0

Some thoughts on dialogue in the context of leading change in digital transformation

Summary: Dialogue and exchange are very common catch phrases used in today’s world of change and digital transformation. With the raise of social technologies in intra-company communications, dialogue and exchange became key drivers and motivators for introducing and motivating adoption of those new opportunities. Looking back on my years in the field I am frequently asking myself: What has to fundamentally change to really accelerate the impact and effectiveness of the new digital opportunities? This short essay contains my thoughts concerning the subject and was triggered by one of the latest TED Radio Hour episodes.

Disclaimer: As mentioned in my section on “Sources of Inspiration”, I get a lot of food for thought from the TED Radio Hour (by npr.org). Listening to one of the most recent shows on “Dialogue & Exchange“, two segments got my thoughts spinning. I need to mention, that what was triggered in my head does not match the actual context of the talks’s content. It’s more an “abstraction” of the two angles on dialogue & exchange.

TAKE 1: Moral Reframing. Manipulating the other side by using a resonating baseline of moral values to win an argument.

In his segment of the TED Radio Hour, Robb Willer and Guy Raz talk about the political divide in the US. Robb introduces the results of a study, in which democrats, republicans & liberals were surveyed on their position towards environmental protection after reading one of three essays. One essay was emphasising the moral values of republicans, one the ones of democrats, one was neutral and simply arguing the case. Republican & democrat participants were leaning towards supporting pro-protection arguments, if delivered in the moral value framing closest to their political position. Liberals would support the subject no matter what.

The study was proof for the method of “Moral Reframing”, in which the other side is persuaded to follow a particular argument, by delivering it through a morally resonating message. I believe, you can safely call that “manipulation”.

What my brain made of this…

Quite a while ago I realised that the saying

Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.

by Confucius is slightly misleading. It implies that we all live by comparable values, standards, preferences and ideals. I believe we can all agree, that that’s not really the case. At least I can name you a list of things – business and private – that I don’t want experience, while others would sincerely indulge in them.

Nevertheless, in a lot of change initiatives, the believes of either thought leaders, executives or advisors (or a combination of all three) are used as the driving arguments for change. Based on those believes new strategies are proclaimed, operating models established and IT tools get introduced. In only a very few of those initiatives the drivers really come from the base and represent the broad perspective on challenges, opportunities and options for a way forward. This is exactly the moment, where the arguments fall short and the need for change is only put out there but does not resonate with its audience.

What if we first listened to the ones that have to adopt change and that need to be taken on the journey towards the future? What if we decided to really seek to understand the fundamentals that move the people that we need by our side to really make a change? What if we used the learning from that process and modified the arguments in a “morally reframed way” to persuade people based on their values to come on board and take an active role?

I can hear the shouts of “that’s manipulation!”. But what, if you also apply another Stephen R. Covey habit of “thinking WIN/WIN“? Then the “manipulation” is not harmful but essentially in the best interest of everyone and a good way of getting a larger adoption of behaviour that is required to really make a change.

What if…?

TAKE 2: New challenges for diplomacy + The ability to have a dialogue without trying to convince the other side

Jonas Gahr Støre is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway. In his TED Talk he is picking up on the raise of intra-country conflicts and the roles of diplomats in a very difficult environment of extremism.  One piece of his talk that triggered a particular thought process in my mind was this chart (screenshot taken from a still of the video on npr.org):

ted_screen

Besides the fact that this is a massive challenge for diplomats that are trained to solve INTER-conuntry dispute, I suddenly asked myself: might it be the case that corporate leaders and managers are facing a slightly similar issue?

Looking back at my time in larger (and some small) corporations (as an employee at them or a consultant to them) I remember the phrase

“We are dealing too much with ourselves and not enough with the market, our audience or the competition.”

really well. Firstly this means that too many capacities are bound by internal ineffectiveness (not to be muddled up with inefficiencies!). Companies are not applying the right people or skill to solve INTERNAL problems, so things tend to drag on forever. They might be throwing some weight at the problems, but it’s not the right weight. I’ve learned about this angle in a talk from Dr. Gerhard Wohland when he said (something in the direction of):

Whenever a surprise hits, companies tend to ask the wrong question. They usually what to know “what are we going to do now?”. That’s the wrong question. If you knew your options, the situation wouldn’t be a surprise. What you need to ask yourself is “who is the right person in our company to deal with this and find out what to do?”.

Secondly, the majority of people hired for a job (if not hired for an HR role) are trained (and framed) to deal with OUTSIDE facing topics. They are (if hired well) diplomats to deal with EXTERNAL challenges on the client, partner or industry side. They have not come on board as diplomats and problem solvers for the INTERNAL conflict – even though that solving those would automatically lead to improved business success…I dare to quote Richard Branson in this context:

Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.

Those two thoughts lead to two questions, that might be a starting point to resolving the INTRA-company challenges.:

  1. Are the right people dealing with our internal challenges? (instead of: are we doing the right thing?)
  2. How do we attract the right people that we need to deal with our internal challenges? (and most likely this will not be the next VP with an impressive commercial track record…)

Listening without the goal of convincing.

Another part of Jonas Gahr Støre’s talk referred to the ability to

Distinguish talking from making decisions.

What resonated with me here is the fact, that too many intra-corporate conversations don’t have the objective to understand. The dialogue is either “fake” (aka the feedback doesn’t really weigh as much as the initial statement) or the only aim of dialogue is to find the right angle to convince people of something else.

I am sure, we all have been in a situation where we’ve been invited to a “constructive conversation”, which turned out to be an environment in which – after having voiced the own perspective – the only objective was the attempt to convince us.

You’ve been there, right?

Now there is a difference between my TAKE 1 on “moral reframing” in this essay and the lack of dialogue I am referring to here. Because the sort of dialogue I am promoting in my TAKE 2 is a necessary foundation for being able to find resonating arguments. It can only derive from the will to walk into a conversation with the sole objective to understand, not to immediately respond and convince. For this methods like “active listening”, in which a listener repeats the perceived message in own words to then see if the sent and the perceived meaning actually match, can be very helpful.

If the objective of a conversation is a real understanding of all parties at the table, there is no need for neutrality or consensus to maintain a good conversational climate. It would be baked in by the fact that real interest into the other’s point of view is the driver of the talk, instead of the “polite waiting period before I blurt out what all the others have to believe anyway.”

My Essence: Effective change requires a foundation derived from a real dialogue.

Let’s not take the detour over “Starting with Why?” (Simon Sinek) again 😉

Let’s take it as a given and agree, that the purpose for change, for the introduction of new ways of working and the move towards a connected organisation has to start with a real dialogue.

Before companies whip out their value propositions and try to encourage behavioural change, they might want to get a deep understanding of the values and drivers of the people the change will affect. This will help us to work with resonating value propositions, which in itself are much stronger in their effect.

Let’s seek a dialogue that has the objective to understand, not to convince or manipulate.

If we want to proclaim the power of the crowd, holocracy and flat (or no) hierarchies, let’s find the real motivators to do so. Because a stock price, competitive advantage or a steep increase in bonuses won’t be it. That much we should really know already…

Let’s introduce a new breed of (non-HR) managers: diplomats for internal affairs.