Organizations as Conversations

Communication fuels progress, and an organization is only as effective as the conversations it's having. How can companies have better conversations; is digital technology a help or a hindrance?

Conversations are happening all around us, all of the time.

Particularly so at work; for what else is a business if not a set of individuals, communicating as a team, trying to achieve a shared goal?

From the very top leadership positions, to support staff, and across freelance and satellite workers, effective conversation propels a business forward; whether it’s a momentous strategy-aligning conversation or the everyday water cooler small talk (as we explored in my previous article on the origins of conversation, small talk, despite its bad reputation, carries serious psychological benefits) that helps build a positive company culture.

What’s more, in increasingly globalized and multi-disciplinary corporate teams, conversation is the way to bond colleagues together.

As Tsedal Neeley — global scholar and Harvard Business School faculty member — says:

“Regardless of function —  each team member represents the team. Leaders must be sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences and look for ways to bridge them and build unity.”

And this is true with customers too; here, open dialogue and active listening — in the form of collaborative value creation — can also promote commercial success.

Put simply, a company is a network of conversations: a sum of all dialogues. No matter who is talking, conversation is fundamental within organizations.

And so it’s crucial we get it right.

An acute understanding of the conversations happening within organizations, and how to have them, is a good place to start…

The four types of workplace conversation

Conversations within organizations take a variety of forms: 1-on-1s, feedback dialogues, development reviews, team meetings, company-wide memos from executive boards, all hands on deck meetings, internal marketing comms, and so on.

But in work, and indeed at home, everything we talk about can be seen as stemming from one or more of four types of conversation.

Each of these four performs a different role, chases a certain outcome, and has a correct — and, therefore, not-so-correct — execution.

You may not recognize these in your daily repertoire by name alone, but we’re sure you’ll be familiar with them.

The four types of workplace conversation are:

  • Initiative conversations
  • Understanding conversations
  • Performance conversations
  • Closure conversations

Let’s explore each of these in more detail…

Initiative conversations

In this dialogue, we look to share new ideas, set goals, agree on visions and decide upon the actions required to bring these to life.

You’ll have had this type of conversation many a time in your professional life, no matter your position or discipline. If you’ve ever agreed on a timeline, offered a solution to a problem, or communicated what you’d like to get out of a project, you’ve been a part of an Initiative conversation.

These conversations do not have to be led by those in senior management positions. Indeed, all employees should take ownership of their initiative (and be encouraged by leaders to do so).

Having an effective approach to team and individual goal setting helps initiative conversations to take place.

Understanding conversations

Ongoing feedback is key for understanding, both within the context of a 1-on-1 relationship a team.

During understanding conversations, we build on current awareness and knowledge; with the aim to motivate and set a clear path for success.

These conversations help avoid misunderstanding, and the many mistakes it can cause.

As an example, you may bring your team together for a mid-project review, to ensure everyone understands the objectives and the steps required to achieve them. By checking in, you invite input — giving team members an opportunity to voice concerns or confusion — and have a platform to receive feedback on progress made so far; increasing team alignment, morale and overall job satisfaction.

Performance conversations

This conversation type is often the weakest (or most poorly executed) in corporate organizations.

Why? Because managers may feel they don’t need to make direct requests — asking employees to perform in a specific way — assuming their team will automatically know what’s desired of them.

But in actuality, this is rarely, if ever, the case.

Performance is directly correlated to direction. By providing context for the task (offering a “why”) paired with specific instruction (“when”, “where”, and “how”) you’re leading your employees with positive guidance and encouraging accountability.

Closure conversations

One facet of closure is celebration; rewarding and praising a job well done.

And yes, when discussing project performance it’s enjoyable to meet and go back over what went well. What’s far less enticing, though, is to revisit mistakes made.

However, we learn more from failure than success, and so closure conversations are particularly imperative when things haven’t gone entirely to plan.

Closure conversations support an honest review of actions, with feedback offered across the team. In the unfortunate situation of internal disagreement, closure conversations can help clear the air.

Fail to achieve proper closure, and mistakes, misunderstanding or animosity between team members may be carried on into the next conversation; perpetuating, needlessly, a cycle of bad communication, growing resentment, and weak team performance.

Each of these conversation types should appear in everyday organizational dialogue.

Initiative and understanding can, and should, occur in daily check-ins. Performance management and closure feedback are most effective when done continuously, rather than saved for annual review meetings and end-of-project reviews.

And not one of these conversation types is more important than its counterparts; each must work symbiotically with the rest. As both leaders and team members, we should begin to recognize — and examine — the types of conversations we have at work.

Because they aren’t all going to be enjoyable; acknowledging the aim, desired outcome and type of conversation you’re entering into will help you handle even the more difficult workplace conversations…

Difficult conversations within your organization

No one looks forward to challenging conversation topics.

We’d like to avoid them if we could, but the reality is — within business — often difficult conversations need to be had, for organizational benefit. Avoiding these conversations does nothing but exacerbate the problem and delay the inevitable.

Which conversations do you dread the most at work?

Perhaps you need to tackle a negative team culture, ask direct and challenging questions, give feedback to someone more senior, or ultimately let a member of the team go.

Saying that, not all tough conversations are negative in nature; it can be just as unsettling to ask for a raise. A recent study from Fractl found that negotiating a pay raise was the conversation employees most dreaded in the workplace, and this was true of female staff in particular.

So, whilst they are, hopefully, few and far between, it pays to know how to have burdensome conversations in the workplace.

And preparation is key. In their study, Fractl found that 85% of employees like to prepare for tough conversations.

What does this preparation look like? It could be having an Initiative conversation with yourself — determining what you want to get out of the conversation, setting goals.

You may also find it much easier to walk into a difficult conversation if the topic at hand won’t come as a surprise to your meeting partner. Setting an agenda ahead of time, allows both (or all) parties to individually prepare, knowing what will be discussed.

Try to avoid getting your mind set on just one outcome or one way of resolving things ahead of difficult conversations, even if you feel defensive.

Positive outcomes come from conversations where everyone has spoken rationally, openly and has been adequately heard. Conversations are not one-way streets, and to approach any communication channel as such will only lead to negative outcomes.

Remember: conversations should be two (or more) people working together to solve a problem

In his book, Powerful Conversations, executive coach and organizational development expert Phil Harkins suggests employees follow a simple dialogue structure.

Doing so ensures workplace conversations respect everyone involved, and avoids one member taking the lead to the detriment of others.

  • What’s up: Share your side of the situation and ask the other person for their perspective.
  • What’s so: Focus on the facts (remove emotional charge from the conversation). Discuss the impact on each of you, the team, and the larger organization. Allow the other person to share their stance.
  • What’s possible: Float, and discuss, a range of possible solutions or alternatives, and ask the other person to do the same.
  • Let’s go: Decide upon next steps, and how you’ll commit to them: establish a plan of action and accountability.

In your next workplace conversation — positive, constructive, company-wide or one-to-one — why not try Harkins’ framework?

The impact of digitalization on organizational conversation

We'd be remiss to discuss workplace communication without touching on the topic of digitalization.

Undeniably, the introduction of new technology into the workplace — first with email, then video conferencing, and now internal instant messaging — has changed the face of corporate conversation. Indeed, a great number of conversations now happen online, rather than face-to-face.

And this isn’t always a good thing. Workers potentially waste company time with digital communication; in one study, 66% of employees wiled away 30-60 minutes a day through various digital channels, costing their organization $3 billion in annual profits.

The question is: how can digital technology support meaningful conversation; not wasting time, but actually boosting productivity within organizations?

Today’s leaders — or digital leaders, as they are frequently called — must remember that human capital is still the key to commercial prosperity. And technology can play a role in bringing teams together and making them stronger, for the good of the business.

As the Internet overcomes borders, it also helps flatten the company structure; in many organizations, internal messaging services such as Slack connect a network of employees within the ranks, as well as all the way up to senior management.

If you want to send your boss a private, instant message, it’s often as easy as a click of a button.

McKinsey claims that organizations, where senior executives communicate with employees across all levels, are eight times more likely to achieve transformation success compared to those who don’t.

One Harvard Business Review article puts it as:

“Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. But mental or emotional proximity is essential.”

So, are digital platforms the answer to great conversation within organizations?

At Duuoo, we certainly think so, and that’s why we’ve put conversation at the heart of our digital service.

Nothing stimulates progress like a productive conversation, and conversations guided by Duuoo cover all appropriate topics and help foster accountability.

But our platform isn’t intended to replace face-to-face conversation; quite the opposite, in fact.

Duuoo helps you seamlessly execute in-person performance management, ad hoc feedback and structured 360° feedback on a daily basis. This way, everyone knows where they stand, and what’s expected of them moving forward.

Using the shared project deck to set meeting agendas means that even the toughest of conversations can be approached; with everyone involved prepared and ready to take them on.

In this way, digitalization can truly deliver its potential: strengthening organizational conversation for every team member.

This is just the start of the conversation…

Communication will continue to drive businesses forward.

What we’ll see in coming years, is conversation opening up across the company, as digital leaders adapt their managing styles to suit modern day workplaces and the changing expectations of modern-day employees.

Today, though, it’s time to ask: how effective are conversations within your organization? And what could you do to make them more productive?

Get in touch to find out how Duuoo can help.

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