Adaptive Engagement and Conversational Capacity®

The majority of full-time workers in the world are either watching the clock or actively opposing their employer. – Gallup

Engagement is widely recognized as an important indicator of organizational health. But what’s missing from the conversation is a significant distinction: engagement is more vital in some circumstances than others, and in the circumstances it is most important it is hardest to generate and sustain. This presents a challenge for leadership.

My aim in this article is to provide a new lens through which to view the importance of engagement, the situations in which it matters most, and actionable suggestions for how we can increase it.

Building Organizations that Work

Joan Magretta, a professor at the Harvard Business School, says that “Management’s business in building organizations that work.” One key indicator of how well an organization works is the level of engagement.

What is Engagment

While there is debate in academic circles about the precise meaning of engagement, for the purposes of this article I’ll start with Gallup’s definition: engaged employees are those “who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”i Kevin Kruse, the author of Engagement 2.0, describes it as “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”ii In essence, the degree of engagement reflects how personally invested people are in their work and workplace; how much they care about the work they do and how they do it; the degree of active commitment people have to their job, team, or organization.

Why Does it Matter?

Research shows that high engagement is correlated with a range of positive outcomes. While unengaged people often do just enough to stay out of trouble (or not even that), highly engaged people bring their A-game – what is referred to as discretionary effort. High engagement leads to lower absenteeism and turnover, fewer safety incidents, as well as higher productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, and profitability. It also makes it easier to both attract and retain top talent.iii

But high engagement is not just good for business, team, or organization. It’s good for people. Nothing is more soul-crushing than spending 40 + hours a week doing un-engaging work. I’ve been there. It’s terrible. We want to be involved in meaningful activity, to feel that what we do, and how we do it, makes a difference. We recognize that the opposite of “bored” is not “entertained,” it is “engaged.”iv

Someone isn’t Doing their Job

Yet, despite its importance, Gallup’s research shows that nearly two-thirds of the workforce is unengaged or actively disengaged.v If management’s business is building organizations that work, it seems more than a few managers aren’t doing their job.

An Overlooked Distinction

That high engagement is good for both organizations and people – and that we need to do a better job of creating it – is widely discussed. But what’s missing from the conversation is an important distinction: high engagement is more important in some circumstances than others, and in the very circumstances it is most important it is the hardest to generate and sustain. This presents a challenge to anyone striving to build an organization that works.

Where Engagement Matters the Most

Whether imposed on us by circumstance, as with the pandemic, or whether we create them ourselves, as when we launch a major organizational change, we face a steady stream of problems in our teams, organizations, and communities. If we’re to bolster engagement in the circumstances where it matters the most, we need to start by recognizing that these problems are not all created equal. When we set our sights on a bold new strategy, for example, we must overcome a range of obstacles to reaching it. Some of these obstacles are on the routine side of the spectrum; others are on the adaptive. And while engagement is helpful in a routine situation, it is vital in an adaptive one.

Routine Problems

When we’re dealing with a routine problem, we’re in familiar territory. We have a map. Our current knowledge, skills, and resources are adequate. Routine problems may be difficult, expensive, and frustrating, but an effective response falls within our current set of competencies and solutions. We have an established protocol, a process, remedy, or expert on which we can depend for a reliable fix. We have, in other words, a routine for dealing with the problem.

Adaptive Challenges

Far from routine, an adaptive challenge is a problem for which there are no easy answersvi, no proven solutions for dealing with the issue, no clear protocols or ready processes, no experts we can call on to solve the problem for us. The challenge is adaptive precisely because we have no routine. Making progress will require responses that fall outside our existing set of solutions. Our current knowledge, skills, and resources are inadequate for the problem-solving process. In adaptive circumstances we’re in uncharted territory – we have no map – so we must work with others to navigate the alien terrain.

Routine Problems ————— Adaptive Challenges

We face both types of problems in the workplace. If our computer suddenly crashes, there’s a clear process for getting the problem solved. There are specialists – internal or external – we can call to help us diagnose and fix the problem. A soured corporate culture that is undermining our organizational strategy, on the other hand, is at the adaptive end of the spectrum. Unlike the computer problem, there is no simple solution, no established process, and no trusted expert who can solve the problem for us. Management can’t just mandate a new culture, or espouse it into existence. There is no cultural Jiffy Lube, staffed with technicians, who can flush out our curdled culture and replace it with a fresh one. Culture change requires people all around the organization to roll up their sleeves and explore healthier ways of communicating and working together. It requires major shifts in values, mindset, and behavior. It is far more adaptive work.

Hybrid Challenges

Many of our predicaments are a mix of both. A merger, for example, may present a host of routine problems, such as aligning accounting and IT systems, while other issues are more messy and adaptive, such as aligning two organizations with mismatched values, customs, and ingrained patterns of behavior.

It’s Important to Know the Difference

The ability to distinguish between routine problems and adaptive challenges is important for two reasons. First, when facing a hybrid challenge, we tend to focus on the routine at the expense of the adaptive. In a merger, for example, we often focus on aligning our accounting and HR systems, but ignore the cultural conflicts that may degrade the value the merger was intended to create. Second, the problem solving process in a routine situation is profoundly different than the problem solving process in an adaptive one. Here is the key distinction:

  • For a routine problem a bias for action is appropriate. We have a routine, we know what to do, so as Nike suggests, we should “just do it.”
  • But for an adaptive challenge – where there is no clear routine – a bias for learning is essential. Why? To navigate our way over unfamiliar ground we must roll up our cognitive sleeves and engage with others to figure out the best way forward. We must orchestrate, in other words, a process of adaptive learning

This is Why Adaptive Engagement is so Important

This is why engagement is so important in an adaptive context. In a routine situation, where action is the appropriate response, competent compliance will get the job done – there’s a protocol in place and people just need to follow it. But in an adaptive context, where collaboration, experimentation, and learning provide the path to progress, robust engagement isn’t just a nice thing to have – it’s essential. It’s hard to orchestrate adaptive learning with people who are passively, or actively, disengaged.

In an adaptive context, where collaboration, experimentation, and learning provide the path to progress, robust engagement isn’t just a nice thing to have – it’s essential.

A Case Study

Years ago I was asked to conduct a series of conversational capacity workshops for a start-up company with a great product. Along with the product, the founder and the leadership team also established a great company culture to match. The vibe was casual, laid-back, and socially conscious – people were encouraged to get involved in the community in a variety of ways and the company backed up their volunteer work with financial investments. This familial, energetic, committed, and inclusive workplace attracted great talent. Predictably, the combination of a great product, great culture, and great people led to great success. They grew rapidly.

As the business expanded, senior management began to focus on scalability. The current entrepreneurial structure and informal processes would not allow them to keep up with their escalating growth. They needed to run the business in a more rigorous, expandable way. It was a sign of success – to achieve this phase of business maturity – a problem every entrepreneurial management team hopes to face.

The Routine, Low Engagement Approach

Senior management initially treated this scalability issue as a routine problem. They were a smart team, and this wasn’t a complicated problem. They knew what they needed to do, and they took action, making a range of changes, from more structured meetings and decision-making, to clearer roles and responsibilities and more consistent processes.

The Blowback

The reaction to these changes was fierce. There was confusion, frustration, anger, and resentment. “If I wanted to work for IBM, I’d have applied there,” snapped one frustrated manager. “Why fix something if it isn’t broken?” said another. Morale sank, engagement dropped, and turnover increased in the very circumstances where the opposite needed to happen.

The senior team members were taken aback by the revolt. They recognized that the harsh reactions were not coming from a bad place – it was a sign of the passion people felt for the company – but they also realized that the passion could quickly morph into something more destructive if they didn’t address it.

The Adaptive, High-Engagement Approach

The CEO and her team didn’t let that happen. Instead, they reframed their view of the challenge. Initially, they had viewed the situation as a routine problem – they just needed to make basic changes to ensure the organization could sustain the growth it was experiencing. But they now realized the situation wasn’t that simple. The challenge they faced was two-fold: to make changes that ensure the organization can sustain its success as it grows while maintaining – and even strengthening – the culture that propelled the success and growth in the first place. This was a trickier problem for which the management team did not have clear answers. This challenge was more adaptive.

With this new frame, they adjusted their approach. Starting with questions rather than answers, they orchestrated a process of adaptive engagement and learning. They asked people at every level of the organization the same basic questions:

We need your help to figure out an important but tricky problem. How can we make changes that allow us to scale the business to keep pace with the success and growth we’re experiencing and at the same time maintain – and even strengthen – the great culture that helped propel our success and growth in the first place? What do you recommend we do in your corner of the business to meet these two objectives?

Senior management framed the challenge and then enrolled people in generating ideas about how to meet it. They shared some of their thoughts, but rather than unilaterally implementing them, they asked for input, push back, and alternative ideas. They encouraged open discussion and experimentation.

So what happened? It was a bumpy ride, but the growth continued, the culture was reinforced, and not only were people across the enterprise more engaged in helping make the critical decisions about the changes, they were just as engaged in putting them into practice. The business is still thriving today.

The Leadership Challenge

This case study highlights a major point of this article: management’s business is building organizations that work, but building an organization that works in routine situations is not the same as building an organization that performs in an adaptive one. To build an organization that works well in adaptive circumstances, we need to strengthen the capacity to do two things:

  1. To properly diagnose the nature of the challenges we’re facing.
  2. To proactively build our team or organization’s ability to do adaptive work.

Proactively is an important word in that last sentence. Once you’re in the throes of an adaptive mess, it’s often too late for capacity building. In the fog and uncertainty of an adaptive challenge, frustration, confusion, disagreement, conflict, and friction tend to go up, while morale, confidence, psychological safety, and engagement go down. The net effect: right when you need the most engagement it tends to drop off. So, without the capacity to engage in adaptive learning under pressure, low engagement itself often becomes an adaptive challenge.

Management’s business is building organizations that work, but building an organization that works in routine situations is not the same as building an organization that performs in an adaptive one.

Capacity Building

So a major responsibility of management is capacity building – building the team’s ability to do adaptive work. One foundational competence for building such teams and organizations is conversational capacity. Why foundational? If conversational capacity is too low, nothing else will work as intended.

Conversational Capacity: An Engaging Discipline.

Driven more by purpose than ego, a person with high conversational capacity engages with others in a way that is both candid and courageous, yet curious and humble. To maintain that balance, even in even the most challenging situations, they strengthen their ability to do three things:

  1. Emotionally disciplined, they’re able to monitor and manage the formidable defensive reactions that threaten this balance.
  2. Cognitively disciplined, they have a distinct mindset that keeps them focused on what matters in a conversation – learning – even in circumstances that conspire against it.
  3. Behaviorally disciplined, they employ a specific set of skills to align their mouth with their mindset.

Combined, these abilities work like ballast on a ship, providing stability in stormy conditions.vii When a team of people shares this discipline, the effect is even more powerful. One reason the growing business with the adaptive challenge in the case study was able to engage people so constructively, for example, is that they had been developing the conversational capacity of their people and teams in a systematic way before they started to make these changes. This gave them a big advantage in that people across the enterprise had shared concepts, values, and behaviors for engaging in adaptive work.

How Conversational Capacity Fosters High Engagement

To build our conversational capacity we must invest in three domains of practice: awareness, mindset, and skills. Each of these areas of practice will foster higher engagement. But, even better, when combined and employed, they produce a second-order set of engaging consequences:


A person with high conversational capacity has emotional discipline. They’re more emotionally predictable because they’ve cultivated the ability to recognize and manage the defensive reflexes that limit their ability to engage constructively with others. The goal is not to rid ourselves of these emotional reactions – that’s not possible – but to catch them quickly when they’re triggered so we can make more intentional choices about how to respond in the moment. This is important. “Out of control emotions,” says Daniel Goleman, “make smart people act stupid.

What does this have to do with engagement? We’ve all worked with someone who is emotionally erratic. We have to be extra careful around this person because we’re never sure what response we’ll spark if we make a comment or suggestion. Their emotional unpredictability increases defensiveness and lowers engagement. So our goal should be this: avoid being that person. We can do this, and thereby foster higher engagement, by increasing our emotional intelligence so we’re able to catch it quickly when our knee-jerk defensive reactions are putting our ability to work well with others in jeopardy.

The Mindset

We must also build our cognitive discipline by learning to focus on what is important in a conversation – what our mind is set on. The conversational capacity mindset provides just that – a navigational beacon that helps us stay on track in the confusing fog of an intense meeting or conversation. In this sense, a clear mindset makes us smarter. It helps us organize our thinking under pressure; to notice what matters in a conversation, and to ignore what doesn’t.

A person or team with high conversational capacity maintains a clear focus on learning. Learning is the primary value because our goal is to think clearly and make the smartest choices possible.

With learning in mind, we place a strong emphasis on exploring and integrating a variety of perspectives to expand and improve our thinking. We don’t learn much by engaging with people who see things the same way we do. We learn by engaging with people who see things differently. Recognizing this, we lean into difference.viii We don’t just tolerate people with divergent ideas and perspectives; we seek them out. We’re not doing this in the pursuit of agreement – that may not be possible – we’re leaning into difference in the pursuit of learning.

With this mindset driving their individual and collective behavior, a team with high conversational capacity turns diversity into an advantage. The team is able to engage in such a way that they leverage diverse perspectives to spark deeper insights, something Scott Page refers to as a “Diversity Bonus.” ix (This is another reason emotional discipline is so vital. It’s hard to learn from difference if our defensive reactions lead us to avoid it, ignore it, dismiss it, or argue with it).

The Skill Set

A mindset focused on learning from difference is particularly important in an adaptive context when you need everyone engaged in the process of collaborative learning. But a mindset is only as useful as the ability to put it to work. So we must also build our behavioral discipline – the ability to align our mouth with our mindset.

High conversational capacity can be defined as the ability to work in the sweet spot, that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. The balanced use of four behaviors – two candor skills and two curiosity skills – helps keep a conversation in the sweet spot.

With the candor skills we’re putting our own view forward in a clear, accessible way. This is important for two reasons: First, our perspective might spark an insight for someone else. Second, it allows us to test our view by inviting others to help us detect and correct any gaps or errors. “I’ve said what I think and why. Now I’d like others to help me see this issue more clearly. What am I missing or getting wrong?”

But, equally curious, we’re working just as hard – and often harder – to help others get their perspectives into the conversation with the same level of clarity and influence with which we’re putting forward our own view – especially people who see things differently. “Jamie, you tend to see things through a unique lens. Given everything you’ve heard up to now, I’d like to get your take on the decision. Do you see anything we’re missing?” (Sadly, these curiosity skills are often the least used. This highlights one of the biggest barriers to engagement and performance in our teams: a chronic lack of curiosity.)

Engaging Dialogue

With this discipline, conversations are crafted to spark as many “aha” moments as possible – those exhilarating experiences when a blind spot in our mental map of reality is suddenly illuminated. “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” A team conversing in the sweet spot – both candid and curious – is on a sustained hunt for “aha” moments. This balanced pattern of dialogue fosters demonstrable engagement:

  • It’s hard to feel unengaged when people are putting their ideas on the table and inviting you to help improve them.
  • It’s hard to feel unengaged when people are actively interested in your perspective; when they’re helping you get your ideas on the table with the same level of care and enthusiasm with which they’re putting forward their own views.
  • And it’s hard to feel unengaged when you see your ideas sparking “aha” moments for others.

This is the power of building your conversational capacity – it creates an engagement bonus that is particularly important in an adaptive context. Imagine an organization where this kind of dialogue is the norm. Such an organization would enjoy a series of second-order consequences:

Meaningful Skill-Building

Research shows that one factor that boosts engagement is providing people the opportunity to develop meaningful skills.x The conversational capacity discipline provides a vehicle for ongoing skill development that provides both professional and personal benefits. Not only will building conversational capacity make them more effective in their current role, and prepare them for future ones, but the skills also have wide application beyond the workplace. I hear this repeatedly in my workshops. An executive in Los Angeles recently said this, for example: “In terms of takeaways, this will be really helpful in my work with my executive team, but where it’s really going to help the most is in my relationship with my teenage son.” We’re far more likely to engage, and to stay engaged, when we’re getting far more than just a paycheck out of our work experience.

The Workplace As Source Of Purpose And Meaning

Building your conversational capacity can increase engagement by creating a sense of purpose and meaningful work. Remember, employee engagement, as defined by Gallup, is the level of “involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.”xi This requires not just that they’re treated well, but that they believe in the mission or purpose. It’s hard to be involved and enthusiastic if you don’t like or care about the goals of the organization.

But what if you’re just making widgets? What if your product or service doesn’t inspire a profound sense of purpose or meaning? How do you get people enthusiastic about their experience in the organization?

This is where conversational capacity can help. What can inspire people and give their work meaning doesn’t have to be the product they’re building, it can be the workplace they’re building. Your work might not make a big difference in the community or the world, but, the workplace you’re working together to build can – a place that is good for people, good for business, and good for the community.

  • Good for people: People are acquiring skills that make them less reactive and more effective in every area of life, and using their daily work experience to strengthen the higher aspects of their humanity, such as candor, curiosity, courage, and humility. They’re more equipped to deal with the challenges they face in life in a constructive way.
  • Good for business: You’re creating a work environment that attracts, engages, and retains talented people – even if you’re just making widgets.
  • Good for the community: People are building skills that make them not just better managers, colleagues, and employees – they’re building skills they take home with them. They’re better parents, significant others, friends, neighbors, and community members because of the abilities they acquire in the workplace.

This can provide a strong “why” in the Simon Sinek sense of the word. Why join this company? Why remain at this company? Why should I fully engage and bring my best efforts to the cause? The workplace itself can provide an answer to these questions when we’re up to something that has a positive impact not only on the quality of our work life, but on our life beyond work. To paraphrase Simon Sinek. “We’re building an organization that is good for people, good for business, and good for the community. We just happen to also make widgets. Want to join us?”xii

A Balanced Conversational Culture

An organization with high conversational capacity enjoys greater alignment because people are performing from the same sheet of music. With shared behavioral norms there are clear expectations for how people agree to engage with each other when something important is being addressed, and the skills to put those expectations to work. Everyone is on the same page – not just about what they’re working together to accomplish but also how they’ll work together to accomplish it.

Many of my clients create a Conversational Code of Conduct™ – an explicit set of behavioral agreements for how to behave with one another when something important is at stake. These clear expectations and norms make it easier to engage because people don’t have to second-guess what is appropriate when they have an idea, concern, or suggestion. Better still, these clear norms are easy to share with new people who join the team to engage them immediately.

Establishing such a culture leads to more balanced conversations, both in terms of candor and curiosity, but in terms of engagement. People are putting their ideas forward but also helping pull the ideas of others into the conversation. Helps create high participation. Again, it’s hard to disengage in a meeting when your colleagues are consistently inviting you to test their ideas, and encouraging you to share your own.

It Helps Close The Actionability Gap

There is no shortage of advice out there about what to do about such things as the lack of trust, dysfunctional teamwork, low psychological safety, interpersonal conflict, and poor engagement. But there is a shortage of practical advice for how to put that advice to work. Any counsel that doesn’t bridge this actionability gap – that tells us what we should do without showing us how we should do it – is, as Chris Argyris put it, good advice that isn’t useful.xiii

If we merely said “To be more effective you need to balance candor and curiosity under pressure,” and stopped there, we’d be just as guilty as many other advice givers. But we don’t do that. We go on to show you how to do it by providing practices that help you increase your awareness, adopt a clear mindset, and by providing demonstrable skills for putting the advice into action in an increasingly competent way. When it comes to increasing engagement, the conversational capacity discipline provides a skill-based way to make engagement more actionable.

Smart Use Of Authority

An effective manager should, as Gallup puts it, “become an advocate for employees’ ideas,” and “solicit them during meetings and take action on them.”xiv To this end, conscious of the effect it has on those who report to them, managers with high conversational capacity carry their authority in a way that lifts rather than lowers engagement. This is not as easy as it sounds, because nothing lowers conversational capacity, and thereby hinders engagement, more predictably than the presence of authority. This creates a major problem: the very people responsible for building organizations that work are often a primary reason they don’t. But, by learning to carry their authority with more curiosity and humility managers can act in ways that counter that effect.

Influence Without Authority

To ensure maximum engagement, authority must take responsibility for acting in a way that lifts the conversational capacity of the people they manage. But it’s a two-way street. Their people and teams also need the ability to stay engaged even in circumstances that make it difficult. We all yearn to be engaged, and we shouldn’t be dependent on circumstances for the experience. “I refuse to let my context determine my engagement.” An attitude like this requires a degree of “Do-It-Yourself Psychological Safety” (DIY-PS).xv Building one’s ability to work in the sweet spot under pressure helps foster this self-determined engagement. A person with high conversational capacity

  • Enjoys greater competence and confidence for dealing with tough issues and stressful circumstances.
  • Makes any meeting, team, project, or conversation smarter than it would be without them.
  • Wields productive influence – even in circumstances that make it difficult – and helps good ideas get the traction they deserve.
  • Is better at remaining level-headed and learning-focused in frenzied circumstances that cause most people to shut down or go ballistic.

Armed with this discipline, there is no need to sit in a boring meeting again. If you care about the issue being addressed, use your skills to ensure it’s addressed in a smart way. If you don’t care about the issue being addressed, use your skills to help the people who do. In this way you’re never idle; you’re always adding value – you’re always engaged.


We’ve explored the vital relationship between conversational capacity, engagement, and adaptive learning. This matters for two related reasons. First, as our world grows more complex and turbulent, building teams that perform under pressure is an increasingly vital task. Second, expecting far more than just a paycheck from their jobs, research shows that people today increasingly seek work that is engaging, meaningful, and rewarding. This holds especially true of the younger generations currently moving into the workforce. Recognizing that it’s more profitable and enjoyable when you have high engagement, and more costly and demoralizing when you don’t, executives, managers, and administrators are looking for ways to build more engaged teams and organizations.

Here is a review of the central points we covered:

  • An important indicator of organizational health, engagement is more important in some circumstances than others.
  • Engagement is particularly critical when we’re facing an adaptive challenge. In a routine situation, where action is the appropriate response, competent compliance will get the job done. But in an adaptive context, where collaboration, experimentation, and learning provide the path to progress, robust engagement isn’t just a nice thing to have – it’s essential. It’s hard to orchestrate adaptive learning with people who are passively or actively disengaged.
  • But there’s a problem. In adaptive situations – where collaborative learning is the key to progress – engagement tends to drop. In the fog and uncertainty of an adaptive challenge, frustration, confusion, disagreement, conflict, and friction tend to go up, while morale, confidence, psychological safety, and engagement go down. The net effect: right when we need the most engagement it is hardest to generate and sustain.
  • Proactive capacity building is a vital aspect of building organizations that work. Leaders need to build their organization’s capacity for adaptive engagement. Proactive is the key word because once you’re in the throes of an adaptive mess the time for capacity building has passed.
  • If high engagement is the goal, conversational capacity is an engaging discipline for achieving it. It provides a rigorous, skill-based practice that boosts engagement in a range of ways.
  • Management’s business is building organizations that work, but when it comes to building a culture of high conversational capacity and engagement, everyone – no matter their station or status – can play a constructive role.
  • Conversational capacity itself requires adaptive learning. It’s not a gimmick, nor is it a set of ideas you merely need to memorize. It’s a genuine skill-based discipline that requires practice to acquire. But the good news is that your workplace provides ample opportunities for the practice.

If you’d like to learn more about conversational capacity, and how to build it, visit, or

This article was originally published on Linkedin:

vi Heifetz, Ronald. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Belknap Press, 1994. Print.
vii To learn more about CC and why it matters, check out:

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.