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Leadership

Leadership as Conversation

Conversation

Leadership as Conversation

A few years ago Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind suggested that ‘leadership is a conversation’ (HBR 2012). Given our belief in the centrality of the conversation, we naturally found this idea intriguing. In short, they questioned the top-down model of leadership in the face of globalisation, new technology and changes to the economy, society and organisations. Instead, they suggested that part of the solution lay in new ways of communicating between leaders and led, which should become more conversational: ‘intimate’, ‘interactive’ and ‘inclusive’, to create trust and open up the flow of ideas and information; but also ‘intentional’ in order that the organisation can derive strategically relevant action from the debate. It is not without its flaws, but it is a great place to start a conversation.

While leaders may use conversations to achieve their ends that does not mean that all leadership is a conversation. A leader certainly needs to engage in purposeful (intentional) conversations in order to gather as much information as possible in order to generate plans and respond to problems, but at some point the conversation must end and decisions need to be made. There may also be times when a conversation is just not suitable. For example, when dealing with critical problems or crises the leader has to take command. Taking decisive action in a time sensitive environment when collective action would take too long is the perogative of the leader. There is no doubting however, that in order to improve decisions, leaders need all the critical information, both good and bad, to help them understand what is happening. In practice however, encouraging employees to volunteer bad news often proves difficult. In part, this is down to human behaviour, which makes people reluctant to be the bearer of bad news, but it is also an aspect of organisational culture. Changing the mode of communication in organisations from monologue to dialogue is always going to be challenging.

This was recognised by Groysberg and Slind. Differences in authority and responsibility make it difficult to have meaningful conversations, instead the leader will often be told/hear what they want to hear. Simply put, this could be described as the ‘observer effect’, whereby the presence of the leader in a conversation tends to distort what is said. There may be a tendency for people to suggest things to gain favour, impress and create influence, rather than engage in open communication. For internal communication systems to work you need to have genuine interactive leadership, which encourages and rewards a culture of sharing information and the ill-formed thought. Does your organisation have that?

Having the right conversation with the right people is an important goal in any organisation, and when applied in the right context leadership can be a conversation. If leadership is about dealing with uncertainty and deriving innovative responses to complex problems, it is more likely to require collective solutions. In this case, leaders who ask the right questions and encourage honest answers are key. Our suggestion would be to adopt the southern African concept of Ubuntu, which encourages everyone to have an equal voice, then the leader decides

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The Power of a Good Question

QuestionsIn January’s blog I wrote that PSA’s role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation. I would add that it is also our role to help leaders to ask those same questions. We agree with Ian Leslie, the author of ‘Curious’, that those with the ability to ask penetrating questions will increasingly be in demand. Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker, who observed that:

A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people – people with much higher IQs than mine – who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realise is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

So what are we afraid of? Leslie, drawing on the work of Michael Marquardt, identifies four reasons why people don’t ask questions: first, a desire to protect ourselves from the danger of looking stupid; second, because we’re too busy and tend to focus on action at the expense of thinking and questioning; third, because the culture discourages questioning – either because it is are authoritarian, blinded by groupthink or disposed toward action not reflection; and finally, because we lack the skills (or knowledge) to ask them (we don’t know what we don’t know).

So what can we do about it? Be curious. Have the courage to ask the stupid question, if you can’t who can? Take time to think and compose penetrating questions that go to the nub of an issue, and ask yourself if it’s just you, or does a fear of questioning permeate your organisation.

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It’s All About The Conversation

There are many websites and self-help books aimed at improving your social skills, turning you from hapless mumbler to magnetic raconteur, this is not one of them. For us, the conversation is not about the superficiality of making a good first impression or introducing yourself at parties. It is quite the opposite. It is about allowing everyone a voice and bringing forth all that has previously been left unsaid, in order to reach a better understanding of a situation, and so act.

In Issue 1 of the RSA Journal 2014 Peter Senge posed a question to consultants: Is the client more effective when you are gone? He observed that 90% of consulting is expert: someone comes in and tells you what to do (they give you the answer). Whereas, for the other 10% it is about capacity building and growth: helping managers think through things for themselves, recognising their own development needs and building their own and their organisation’s capacities. The former tries to offer a formula for unlocking complexity and giving it form, while the latter accepts and delights in complexity and chaos. It lives in the question and recognizes the need for humility. We are definitely in this latter category. Our role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation.

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