Think about the last three conversations you had at work. Chances are, you won’t be able to remember all of them with perfect clarity. This is because workplace conversations are so commonplace they’re almost invisible. In today’s fast-paced work environment, we often don’t pay close attention to the words we choose, or the impact they have. Sure, we know our words matter. But the vast majority of our conversations are sort of like breathing. As important as breathing is, few of us ever stop to think about it.
When is the last time you spared a thought for breathing? Why would you? You inhale and take in oxygen. Your exhalation releases carbon dioxide. Doing so keeps you alive, and while you know this, you rarely ponder it. You have been doing it since the day you were born and so has everyone you know, so what is there to learn about breathing?
Well, if you were to ask a life-long yoga practitioner about the fundamentals of breathing, she would say there is a great deal to consider. Yoga practitioners have a completely different perspective on breathing. Through years of experience, they develop a different perspective on the whole breathing process, and how to harness its power.
And so it is with the power of conversations. In Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment, authors Jamie and Maren Showkeir take a subject that most people generally think of as pretty ordinary (or perhaps don’t even think of at all) and show how taking a different approach to workplace conversations can lead to an office that’s many times more engaged, energized and inspired. Then, once the case is made, the Showkeirs demonstrate, in a simple step-by-step fashion, how to actually become more authentic as a leader; and in doing so create increased commitment, true accountability, and improved performance.
There are few people who are more qualified than the Showkeirs to teach us about the power of authentic conversations. In fact, Jamie Showkeir has been in this field for well over 30 years. Since day one, his consulting practice grounded in the fundamental belief that individual workers must be “authentically engaged” if the organizations that employ them ever hope to be successful, or even viable, over the long-term. In his long consulting career, Jamie has advised hundreds of public and private sector organizations — from Fortune 500 companies to small start-ups, as well as many not-for-profit enterprises. He also makes frequent media appearances, and his work is often cited in popular print and online publications. Jamie partnered with his wife, Maren, to write Authentic Conversations. Maren is a former journalist who devoted her career to investigating the particular challenges of multicultural work environments.
Unlike many other authors, and big name management “gurus” who espouse kinder, gentler, and more benevolent manipulative techniques to sell others on a point of view, the Showkeirs are firm believers in the “say it like it is” philosophy. Based on experience, the Showkeirs are suspicious of any new “motivational technique” that’s aimed at winning support for goals formulated at the top of the organization. They believe most of these techniques are rooted in behaviors of manipulation, and based on old-school, top-down management techniques. These methods are doomed to fail.
The Showkeirs’ basic premise is that, in every workplace, a huge chasm exists between compliance and commitment. For commitment to be authentic, people must actually be allowed to choose. Unless “no” is a legitimate option, the Showkeirs argue the answer “yes” has no meaning. Leaders in organizations often say they want commitment but center their conversations on merely gaining compliance. For this to change, front-line workers must instead be treated as complex and capable human beings. This starts by acknowledging their perspectives as legitimate, and then engaging them in ways that take this into account. In the pages that follow, you’ll first encounter a real-life example that supports the Showkeirs’ management philosophy, and then be exposed to some concrete, practical ideas on how to create a culture of authenticity in your workplace.
Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say
The first chapter of Authentic Conversations opens with the true story of an unnamed “large American East Coast newspaper” that was experiencing the sorts of competitive challenges that are confronting all print-based newspapers in this day and age, due to the growing popularity of online publications. Workers at the newspaper (rightly) feared that massive layoffs, or even outright bankruptcy, would be just around the corner. Morale in the newsroom was at an all-time low, and as a result, productivity was visibly suffering.
To reassure his troubled newsroom, the publisher scheduled a series of small-group meetings with employees. His basic stump speech went something like this: “Have faith people. We will get back on top. Management is developing new strategies to re-attract our former readers, build circulation and re-establish advertising revenues.” In other words, what he was saying was “Don’t worry; I’m going to make this problem go away.”
Unfortunately, according to the Showkeirs, the publisher was delivering the wrong message. His good intentions aside, the publisher was not being straight with his employees. The newspaper was clearly facing challenges that were so significant, and the transformation that was taking place in the publishing industry was so profound, that the chances of “getting back on top” were highly unlikely. Instead of leveling with his people, the publisher was trying to assume personal responsibility for everything that was going wrong at the paper, and in the industry around him. In other words, the publisher was “caretaking.” As we’ll come to see, this is not a good management tactic.
“By taking it upon himself to promise to save the sinking ship, the publisher was unwittingly relieving his employees of any responsibility to help make things better,” explain the Showkeirs. “In effect, he was treating the journalists and editors like children.”
Fortunately, the publisher sought advice from business consultants before the situation deteriorated any further. The consultants told the publisher that his communication style was actually making things worse. They advised him to stop “sugar-coating” the serious difficulties facing the newspaper (since he and his management team probably could not single-handedly deliver a strategy that would save every worker in the newsroom and return the newspaper to its glory years). The consultants recommended that the publisher tell his staff in direct language that they would all have to pitch-in to help stop the bleeding, and collectively find ways to do more with less. In short, they advised the publisher to actually have an authentic conversation with his employees.
The publisher took this advice to heart. He met with his team again, this time in one large group. He told them straight-up that his earlier statements that “management would solve the business’s problems” were outright lies. He then laid out the various challenges facing the newspaper in a transparent way, and stressed that everyone at the paper would have to co-operate to solve them. Importantly, he then asked the workers to assume personal responsibility for their work-related anxieties and emotions. His job was not to go around doling-out “group hugs,” he said. He had more important things to attend to. Basically, the publisher spoke to his employees as adults; not as children.
After the all-staff meeting, the employees rose from their seats and applauded the publisher. He had finally shown them respect by dealing with them in a forthright manner. It was a groundbreaking day, and the first key step in actually saving the paper.
Conversations Create Culture
As the newspaper example illustrates, authentic conversations are incredibly powerful things. They’re the building blocks leaders used to communicate their versions of reality, and to shape the workplace culture (which the Showkeirs describe as a set of “shared basic assumptions” within an organization). Put simply, if the conversations in your company are mostly positive and hopeful, your corporate culture will be too. But if they are negative and cynical, they’ll have a detrimental impact on how the workplace functions.
The point here is that workplace conversations are rarely benign. They shape culture whether we realize it or not. This is true, firstly, because conversations reveal what we see in the world and what meaning we attach to what we see. Second, by naming things we shape reality. And third, we invite others to see what we see, the way we see it. All of this plays a commanding role in defining an organization’s culture, say the Showkeirs.
Conversations inside your organization also shape approaches to responsibility and accountability. In companies with an old-school “command-and-control” management style, communication tends to follow a parent-child relationship. For example, an employee might say, “When something isn’t working properly, it is management’s job to figure out what’s wrong, and then I’ll fix it.” By contrast, an empowered employee might say, “When I see something in my line of sight is wrong, I am expected to attend to it and I am accountable for it.” According to the authors, a positive corporate culture of this nature can exist only in a business that values and champions these three principles:
1. Business literacy – Every employee in the firm must understand, at a basic level, “the business of the business.” This means their training must be broader than their own narrow role, and they must have opportunities to work outside of their role. Only then can employees know what tasks to prioritize to help the company be successful.
2. Choice – According to the Showkeirs, employees must have the freedom to make independent decisions “in service to the business and customers” without having to get approval from layers of management. Occasionally, this may result in employees making the wrong choices. This in turn presents an opportunity to learn from mistakes.
3. Accountability – Accountable employees feel personally responsible for the actions they take on behalf of the business, and they accept the consequences, both positive and negative. Because conversations are so influential, the wrong messages can quickly damage or undermine a healthy approach to accountability.
Shedding Parent-Child Cultures
If your company has already adopted the three key operating principles identified above (i.e. business literacy for all employees, choice and personal accountability) then you are already well along the path to having a healthy corporate culture. But there’s still more that can be done in order to equip your company to survive, and thrive, in the highly technical, global, diverse, and changing-at-the-speed-of-light marketplace. Specifically, you need to rid your workplace of any “parent-child” dynamics.
At their root, parent-child conversations underscore a message that compliance is valued over commitment, rule-following over creativity, and predictability over innovation.
The parent-child dynamic is familiar to just about everyone because we have all experienced it in some way or other within our home lives. Yet, while it may be appropriate to let this dynamic play out in certain familial situations, according to the authors, it’s never appropriate to let it thrive in a workplace context. In today’s demanding business environment, an entrenched parent-child culture in the workplace simply won’t lead to good results. We need every worker to be creative and innovative.
For any reluctant managers who would doubt this message (for risk of surrendering too much control to their staff), the Showkeirs pose the following rhetorical questions: “Whom do you want showing up at work? Children who need a long list of rules and regulations and constant oversight to be held accountable? Or grown-ups who are able to, and choose to, hold themselves accountable? After all, your employees live complex lives outside of work and manage just fine, so why treat them like children in the office?
Dealing with Disappointment and Cynicism
“Let’s face it,” write the Showkeirs, “the world can be a very disappointing place, and most workplaces are no different.” Yet, despite the overabundance of disappointment in the world around us, too many managers somehow feel that it is part of their job description to shield their employees from certain harsh, but unavoidable, realities. This is crazy, say the authors. In their view, changing the conversations that occur (or fail to occur) around issues of disappointment, is the single most significant thing that can be done to improve business results, in addition to abandoning a parent-child culture.
The problem with failing to manage and acknowledge employee disappointment correctly is that it quickly leads to workplace cynicism, which in turn damages the collective corporate culture. According to the Showkeirs, cynicism springs from the helplessness people feel when they are disappointed by others, and allows them to become detached observers rather than active participants in their lives. It carries with it a sense of entitlement: “You have disappointed me, therefore my cynicism is justified.” The problem of cynicism then becomes exacerbated when the solution to combat it is to barter, or make unrealistic promises, in an effort to rebuild commitment and optimism.
According to the authors, the cynicism that results from disappointment is among the most serious problems faced by organizations today. “We have no shortage of knowledge, technology, creativity, or ingenuity,” they write. “But when employees see the workplace as a disappointing place to be and, as a result, choose to withhold hope, optimism, and commitment, none of the other qualities can be employed to fullest advantage. Cynicism is without a doubt the largest obstacle to change and progress.”
There’s only one way to combat cynicism. First, as a leader in the organization, you need to stop trying to shield your staff from disappointment. It won’t work. Second, when you’re in a meeting, or standing by the water cooler, and you hear someone speaking in a cynical way, you must confront them. For example, say you overhear someone speaking negatively about a new Customer Relationship Management system that’s being rolled out, pointing out the flaws in the program and saying it will not work. In that case, you might say: “Look, I hear you. I have been through everything you have, and I can’t deny the truth of what you’re saying. You’re right, the program isn’t perfect and it will take extra time and effort to migrate all of our old customer data. The last thing anyone here wants to tackle is another software program that we aren’t sure is going to improve the way we do our jobs. But lots of people here believe this could help us do our jobs better, and I am going to give it my best shot. That’s my decision. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to help make it work or not. So, let’s move on.”
In the example above, you’ll see there was no attempt to persuade the cynic that the new system will be better, or barter with him in an effort to win his support (i.e. “If you try it and don’t like it after 6 weeks, you can go back to the old system”). These approaches do not work, stress the authors. “Make a decision for yourself on where you stand, and when someone tries to convince you otherwise, don’t argue,” they say. “If you are clear about your choice, you don’t need to pour your energies into winning converts. You can simply invite the cynics, victims, and bystanders to make their own choices. That’s how it works anyway. Cynicism, helplessness, and lack of commitment are choices we make in response to the circumstances we see — and we can choose something different.”
Structuring an Authentic Conversation
As we’ve seen, having an authentic conversation is not always easy … at least not at first. Among other things, it requires letting go of the “parent-child” reigns of control. It also means dealing with issues of employee disappointment and cynicism in fundamentally different ways, and this can be hard at first. Make no mistake about it, say the authors, being authentic requires “conscious intention, attention and practice.”
So, let’s say you’re ready to take the plunge. You’re probably wondering how exactly you should structure an authentic conversation. Well, there’s no “one size fits all” prescription for how to go about it (as you’ve probably figured out by now, the Showkeirs are not big believers in “magic bullet” solutions). But you’ll be on the right path if you heed the following steps (imagine applying them to a staff meeting you’ve just called):
1. State the reason for the conversation or meeting – For example, “We’re meeting to talk about the lack of progress on our important project, which is clearly not good.”
2. State your intention to resolve the issue – You could say: “My intention for getting us together is to figure out a way we can make this work. It’s important to me — and to the success of our project — that we not leave here until we come up with a plan.”
3. Name the difficult issues clearly and directly, without judgment – “As I see it, our project is going off the rails. I’ve heard from others that some people on the team believe I am a big part of the problem. Tell me how you view the situation.”
4. Own your contribution to solving the difficult issues – You could say: “I’ve been blaming others for the delays we’re experiencing, and not acknowledging the fact that I may be partly to blame. Would this project be better off if I stepped aside?”
5. Share responsibility by asking how the other people want to proceed – “Now that we’ve agreed that it’s not necessary for me to step aside as project manager, what are the next steps?”
By loosely following these five steps, you will have a better chance of resolving difficult issues and improving problematic relationships because you’re actively encouraging employees with different perspectives to voice their thoughts openly. But be sure not to neglect the fifth and final step. Don’t let the meeting end on a negative point, if you can avoid it. The fifth step offers an opportunity for you, as a leader, to foster a renewed sense of shared purpose by reinforcing your feelings of “hope and commitment.” By doing so, you’ll be seizing an opportunity to strengthen the culture of your workplace.
So that’s the end of the summary. From here, it’s all up to you. If you want your future workplace to be better than your present one, you may have to be a bit of a maverick by taking the first step, and starting an authentic conversation. There’s no telling what will happen from there. But according to the Showkeirs, you can be pretty sure of at least two positive outcomes. First of all, you will be delighted by the welcoming reactions of (most) others when you take the time to speak honestly with them. And secondly, you will be astonished by the exciting new ideas that can be generated, and the opportunities that can be created, when you engage your co-workers in authentic conversations.