ball drop - when an offer is ignored. We note that what feels like a block could turn out to be a great offer in disguise, so long as we are prepared to view it that way”

Yes, And… – another basic technique that helps a conversation to open up rather than close down, is the use of a technique known as ‘Yes And… ’. Many of us respond to what others say with a critical mindset, looking for reasons why something is not possible, rather than why it could be. The phrase many of us use is ‘Yes, But… ’, a response almost guaranteed to move a conversation from one that is about opportunities to one that is all about problems. The opposite of this response is ‘Yes, And… ’ which encourages us to think constructively rather than critically.

Through a series of energetic and fun exercises managers were encouraged to work with these two concepts to see how different a conversation can feel and to explore ways of bringing these concepts into the workplace.

The Result?

Excellent feedback from managers who attended – ‘simple techniques that have transformed how I talk to people’ – and a satisfied client.

‘The Right Conversation workshops were a great mix of theory and practice that made our managers think hard about how they have performance management conversations. The use of Neil added some great techniques as well as a huge amount fun to the day’
Donna Beresford, Head HR (Europe)

Learn more about the five Super-Skills 5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations

Open dialogue – it’s all in the mind

Most business leaders recognize that an organisational culture where employees feel free to speak openly is essential to success in the modern world. And yet achieving this is easier said than done. It turns out that the solution to greater openness and collaboration lies not in creating more process, but in acknowledging and addressing some very real barriers that lie inside all of us. It turns out it is all in the mind.
click here →

Classic Texts

In this edition we review another classic text in the field of organisational dialogue, John Shotter’s Conversational Realities… Constructing Life Through Language (1993), where he argues that changing an organisation means changing the way people talk about it.
read more →

Flaming E-mails

How to avoid e-mail conversations that lead to trouble

We have all done it – fully intending to have a sensible e-mail conversation with a colleague but instead sending one those ‘heat of the moment, later regretted’ emails…
click here →

Talking Points

First US Licensing workshops
We will be running our first workshop in the US on 7th July in Boston to license around 20 Executive Coaches and OD Professionals in the use of our Team Conversational Norms Diagnostic.

The strategic importance of conversations →
Read this article we recently wrote for Developing Leaders magazine

Previous Newsletters

March 2014
December 2013
September 2013

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