“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.
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.
Psychological safety is an enabling condition for effective teamwork Conversational capacity is an enabling competence for creating it.
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
— Robert Pirsig
“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.
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.
Some organizations consistently achieve technical excellence; many more do not. Why? With technology advancing at an ever-accelerating rate – and as the cost of getting it wrong makes it ever more important to get it right – this is a critical question for any technology-based organization. And while there are many contributing factors, there’s one pivotal aspect of technical excellence that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
You’ve Got A Team Full Of People As Smart As Crick And Watson. So Why Does It Perform Like Dumb and Dumber?
“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey
While sitting in his boardroom a frustrated executive blurted out to me, “Some of the brightest people in our industry sit around this table. But you’d never know it from our performance. It’s embarrassing. What the hell is wrong with my team?”
He was wondering, in essence, “Why do I have a dumb team full of smart people?”
What is Conversational Capacity?
Conversational capacity is the ability to converse in an open-minded, even-handed, evidence-based, and learning-focused way under pressure. It requires those who are participating in a discussion to balance their candor with curiosity, and their courage with humility. It’s a foundational competence. A team with high conversational capacity can address their most pressing challenges in a healthy, productive way. A team with low conversational capacity will derail over a minor difference of opinion. Conversational capacity isn’t just another aspect of teamwork—it defines it. A team that cannot talk about its most pressing issues isn’t really a team at all. It’s just a group of people that can’t work together effectively when it counts.
Conversational capacity refers to the ability – of an individual or a team – to have open, balanced, learning-focused dialogue about tough issues and in challenging circumstances. It’s a vital competence, but this capacity is hard to maintain. All too often we behave in habitual ways that diminish it, with unfortunate consequences for our success and productivity – both individually and as a team.