“Management’s business is building organizations that work,” says Harvard Business School’s Joan Magretta, and conversational capacity is a foundational competence for building teams and organizations that work well – even when the pressure is on.
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.
Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress – Mahatma Gandhi
“Life is a series of problems,” observed M. Scott Peck. A more accurate statement was never made. But when it comes to solving them it’s important to realize that not all problems are created equal.
All our difficulties fall somewhere on a spectrum; at one end of this spectrum we find routine problems, and, at the other end, adaptive challenges. A routine problem isn’t considered routine because it happens regularly, but because we have a routine for dealing with it – a protocol, a process, or expert on which we can depend for a reliable fix. A routine problem may be irksome and expensive, but at least we’re in familiar territory and know what to do about it.
Award-winning consultant, advisor, and speaker, Craig Weber explains why conversation is perhaps the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in creating positive relationships and productive teams.
We cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around us, says Jane Goodall. What we do makes a difference. We must only decide what kind of difference we want to make. She’s right. No matter our status or station, we can play a leading role in building healthier work relationships, teams, organizations, and communities. We can take action and have an impact. We can wield great influence. We have more power than we think.
“The problem,” says Weber, “is that nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. So managers at every level of the organization, from frontline supervisors and team leads to CEOs and senior executives, need to be careful about how they wield their authority. A manager who, by their action or inaction, lowers the ability of their people to engage in important issues and challenging situations in an open, balanced, non-defensive way, is by definition managing ineffectively.
“The ability to have constructive, learning-focused dialogue under pressure is critical right now,” says bestselling business author Craig Weber. “In our rapidly changing world, everyone’s scrambling to figure out how to work together in this new context. How do we work together in a virtual environment? How do we provide valuable service to our customers? What does the future hold, and how do we prepare for it?”
“There is no way you can use the word ‘reality’ without quotation marks around it.”
– Joseph Campbell
If you’ve attended my workshop or heard me speak you know I emphatically declare that the first curiosity skill – testing your perspective – is the most significant behavior in the conversational capacity discipline. I spend more time explaining it, and providing examples, than with the other three skills combined. It’s that important.
Here are excerpts from my first two books that explain why:
To build our conversational capacity and use it to facilitate constructive change in our teams, organizations, and communities, we need to do more than just balance candor and courage with curiosity and humility. Another important balance to strike is between serious-mindedness and light-heartedness.
We don’t just rush into important situations with our thought-process half-cocked, making sense or making decisions in a casual, half-assed manner. We respond in a rigorous, serious-minded way. We’re disciplined, deliberate, and careful as we strive to make useful sense of the predicament we’re facing and how to improve it.
If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’
– Dave Barry
John Kenneth Galbraith said “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” This isn’t because meetings are unnecessary. They serve an important purpose in any organization or team, providing a place to share information and ideas, to make decisions and solve problems, to formulate strategy and orchestrate change.
There’s More to the Sweet Spot than Candor and Courage Balanced with Curiosity and Humility.
As I reflect on people who have built their conversational capacity and used it to inspire constructive change in their teams, organizations, and communities, I realize that there’s more to the “sweet spot” than just balancing candor and courage with curiosity and humility. There’s a larger suite of counter-balancing traits by which they strive to operate.
“You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless.”
Charles de Gaulle
The Importance Of Strategy
“Management’s business,” says Joan Magretta, “is building organizations that work.” Central to this task is formulating an effective strategy that aligns everyone around the answers to these three questions:
- “What are we up to?”
- “What are we up against?”
- “What capabilities do we need to deal with it all?”
“Our Similarities bring us to a common ground;
Our Differences allow us to be fascinated by each other”
– Tom Robbins
Arguing: As Counterproductive As It Is Common
A sure sign that ego has triumphed over effectiveness, arguing creates a major drag on performance in our teams and organizations. Yet we see it all the time: people dismissing the views of others while zealously hawking their own opinions. These fruitless arguments, and all the bickering and bullshit they produce, are a clear signal that conversational capacity is in short supply.
Trust is a matter of huge importance in a healthy team, project, or organization. But when it comes to the issue of trust and its relationship to teamwork, most people get it backwards. They see trust as being necessary for good teamwork – as something that must be in place before a group can work together and communicate well.
“It doesn’t do any good to have a lot of really smart people around the table if you can’t access their smarts”
Effective Teamwork And Conversational Capacity
For twenty years I’ve been conducting workshops, advising organizations, and coaching leaders on the importance of conversational capacity – the ability to engage in open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about difficult subjects and in challenging circumstances. It’s a pivotal competence. A team robust conversational capacity can address its toughest issues in a responsibly rigorous, nondefensive way. A team with anemic capacity, by contrast, can see its performance derailed by a trivial disagreement.
A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another – C. West Churchman
Chris Soderquist is the Carl Sagan of systems thinking. Sagan’s genius lay not just in his keen scientific mind, but also in his ability to convey the power, fun, and usefulness of science to people who might not otherwise get it – and to do so in a contagiously engaging and enthusiastic way.
In Conversational Capacity I explained why mindful awareness is such an important aspect of remaining purpose-driven and learning-focused under pressure:
“Since deliberately balancing candor and curiosity requires you communicate more mindfully, activities such as meditation, yoga, or meditative running that strengthen our awareness are powerful ways to increase your competence. My recommendation is this: If you don’t have a regular mindfulness practice, start one. If you do have one, keep it up. “Mindful Awareness Practices,” or MAPS as they’re called, help sharpen your capacity for self-awareness. And since you can’t manage a reflex if you’re unaware of it, developing a part of your mind that is able to watch your behavior in the moment is essential.
People Respond to Problems in Two Basic Ways
“Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
– Roberto Clemente
When faced with challenging problems in their teams, organizations, and communities, people respond in a variety of ways. At one end of the spectrum sit those people who shrink back and say, in essence: “Yes, it’s a big problem, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s not my job. I’m not responsible. I’m not in charge. I can’t make a difference.” People in this group often complain about problems, pontificating ad nauseam about what ought to be done, but they rarely stand up, get involved, or do something constructive to address them.
Mental toughness—sometimes referred to as grit, gumption, or resilience—is key to effective leadership and adaptive learning. Why? Because whether you’re engaging thorny issues others fear to face, making important but undiscussable issues productively discussable, resolving heated conflicts, or striving to build more effective working relationships with people who aren’t making it easy, confronting the status quo in the service of meaningful progress is always hard work.