Conversation in the Work Place
Conversation Across Your Networks, Part 1. A series focused on conversation within The Networks of Relationships Series.
Throughout this series, I have sought to make a distinction between three networks that most of us participate in. There is a network of institutions where our place is defined by the role within the organization’s structure that we fill. There is a network of connections that we primarily experience through social media but actually extends throughout all media. And, there is the network of relationships that receives the least attention but is the most direct and reality-based of the three networks.
Over the next three posts, I want to look at conversation as a focal point for how we engage in each of these networks. I’ll begin with the network of institutions that in many ways is the place where we are the most conversationally challenged.
In the network of connections, the conversation challenge happens within a culture of simulation. I wrote about this earlier in two series of posts on the culture of simulation and the role of leadership.
In the network of relationships, the conversation challenge is to first listen, then interact. It also builds linkages that grow social capital. The larger your network of relationships, the greater your impact as a person in relationship with people.
Let’s begin with the network of institutions that is the context where most of our lives are lived.
Understanding Conversation in the Organizations
Over the past couple of decades, a number of books have been published about conversations in the context of the workplace. There are coaches who specialize in helping teams learn to have conversations that advance their work. However, these conversations address the parameters of the team’s range of work. If personal conversations happen, it is typically not initiated by the company or the supervisor, but rather through the relationship that develops in an ancillary manner.
I have written in the past about how the culture of companies forms as a product of “a persistent, residual culture of relationships” that persists because it resides in a culture of shared values.
These relationships exist through the personal initiative of people in conversation with one another.
Even as a consultant, where you would expect my conversations to address the personal experience of people in relation to their place of work, it doesn’t often happen. People are cautious about what they say. Their concern brings with it a vulnerability that is unsaid but deeply felt. In many of those situations, where there is ambiguity in the social culture, by this I mean that there is uncertainty and a lack of trust, people prefer to not expose themselves to scrutiny. In these settings, conversations are measured and more closed.
Conversations for Creating Social Capital.
Being able to marshal your network of relationships for help is what we call social capital. When we connect with people, we bridge a divide represented by new knowledge, access to resources, and new partners for projects. You cannot create this network overnight. Even with the people you know well, you may not know what they really know, and who is, more importantly, who is in their network.
My experience is that the institutional nature of modern society creates uncertainty and insecurity. As a result, we look to people who reinforce the ideas that we already have, and our sense of who we are that we have. In many instances, this is called cognitive bias. In reality, we are simply surrounding ourselves with people who we enjoy because we share common values, goals, perspectives, and life experiences. These relationships are the ones represented by B and C in the above diagram.
Of course, there are some of us, myself included, whose cognitive bias is skepticism towards what we already know. We already know that we don’t know what we need to know, that we don’t have all the skills we need to excel in our work and that our experience has not prepared us for every contingency imaginable. As a result, we look for people and situations where we can grow. Our desire to grow leads to the realization that expanding our network of relationships is how we learn to manage the social and intellectual confinement that we often find at work.
This is not about being a know-it-all. We are not experts. We are people who seek out persons for conversation that broadens our knowledge and perception of the world. That is impossible in today’s expansive world of knowledge growth. What we actually need is a structure within a structure to help us build the conversations that expand our understanding and build the social culture for impact through our institutions. And this structure needs to provide has a protocol or discipline for asking questions.
Skills for Conversations based Asking Questions
I continue to learn through my conversations with people who I meet on a daily basis. A recent series of conversations that I had with a person from a global corporation, highlighted to me something I knew but was not sufficiently aware of. It is that the capacity to have a conversation that advances the project or even the company as a whole requires a set of skills that we typically identify as entrepreneurial.
These skills enable people to see incongruities and opportunities that can advance the company. When these skills are missing, the tendency is to see our situation as not needing change, or at least that whatever change is necessary is not reasonable. I find this to be true in organizations, large and small, for-profit, non-profit, government, religious, and educational. In this sense, the institution becomes a place of retreat from having to think too hard. Live this way long enough, you forget how to ask questions. As one of my friends describe a local group to me, it is filled with a bunch of “Yes Men”. In other words, no one is allowed to ask questions. As one of my mentors described to me,
“These people know how to run a business, but not lead a business, because, they are usually working in their business, not on their business.”
This is particularly true if the company has a long track record of positive financial reports. Openness to new ideas and the possibilities of change that is the impact of conversation and advances the company forward is never developed. Risk avoidance becomes a high priority value. Risk, in these settings, is seen as trying something new. Of course, there is a risk regardless of whether to choose to change or not.
As I hope you can see, conversation within an institutional environment is skills-based. It requires the skills of learning how to explore and discover through conversation with another person or group. It is more than listening, certainly more than waiting to speak. It is rather using the other’s ideas as building blocks for understanding. As a result, developing the capacity to ask questions that open upon conversation is one of those skills that need to be nurtured in organizations. This is why I developed The Five Questions That Every One Must Ask.
Using The Five Questions to Foster Better Conversations
A negative understanding of conversations has been described as one person speaking and another waiting to speak. There is not much listening that goes on. Many of the books on conversation highlight the need to listen. As a group, if your team were to answer these five questions on a regular basis, I know that you will begin to find your team experiencing “a persistent, residual culture of values” that could unite you for the work that you are doing.
The following questions can be adapted for looking backward in assessment, in the present for designing meetings or special events, and looking forward to creating a vision for the future. They can be used for planning, problem-solving, and team member evaluation. These questions are the framework of my Impact Day process where we address current situations in light of the transitions that we have seen take place. Strategize from the past, through the present, into the future as a way to describe the kind of impact that is desired. The Five Questions and the Impact Day process are tools that advance the skills of conversation for individuals and groups. If your team doesn’t communicate well, doesn’t handle challenges well, can’t face issues of change, and where respect and trust are difficult to come by, then this process can provide a transformational experience for your team.
Question 1: What has Changed? How are We in Transition?
There is a point in the past when you or a member of your team realized that something had changed. This awareness has become the context of understanding for whatever has happened since. The clearer you are about what has transpired, the clearer you will be in where you are presently and why it matters.
The specific way to ask this question is:
At what point in time did you notice a change that became meaningful to you?
Since then, what situations have occurred that reinforce your sense that you are in transition, and something must be done about it?
Of the five questions, this is the most important one. It is worth spending more time on this question because what you gain is an awareness of the historical progression of the situation. From that perspective, you see things that may have only been a feeling before.
If you are looking to the future, then you ask the question in terms of “What needs to change? What is the transition that I / We need to go through in the future?” This hard work assumes that everyone is willing to take responsibility for the past and be accountable for the future.
Question 2: What is our Impact?
Impact is defined as a change that makes a difference that matters.
It is the ultimate outcome of a process or a specific action. When a group is reviewing a period of transition, we want to ask the question, “What is the impact of this change?”
To be clear we are asking,
“What is the change that makes a difference that matters base on the series of changes that have taken place?”
Take for example a building that is being designed and built to the specifications of a company. The original idea for the building is derived from some need or purpose. With a clear idea of that purpose, we can know what the impact of the building would be.
I have found that it is far easier to describe a functional purpose than a purpose for impact. You have to delve deep into the Why of the values that define its purpose. And if that question is only by one person, then the impact will have a difficult time reaching its audience. For this reason, our conversation not only needs to define what our impact is to be, but Why and How, and most importantly, Who it is for.
Question 3: Who has been Impacted?
My experience in asking this question of people has shown me that people are often unaware of what is going on around them. They cannot see the effect that their work or their presence at work has on people. The institutional nature of modern organizations requires a kind of mechanical focus on the job at hand. Of course, that is a good thing at one level. Focus, of course, is good. But not to be aware of the impact on people is to miss the ultimate benefit or effect that our work together creates.
Question 4: What Opportunities do we have because of our Impact?
When you ask the first three questions, you may discover that these changes or the transition that you are in has been happening to you, rather than by you. Your conversation about the transition, its impact, and the people who have been impacted, should lead to a realization of specific steps that can be taken to either rectify problems or steps to advance the purpose that you defined.
In seeking to understand what these opportunities might be I suggest that you classify them into two categories. There are the opportunities that you can act on right now. By right now, I mean actions that produce the desired impact right now. These are short-term, immediate opportunities for action.
The future is the context of the other category. With clarity about how you got here from that point in the past, knowing what your impact is or is not, and knowing who are the intended recipients of your impact, then you can begin to strategize how to create another transition process that leads to the future. In doing so, you are asking the same questions that helped you reflect on your past experience. With this, continuity can be achieved that transforms the organization from being to responsive in a moment-to-moment situation to working clearly from a plan the whole team or possibly the whole of the organization helped craft.
Question 5: What Problems have we created? What Obstacles do we face?
It is possible that by the time you get to this question, your conversation has elevated your team’s capacity for communication, respect, trust, and mutual accountability. In other words, they become more than a team in name only. Using this approach regularly enables your team to form an ever-expanding network of relationships.
Conversations about problems and obstacles are often ones where individuals need to take responsibility for some aspect of the situation. If a member of the team feels that they cannot engage in asking these questions, it may be because they see it inhibiting their future role and advancement.
The Impact of Conversation in Networks of Institutions
A conversation is similar to writing. When we write, we learn to articulate the thoughts roaming around in our minds. The same is true for conversation. When we talk, we have to learn to articulate our thoughts to verbally communicate them intelligently.
Conversations open up pathways of understanding. However, for understanding to grow, we need to provide a structure of boundaries that grants greater freedom for speaking truthfully. For this reason, I believe teams should establish their own standards for behavior in their team communication. This is especially true when they are sitting in the same room together.
What then should the impact of your conversations in your organization be? That is for you to determine. It is, therefore, by answering that question is a good starting point for developing your network of institutions to be a place where your opportunity to be a person of impact can be realized.