This article was co-authored by Nina Cherry.
Few things inspire less confidence and provoke more fear than a boss who cannot control his or her emotional reactions. Since our inherent responsibility is building organizations that perform at their best, whenever we behave in ways that that makes it hard for our people to bring their A-game to the enterprise, we’re failing at our primary job.
There are two reasons our impact has such a direct effect on our people: First, because we set the tone for the work environment and second, because our authority amplifies the impact of our behavior. Everything a boss says is heard through a bullhorn. Our behavior as top managers, in other words, is central to organizational performance; it directly influences whether our people will pull away from the hard work of building an effective organization or whether they’ll lean into it.
Given all this, if we’re to exercise more effective leadership we need to build our capacity to behave in deliberate and disciplined ways under pressure—to be less reactive and more intentional, less an obstacle to organizational performance and more a facilitator of it. There are two decisive competencies for doing this: conversational capacity and mindfulness.
What is conversational capacity and why is it important to the exercise of leadership?
Conversational capacity is the ability to remain balanced, open, and focused on learning when dealing with difficult subjects and challenging circumstances. It’s a pivotal competence. The tougher the problem we’re facing, the change we’re orchestrating, the conflict we’re engaging, or the strategy we’re implementing, the higher the conversational capacity we need – in ourselves and in our teams – to pull it off well.
In any meeting or conversation there is a “sweet spot” where the conversations are open, balanced, and learning focused. It is in this sweet spot that the best work gets done. We know we’re in the sweet spot when there is balance between two important things: candor and curiosity. We’re sharing our views and perspectives in a clear way, and we’re working just as hard to get the perspectives of others on the table in an accessible manner. When it comes to the sharing of ideas and information, in other words, the conversation is balanced. Maintaining this balance is easy when facing comfortable, routine issues, but under pressure people and their teams tend to fly out of the sweet spot towards the more dysfunctional ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people drop candor and shut down. Others drop curiosity and heat up. So we have high conversational capacity when we can work in the sweet spot in difficult circumstances in which most people will lose balance and move out of it.
People in leadership positions have a huge impact on the performance of their team or business because their behavior can so easily affect people’s ability to work in the sweet spot. Our authority, remember, acts like a megaphone that makes every word and action far more intense to the people who report to us. “An organization is a community of discourse,” says Robert Kegan, a professor at Harvard University. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.” The ability to productively influence what issues people are discussing and how they’re discussing them is a skill that separates an effective leader from an inept one.
Yet despite our good intentions, primal emotional reactions often trigger us into behaviors that push people out of the sweet spot. This is an important but challenging problem to recognize and manage. The powerful emotional reactions that send us flying out of the sweet spot – crippling our conversational capacity and that of our teams – are grounded in the potent fight-flight response. By boosting our ability to recognize and manage these tendencies, we increase our ability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure and to shape the nature of the discourse in a more productive, learning-focused way. Effective leadership, in other words, requires high conversational capacity and high conversational capacity requires a high degree of mindfulness.