This assignment, led by Catherine Thomson, highlighted the need to develop leaders’ focus on the power of developing conversational intelligence at a time when the organisation was experiencing poor operational performance, poor morale and engagement.
What we Did
We set up a 360-degree survey measuring Team Climate and Leadership Styles (based on research by the Korn Ferry Institute) for the CEO, Executive Team and the remaining leaders/managers in the organisation (30 in total). We wanted to better understand the team climate by measuring the following dimensions:
Clarity – the degree to which employees know and understand what is expected of them. (job challenge, importance and variety)
Standards – the degree to which challenging but achievable standards and encouragement to improve performance exist
Flexibility – the degree to which there are unnecessary rules/procedures and how easy it is to have new ideas accepted
Responsibility – the degree to which authority is given to accomplish tasks without checking for approval
Rewards –leadership facilitation and support – the degree to which staff are rewarded for high performance and that praise outweighs criticism and threats
Team Commitment– workgroup cooperation, friendliness, warmth and management of conflict.
Data analysis included an assessment of the degree to which team climate was influenced by
the prevailing leadership styles used by this group of leaders.
What we Found
Employee feedback pointed to the difficulty in being able to suggest new ideas and solutions to problems facing them at work, with concerns
expressed about having to ‘fight against’ unreasonable constraints. This revealed evidence of ‘micromanaging’ on the one hand, and unclear performance expectations on the other. Survey results also suggested that:
- The staff did not feel valued or their efforts recognised.
- Conversational patterns were of the monologue variety; manager making all the decisions; absence of debate around critical issues; covert opposition; courteous compliance.
- The prevailing Leadership Styles across the organisation were primarily, Coercive (do as I tell you) and Pacesetting (if you can’t do it right, I’ll do it myself). Both these styles contributed significantly to the creation of a low climate for Clarity, Responsibility, Flexibility, Reward and Team Commitment.
What Happened Next
Working with the entire leadership community, we explored the type of organisational culture they wished to create, and how this could be achieved, by focusing on the quality of the following categories of conversations: Coaching; Setting Direction; Giving feedback; Problem Solving; Innovating; and Decision Making. The leadership development focus was on enabling the leadership community to discuss and explore
data findings in a way that engendered trust, openness and honesty.
Using Kantor’s model of Structural Dynamics, leaders became aware of the (action) stances they take in a conversation, the words chosen when speaking and the implicit rules that are followed when interacting with someone. Our findings pointed to evidence of interpersonal relationships, which included patterns of ‘stuck’ behaviours that repeat over and over again.
Survey feedback sessions with the team of 30 managers allowed us to help them build an understanding of their behavioural repertoire and learn how to expand it, contributing to their communicative success. This included learning about how to change ‘stuck’ patterns of conversational behaviours by expanding their repertoire.
Participants also learned to work with Conversational Practices, underpinning the positions that they hold in conversation (Authentic Voice, Listen, Respect and Judgement). By working consciously with conversational practices, managers enhanced the quality of their leadership conversations by speaking with their authentic voice and encouraging others to do the same; listening as a participant, seeking more to understand; respecting the views of others and suspending own certainties.
Over nine months, our participants worked at developing their behavioural repertoire by practice, reflection and follow-through, with a noticeable improvement in their communicative competence, including their awareness and ability to:
- Expand their conversational repertoire
- bringing balance and new understandings when the conversation gets ‘stuck’.
- Build healthy relationships with team members leading to higher engagement.
- Build trust and create opportunities to talk about shared anxieties, ideas and solutions.
- Facilitate meaningful conversations where everyone’s voice holds equal value
A second Organisational Climate and Leadership Styles Assessment undertaken one year later indicated that across the organisation:
- Employees were experiencing a healthy reduction in the Pacesetting and Coercive styles of leadership and an increase in the Democratic and Coaching Styles.
- These results positively linked to evidence of a more balanced organisational (and related team)
- There was a significant improvement in the climate dimensions of Clarity, Responsibility, Flexibility and Team Commitment.
By the end of our Leadership Intervention, participants had created climate improvement plans used for ongoing monitoring and tracking of progress. They are now having regular, more meaningful conversations with peers and team members.
Pause for Thought
Amidst increasing complexity and scarcity of resources, people in organisations are increasingly expected to work with contradictory information and paradoxical demands. In this paper, we place the spotlight on engagement tensions arising from demands to raise service quality and cut costs and how these link to the broader economy. We highlight the pivotal role of ‘conversational leadership’ in generating the time and space to embrace an openness to change and opportunities to work with tensions creatively.
We recognise that embedding leadership practice of this kind is challenging in the face of structural constraints, such as declining time/space for supervisors to initiate conversations and collective inquiry with subordinates, or mindsets entrenched in either/or thinking about tensions between opposites. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence to suggest that organisations, leaders and managers who can successfully embrace paradoxical demands are more adaptive and effective These findings offer an essential contribution to current debates about the impact