The benefits of GOOD and risks of BAD conversations

A Big Conversation is designed to help bring strategy to life by involving everybody in discussions about what the strategy means for me.  The success of the process depends upon the quality of the conversations people have.  Visuals are used to prompt these but it is the conversation that matters.

This puts a big emphasis on the role of conversation leaders – usually line managers often supported by HR and Communication business partners.  In order to “break the ice” during development sessions we often ask people to discuss what a good conversation looks like; some can use words, others only pictures – see a typical result below:

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The exercise demonstrates to people how the visual is more memorable, emotive and triggers more involvement and engagement within the group.

We also talk about “bad conversations” and the impact they have.  Individual stories differ but common themes are how demotivating, manipulative, disempowering, devaluing and intimidating these can feel – hardly the basis for effective engagement!

So while conversations can be a much more effective way to build awareness and understanding of business strategy than PowerPoint presentations, video or other one-way approaches, there are risks.  Conversations enable people to get involved in discussing the pros and cons of different approaches, to think through the relevance of strategy to them and to build a stronger line of sight between their jobs and the “bigger picture.”  But they backfire if they are poorly managed.

So what makes a good conversation?  according to participants in our client project it needs to:

  • Be authentic, open to all and honest – the difference between a Big Conversation and a strategy presentation is that people get to interrogate the strategy up close because the conversation focuses on what this means to me, my team, my customers etc.  People will have different views that need to be aired and heard.  It is the process of the challenges and the discussion that helps bring the strategy to life.  Participants need to be present and speak their minds
  • Involve listening – good conversations are two-way not only because people air different views but also because they build on each other’s ideas.  Good conversations are not debates (e.g. adversarial House of Commons type exchanges), they are discussions in which people listen, maybe disagree, but also aim to build on each others ideas
  • Share common goals – in order to build on each others ideas people need to share goals.  They may disagree about how to achieve them but a Big Picture helps provide context including common aims and objectives and, often, a shared vision
  • Be efficient – people need to get to the point!  This means the conversation needs a clear focus and outcomes (e.g. the purpose of this conversation is to think about customer relationships and if the strategy suggests these need to change)
  • Have energy and be fun – good conversations involve a lighter touch, laughter and insights; people learn from each other and have some fun in the process.

Steve Chapman and I will be exploring more about what makes a good conversation at the CIPR’s 12th Annual Internal Communication Conference that takes place on 25th September 2013 at the Kia Oval in South London. There is a surge in interest in the use of narrative, storytelling and visual tools to help communicate strategy. When done well, the results can be exceptional, with large increases in awareness, understanding and engagement. But if done poorly, people can feel patronised and manipulated and the whole process can be counter-productive. This workshop will be a highly interactive experience that illustrates the difference between trying to impose a narrative on people and creating the environment that helps them discover it for themselves. For more information, and to book your place click here

The Sandwich

I have a pet hate – it is referring to middle managers as the “permafrost”, the communication blockers and other similar terms.  My reaction is that the derogatory language fails to recognize the challenges of being in the middle and that it is a simplistic generalization. 

However, leaders often feel that enthusiasm, innovation and “can do” spirit is too often evident at the top and bottom of their organisations, but not in the middle.  Even worse, that the middle layer seems to squash the best intentions of more junior people.

It is tough being in the middle.  You get the heat from the top in terms of performance expectations and demands, and you get the resistance and pushback from below.  Often, in the middle, you have better visibility of political and strategic issues that may be difficult to share with your teams and may require great diplomacy to navigate through with leadership.  It is a tough job.

It is sometimes easier to close down debate and discussion than it is to expose your teams to the ambiguity that exists in any large organization.  Your people want answers to questions like

  • “What do we want – profitability or growth”
  • “If we really care about customers why are we restricting choice?”
  • “Why are we sacrificing long-term health for short-term gains?”
  • “What is more important – the whole business or just our function/business unit?”

The answers to tensions like this are not straightforward, and middle managers do not have them.  So some might say best to avoid them than to debate them, best to keep your head down, focus on the expectations your manager has of you and deliver on that. 

But I think that is a mistake and it is borne from the assumption that as a manager you have to have all the answers.  You do not.  Closing down conversation is highly demotivating as it implicitly devalues the importance of people’s views, reduces clarity about what the organization is trying to achieve, suggests that teams cannot input to delivery of the company’s goals and makes people assume that the answers are out there but not available to them.

It is far better to encourage the team to talk about some of these types of tensions, to work with them on both sides of the arguments and to engage with them in the tough conversations that all leadership teams need to work through.  If managers adopt these conversation leadership behaviours they win the respect of both the people who work for them, for the honesty and respect they show their teams, and the leadership for demonstrating that they can create engaging cultures within their part of the organization. 

Mike Pounsford