Don’t Let Power Dynamics Derail Work Communication
There are a lot of conversational dynamics in play when people from different levels in an organisation get together for meetings. Bestselling business author Craig Weber knows a thing or two about dealing with these communication issues. Over the past 24 years he has facilitated more than 1,300 workshops with CEOs and senior executives from a wide range of organisations and has also provided in-depth executive coaching.
Weber’s specialty is conversational capacity—the ability of an individual or team to engage in open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about difficult subjects and in challenging circumstances. This can be especially difficult when there is a power gradient in the room, says Weber—such as when a CEO is in a meeting with lower level directors, managers, and supervisors.
“The problem,” says Weber, “is that nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. So managers at every level of the organisation, from frontline supervisors and team leads to CEOs and senior executives, need to be careful about how they wield their authority. A manager who, by their action or inaction, lowers the ability of their people to engage in important issues and challenging situations in an open, balanced, non-defensiveway, is by definition managing ineffectively.
“When I bring this up in workshops with executive leaders, you can see participants immediately start taking notes. They recognise the problem and begin asking questions: ‘I see this happen all the time when I walk into a meeting, so what can I do? How can I use my authority in a more productive way?’ ”
The good news is that managers can learn to carry their authority in a way that lifts, rather than lowers, the conversational capacity of their team. But it takes discipline.
Weber helps them build this discipline by providing them well-defined competencies, and actionable tools to help build them, in three domains of practice: awareness, mindset, and skillset.
“Awareness is the ability to recognise when our emotional reactions are trying to throw us off balance. We don’t get rid of our defensive emotional reactions, we just change our relationship with them. We have them; they don't have us. This is important. When we lack self-awareness, we are like a puppet on a string with our emotional reactions pulling the strings. That is not a good place to be operating from—especially for managers. Few things are more disruptive than working for an emotionally unpredictable boss.”
The mindset provides a conversational North Star, says Weber. A clear mindset allows us to stay attentive to what matters in a situation and respond in a more intentional way—even when we are emotionally triggered.
“High awareness helps us recognize and manage our emotional reactions, and a clear mindset works like a navigational beacon that helps us maintain our course even when our emotional reactions are trying to throw us off.”
The third domain of practice is the skillset, explains Weber.
“It doesn’t matter how good your mindset is if you can't act on it. The skillset is a specific set of behaviors for aligning our mouth with our mindset. The key is learning to behave in a way that balances candour with curiosity.
“What I'll often do with executives is say, ‘What's the one behaviour that, if you baked it into your behavioural repertoire, would bring more balance to how you currently come across in a meeting?’ For some people, the candor muscles need a little help. These are the people who are nice, agreeable, and pleasant to be around. Because they don't like to upset people, look like a jerk, give bad news, or hurt feelings, they have a tendency to become less candid under pressure. To be more effective, they need to strengthen their candor muscles so they can say what needs to be said, even when it isn’t easy.
“For other people, candour is not a problem. In fact, it’s their superpower. But their candour can be a blunt instrument that comes at the expense of others. To be more effective, these people need to cultivate more open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and a more active interest in the views of others.”
When it comes to balancing candour and curiosity under pressure, says Weber, we all have work to do. Some of us need to build our curiosity skills, but for others, the candour skills need the most attention.
The good news is that the workplace provides ample opportunities to do the work. You can use your daily experience in the workplace to make these skills part of your operational rhythm, says Weber. “It's not like you practice these skills and then take them to work. Work provides the practice space—if you know how to use it.”
An Essential Leadership Competence
Good communication skills are an essential leadership competence, says Weber.
“Conversational capacity is a team competence. A team that can't communicate about its most pressing issues isn't really a team at all. It's just a dysfunctional group of people who can't communicate well when it really matters. It is also a personal competence. A person with high conversational capacity makes every conversation and every meeting smarter because they're in the room.
“It’s a leadership competence as well. Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan once said that any organisation is a community of discourse and leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse. Conversational capacity is a leadership action and a foundational competence for managers working to build highly effective organisations, teams, projects, and work relationships.
Every one of us can play that role in an increasingly potent way if we’re willing to build our conversational capacity.”
About the authors:
David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series.