Dialogue. For many people, let alone leaders, this is a scary concept. However for a leader, dialogue is often the single most important activity that can establish your credibility, solve issues, pre-empt issues before they need solving, and bring a team closer together. In a team that is already close, regular dialogue is a key contributor to maintaining high trust and engagement.
In the wider organisational context, dialogue can do all of the above and more, especially when deployed throughout significant change events.
As a leader, consultant and facilitator I have been using the power of healthy dialogue as the key medium for helping:
- teams learn how to succeed together,
- countries and companies learn how to collaborate more effectively on multi-billion dollar projects, and
- leaders become more effective in building engagement.
Outside of anything I’ve done, there are countless examples of really good leadership where dialogue has been the main tool. One example that comes to mind was that of a regional head of a global pharmaceutical company who turned his poor performing executive team and business around through the use of effective dialogue. He learned very early that his regional executive team were not connected; they were not a team. Silo’s were present in his team, and this was reflected down through the organisation with poor collaboration and communication. One of his first team leadership tasks was to have the executive team meet for one hour…everyday. The purpose of the meeting was simply to talk. Sometimes there were specific topics, but mostly it was about the connection that comes with mature dialogue. In a short space of time his team went from begrudging the daily hour, to looking forward to it. This was simply due to the natural sharing, personal and professional, that occurred…everyday. Soon the silo’s started to disappear, collaboration increased and natural solutions to problems started to occur. Best of all, the team started to build a rapport and momentum that was reflected down through the organisation.
So let’s take a brief look at what I mean by dialogue, and some tips based on my own experiences for how you can use dialogue as an enabler of growth.
Dialogue is an unconditional conversation, a discourse that invites people to contribute without being judged or rescued.
- Before the dialogue, set the boundaries for what needs to be covered, whether it is a specific topic, or you simply want the team to connect, as in the above example. This is easy to do for traditional meetings where there is an agenda; but more critical if you want to facilitate a conversation that is more open and not as fixed.
- If you want to facilitate a conversation with your team that is more exploratory in nature, like solving an issue in the team, brainstorming, teaming etc… the following guidelines are critical.
- At the beginning of the conversation, confirm with participants that they understand the scope of the conversation. It’s like an unwritten, psychological, contract.
- Let the conversation go where it needs to go. If you have set the boundaries this is easier to manage.
- If there is no fixed agenda, and the meeting is for the purpose of building team trust and connection, then you will need to set the example for contributing. People naturally like structure, and are used to having a meeting agenda. When you think about it, an agenda is easy to hide behind. It gives a reason for people to contribute, but more importantly if your name is not listed, or you don’t know the topic, it is easier to remain hidden. With no agenda there is no room to hide, and the room isn’t so safe after all. In lieu of this, acknowledge that you will need to ensure each participant feels welcomed and acknowledged for being present, to make up for the perceived lack of structure and safety.
- As the facilitator, don’t rescue, finish sentences or discount the contributions of others. Make these rules clear for the participants as well. It’s not always easy to do these things; however any effort made in these areas will encourage more open contributions. Importantly, you are inviting all members of the conversation to transact in a mature way, and you stand a better chance of leaving the political and psychological games at the door.
Use dialogue tactically…and sensibly. You don’t have to go it alone as a leader. When you want a solution to a problem a quick focused team conversation can do the trick. When you sense there is an issue in the team, again, use the power of the team to contribute to the solution. When morale is down, or the team is stretched or tired during a busy time, a timely conversation can allow for constructive venting, as well as a chance to reflect, look forward and if needed, laugh! For many years now, in the teams I’ve lead, I have found that a simple weekly catch up, with no fixed agenda (unless there was something important to be addressed) is a great way to build trust amongst the team and maintain momentum in tough times.
My final thought with regards to dialogue relates to you; the leader. To use dialogue constructively you have to trust yourself as much as your team. Why? Because the agenda is unknown, and driven by the group. This can be seen as giving up the ‘power’ that comes with being a leader. The only thing you are controlling is the flow of conversation, and working with the energy in the room.
The risk with using this approach is potentially high, simply because it isn’t what people are used to, and everyone is invited to be ‘present’ to the conversation in a largely non-traditional and non-structured way. And as mentioned above, the leader or facilitator, takes a slightly different approach to leading the meeting.
Having said that, the risks may be high, but so are the rewards.