By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

It is hard to imagine that a conversation can build more effective organisations. However, what we observe time and time again is that individuals and organisations that take the time and develop the capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations actually outperform those competitors who place less of a strategic emphasis on this skill.

To be honest, and also slightly more transparent, I am not talking about an average ‘chatting around the water cooler’ kind of conversation. What I am talking about is when and how we have strategic and reflective conversations. In some management literature, these are referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘robust’ conversations, but I think these terms underestimate the potential benefit these conversations hold.

The ability to have strategic and reflective conversations is one of the most effective ways to engage stakeholders, give role-based feedback and align team members to performance and behavioural expectations. In short, it is probably the most effective way to build a culture of shared accountability within a team or organisation.

However, what we commonly observe is team members, especially managers, running away from these conversations as fast as they possibly can. There are numerous reasons for this behaviour, but most of them fall under one or more of three categories.

Firstly, most people have some degree of conflict aversion. Let’s face it, any normal and sane person, when faced with a choice, is going to choose the option with the least potential for conflict. At the risk of being too psychological, this aversion sometimes originates back in our formative years. It occurs when individuals grow up in a highly conflictual environment which over time reduces their tolerance for further conflict. Paradoxically, it can also occur in individuals who grow up in relatively harmonious environments. This is because, despite the idyllic-ness of a happy and harmonious household, it does not build skills and capacity in having these more challenging conversations.

Secondly, many managers feel under-skilled in the area of conflict management, and it is often for the reasons in the previous paragraph that this area of their development has been avoided or neglected. However, dealing with conflict and having a strategic and reflective conversation are simply skills. And, like any skill, the more you do it, the more you practice it, and the more coaching and support you get on it, the better and more comfortable with it you become.

Thirdly, and finally, some managers feel they do not have the time to have these conversations. I view most things in business from a cost versus benefit standpoint. However, one difference in my version of cost versus benefit is that I believe in viewing an organisation as a holistic system. In other words, we cannot just examine cost versus benefit from a profit or performance viewpoint. We also have to include more intangible costs and benefits. These include such things as levels of trust and engagement of key staff and stakeholders, the morale of team members, the well-being of the individuals within the organisation, the environment and perhaps the planet as a whole. It is only when we can appreciate the cost or benefit to these more intangible and less measurable aspects of our organisation that we can begin to ascertain the real benefit of these conversations.

For example, we have observed on numerous occasions that a one-hour strategic and reflective conversation have a benefit (or return on investment of resources — time, money, personnel) in terms of engagement, role clarity, motivation, performance and ethical behaviour, that far supersedes that initial one hour ‘investment’. Conversely, we have also observed numerous examples, unfortunately in greater numbers than my previous sentence, where the lack of a strategic and reflective conversation has deleterious and sometimes disastrous consequences for an organisation.

The irony is, in our experience, most managers are astute enough to know when one of these conversations needs to occur. The real question is: are they prepared to endure short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of the organisation?

In summary, to build organisational capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations:

  • Support managers and staff to work on their own psychology around their individual conflict aversion and lead by example.
  • Invest in training and skills development programs so that members feel equipped with the required skill set in order to have these conversations.
  • Be disciplined. Develop the discipline to realise that a one-hour conversation, as difficult and challenging as it may be, could potentially save you and/or the organisation a far less desirable outcome.