Giving way to conversation

Featured In: The Brightside Blog

who needs to talk to who, about what?

What happens when conversations come to a full stop? When conflict riddles the work space, or a particular team, and puts at risk the performance and the profitability of a sector, or of a whole organisation? Or when a firm’s culture is in danger of eating its strategy for breakfast and spewing it out by lunchtime?

Problem talk, and conflict, usually begins when people feel their own needs are not being met in the part of the business to which they belong.

In my experience, most people, most of the time, are trying their best to do a good job. So the big question is – how as a leader do you engage individuals, harness their multiple strengths to the purpose of the business, and motivate them to achieve the tasks required by their team?

All people, whatever they are doing at work, have some basic needs. These are

  • I want to feel like I belong, am respected, accepted and listened to
  • I want to know what I am supposed to be doing
  • I want to feel like my work makes a difference
  • I want the difference between who I am and what I do to be valued

Whenever Brightside is asked into an organisation, however complex, the root of problems being encountered can often be boiled down, like a good chicken stock, to one of these four needs not being met. We ignore them at our peril.

But meanwhile any system, company or organisation at large, has a life and a momentum of its own. And you, as one of its leaders, are trying to manage the balance between:

  • Completing the task effectively vs. limited resources to do so
  • Balancing the needs of an individual or team vs. what is good for the company and its customers?
  • Dealing with the group dynamics vs. getting on with the work
  • Supporting existing values, structures and systems vs. change
  • Directive leadership vs. collaborative, consensual decision making
  • Conflict management

Problem talk in the work place becomes interactive when it moves from Helen just thinking on her own in the shower before she leaves for work. Unspoken, the problem with which she is tussling remains solely hers. Until Helen arrives at work, when over the Nexpresso machine she shares her problem with Simon. Instantly, the problem takes on an interactive life of its own. It is at this stage when the problems of an organisation become ‘socially constructed’i. And it is at this moment that a leader needs to be at their most astute and politically aware, to hear the drumbeat of their team or company.

The next thing that happens is that the problems discussed over the coffee cups become a reality between small groups of people and assume a ‘position’. The problems have some specific meanings attached to them in the wider system, depending who is standing where and what they are seeing from their diverse perspectives. This leads to differences, polarisations and most definitely ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

This is where the importance of dialogue and giving way to conversation can change the steps of the choreography about to unfold. This is because if a problem can be ‘socially constructed’ between two or more people, it can also be de-constructed and then re-constructed through conversation as well.

If people can find a space in which they can shift their frame away from ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ – this is often the first step to shifting the thinking and changing the narrative. To replace the good guy bad guy frame, the conversation needs to focus on what my supervisor, David Campbell, used to call ‘appreciating the gap’. Once I let go of being right and you let go of being right and we move to appreciating the gaps in the way we think and behave – this creates space for some mutual understanding, respect and some new ways of seeing things to emerge.

Leading a diverse organisation is primarily about creating safe environments (safe uncertainty) in which your people can have essential, re-constructing conversations between one another so that new meanings and realities can take shape and create a new life and momentum of their own.

I have been facilitating such conversations with a corporate team over the last year. We have used to great effect the ideas of Tom Andersonii captured in his book The Reflecting Team. The team have split in two, with one half listening to the other but not being allowed to join in the conversation. Within the ‘listening in’ group, a quality and depth of listening began to emerge not experienced before in this alpha, task orientated team. When it was their turn to speak, the others took their turn to ‘listen in’ and started to observe and hear things of which they hadn’t previous been aware. The dominant voices in the group dissipated as a different understanding and meaning about what really listening to others actually involved.

Other views, aside from the dominant voices in this team, were free to be aired. Out of this listening, they were able to build a new strategy for their business and underpin it with a set of values which gave some chance to the culture of the team not eating its own strategy for breakfast.

So, an essential role of any leader is to ask: ‘who needs to talk to whom, about what?’

This is the first step to giving way to conversation and, as a result, creating a new choreography for the performance of your team and your organisation at large.

i Campbell, David.  (2000).  The Socially Constructed Organisation.  Karnac Books.
ii Anderson, Tom. (1991).  The Reflecting Team.  WW Norton & Co.