Leadership is a Conversation, at Least it Should be!

Traditional corporate communication needs an overhaul.  It needs to become less about corporate tone and messaging and more about dynamic and engaging communications.  More over it needs to be conversational.  I got goose bumps as I read Leadership Is a Conversation by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind in this month’s issue of HBR.  They nailed how to improve employee engagement and  I wish we could inject their insights like a vaccine into today’s leaders.  Command and control environments are no longer viable or effective; they are disrespectful and harmful both culturally and fiscally.

Groysberg and Slind have developed a model for leadership that they call “Organizational Conversation”.  It is based on four elements of conversation: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality.  And while they give some latitude by not requiring all four of these i’s to be present, I would argue that  not only do they reinforce one another, but also that all four of them are essential and tightly coupled.  In essence, these four attributes are the foundation for employee engagement.

These are my take-aways from this abundantly rich article…

For many leaders, intimacy in conversation is a scary notion and most leaders have pervasive false truths about embracing openness at this level.  Typically leaders think it is their job to protect their employees from the potential burden of the truth and transparency with a misguided notion that this will enable them to stay focused.  Yet the fact of the matter is- cultivating a listening culture and speaking directly and authentically with all employees is how you earn credibility and trust.

Fostering intimate conversation is about mental and emotional proximity to your employees and less about the physical proximity.  When having a lack of face to face proximity results in a sharp disconnection, it then becomes essential to meet face to face when addressing even the smallest of issues.  Yet when you establish emotional proximity, physical proximity is only required to address complex issues.  In other words, if your team is distributed, as most are today, emotional proximity is vital to the success of your team.

The importance of the art of listening is something we have recognized as important for a long time, yet it still seems to be foreign for too many leaders.  It requires humility, genuine curiosity and most importantly it shows respect and appreciation to the fertile minds within your organization.

Few leaders have the courage to interact with their employees on a level that is inclusive.  This is in part because it is unpredictable in nature, yet it is fundamental in having a mutual exchange. When a leader attempts to control or manipulate the direction or content of an interaction, it is no longer a conversation.  It then becomes a monologue.  Inclusive conversations engage employees and inspire them to share their ideas.  Inclusion requires leaders to surrender control and embrace vulnerability and it inspires collective ownership and employees will start to become the voice of the company.  Employees and customers are sick of corporate messaging.  They want real stories from the front line.  Their own stories make messaging genuine and memorable.

Intimate conversation cannot co-exist with a hidden agenda or passive aggressive hostility.  Leaders need to be explicit and transparent with their intent and their intent will help shape the flow and bring order to how the conversation unfolds.

Employees have, and always will have, conversations with or without leaders.  And these conversations are a reflection of the perceptions of their leaders and they are shaped by the level of respect and appreciation they receive from them.  By engaging in frank and honest conversations leaders can manifest a culture that inspires employees to work harder and smarter and even have fun doing it.

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