Just the Right Conversation

“People want to be part of something bigger than themselves… They cannot commit fully to anything unless it fits with their own beliefs… People are at their best when they are passionate and care deeply about what they are doing…” (Kouzes and Posner, Learning Leadership)

Within this quote, we can see elements of what I’ve been posting the last several weeks.  Commitment comes from the individual’s beliefs, his or her stage of development and the way each chooses to show up.  If Kouzes and Posner are correct, then one of the greatest challenges facing employee commitment is that people need to feel that they are working at what matters – to them and to others.  If they aren’t– or worse, can’t because of their stage of development – then they won’t be able to commit fully.

But what is it that we’re passionate about and what is it we care deeply about? Every day, every person in your organization – in fact, every person on the planet – starts their day with things they care about and concerns they want to address.  Some of those are personal, like their favorite sports team or their weekend plans or their next big purchase.  Some aspirational, like what they wish they could do or where they wish they could go.  But many have to do with the work they’re about to do.  And where do they get to share those?

What opportunities do people have to meet with leaders and share their cares and concerns?  And if those opportunities aren’t present, with whom do they share them?  With their fellow coworkers?  In the lunch room?  On social media?  And where does that lead?  What opportunities to learn from coworkers is missing?

“Any problem in an organization or relationship is directly related to a conversation not being held or one being held poorly.” – Julio Olalla

During my coach training with Newfield Network, I had the privilege of sitting and learning from Julio Olalla, one of the pioneers in ontological coaching.  Ontology simply means a theory of being human.  One of his theories is that we don’t know how to have the right kinds of conversations in order to relieve human suffering.

How could we begin to identify the right conversations that could identify what we care about and which collective concerns are in our best interests to take care of?  What would it do to the workplace if we were doing things we cared about and were taking care of our greatest concerns?

“…We must connect the individuals to the context of the purposes and commitments of the organization. To accomplish this, we must have a generative framework for producing the relationships of organization members to the organization, and to each other in the networks that form the organization. By “generative” I mean distinguishing and producing the actions that produce the desired outcomes. A generative interpretation is opposed to a descriptive interpretation, where outcomes are described but the actions to produce the outcomes are not clear.” – Bob Dunham, “The Generative Foundations of Action in Organizations: Speaking and Listening,” IJCO Issue 2; 2009

In 2012 I had the opportunity to study with Bob Dunham at The Foundations of Generative Leadership course that he offered at Villanova University.  Bob was another pioneer in ontological coaching and founded The Institute for Generative Leadership and his work was insightful, revolutionary, and yet, made total sense.

During that course, Bob asked the question, “Why do most strategic planning efforts end up in nicely bound volumes on a shelf that produce no results?”  His answer was that the people who were responsible for executing the plan had little-to-no input in the work they were doing and so lacked the commitment to achieve results on projects they didn’t care about.  At the same time, leaders were blind to a way to turn these same people into passionate performers, focused on achieving results.  He called it the Anatomy of Action or the Anatomy of Change

Anatomy of Action/Change

Anatomy of Action graphic (002)

Action is shaped by commitment – by the commitments we make or don’t make, the clarity of the commitment, and the ownership and importance of the commitment to the person committing.  Commitments arise in conversations, particularly those of coordination between people.

All results, both individually and socially, have as their root cause, prior conversations, conversations which are had, conversations which are missing, conversations that are performed well or poorly.

Care is a fundamental dimension of all action.  It can be present or absent, but in either case, it has a fundamental shaping of how the action is carried out, and the meaning and value of the outcomes to be produced.”  Dunham, The Generative Foundations of Action in Organizations: Speaking and Listening; IJCO; 2009

So how can leaders have the right conversations that generate commitment — that produce the right goals that people care about and commit to take care of?  My first experiment with this process was not long after my time learning from Bob.

I had the opportunity to facilitate a multi-day workshop for a team from an international corporation.  They were coming together to become a stronger team and to identify their agenda for the next few years.  So, I decided what better opportunity to test this theory?

On the first day, I asked them two questions: What do you care deeply about at work?  What are your major concerns about work?  I asked them to write these on 3” x 3” Post-Its (TM) and we posted them on a wall covered in flip chart paper.  Once we had sorted, combined, and categorized these, we then engaged in a multi-vote process to prioritize these.  It became clear what the top three group concerns were that they were eager to take care of.

We then engaged in other team building activities and came back to the list the next day.  After reviewing and affirming that we were still on track, I asked, “Who cares about the first topic the most?”  Immediately a hand shot up and one of the more soft-spoken members said, “I’ve been thinking about this topic for five years.  I know exactly what we should do.”  After asking the team if they agreed that he should take the lead, we moved on to the remaining two and had similar results.

People volunteering to lead action teams to produce results?!  Unheard of!  It’s usually arm-twisting with a dose of guilt and a dash of commanding that identifies goal champions.  We concluded our workshop with other activities, reviewed our commitments, and adjourned.

Four months later, I received a call from the senior vice president who started our call with, “Geoff, we have a problem.”  My immediate reaction was that they had gone back to their routines, gotten busy with their “real work,” and had forgotten about what we had decided at our workshop.  I asked him what the problem was and he said, “We’ve taken care of the three goals we identified and don’t know what to do next.”  I assured him it wasn’t a problem.

Since that time, I’ve used the “cares and concerns” conversation in many settings to accomplish different outcomes.  Sometimes, it’s fulfilling to see people taking time out of life’s busyness and reminding themselves of what they care about.  Sometimes, it’s rewarding to see individuals exercise the kind of courage it takes to raise what they’re concerned about.  For organizations, it’s a powerful tool to generate the commitment needed to achieve results.  Having just the right conversations can address any problem in an organization or a relationship.  It’s a process any leader can use.  All it takes is the willingness and courage to ask the right questions and to be open to what happens next.

© Geoff Davis, 10/12/18

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