Organisations are conversations. The organisation as a collection of people working together to achieve a certain outcome. Organisations are a series of conversations that go on in the lunch room, board room, office, hallway, car, and toilet. 100, 1000, and 10 and 10000 conversations everyday. Some conversations are short, some long, some meaningful, some trivial, some are formal, others informal, some pleasant, others unpleasant. Some structured, others meandering. Some online, others off-line Good quality conversation is sadly neglected. It’s the quality of conversations that count. Meaningful conversations in a workplace affect performance, morale, energy levels, trust levels. The art of conversation. There is no art. We are all capable of being good conversations. We all have good conversations and poor conversations. Some conversations such as difficult conversation do take some skill. But most or not really an art form. Have we lost the need for conversation? If you go home this afternoon on public transport, whether it is by tram, train or bus, have a look around. You will notice everyone is fixated on a screen. When these people arrive home they’ll be fixated on another screen; a TV screen, all the while making face book and twitter updates. There are many conversations we have through technology. Its convenient. It takes a few seconds. It can be done at the click of a button. But many of those conversations occur online when they ought to occur face-to-face. I don’t have time for conversations. A manager said to me the other day: “I don’t have time for conversations. I have too much work to do.” Someone comes to their office at said, “I’m going. I have a better offer in another organisation.” Perhaps an earlier conversation may have prevented this conversation. Leadership is a relationship. Kouzes and Posner once said “Leadership is a relationship” in their great book: “The Leadership Challenge”. I totally agree. But how do you form a relationship? Through trust building. And how do you build trust? Through a series of meaningful conversations.
Let’s consider the 10 barriers to communication in organisations The single biggest barrier to promoting a culture of conversation is the psychological contract. The psychological contract is the #1 barrier. The old contract is a “them and us” contract. The manager does the thinking and the employee does the doing. This engenders mistrust; having meaningful conversations from the managers point of view seems pointless. And from an employees point of view, they can’t see the need: “Just tell me what you need me to do and I’ll get on with it.” The new psychological contract is collaborative, engaging, and conversation by nature. A new psychological contract is based on mutual respect, dialogue, conversation.
We have looked at the psychological barriers of communication. Let’s look at nine barriers that can be personal, structural, cultural, procedural, or physical.
Warren Bennis identified the “management of attention” as one of the core competencies of highly successful leaders. How do we improve your ability to manage your attention?
Three things help with the management of attention:
Reduce manageable distractions Multi-tasking is not efficient. Shifting from one activity to the next can give the illusion of efficiency. But you are short changing yourself on both activities. Focus on one conversation at a time. If the conversation is worth having, it is worth your complete undivided attention. Identify your most attentive time of the day. Important conversations ought to take place in high energy times. Ask yourself: How present am I in this conversation?
“You’ll get told on a need to know basis” is a common refrain from a manager with a traditional psychological contract mindset. This idea is borne out of the notion that employees can’t be trusted with confidential information. The assumption is that managers can be trusted, but employees can’t. This is erroneous. Granted, there are more employees than managers, but the idea of not communicating because of a lack of trust is a barrier to genuine, open dialogue. It is a two-way street too: Employees have to be willing to share bad news to managers too.
Australian managers are worst in the world at giving timely, relevant, and balanced feedback. Feedback ought to be a dialogue, not a monologue. Tell the story of the 19 year old employee who received no feedback.
Discuss the concept of managers being trained to answer questions not ask them. Talk about the story of the accident in the production area. The person who asks the questions has control of the conversation always. Show me a good conversationalist, and I’ll show you someone who asks lots of questions.
Conversations in the bosses office are not necessarily going to be the best conversations. In paramilitary organizations based on power, conversations can be accompanied by lots of paperwork and red tape. This stifles conversation. The best conversations ironically occur around the watercooler, in the hallways, in the car driving back from a client or customer meeting.
The average person spends 2.5 hours a day on email. What would those 2.5 hours be spend doing before email? Conversation? Having a conversation via email is not a real conversation; it is asynchronous; the sending and receiving doesn’t happen at the same time. Would this be best discussed in person or via the telephone?
What do your senior managers do? Tell the story of the police commissioner
“I don’t want to open a can of worms” “let sleeping dogs lie” Talk about the story of the orchestra: two musicians have not spoken to each other for 10 years.
There are two issues here with physical layout: proximity and layout. Proximity refers to the relative physical distance between people. Layout in the office environment; the further someone is from the centre of the action, the more likely they are to be less involved and engaged in the daily operations. We have found interestingly, that the move in recent times to open office plans do encourage open communication, but because people can be heard due to lack of privacy, there is less meaningful interactions. Managers often say to me “I have an open door policy”; I feel like saying, “Yes, but do you have an open mind?”
So those are the main barriers to communication. So how do we encourage more productive conversations and meaningful dialogue? You need a framework in place that promotes these conversations. I want to share with you two frameworks. Both of these frameworks can, and should be, recorded for reference. The first of this frameworks that we discuss in Conversations at Work is The Five Conversations Framework. Briefly describe the framework and the fact that some organisations are using this as a substitute for the traditional performance review.
I want to share with you what I believe to be the two fundamental attributes of someone who has the capacity to have meaningful conversations with their staff. One is a way of thinking and the other is a behaviour. Perceptual positions considers the way people view the conversation they are in. First position is looking at he situation through their own eyes; the least helpful frame-of-reference for a conversationalist. Second position is looking at the situation through the eyes of the other person. In other words, putting ourselves in their shoes. It doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It really means to understand their perspective. Third position is appreciating the context of the conversation and the other important variables that need to be taken into account.
For example, if you are in a forest and you have your nose pressed up against the trunk of a large tree, you are in first position; you can see the tree, but are unaware you are in a forest. Stepping back from the tree you are able to see many trees and realise you are actually in the middle of a forest. This is second position. Talk about the three conceptual positions using the analogue of a fight between two people. Now if you get into a helicopter and rise above the forest and look down, all you will see is a sea of green; you can see the totality of the forest. This is third position.
Take two people having an argument, finger pointing, voices raised, talking over the top of each other. This is first position. Both are not interested in anything else except promoting their own point-of-view. If one of them decides to stop talking and ask the other person to explain their case, this has the potential to put that person into second position. That person can then move to third position by considering the situation they are in and some of the external variables that may help or hinder a solution.
The person who asks more questions drives the agenda of the conversation. Use the example of the journalist. Good conversationalist ask lots of open questions: Why, what, which, when, where, and how.
Dr Tim Baker
The power to make other
people agree with your
opinions or get them to do
what you want willingly and
Leaders are in the business of influence …
you are a professional influencer
Your preferred style &
The other person(s) style &
The Inquisitive Investigator
to marshal their
facts & figures &
use logic to
persuade & tend
to be methodical
& structured in
The Inquisitive Investigator
Police, scientists &
Workplace incidents such as
safety or harassment.
Generate support for a new
Large scale change initiatives
when you want people to be
The Clear Calculator
Calculators like to promote the positives of a
proposal & highlight the weaknesses in the
current position. People know where they stand
with calculators. They use logic to advance their
cause. Generally calculators are good debaters.
The Clear Calculator
Sales people, financial
advisors, animal trainers,
Any new change in the
workplace that will affect
employees & their
working methods requires
a leader to sell the
positives of the change;
e.g., harassment &
Situations where the
benefits of not clear; e.g.,
a minor restructuring of
roles & responsibilities
The Mindful Motivator
Motivators use emotion to influence. They are
big picture thinkers that link a cause with a
compelling vision of the future. Motivators often
have a way with words & can define a simple and
The Mindful Motivator
executives, PR agents, artistic
Developing a sense of
commitment – winning the
hearts & minds of people.
Unclear about the rationale for
a new initiative; e.g., unexpected
The Collegial Collaborator
Collaborators also influence using emotion. But
they persuade people by involving them in the
decision. Collaborators are great team builders.
They engage people's hearts & minds.
The Collegial Collaborator
Conductor of an orchestra, funeral
In circumstances where their are diverse &
strongly held views or opinions; e.g., team
People need to know the logic & rationale
behind a decision, e.g., introducing a new
procedure pushed down from above.
Find someone who has a different profile to you, i.e.,
investigator V collaborator or calculator V motivator.
Discuss your profile and answer these questions:
How do you like to be influenced?
How do they like to be influenced?
What are some things you shouldn’t do when influencing
What are some things you shouldn’t do influencing
Using third party endorsements
Conduct a survey
After action reviews
Team values charter
Good news stories
Begin with the end in mind
Giving effective feedback
Using a problem-solving approach
Paraphrasing & active listening
Political Skills for Leaders
It’s all about the conversation …
are a series of
The ‘art’ of
Have we lost the need
I don’t have
Leadership is a
8: Fear of emotion
THE 9 COMMON BARRIERS
9: Physical office layout
THE 9 COMMON BARRIERS
The five conversations framework
Date Topic Content Key Questions
Month 1 Climate review Job satisfaction, morale
• How would you rate your current job satisfaction?
• How would you rate morale?
• How would you rate communication?
Month 2 Strengths
strengths and talents
• What are your strengths and talents?
• How can these strengths and talents be used in your current and
future roles in the organisation?
Month 3 Opportunities
• Where are opportunities for improved performance?
• How can I assist you to improve your performance?
Month 4 Learning and
Support and growth • What skills would you like to learn?
• What learning opportunities would you like to undertake?
Month 5 Innovation and
Ways and means to improve
the efficiency and
effectiveness of the business
• What is the one way that you could improve your own working
• What is the one way that we can improve our team’s operations?
Baker, T. (2013). The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performance
Conversation Practice …
1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is high), how would
you describe your current job satisfaction?
3. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you
describe communication within your team?
5. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you
describe communication with other
departments and stakeholders?
7. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you
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