18 Jul 2017 20:07 IST

Why leadership conversations are vital

It does not bode well for a B-school graduate to just be a good communicator

Leaders build trust and win legitimacy through everyday conversations they have with their people. Unfortunately many organisations excessively depend on corporate communication. This is representative of the traditional one-way, top-down communication. With just a few minutes of a question and answer opportunity built into such communication, leaders designate them as conversations. For well over three or four decades now, employee engagement surveys have shown very poor scores on communication in almost all organisations. However, this is misunderstood as people asking for more top-down messaging; the problem is with the way the questions are asked in the surveys. If it simply asks are you happy with the communication, people often say they are not, and this is interpreted as a need for more corporate communication.

The younger generation of workforce wants to participate in the communication and wish to be heard. This is possible only when leaders rewrite their understanding of communication as “conversations”, and these conversations have to happen at all levels, from the front-line supervisor to all the way up. This, in a way, requires democratising the communication process in the company and releasing its rights from the clutches of a few senior managers. Additionally, leaders at all levels need to be educated on the conversation imperative so that they start making it a regular practice in their teams.

Boris Gorysberg, a Harvard professor, has done extensive study in leadership conversations ( Leadership is a Conversation , HBR June 2012) and published great insights on the subject. In his view, “traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, the process must be conversational.”

Based on his research, Pror Boris has asserted that four key elements constitute meaningful and productive conversations at work. All come together to make the conversations effective:

Intimacy: While it helps to have physical proximity for good conversations, it even more critical to have mental or emotional proximity. Conversational intimacy manifests in various ways including listening to the people we manage, gaining their trust, and getting personal in a way that is appreciated. Personal storytelling makes a leader come across as very human. Trust has to be earned by being straight-forward and authentic.

One of the things people often ask me in leadership programmes I conduct for corporates is if they should be “tactful or diplomatic” in their conversations, as they are repeatedly advised by their bosses. I have always maintained that if being tactful or diplomatic means being untruthful or hoarding information, or even twisting facts to mislead, they better not follow such advice. In a conversation, being truthful is all what is needed.

Interactivity: Only one person speaking is obviously not a conversation. A conversation requires an exchange of comments, questions and points of view. Leaders have to talk with employees, not at them! The vitality of dialogue is critical to meaningful conversations. Fortunately, technology facilitates two-way conversations now more than ever before. However, leaders have to leverage the technology and own up the conversation.

Inclusion: Prof Groysberg observed that personal conversations are an equal opportunity endeavour. This demands that managers treat employees as full-fledged conversation partners. Encouraging employees to be brand ambassadors and thought-leaders, both internally in blogs and white papers as well as externally in appropriate forums, is key to build this element of inclusion.

Intentionality: This is about pursuing a clear agenda in the conversation. Conversations converge towards a clear objective and are not meant to while away the time. Intent confers meaning and order into the conversations. According to Prof Groysberg, strategies and road maps emerge from conversations.

As MBAs walk out of their B-Schools with a spark in their eyes, it is important that they understand the power of conversation. Just being good communicators will not take them too far to becoming good leaders.