Conversational Capacity By Craig Weber
As the world grows more interconnected and turbulent, building teams that perform under pressure is an increasingly vital task. But creating such teams is surprisingly difficult. Despite our best efforts, our teams and organizations are plagued by behaviors that are as bad for people as they are for business.
So why are healthy, highly effective teams so hard to create? In the pages that follow, we’ll see that putting together teams that perform well in tough circumstances remains a frustrating goal because we over look the most important piece of the puzzle: conversational capacity. If we continue ignoring this critical variable, nothing will work the way we intend. We’ll say nothing when we should speak up. We’ll quarrel when we should inquire. We’ll remain reticent when we should be resolved. We’ll be closed-minded and critical when we should be open-minded and curious.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to build more reliably vibrant and adaptive teams, working relationships, and organizations.
Unfortunately, we can’t just snap our fingers and magically acquire this discipline. We must earn it by making a radical shift in how we think and act as we go about our work. And in our quest to build this discipline we’ll be forced to confront the powerful human factors that tear it down. In the pages that follow we will see that highly effective teams are hard to build because primal aspects of our nature actually work against teamwork. Along the way we’ll explore some surprising facts:
Getting team members to like, trust, and respect each other – the holy grail of traditional team building – often decreases conversational capacity, severely limiting their ability to work together in difficult circumstances.
Nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. This puts executives, managers, and team leaders in a tough bind: charged with building and leading effective teams, their very presence can have the opposite effect.
Human nature is not only the source of the problem; it also provides the solution. By cultivating higher aspects of our nature – candor, courage, curiosity, and humility – we can tame the primal reactions that pull us off center, bolstering our own conversational capacity and that of our teams.
Even more encouraging, I’ll show how to use our daily work experience as an ideal place to practice and build our competence. Armed with this discipline, our teams can respond to tough challenges with greater agility and skill, preforming brilliantly in circumstances that overwhelm less disciplined teams.
I’m not advocating a simple gimmick or a quick fix. If we want to build our conversational capacity, we must subordinate our base ego-driven impulses to finer aspects of our humanity. If we want to improve our teams and organizations, in other words, we have to improve ourselves.
I wrote Conversational Capacity for managers, executives, HR professional, consultants, project managers, team leaders, and anyone else striving to lead their organizations to higher, healthier, more sustainable levels of performance.
My goal is to put the issue of conversational capacity front and center in the minds of readers and to demonstrate that it’s a decisive competence for teams, working relationships, and organizations of all kinds. That is vita, because despite its growing importance, it’s not getting the attention it deserves.
It’s all about Teams
The focus of this book is on improving teams and teamwork, and my definition of team is fairly expansive. A team is any group of people working together in the pursuit of a mutual goal.
After you finish reading this book, you’ll be a far more astute observer of conversations and meetings, recognizing behaviors you previously failed to notice. But you, won’t just be more ware. You’ll also have a practical set of skill, for participating in conversation in a far more balanced, deliberate and effective way.
Be warned – This book will present you with a choice. We spend so much time at work, it’s bound to affect who you are. The only question is how. Will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too may people opt for the lower easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.
Chapter 1: Conversational Capacity: The missing piece of the puzzle
Management’s business is building organizations that work Joan Magretta
In a world of mounting complexity and rapid-fire change, there is a growing demand for teams that work well when the pressure is on. But while we’re good at building teams that perform when facing routine problems, building teams that perform when things get tough remains an elusive and frustrating goal.
It is not that we have not been trying. We’ve been systematically studying how to build more effective and efficient organizations since the nineteenth century when Fredrick Taylor broke new ground with his time and motion studies, ushering in a new era of scientific management. But Taylor would barely recognize the world in which we’re working today. Vastly more complex and interconnected, our world moves in chaotic and unpredictable ways. A torrent of change – technology, economic, political, and environmental – roars at us with increasing volume and velocity.
But, while it’s more vital than ever to build teams that can thrive in these difficult circumstances, it’s clear we’re missing something important. Executives report a rapidly growing gap between the need for change in their organizations and their ability to effectively orchestrate that change. Research shows that 9 out of 10 strategic initiatives fail to deliver the intended results, and among executives who believe they have the right strategies in place, only a small fraction feel they are implementing them effectively. As Lawrence Hrebiniak puts it,” making strategy work is more difficult than strategy making.”
Not only are teams routinely ineffective, they’re often inhumane. Research shows that working and getting ahead in a wide range of teams and organizations results in “various disturbances – genuine emotional conflicts – that range from mild distress to feelings of self-betrayal, to stress and burnout, to acute psychiatric symptoms and irrationality.” Teamwork, it turns out, can be hazardous to our health.
Our efforts to build reliably effective teams yield such poor results because our focus is overly technical. While we espouse our allegiance to the human side of the enterprise, our actions reveal different priorities. We’re far more likely to focus our attention and resources on strategy, structure, systems, policy, process, and procedures, delegating the “softer” people stuff to HR, training, or outside consultants. But this overly technical focus is a costly mistake. If we want to build reliably effective teams and working relationships, we need to manage the human side of the enterprise with the same level of rigor and discipline with which we manage the technical.
If we want to build healthier, more capable teams we must pay far more attention to a key piece of the puzzle on which every other aspect of teamwork depends. I refer to it as conversational capacity.
Put simply, conversational capacity is the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensively dialog about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances. A team with high conversational capacity can keep its performance on track, productively addressing even its most difficult and contentious issues. But when a team has low conversational capacity, even a petty disagreement can throw team members off balance and derail their performance.
I use the term balance to describe a team with high conversational capacity because it provides a useful way to think about the concept. There is a “sweet spot” in any meeting or conversation where the dialogue is open. Balanced, and non-defensive. Good work gets done here. While it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hit the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavior spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.
We can define conversational capacity, therefore, as the ability to work in the sweet spot in difficult circumstances that would send most people and teams flying out of it. A team with high conversational capacity can stay focused on learning, and do good work, even in difficult situations, because team embers don’t allow their emotional reactions to pull them off center.
We know we are communicating in an open, balanced, non-defensive way when there is a balance between candor and curiosity. We don’t mind sharing our ideas and perspectives, and we’re equally interested in exploring the ideas and perspectives of others. When we’re talking about easy subjects, such as how we spent our weekend or a movie we recently watched, it’s easy to maintain this balance. But when there’s a conflict, a hard decision, a personality clash, or a difference of opinion, it’s easy to lose balance by letting go of one attribute or the other.
If we let our candor drop, for instance, our behavior becomes more cautious – we shut down, cover up our views, water down our concerns, change the subject, or feign agreement. On the other side of the spectrum, when we let go of curiosity, our behavior grows more arrogant and aggressive – we heat up, argue our point, stop listening, and push our perspective at the expense of others. So, when I say a team has high conversational capacity, I’m saying it has the discipline to balance candor and curiosity in challenging circumstances that throw less disciplined teams of center.
Where’s the line?
To make this more personal, think about your team. Imagine, for a minute, you and your colleges have created a prioritized list of the toughest issues you’re currently facing – the most unwelcome issue at the top and the least unwelcome at the bottom. Whether you realize it or not, somewhere in that list is a line. It represents the conversational capacity of your team.
Below the line where the capacity is sufficient, you can remain balanced and do good work. That doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict or tension. It means that despite it, you’re able to explore the issues, make informed decisions, and implement them. Because you’re able to maintain balance between candor and curiosity, your conversations and meetings are productive. Your return on conversation (ROC) is high.
Where’s the “line” in our list of challenges? Is it high enough? And how can we even tell? What are the warning signs when our capacity for balanced dialog is low?
Two Basic Symptoms
When conversational capacity is lacking, there are two telltale symptoms: undiscussable issues and unproductively discussable issues. Almost every team has undiscussable issues everyone knows to avoid. They’re openly discussed in the hallway or with like-minded colleague over lunch, but never in a meeting. They are off limits. They are taboo.
But sometimes the problem isn’t that an issue is undiscussable, it’s that it’s unproductively discussable. While the issue is raised, the ensuing discussion produces little more than closed-minded arguments, positional posturing, and interpersonal conflict. Because such conversations produce more heat than light, the problem isn’t solved, an effective decision is not reached, and little progress is made. This means the issue is raised again in a subsequent meeting, or it merely changes status, becoming the newest item on the team’s list of undiscussables – another taboo subject everyone knows to avoid.
Nothing Else Compensates for Low Conversational Capacity
These symptoms – undiscussable and unproductively discussable issues – provide a clear signal that the conversational capacity of a team is inadequate. They’re important signals to recognize because, as we’re about to see, no amount of technical sophistication or good intentions will compensate for a team’s inability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure. Even if a team is staffed with skilled people who trust, and respect one another, and even if they all have the technical pieces in perfect place – strategy, structure, processes, and policies – the team still won’t perform if its conversational capacity is low.
This is a bold claim, so let me provide a few examples to illustrate the point. As you read them, see if you recognize anything that relates to your past experiences, or even something you’re in the middle of right now.
Read pages 19 through page 27
• Proper Structure is Never Enough
The research of Jeffery Sonnenfield, an expert on corporate governance and a distinguished professor at the Yale School of Management, shows that most spectacular board failings were not caused by a lack of structure, process, or policy.
• Good Relationship are Never Enough
Relationships based on trust, loyalty, and respect – the holy grail of most team building endeavors – are no guarantee of high conversational capacity, and, perhaps more surprisingly, they can actually harm it. In fact, if their capacity is high, a team can work effectively in the sweet spot even if its members don’t like one another personally. A team with weak capacity, on the other hand, will often fly out of the sweet spot under stress even when its members like, trust, and respect one another.
• Technical Expertise is Never Enough
Even a team of bright, experienced, technically skilled people will perform dismally if conversational capacity is in short supply. With so much at stake, the field of aviation is rife with examples that demonstrate how true competence requires far more than just technical aptitude.
• High Commitment is Never Enough
Having a shared set of goals to which a team is highly committed does not inoculate the team against the ravages of low conversational capacity.
• A good Strategy is Never Enough
With the help of an expensive top-shelf consulting firm, the executive team at a financial services company devised a strategy that hinged on increasing the integration and collaboration among previously autonomous business units in order to “cross sell” to customers. The potential gains in revenue were impressive, and the entire executive team agreed that in order to remain competitive this new approach was vital. As far as its strategic intentions were concerned. They were perfectly aligned.
It’s a Pervasive Problem
As these examples demonstrate, when conversational capacity is too low, well-intentioned people behave like a drunk driver who intends to stay on the road but, because his coordination is off kilter, drives into a ditch instead.
We remain silent when we should speak up. We argue when we should cooperate. We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out.
In our day-to-day lives the consequences of anemic conversational capacity may not be so extreme, but they are pervasive. They impact every process and activity that owes its effectiveness to unfettered dialogue and accurate information. Take meetings, for example. We spend a lot of precious time in meetings, and yet most people say their meetings are a big waste of time. Intended to be a vital way of coordinating, sharing information, and dealing with decisions and problems, meetings are rendered woefully inefficient, if not downright useless, when conversational capacity is in short supply.
The problem goes well beyond meetings. If we can’t have reliably effective conversations about difficult subjects, the basic foundation of our teams, work relationships, and organizations breaks down.
The Essence of Teamwork
Conversational capacity should be flashing bright red on the dashboard of everyone responsible for building effective teams and working relationships. This red alert is needed because the subject of conversational capacity is routinely underappreciated, if not completely ignored. When putting a team together we typically focus on strategies, structures, financials, process, staffing, policies, and procedures. When an effort is made to improve how people interact and communicate, it’s often treated as a second-tier priority.
This neglect is misguided. As the world changes with more speed and complexity, teams of every kind need the abilities to address challenging issues with greater balance, focus, and discipline. Conversational capacity is indispensable in building such teams.
In addition to getting the technical stuff right, all a team has to do is boost its conversational capacity and all will be well. Unfortunately, it is not that easy.
Fortunately, there is hope. In the chapters that follow I’ll share a powerful discipline – a veritable conversational martial art – for bridging the insidious gap between our good intentions and our habitual reactions, empowering us to balance candor and curiosity when it counts. This discipline enables a team to reach new levels of performance by members working together brilliantly in circumstances that incapacitate less-disciplined teams.
Chapter 2: Intentional Conflict: Why good intentional are never enough
If we ignore our imperfections on the grounds it’s too depressing to concentrate on them, then we greatly limit our future options. On the other hand, if we know where our limitations are, not just in thinking but in emotional things. If we know about any hereditary predispositions we have towards ethnocentrism, xenophobia, dominance hierarchies, then we have a chance to moderate those tendencies. If we ignore any genetic predispositions in those directions, then we don’t make any serious effort to ameliorate them and we’re in much worse shape. This is one of those issues that every generation has to learn anew, because every generation has the same hereditary predispositions.
In this chapter, we will explore an important question: why is conversational capacity even an issue? Why aren’t we naturally able to talk about any subject without tension or trouble? It’s obviously not something about the issue itself, for two people discussing the same topic can tract in very different ways – one finds it easy while the other does not. No, the problem stems not from the issue or the situation, but from us, or, to be more precise, from something in us.
In this chapter we’ll learn about two powerful tendencies that throw us off balance in challenging circumstances, a universal problem that stems from an ingrained aspect of emotional programming: the fight-or-flight response. When one of these tendencies is triggered, the powerful reactions they sour cause conversational capacity to plummet. To show just how much trouble these tendencies cause, we’ll delve into them separately and explore their calamitous impact on teams and teamwork.
Traditional Team Building
Traditional team building focuses on strategy, structure, and relationships. It’s generally believed that if people know what they’re working together to achieve, understand how to work together to achieve it, and know and like each other well enough, they’ll set aside their differences and work together in pursuit of mutual goals. Get the intentions right, it is assumed, and high performance is the inevitable result. But this assumption ignores a critical variable: the conversational capacity of the team. As the last chapter made clear, if a team’s ability to work in the sweet spot is too low, it will always underperform. When it comes to effective teamwork, in other words, good intentions are never enough.
“We’re smart people,” we think to ourselves, “we know what to do and how to do it. What could possibly go wrong?” But this optimistic assessment overlooks two hereditary predispositions that often hi-jack our intentions – automatically, and sometimes dramatically. These tendencies often work directly against our other intentions, creating intentional conflicts – a clash between two opposing objectives in a conversation. If we don’t learn to better recognize and manage these intentional conflicts, we’ll continue to build teams that cruise along fine when the road is smooth but break down when the going gets tough.
One reason we have such a hard time recognizing the impact these tendencies have on our behavior is they trigger so mindlessly. They’re so well practiced that we no longer consciously notice their effects. Like driving a car or crossing the road.
The mindless nature of the behavioral reactions that knock us out of our sweet spot is not the only problem. They’re also exceptionally difficult to manage because they are propelled by a primal biological imperative – the flight-or-fight response. When we’re hooked by one of these tendencies, we become like the old cartoon character stuck between an angel offering advice into one ear and a devil offering advice into the other. These conflicting directives come from two parts of our brain that don’t always work together in a cooperative integrated way. One part is older and emotional; the other is newer and rational.
The intense reactions these tendencies trigger hamper our ability to work with, and learn from, people with different points of view, a phenomenon that explains why our efforts at team building so regularly miss the mark. Any team building that ignores this reality is futile, for it merely clarifies and refines intentions we can’t implement when it counts.
Two Troublesome Behaviors
The two tendencies we’re about to explore cause conversational capacity to plummet because they send us flying out to the far ends of the behavior spectrum. One leads us to abandon candor and “flee,” the other, to lose curiosity and “fight.”
Flight: When Candor Gives Way to Caution
Imagine you’re in a meeting where your team is discussing a major decision about an important project. The rest of the team, including your manager, feels strongly about one particular decision, but you don’t agree. As you listen to the way people are thinking, you find you have a growing reservation about the direction they’re heading. With much at stake, you want to speak up and raise your concern.
But then you experience an intentional conflict. On the one hand, you feel compelled to speak up, but on the other hand, you don’t want to cause trouble, be labeled a troublemaker or non-team player, tarnish your reputation within the team, or damage relationships. There’s a good chance you don’t even consciously recognize the conflict you’re experiencing: you just feel it. And since the emotional tug of this tendency is so strong you just sit there quietly, covering up your concern, nodding, and feigning agreement. You say nothing. When this happens, you’re falling prey to the powerful need to “minimize” the level of negative emotion, tension, or threat in the situation.
When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety. We minimize.
When we minimize, it’s not that we don’t have an agenda, it’s that our agenda is subverted by a strong need to keep things comfortable, to avoid conflict, to keep things calm. When stuck between our good intentions and our need to minimize, we often slip into a variety on conversational tactics that emphasize caution at the expense of candor.
We cover up our views, ideas, information, or concerns
We feign agreement or support
We engage in “hallway” dynamics
We ease in
We prematurely withdraw
We gradually reveal our point
We ask leading questions
We avoid the issue or change the subject
We’re deliberately ambiguous
We employ caveats
We use third-party examples
We use denial
We make excuses
We take the “monkey”
We unilaterally control the situation to keep it safe and comfortable
We use e-mail or voice mail to raise our concerns
Fight: When Curiosity Gives Way to Certainty
If our need to minimize – and the candor gap it produces – were the only thing constraining conversational capacity, it’d be a daunting hurdle in its own right. But, as we’re about to see, we’re not that lucky. There’s another potent tendency that sends us flying out of the sweet spot, but in the opposite direction.
Imagine you are back in that meeting where your team is discussing a major decision about an important project, and, just as before, you have major reservations about the direction the discussion is heading. The rest of the team, including your manager, feel strongly about a particular decision, but you don’t agree: you think it’s the worse choice possible. You want to speak up and raise your concern even though you know it won’t be popular.
But this time you experience a different intentional conflict. On one hand, you want to work with the group to make the best decision, but on the other hand, you want the others to see the error of their ways, you want them to make the right decision, you feel a passionate need to save them from their mistake by swaying them to your point of view.
There’s a good chance you don’t consciously recognize this intentional conflict either. You just feel the overpowering need to convince the team there’s a better way to approach the problem.
Because the emotional reaction from your lower brain is so strong, you go into behavioral autopilot; raising your voice, putting forward your view in forceful terms, discounting the logic of others, and arguing with anyone who dares to disagree, all in an attempt to “win” the conversation, be right, and get your way.
When we are hijacked by our need to win, our behavior is driven be a competitive, self-serving logic: “this conversation is a zero-sum contest. Someone’s going to win. Someone’s going to lose. I don’t like to lose.” Motivated by our need to be right, our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative. As our curiosity withers and our certainty expands, we push our agenda onto others because our sense of effectiveness is contingent on getting other people to se things our way and agree with us.
How powerful is this tendency? As the conversation manifestation of the fight response, it can trigger intense reactions that easily overwhelm our intended behavior.
When we trigger toward the win side of the behavioral spectrum, we act as if there is a moral imperative to convince people to see things our way and agree with us. “We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us” says Steven Pinker, “the righteous glow, burning dudgeon, and the drive to recruit others to the cause.”
It’s a Formidable Tendency
When it contradicts our objectives in a conversation, our need to win produces a crippling intentional conflict. On the one hand we want to work with others. On the other hand, we want them to think and do things our way.
Technically Smart but Conversationally Dumb
One person with a strong win tendency can dumb down an entire team of smart people if they lack the capacity to deal with their behavior.
It’s a common Problem
When we snap into win mode, we circle our cognitive wagons and load our conversational guns, ready to defend our current map of reality from all foes. We become dogmatic and close when we should get curious and open up.
Here is a partial list of behaviors you might see, from yourself and others when our intentions are hijacked by our need to be right:
We state our positions as fact
We dismiss or discount alternative views and perspectives
We solicit support
We do little genuine listening
We don’t inquire into alternative points of view
We display aggressive body language
We reject feedback or input
We label or demonize people who have different views
We use hyperbole
We pull rank
We ask dismissive or belittling questions to put down a view we don’t like
We unilaterally control or dismiss the situation to “win”
Both Directions at Once
In many meetings, when a tough issue hits the agenda, these mindless reactions pull a team in both directions at once. As one person heats up others shut down pushing each other farther and farther out of the sweet spot.
We all do Both
While no one is just a minimizer or just a winner, most of us do have a dominate tendency.
Under what circumstances in life do I find myself minimizing at the expense of my effectiveness?
Under what circumstances do I let go of curiosity and argue to win at the expense of my good intentions?
The more we need to work through others, the more we need to understand ourselves. If we want to be more aware of the impact these tendencies have on our behavior, it’s essential we pay closer attention to how we’re reacting in meetings and conversations. When we lose it and leave the sweet spot, note what happened. What was the trigger? Was it the issue? The person? The way they treated you. Did someone cut you off?
To help you with this process of reflection and observation, here is a list of common triggers that send us out of the sweet spot, one way or the other:
How much we care about the issue
Our formal position in the hierarchy
The behaviors of others
The perceived risk of speaking up
The perceived risk of not speaking up
Don’t mess with my schedule or list of prioritized tasks
Moving Beyond Awareness
I’m hoping you’ll never experience a meeting or conversation the same way again. Armed with a new set of distinctions you’ll pay more rigorous attention to your own behavior, and to the behavior of others, clearly recognizing the telltale symptoms when conversational capacity is low.
Chapter 3: Beyond Fight and Flight: A more intentional mindset:
Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there.
If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
M. Scott Peck
Clearly our win and minimize predilections aren’t the best navigational beacons if we are seeking balanced dialogue under pressure, so we need a new map and compass if we’re to chart a more deliberate behavioral path. To that end, in this chapter we’ll explore a new way of thinking that intentionally subordinates our fight-or-flight reactions to a loftier set of goals. To ensure this new way of thinking is more than just a hollow set of ideas, in the next chapter I’ll introduce skills for putting it into daily practice. This combination is essential, for a mindset without actionable skills is impotent, and skills without a guiding framework are aimless.
This new way of thinking and acting represents a tectonic shift in how we approach tough conversations. Together they create a discipline that builds conversational capacity, enabling a team to perform effectively in the most challenging of circumstances.
Before we dive in, there are three things to emphasize. First, this discipline is not simply the opposite of our habituated tendencies. We’re not going to increase our conversational capacity by maximizing negative emotions and losing conversations. Second, this discipline doesn’t replace our natural fight-or-flight reactions; they’re hard-wired, and no amount of skill is going to eradicate these instinctual drives. Our only option is to better recognize and manage them, which takes us to the last point: This discipline is not a simple gimmick, something we can easily master with minimal effort and practice. It’s a conversational martial art and earning our black belt – the ability to remain balanced in the toughest of circumstances – takes dedicated focus and practice.
Einstein observed that it’s impossible to solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. To rise above our hereditary predispositions and bolster our conversational capacity, therefore, we need a new way of thinking – a guiding mindset – that encourages us to balance candor and curiosity.
A Cognitive Shift
This mindset reframes what it means to be effective when we converse with people about important issues by setting aside our primal tendencies for a higher set of objectives. This is not a casual undertaking. It requires sacrifice. If we have a strong minimizer tendency, for example, we’ll have to abandon our need to be safe and comfortable if we want to be more effective.
To establish this new trajectory, we adopt a new focal point – a goal worth the energy we’re expending to achieve it. Our attention centers on four interrelated objectives:
Make informed and effective choices
Expanding our awareness by leaning into different views
Generating internal commitment to the choices we make
Establishing joint control
Informed and Effective Choice
The hallmark objective in this new way of thinking is informed and effective choice. If we’re to stay firmly grounded in the sweet spot, we need to be genuinely more interested in making informed decisions than being comfortable or being right. But while the pursuit of informed decisions seems obvious, it’s not something we naturally do. Our brain, it tuns out, doesn’t prefer an informed view of reality; instead a biased, self-serving view that reinforces our current perspective, reassuring us that our way of seeing the world is right and true.
In our quest to make informed choices, there ‘s no substitute for being actually informed. So when we place a premium on thoughtful decisions, we seek out, prefer, and lean into people with different views, information, and ideas – not because we enjoy being uncomfortable or wrong, but because we know that if we want to expand our thinking, it’s the people who see things differently that provide the most value.
There’s yet another benefit to pulling the ideas and perspectives of others into the decision-making process – it fosters a higher sense of ownership for the decisions we do make. Why does this matter? Because our level of internal commitment directly correlates with how much energy we put into enacting the decision. It’s important to get this right. It makes no sense to put a lot of effort into making an informed decision that no one will lift a finger to implement.
When we need to work with other people to solve a problem or make a decision, we only have two options for how to go about it: guess what will work and impose it on people we’re working with, or involve them and have them jointly control what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re working to achieve it.
It May Seem Obvious
Placing our primary emphasis on making informed and effective choices may seem obvious, but as we’ve seen, it’s not how we typically operate. Because it requires that we open up to the perspectives of other people with differing and even conflicting perspectives, it can make us wrong or uncomfortable, or both, and easily trigger our minimize and win reactions.
The main point is this: If we’re going to jointly design a work relationship – between people, within teams, between teams, or between organizations – we need the capacity to untether our behavior from our habitual, self-serving, ego-driven reactions. When it comes to making informed and effective choices, our egos are the enemies of effectiveness.
Being candid and curious are two states of mind that don’t easily coexist under stress. That balanced demeanor is hard to hold, and the more stressful and challenging the situation we’re in, the harder it is to hold. Focusing on informed and effective choice provides a compass to keep us headed in the right direction when our fight-or-flight reactions threaten to pull us off course. But this mindset by itself won’t help us stay in the sweet spot unless we can put it to use. With that in mind, in the next chapter we’ll explore specific conversational skills that move this mindset out of our head and into conversations and meetings.
Chapter 4: Intentional Dialogue: Skills for balancing candor and curiosity
Learning is not simply having a new insight or a new idea. Learning occurs when we take effective action, when we detect and correct error. How do you know that you know something? When you can produce what it is you claim to know.
The new mindset we explored in the last chapter represents a dynamic shift in our intentions in a conversation. But we often have a clear intention that our actions fail to match. So how is this new way of thinking to be any different? How do we align this new frame of mind and our actual behavior? In this chapter I’ll answer these questions by laying out a set of skills for putting this mindset to use.
To start, imagine you’re once again in that meeting where your team is discussing a significant problem. The rest of the team members, including your manager, favor one decision, but you strongly disagree. With much at stake, you feel compelled to speak up and raise your concern, but you again feel the powerful tug of your intentional conflicts threatening to pull you off balance. Part of you wants to paly it safe and avoid being seen as a troublemaker; part of you wants to argue to keep the team from making a horrible mistake.
We’re working hard to candidly express how we see things, but we are working just as hard to curiously explore how others are looking at the same issue. We’re neither arguing or shutting down because we’re less concerned about being right or comfortable and more focused on what counts: working with our team to generate a better understanding of the issue at hand so we can make the best choice possible.
While it appears deceptively simple, responding this way requires the mindful use of four distinct skills that are extremely difficult to balance under pressure:
Stating our clear position
Explaining the underlying thinking that informs our position
Testing our perspective
Inquiring into the perspectives of others
Candor Skill 1: We state our Clear Position
Stating your position sounds simply enough, but many people struggle to plainly state their views in one or two crisp sentences. The difficulty lies in our boiling thoughts down to their essence, forcing us to be more rigorous with how we are participating in a conversation by asking ourselves “What is it I am really trying to say? What is my point?”
Candor Skill 2: We Explain Our Thinking
Stating our position is a start, but to get our perspective out of our head, through our mouth, and into a conversation requires another skill on the candor side of the scale. Having stated our position, we next do our best to describe the underlying thinking that informs it.
Data and Interpretation
Effectively moving a view out of our brain and into a conversation requires that we articulate two things: The data we’re paying attention to, and how we’re interpreting that data.
They are Separate Skills
Putting forward a position and explaining the thinking behind it are distinct skills, and many are proficient at one, but have trouble with the other.
Curiosity Skill#1: We Test Our View
The first skill on the curiosity side of the scale counters our brain’s natural tendency to interpret things the way it wants – in ego-satisfying, reality-distorting, egregiously self-serving ways.
Remember, when we’re committed to informed choice we work to expand, change, and improve our thinking because we know that, to one degree or another, our mental maps of reality are almost always wrong.
A good verbal test not only opens the door to contrasting views, it invites them in. When we test our hypotheses, we don’t sit back passively and hope others will share contrasting perspectives – we actively encourage then to disagree, to share how and where they see things differently. After we put forward our views, and explained the thinking behind them, here are a few low-key tests for situations where the barriers to openness are low:
Is there a better way to make sense of this?
Do you see it differently?
How does what I am suggesting feel to you?
What is your take on this issue?
What does this look like from your angle?
What’s your reaction to what I’ve just put forward?
But these casual tests won’t serve us well in all circumstances, particularly when the people with whom we are talking face uphill struggles pushing back on our perspectives. Try these:
That’s how I see the problem. What does the problem look like from your perspective?
Right now, I feel like my idea makes perfect sense, and that makes me nervous. Are you seeing something I’m missing?
I am more interested in making an informed decision than in winning or being right, so I’d like to hear your point of view – especially if it differs from my own.
If I’ve got a blind spot about this issue, please help me to see it.
I’ve shared what I think and why I think it. I’m curious to hear how other people are thinking about this problem – especially those who have a different take on it than I do.
To help me improve how I’m looking at this decision, I’d really like to hear from someone who has a perspective that challenges mine.
I’d like to expand my view of this situation. Who has a different way of looking at it?
I know I may be wrong about this – what do you think?
If you disagree with me, please let me know. I’d really like to hear your point of view.
Push back on me here – especially if you think I am being unfair.
What would our worst critic say about this decision?
This skill is particularly hard to employ when we’re being driven by our need to win, but it’s exactly what’s needed to balance out our fervent candor. The sad fact is that after we’ve put forward a view, we’re far more likely to seek self-confirming information by making comments such as these:
Who agrees with me?
I’m right, yes?
You don’t see it differently, do you?
I know you all agree with me on this?
Isn’t that so?
Don’t you agree?
It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?
If anyone disagrees with me, let me know, and I’ll explain it again.
Curiosity Skill#2: Inquiry
There’s one more skill that brings full balance to the curiosity side if the conversational scale. Imagine you’re in that meeting discussion with your team. You’ve put forward a suggestion, explained the thinking behind it, and then tested it: I’m sure my thinking is off in ways I can’t see, so if anyone has a different perspective on this, I’d really like to hear it.” No sooner have you asked for pushback than one of your colleague’s fire back, “You’re kidding, right? That’ll never work.”
Typically, this is where you’ll lose discipline by arguing or caving in. But if you’re on your conversational game, you immediately recognize two things: First, this colleague has earned an A+ for articulating a clear, succinct position. Second, you notice what’s missing – the underlying thinking that informs his position. Because you recognize this you don’t cave in and seek to understand your colleague’s perspective by inquiring into the underlying reasons, they see things differently.
Responsibility and Discipline
When we put forward our view and test it, we’re treating it responsibly. When we inquire, we’re asking other people to treat their views responsibly.
A team that consistently inquires into competing and contrasting views instills more discipline into its work by setting a more rigorous tone. It sets a higher expectation about what it means to participate responsibly in a meeting or discussion.
Inquiry Pulls a Team Back to the Sweet Spot
Here is a list of sample inquires – a starter kit, if you will. I encourage you to find ways of putting these in your own words, so they sound natural coming from you. When someone states a position but fails to back it up with their thinking, we might respond in one of the following ways:
What are you seeing that leads you to that view?
I have to admit that I see the issue differently, but before I jump to conclusions, please tell me what you have seen or heard that leads you to see it the way you do.
Tell me more about how you’re looking at this issue.
Obviously, you’re looking at this differently. Help me see this through your lens. How are you making sense of X?
What does this look like from your (expertise) perspective?
Help me expand my thinking on this. Tell me how you see X?
What have you seen or heard that leads you to think X?
Can you provide a couple of examples that illustrate your position?
Clearly, we don’t agree. Let’s see what our different perspectives can teach us about this issue. Explain in more detail how you’re seeing this situation.
I’m intrigued by the way you’re framing this issue. Can you give an additional example or two so I can better understand what you are thinking?
Can you give me an example of X?
Can you illustrate why you see this so different than I do?
When team members haven’t even shared their positions, much less their thinking, and we want to invite their perspectives into the conversation, we might say:
We’ve been bouncing this idea around for quite some time, and we haven’t heard from you yet. As you’ve been listening to the pros and cons of this decision, what’s your take on the best choice?
Are you seeing anything that the rest of us may have missed?
I’d be interested in hearing your views on this problem. Do you have a different perspective than those that have already been shared?
A few Poor Inquires
You don’t really think that do you?
Is that the best you can do?
Why the hell do you think that?
Do you have a learning impediment?
Testing and Inquiry: What’s the difference?
Like the previous skills, mastering inquiry is more difficult than it may appear, for it requires that we maintain an inquisitive mind in circumstance where our minds usually slam shut – in the face of strong conflict, disagreement, tension, and discord. There’s another reason this skill is a challenge. When people first begin using these skills, they’re often confused over the distinction between a test and an inquiry. While both are a form of asking questions, we separate them out as distinct skills because they serve unique functions: We test our own hypotheses. We inquire into the hypotheses of others.
Before We Move On
In the last chapter we explored a mindset that provides a more enlightened way of thinking in a conversation. In this chapter we’ve explored a set of skills that provide a more disciplined way of participating in a conversation under pressure – balancing candor and curiosity in the genuine pursuit of informed and effective choice.
With our internal compass pointed towards informed choice, we respond to conflict, dissent, or disagreement in an open, balanced, learning – focused way.
Imagine a team full of such people.
Now imagine an organization full of such teams.
Chapter 5: Cultivating Our Better Angels
Human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.
“Let your principles be few and simple,” advised the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “so that you may refer to them at a moment’s notice,” The mindset and skills we explored in the last two chapters provide us just that – a user friendly set of principles for working in the sweet spot under pressure. The skills are simple:
1. Candor Skills
Advocate your position clearly and succinctly
Illustrate your position by sharing the thinking behind it (both your data and your interpretation).
2. Curiosity skills
Test your views. Seek out what you might be missing. Encourage others to share views that contrast with yours. Hunt for disconfirming information.
Inquire into the views of others and actively explore their thinking, especially when their perspectives differ from your own.
The balanced use of these four skills keep sus grounded in the sweet spot. When we fail to employ the two candor skills we begin to minimize. When fail to test and inquire, we start to “win.”
Achieving balance is the objective. To become more effective, we don’t water down an existing strength; we build new skills to balance it out.
“All Push, No Pull”
Don’t stop being candid, just balance it out by testing and inquiring.
But Won’t I Look Weak?
If we think being strong means sticking to your own narrow view, no matter how flawed it may be, and closing ourselves off to improving it, then yes, this approach will make us look very weak indeed.
When Should These Skills Be Used?
Do our conversations always need to be so rigorous? The answer, of course, is no. In situations where it’s easy to align our behavior and our intentions, there’s no need for such deliberate structure.
What If I’m Cut Off?
If we’re afraid team members might cut us off before we get a chance to share our thinking and test it, we can alert them ahead of time that they’ll have an opportunity to respond and that we’re curious to hear their perspectives,
It Takes Time
As we build our discipline for working in the sweet spot, we’re seeking the yin and yang of dialogue by being bold, authentic, and direct and simultaneously, open-minded, unpretentious, and inquisitive. Our balanced demeanor signals that we’re not going to let our ego get in the way of the best choice,
These skills are a way of orchestrating balanced dialogue; they’re not a decision-making process.
Isn’t it Just a Matter of trust?
It is about building more trustworthy relationships than we generate higher trust. The key to building high levels of trust in a team, in other words, is to have increasingly trustworthy conversations
Cultivating our “Better Angels”
Our troublesome fight-flight tendencies are primal, base aspects of our being. But they’re an innate part of our behavioral repertoire, and they serve us well in limited circumstances, so we can’t just get rid of them. We can, however, learn to put them in their place. As we build our discipline for working in the sweet spot, we can reduce their impact on our behavior by intentionally cultivating higher aspects of our humanity.
How We’re “Being” in a Conversation
If the mindset refocuses how we’re thinking in a conversation, and the skillset shifts what we’re doing, these higher aspects of our nature transform how we’re being in the conversation.
The Humble CEO
It’s not about being perfect. The path to mastery is a strenuous slippery, high-altitude climb. We will slip along the way – that is ok, merely get back to it.
It’s a Conversational Martial Art
Our ability to mindfully resist the pull of our minimize and win tendencies and maintain intentional balance is the measure of our conversational capacity. Developing the discipline to pull this off is no simple measure.
Learning to stay open, balanced, and learning focused under the toughest of circumstances – takes a lot of practice.
The Work Is Worth It
It is not about just personal development. As we kick our egos to the curb and focus on informed choice, our definition of effectiveness expands beyond the borders of our own narrow thoughts and needs. As we focus our energies on growing our team’s capacities for working in the sweet spot, our goal is to foster a culture of growth, learning, and competence – a workplace that is open and fair, where informed decision making is the superordinate goal and useful information and ideas are quickly utilized, no matter the source. Handling our disagreements, conflicts, and differences in a disciplined, balanced way, we create an upsurge of trust and respect, even between people who may never be best of friends outside the office.
We become the active architects of our work environment rather than its passive victims, creating a culture that brings every mind into the game, where the experience and thinking of all people is valued, pulled into the process, and utilized. We foster an environment that encourages people to brings their best selves to work, a workplace that is as good for people as it is for the business, that rewards people who put forward their best efforts, and discourages those who put their egos ahead of learning and effectiveness.
The result is a team and organization that attracts smart, motivated, experience people and encourages them to bring their best efforts to the tasks at hand, to the benefit of all stakeholders: employees, shareholders, customers, and communities. It creates a culture that is increasingly good for people and for business – no matter what business we’re in.
Chapter 6: Conversational Capacity and the Value of Conflict
Five senses: an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
Now that we’re five chapters into the book, let’s pause and consider a couple of questions:
Is conversational capacity really such a big game changer in building high performance teams?
Is it really the decisive variable when it comes to working together in tough adaptive circumstances?
These are fair questions, and in this chapter I’ll explain why the answer to both questions is an unassailable yes, for teams with high conversational capacity enjoy a profound competence unavailable to less disciplined teams: the ability to transform base conflict into learning gold – game changing ability that converts a traditional source of team weakness into a pivotal source of team strength.
What is Your Mind Doing?
It is a good question. What is your mind doing without our permission? The answer, when you look into it, is that it’s doing a lot.
The Ladder of Inference
The ladder of influence is a popular concept developed by Chris Argyris that illustrates how the mind makes sense of its experience. At the bottom rung of the ladder is the directly observable data, all the sensory inputs available to you – the vast array of things you can see, smell, taste, hear, or feel.
Our Brain Is a Filter
No one looks at the world with the same eyes. We edit our inputs by a definite set off customs and institutions and ways of thinking. If you grew up in the city versus a rural up brining. Your emotional state. Your vocational training. Your past experiences. If you know and trust the person/situation. If you are interested in the subject – you get energy from it.
The “ladder of inference” is a useful way to explain how we generate our mental models, our internal maps of external reality. Because we us these mental maps to make sense of our experience and to inform our actions, it’s important to get these maps as complete as we can. A shoddy map of reality leads to poor, uninformed choices.
But correcting our ladders is difficult. When we jump up the ladder of inference, it’s automatic, skilled behavior, so we often have no conscious awareness of how incomplete and biased our perception of reality are. Anyone who’s had the experience of “hearing” a friend says “X” when she really means “Y” knows just how easily we race up our ladders in the wrong direction. It’s not intentional.
Our minds just jump to narrow, error-prone conclusions without our permission, a phenomenon which helps explain this prescient observation made by Joseph Campbell: “There is no way you can use the word “reality” without quotation marks around it.”
The problem is confounded by our default tendency to assume our ladder is correct, and that other people need to correct their erroneous perceptions. Failing to appreciate the degree to which we filter our “reality” we tend to hold our ladders as truth rather than as hypothesis.
Ladder of Indifference
Once we’ve jumped up a ladder and adopted a point of view, it’s disturbingly easy to get stuck there. Thanks to a cognitive propensity know as the confirmation bias, once we’ve reached a conclusion, we tend to interpret all subsequent information in a way that reinforces our initial perceptions. “The problem,” says Cordelia Fine, “is that we behave like a smart lawyer searching for evidence to bolster his client’s case, rather than a jury searching for the truth.”
It’s a Big Problem
This is the most insidious problem affecting teams, work relationships, and organizations: our conflicting ladders of inference and the minimize and win tendencies we use to manage them.
Poor Ladder Management
Given the imperfect apparatus we’re using to make sense of the world, the question isn’t whether we’ll race up our ladders in limited, self-serving, and erroneous ways -we can’t help doing that. It’s an inevitable consequence of how our minds work. The only question is how we’ll manage our perspectives once we do.
Effective Ladder Management
By expanding and improving your mental maps, by you use more than your own mind to make sense of things you can have access to more than just your own biased brain.
Effective Ladder Management and Political Discourse
The power of this discipline for getting people with divergent, strongly help perspectives to work together more effectively works.
But this is only true if the discourse is healthy. It requires, in other words, high conversational capacity – something that is sorely lacking today. Most of our political discourse has devolved into an infantile squabble between two sides peevishly arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong.
An Open Mind Is a Smarter Mind
On a bookshelf in my office is a bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” But the more I understand how our minds work, the more I want to scratch out the word everything and replace it with anything. Given our limited powers of perception, we just can’t trust our view of “reality” our mind presents to us. As Cordelia Fine aptly puts it, our minds have a mind of their own.
“Tunnel vision,” according to Tom Robbins, “is caused by an optic fungus that multiples when the brain is less energetic than the ego.” If we want to avoid tunnel vision, therefore our quests to learn must be more energetic than our egos, for a brilliant flash of insight is rarely sparked by someone standing on the same ladder of inference as we are. With this in mind, we should work hard to compensate for the limitations of our minds and treat opinions, views, and perspectives as suspect – as hypotheses to test rather than truths to protect. We should be more skeptical of our own maps of reality and more curios about the maps of others, not because their maps are any more accurate than our own, but to see what their perspective can teach us about our map and about the situation we’re facing.
This is why low conversational capacity is such a problem: it makes us weak and stupid. It keeps us from learning from our difference, and turns out contrasting points of view into a source of weakness. Cross-functional teams fall apart if they cannot manage their differences effectively.
When the going gets tough, as when we are facing change or conflict, or we’re forced to navigate unfamiliar territory, it’s all the more vital that we have robust conversational capacity, for by turning the cliché that two heads are better than one into an actual practice, it makes us smarter. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not going to make two brains any bigger, or boost our individual IQs, but it does enable us to see and think more – the essence of being smart – because we’re using more than our own heads to make sense of things, a particularly useful thing to do when we’re dealing with complex, adaptive challenges. When informed choice is our primary objective, we recognize, to paraphrase Ron Heifetz, that without conflicting ladders of inference, we operate at the mercy of our blind spots, because we cannot prepare for what we do not see.
This matters more than ever. Our world isn’t getting more simple and sluggish; it’s growing more complex and dynamic. It’s increasingly important that we build teams that can deal with the host of arduous, multifaceted problems we’re facing even though we all see them so differently.
It’s no different in any team or business, when people with different roles – HR, IT, finance, operations, sales, engineering, and marketing – all have to work together to deal with the complicated challenges we are facing. The mix of functional perspectives, personalities, and agendas is a source of tremendous learning if it’s managed well, and a source of crippling dysfunction if it’s managed poorly. Conversational capacity, in other words, is the make-or-break competence for building high-learning teams that perform when the pressure is on.
Chapter 7: Conversational Capacity and Adaptive Learning
The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
In the previous chapter we explored how high conversational capacity helps us expand our thinking because we’re able to use more than just our limited, biased maps of reality to make sense of the world. This leads to more informed and effective choices because our access to different ladders of inference allows us to see and think more.
In this chapter we’ll see how the capacity to transform conflicting perspective into learning gives a team an additional advantage that is invaluable in challenging situations where our old ways of thinking no longer fit the bill. People with different perspectives are able to generate not just more learning but a deeper, more powerful kind of learning. They’re more agile, astute, and adaptive because they can deliberately double-loop learn.
Not All Learning Is Created Equal
Whenever there’s a gap between the consequences we intend and the results we achieve, learning is required. There are two very different kinds of learning we can employ. When things don’t work out as expected, the easy path is to simply circle back and adjust our actions (our strategy, behavior, or plan). This is called single-loop learning:
Single loop is fine in routine situations.
Hopping Off the Hamster Wheel
When we double-loop learn we hop off our hamster wheel of thought and question the way we’ve made sense of the problem in the first place. The more complex and unfamiliar the challenge we’re facing, the more important it becomes to test and adjust the underlying ladders of inference, beliefs, and filters we’re using to tackle it.
Single-loop Smart but Double-loop Dumb
The capacity for double-loop learning is not the product of intellectual firepower. It’s the result of high conversational capacity. When their capacity is low, even extremely intelligent, highly committed people can get trapped in their flawed maps of “reality.”
As we have seen again and again, a problem isn’t technical, it is social. Smart people with good intentions, but an unwillingness to question their basic assumptions – a hallmark of the rigorous scientific and engineering mindset – can signal a pattern of sloppy thinking that runs counter to the very mission. Manager jump to unverified conclusions, treating those conclusions as sacred truths, and malign anyone calling them into question. This closed-minded approach leads to uniformed decisions because they weren’t willing to explore the conflicting perspectives of their co-workers. More cocky than curious, they were single-loop smart but double-loop dumb.
It’s a Common Problem
Day to day the impact of low conversational capacity and single-loop learning may not be so extreme, but it is an extremely common problem.
Simple in Theory but Hard in Practice
Double-loop learning is the process of surfacing, questioning, improving, and changing our ladder of inference, and the habitual ways we go up it, so we can make better, more effective choices.
A team that can deliberately double-loop learn is more nimble and adaptable in the face of unusual, shifting, complex circumstances because team members can better adjust their thinking to fit the new challenge.
But there is a catch, much like the conversational capacity skills that promote it, this kind of learning is extraordinarily difficult to orchestrate because people and their teams tend to be allergic to it. For one thing, having our favored perspective invalidated is not likely to feel reassuring, and at least in the short term, it’ unlikely to make us feel brilliant. So, to double-loop learn, our willingness to improve our thinking must be greater than our need to feel comfortable or right. But it’s not just our primal fight-or-flight tendencies that make double-loop learning such a daunting challenge. Four other obstacles also stand in our way.
We often look right through our assumptions without even realizing how they are affecting our perceptions.
We’re often overly attached to our thinking and it’s hard to correct something we’re unwilling to change. Our minds have a self-serving single-loop tendency to resist information that threatens our current view of reality, so they filter the world around us, so we see what we want to see. And what do we want to see? Anything that tells us we’re on the right hamster wheel; anything that saves us from having to blow up our bridge.
Defenders of the status quo often persecute a person who advocates a double-loop perspective. When we muster the courage to raise our hand and suggest a double-loop point of view, we’re often treated like Galileo, who was labeled a heretic and put under house arrest for championing an accurate double-loop shift that places the sun, not earth at the center of our solar system.
Yet another reason we are allergic to double-loop learning is that it provokes tremendous uncertainty. It’s one thing to know our current way of framing a problem isn’t working; yet another thing to know which way of framing it will work.
Proactive Double-loop Learning
When it comes to double-loop learning, we have three options: double-loop proactively, double-loop reactively, or don’t double-loop at all.
Working in the Sweet Spot Requires Double-Loop Learning
Because conflict is the primary catalyst for double-loop learning, only teams with reliable high conversational capacity can deliberately orchestrate it. When it’s lacking, we’re rendered impervious to proactive double-loop learning because the contrasting perspectives that would help us hop off our hamster wheel instead trigger our fight-or-flight responses.
An Essential Competence
Holding our ideas, views, and perspectives more like hypotheses that need to be tested – a hallmark characteristic of a more disciplined mindset – is conducive to double-loop learning. When we hold a view like truth it makes it much harder to question it, much harder to question it, much less correct it. But when we treat our thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs as suspect, it makes it easier to adjust or change them when they don’t pass muster.
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, then low conversational capacity leads to insane teams. Trapped on the hamster wheel of their outdated thinking, unable to adapt to the novel predicaments they face, a team that can’t deliberately double-loop learns to grow increasingly ineffective in a dynamic environment. The team demonstrate that insanity is thinking the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
Chapter 8: The Work of Building a Disciplined Team
Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.
When it comes to skill, it’s not what we know that counts, but what we can put into practice. It’s not uncommon for someone to say, “I know that to be more effective I must balance my win tendency with higher curiosity and humility,” and yet five minutes later that same person is berating a colleague who dared to disagree. So, if we want to build our conversational capacity, how do we move beyond mere awareness towards real competence?
As with any genuine discipline, be it playing the piano or earning a blackbelt in karate, both practice and instruction are required. Fortunately, our daily experience at work provides the first and the people with whom you read and discuss it can serve as the second.
Changing our Brains
The neuroplasticity research of Jeffery Schwartz and his colleagues at UCLA shows that by learning to recognize when a tendency is being triggered, and then practicing replacement behaviors, people can more mindfully manage even extreme behavioral reactions such as those associated with Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Their research demonstrates that as people consistently practice the replacement behaviors, they change the physical structure of their brains, because just like a muscle, the neural circuits for any activity grow where they are being used and atrophy where they are being neglected. Our brains, in other words, get stronger when they are being exercised.
With regular practice, we produce a flywheel effect, where the more we use the skill, the more our skills grows, and the more our skill grows, the more we use the skill.
Is it hard work? Sure, it is. Any skill worth learning takes effort. But if we put as much time and effort into building our capacity to remain in the sweet spot as we did on other habits, we’d be very different people leading very different lives. We’d literally change our brains and live lives more guided by our better angels and less and less by our primal impulses.
Two Kinds of Work: Personal Work and Teamwork
When it comes to practice, there’s good news – the workplace is a rich source of opportunities. “Problems,” the actor John Cusack once said, “are the instruments of our evolution,” and if there is one thing our workplaces aren’t lacking, it’s problems. Chock full of decisions, difficult people, contrasting perspectives, relentless change, and time-pressured goals, the workplace is the ultimate dojo for building our conversational capacity. Viewed this way, our daily work experience is transformed into the vehicle for building our discipline, with every decision and meeting a chance for experimentation and learning. Things we previously considered merely bothersome – a stressful project, a difficult colleague, a demanding boss, or dysfunctional meetings – become useful opportunities to practice and learn.
This is a big deal. We spend a large chunk of our lives in our vocational dojo, and we spend that time becoming more aware of the issues, situations, people, and behaviors that trigger us to minimize or win, and then treat those factors as golden opportunities for practicing our skills.
Learning to recognize how mindlessly our behaviors and our intentions part ways is the first step, because we’re often oblivious to the disconnect.
A disciplined team is made up of disciplined team members. We have no hope of helping our team communicate in the sweet spot if we lack the capacity to stay there ourselves. Personal work, therefore, is the work required to bring more balance to our own minimize and win inclinations. With this in mind, let’s review a variety of activities for building our capacity to remain open, balanced, and nondefensive under stress.
Meeting time is practice time
Use every meeting, problem, decision, conflict, or change as an opportunity to build your skills.
Become a reflective practitioner
As you become more conscious of your own reactions, and the situations under which they hook you, you’ll be better able to make more mindful choices about how to act in the moment.
Look in the mirror
When first learning this discipline, one danger is the tendency to use the new framework to judge everyone else’s behavior rather than focus on your own. You avoid looking at your own behavior by placing all your attention on the behavior of others.
Focus on one skill at a time
If you have a strong win tendency, for instance, practice testing your views for a couple of weeks. Once that skill becomes a more natural part of your behavioral repertoire, put your emphasis on the skill of inquiry.
Adopt a learner’s mindset
Be open-minded and curious even when you blow it. When you notice you’ve dropped the ball, celebrate the fact that you noticed, and then pick up the ball and try again.
Document your progress
Keep a trigger journal, and track the issues and circumstances that trigger your minimize or win reactions.
Seek regular feedback
Ask team members, friends or colleagues about your tendencies and well you’re managing them.
Enroll your teammates
Beyond mere feedback, jointly enroll other people to help you stay focused on the behaviors you want to change.
Work to understand the key ideas you’re trying to learn.
Teach it to others
Explain the concepts and skills to family and friends. Get them thinking about key ideas such as conversational capacity, the sweet spot, minimizing and winning, and the behaviors that balance push and pull.
You’re not going to be a master right away. Gradually expanding the boundaries of your competence requires focus, consistency, and determination.
Since deliberately balancing candor and curiosity requires that you communicate more mindfully, activities such as meditation, yoga, or meditative running, which strengthen our awareness are powerful ways to increase your competence.
Use partners to prepare for important conversations.
Alert people ahead of time of an upcoming conversation so they have time to prepare and practice.
Record a meeting and “score” your balance
Listen to a recording of your participation in a meeting or a conversation and score your use of the skills.
Be the productive variable
“There is no contact between human beings that does not affect both of them,” says Erich Fromm. From a systems perspective, by improving just one variable in a system, the whole system is affected. So, when you roll up your sleeves and improve your own conversational capacity, you’re taking responsibility for the capacity of your entire team.
By treating dialogue as a discipline, a team can breathe new life into every aspect of its work – from running meetings, making decisions, managing people, and solving problems to implementing strategy and orchestrating change. Developing this mindful approach is not an activity separate from working, managing, and leading; It’s an integral part of it. A team best acquires these skills as it applies them to its regular activities. To that end, what follows is a set of proven strategies for helping teams build this discipline and bake it into their work culture.
Meeting time is a practice time
Every meeting should have a dual focus on both making informed decisions and on making them in an increasingly effective manner.
Every decision provides an opportunity for practice. Remember, balanced dialogue is not about talking until everyone on the team reaches agreement; it’s about helping the person making the decision make the most informed and effective decision possible, So if you find yourself in a meeting and you’re not sure what the decision is, or who is responsible for making it, that should be your first inquiry.
Here are some tips for effective dialogue and decision making.
1. Clearly state the decision that needs to be made and who is responsible for making it.
2. Only involve people who need to be involved.
3. Share the decision-makers current position and thinking, even if that position is fuzzy. For example, a manager might say, “I need to make a decision about X. To start the conversation, let me share the reason. I’m currently torn between two options, and then I’d like some rigorous input from the team to help me clarify my thinking.
4. Put a time limit on the discussion. Spend enough time to get different views in the open, but don’t waste time trying to reach agreement. Once you have enough information on the table to help the decision maker make an informed choice, move on to the next issue. If you realize you need more information or analysis, ask people to do their homework and schedule a time to revisit the decision.
Prepare for implementation
When a decision is made, explore what conversations might need to occur to ensure it’s well implemented. Who will the decision impact, and what conversation will you need to have with them? Ask people responsible for these conversations if they need any practice or coaching to help them prepare. In this way, you’re not just using the skills to make decisions but to ensure they’re implemented effectively.
Use visual reminders
Many teams use posters or other visual cues to help remind people of the skills and their importance to balanced teamwork.
Jointly design how to use the skills in your team
A team leader with a superb grasp of the candor skills promised to do more testing on inquiry to balance out their brusque style. “But I guarantee you I’ll forget in the heat of the moment.” He said. “We need to figure out a way you can remind me.”
Help each other
If someone puts forward a position but fails to explain it, you inquire. If someone puts forward their position, but fails to test it, you jump in and test it for them.
Appoint a monitor or facilitator
Some groups appoint a conversational capacity “monitor” in meetings, a role that rotates between all members of the team. The monitor’s job is to track how well the team is using the skills and to provide periodic feedback. Other teams prefer a more hands on approach, so at the beginning of each meeting they appoint a facilitator who’s authorized to make interventions to help hold the team in the sweet spot.
Create a code of conversational conduct
Many teams jointly design a formal agreement for how they’ll operate, how they’ll hold each other accountable and how they’ll catch themselves and self-correct when ever they slide back into old habits. Here is an example of what one team did:
No untested attributions. It’s okay to make assumptions, just test them.
No personal attacks or dismissive behaviors (tone, body language, or words)
Have a bias towards conversation, not e-mail. Only use e-mail for the dissemination of information, not for solving problems or airing disagreements.
Keep open dialogue and informed choice as your highest goal, not ego-satisfaction or being “right” or safe.
Make respect, compassion, curiosity, and a quest for the higher good key drivers of your behavioral choices.
Balance your push and pull. Bring more attention and discipline to how you participate in discussions. No steam-rolling, dominating, or withholding.
If someone fails to test, jump in and test for them. Don’t chastise them for not testing or roll your eyes and adopt a critical demeanor.
If you have an issue with X, go talk to X. No backbiting or “hallway” dynamics.
If you’re not able to reach a solution or make progress, ask a third party for help.
Address breeches of this protocol immediately. Hold each other accountable for these agreements. If you don’t point out when someone has violated an agreement, you’re enabling the behavior.
Hold each other accountable
Position. Thinking. Testing. Inquiry. You can tell when team members are using these skills and when they’re not. It’s observable, measurable behavior, so team members can hold each other accountable for using these skills in meetings.
Find issues or predicaments on which you can focus for practice.
Acknowledge and reward people
Acknowledge and reward people who are making a genuine effort, and do it both publicly and privately.
An Upward Spiral of Performance
The more we practice, the better we get at recognizing our mindless, habitual, automatic reactions and taming them with an intentional set of skilled behaviors. The goal is to kick start an “adoptive loop” in which using the skills leads to higher learning and effectiveness, which in turn reinforces the mindset, making it even more likely we’ll continue using the skills.
The Power of One
All team embers do not have to be equally skilled for the conversational capacity of the team to increase, nor is it dependent on everyone having the same level of commitment to using the skills. It is not even necessary that everyone on the team be aware of the skills. One or two people can have a dramatic impact on the team’s performance by simply carrying more of the burden for keeping the team in the sweet spot.
Don’t Hold Off
Remember, we shouldn’t wait for a crisis before we start building our capacity and that of our team. We can use little issues that arise every day.
We should remain positive even when we slip up.
It’s Worth It
A competency that requires this much effort to acquire doesn’t appeal to everyone. Many people prefer to avoid the hard look in the mirror that this discipline demands. But for those of us that stick with the practice and build the discipline, the rewards we reap, both personally and professionally, pay off in multiple ways. We don’t leave our conversational capacity on our desks when we leave the workplace at night; we take it with us to every situation, role, issue, and conversation w encounter in life.
Chapter 9: Conversational Capacity and the Challenge of Team Leadership
An organization is about a community of discourse. Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.
This book is about building teams that perform when the pressure is on, and the vital role of conversational capacity plays in building such teams. In an exploration of this subject we can’t ignore the issue of team leadership, a function that is often defined in simple terms – as a role performed by a person in charge. But in this chapter, we’ll consider a double-loop way of framing what constitutes real team leadership – as an activity far more complex and challenging than just being assigned a slot in the hierarchy. Specifically, we’ll explore four key distinctions.
Effective Team leadership:
Focuses the team on the appropriate challenge
Ensures that the team has sufficient conversational capacity to engage the challenge
Is not the same as authority
Rarely comes from just one person
Focusing the Team on the Appropriate Challenge
Even if the conversational capacity of our team is high, we won’t get far if we’re concentrating on the wrong problem. An essential task of effective team leadership, therefore is to focus the team on the appropriate challenge. We’ll waste loads of time, energy, and money if we’re changing our organization’s structure when the real problem is our organization’s culture.
This may sound obvious, but it’s harder than you might expect. To understand why, let’s again look at the two fundamental kinds of problems. One is a routine problem, which can be difficult and bothersome, but for which we have ready experts and proven solutions on which we can depend for a fix.
Far from routine, an adaptive challenge is a problem for which there are no easy answers, no proven routines for dealing with the issue, no expert who can ride in and save the day. If a broken computer is a routine problem, a soured corporate culture is an adaptive one. An executive team can’t just mandate a fresh culture. There is no cultural Jiffy Lube staffed with experts who can flush out our old culture and replace it with a new one. For a culture to change, people all around the company have to roll up their sleeves and find healthier ways of communicating and working together. This is far more demanding work.
An organization in a stable state, with little change or challenges, may face a preponderance of routine issues. But an organization dealing with growth, change, competition, limited resources, and other unwelcome realities often face a number of adaptive hurdles. This might include poor working relationship between people and groups; a corporate culture that stifles strategy; a colleague who is technically brilliant but socially corrosive; or a competency gap where the skills that served us well in the past are not the skills that will propel us into the future.
The distinction between routine and adaptive predicaments is important because the work required to address them is fundamentally different. We have to carefully sort our way through an adaptive challenge because we’re in uncharted territory, where our old ways of thinking and operating won’t help us solve the problem. “The work the people must do to progress in the face of an adaptive challenge is simply called adaptive work,” says Dean Williams. While there’s prevailing policy, expert, or procedure we can utilize in a routine predicament, facilitating adaptive work is a more arduous undertaking. The absence of a clear path forward requires we work with others to make sense of the unfamiliar problem we’re facing – a messy process that involves grappling with what Jim Collins and his research team refer to as “the brutal facts” of our current reality – and then working hard to orchestrate the hard changes required to adapt to those brutal facts.
“The resolution of an adaptive challenge,” says Dean Williams, “requires a shift in values and mindsets,” so high conversational capacity and the double-loop learning it enables is indispensable for doing adaptive work.
Partly because we lack the distinction and partly because this work is so challenging, we often treat adaptive challenges as if it’s a routine challenge.
We Avoid Adaptive Work
Because adaptive work forces us to face harsh realities and make difficult changes, we tend to avoid it like the crazy aunt at a family reunion. So, it takes courage to get people to surface and engage unpleasant, stressful, and unfamiliar realities. “The real heroism of leadership involves having the courage to face reality – and helping the people around you to face reality.” Says Heifetz. “Mustering the courage to interrogate reality is a central function of a leader. And that requires courage to face three realities at once. First, what values do we stand for – and are there gaps between those values and how we actually behave? Second, what are the skills and talents of our company – and are there gaps between those resources and what the market demands? Third, what opportunities does the future hold – and are there gaps between those opportunities and our ability to capitalize on them?
Seeking answers to such questions is rarely a stress-free undertaking, and doing it well requires a heightened capacity for balancing candor and curiosity, and courage with humility. When our team’s conversational capacity is anemic, it’s tempting to redefine the problem as routine, as an issue our team can actually handle. Rather than increase our capacity to meet the challenge, we redefine the problem to fit our capacity. The kind of problems we’re able to solve. In other words, is constrained by our ability to productively discuss them.
Our ego is another reason we avoid adaptive work. Not wanting to look like we can’t handle the problem, or come across as clueless, apathetic, or afraid, we pretend we know what to do and opt for a quick fix, creating the temporary illusion of progress, as if we’re doing something about the problem and making headway. But this is the opposite of real team leadership because we’re helping people sidestep the adaptive work they need to undertake.
The Problem Is Erroneously Defined
And if all this wasn’t enough, we often avoid adaptive work simply because we’ve erroneously assumed the problem, we’re up against is routine.
Ensuring That the Team Has the Conversational Capacity to Engage the Challenge
Harry Truman, speaking about his relationship with congress, aptly articulated a major reason adaptive work is so challenging; “I don’t give ‘em hell,” he once said about congress, “I just tell the truth, and they think it is hell.” That’s an excellent summary of the basic problem: facing harsh realities and difficult change often hurts like hell. And if the tensions and conflicts provoked by adaptive work are greater than our team’s capacity for dealing with them, we’re in trouble before we even start.
It’s best to build the capacity of a team before an adaptive challenge hits the fan.
Leadership Is Not the Same as Authority
Leadership is not the same as authority. This can be a hard concept to grasp because we usually lump the two together. “John is our CEO,” an employee might say. “so, he’s our leader.” In his role as CEO there is no doubt John has formal authority, but whether or not he uses his authority to exercise leadership is a different question. Kenneth Lay and Jeffery Skilling, the top executives at Enron, had lots of authority, but few people would argue that they exercised any leadership. Others, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., enjoyed no formal authority, but few would argue that they didn’t exercise profound leadership.
So, if it’s different from authority, what does it mean to exercise leadership? Is it just a matter of getting people to do what we want? Is leadership merely a synonym for influence? Is it simply the process of creating a vision and convincing people to follow it? Is the Pied Piper, in other words, an appropriate metaphor for leadership? If we accept that definition, then we have to admit that the first lemming off the cliff is exercising leadership. No, there is a better way to frame it.
Real Team Leadership Is About Orchestrating Learning
Adaptive leadership is not about coming up with an idea, or solution and then convincing the group to adopt it. It’s about orchestrating a process of learning that gets people with different views and agendas learning from each other as they tackle an adaptive challenge.
But when we are faced with an adaptive challenge, we often want just the opposite. We yearn for someone to scream out, “Don’t worry. I know what to do, “someone says they have a plan for resolving the predicament. “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership.
We All Can Lead
When we equate leadership with authority, we disempower a huge swath of people who can help orchestrate adaptive change. But when we liberate leadership from authority w empower anyone who wants to foment productive change because we realize authority is assigned to us by the organization, leadership is an activity we choose. Seen this way, leadership can be exercised from any point in the system.
No matter who we are, or where we stand in the pecking order, if we’re building the conversational capacity of our team and focusing that capacity yon adaptive challenge, we’re exercising team leadership.
Effective Team Leadership Rarely Comes from Just One Person
T e fourth and final distinction is this: Leadership rarely comes from just one person. Despite the popular myth of the solo leader, several people often “team up” to provide the leadership needed. Real team leadership, in other words, comes from a team.
Building Conversational Capacity Is an Adaptive Challenge
Team leadership is a demanding task. It requires getting people to face tough realities they’d rather avoid, and make the tough changes required to adapt to those realities. Motivating people to change their behavior is challenging enough, but adaptive work requires deeper shifts in their values, beliefs, assumptions, and norms. It requires, in other words, double-loop learning. Orchestrating such change is difficult because while people want adaptive challenges solved, they almost always want them solved by someone else, or at least to have the experience be pain free.
Doing adaptive work requires the ability to curb our well-honed defensive tendencies and remain balanced under pressure. But this presents us with a paradox, for the task of building this discipline is itself an adaptive challenge. Conversational capacity isn’t like milk or eggs; we can’t just but a fresh carton when we’re running low. Building it requires far more than just adopting a behavioral checklist – it requires that we rein in our powerful minimizing and winning tendencies and let our commitment to informed choice guide our behavior. It doesn’t get more adaptive than that.
Our Better Angels
Framed this way, leadership provides another way to exercise our better angels. The desire to play the role of the larger-than-life, “I’ve got all the answers” solo leadership receives much of his energy from hubris and conceit, But when we admit that we need to work closely with others to address an adaptive issue – the essence of true team leadership – our approach is driven more by curiosity and humility. We’re more problem-centric and less egocentric, more open-minded and less, “I’ve got it all figured out.”
What Are Your Challenges?
To Tie the learning to your unique circumstances and challenges, here are some questions for you and your team to consider:
What are the adaptive challenges facing you and your team?
What are the unwelcome realities associated with those challenges?
Is your team’s conversational capacity sufficient for doing the requisite adaptive work? Where is “the line” in your team’s list of tough issues, decisions, conflicts, and challenges?
What can you bring to key conversations to help build the conversational capacity of your team? What is being played, and how can you play what is missing?
What work will you have to do to ensure you have the capacity to communicate in a balanced, disciplined way when the pressure is on?
Do you have partners who can help you orchestrate the adaptive work?
How can you jointly design how you and your partners will “team up” to facilitate the work?
These are important questions to consider. We can no longer afford our antiquated, one-dimensional, cartoonish notions of leadership because our world is growing more interconnected, dynamic, and unpredictable, and the number of adaptive challenges we face continue to escalate. There is, therefore, a growing need for highly effective teams who have the capacity to address tough, messy, and unfamiliar problems with great skill and confidence. It is my sincere hope you’ll use the ideas in this book to help you build one.
Chapter 10: The Road Less Traveled
We are our own dragons as well as our own heroes. And we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that there are only two ways to live life. One is the way of the villager, a person who never strays beyond the confines of his “village”, never dares to move beyond the comfort zone of his familiar, habitual patterns of living, thinking, working, and acting. The village is comfortable, predictable, and safe. We don’t have to learn much to live there.
The other way to live life is the path of the hero, the person who leaves their comfortable village, ventures beyond the walls of the familiar and out into the great unknown in pursuit of more expansive ways of living, working, thinking, and acting.
Myths teach us that whenever we set forth from a village – be it mental, vocational, behavioral, or otherwise – we inevitable come face to face with demons hell-bent on thwarting our progress: the dragon, the medusa, the flying monkeys. Campbell suggests that these menacing creatures don’t represent external obstacles but our own internal limitations – our ignorance, incompetence, fears, hubris, and habits. If we’re to move out of the village and venture successfully down the hero’s path, we must conquer our demons.
Campbell’s observations are instructive for the subject we’ve been exploring. Our habitual patterns of minimizing and winning keep us safely ensconced in our mental and behavioral village. They protect our ego and the entrenched ways of thinking and acting we use to support it. As our default set of reactions, they’re easy and automatic. We don’t have to learn anything to employ them. No demons to block the path between us and their use.
Learning to work in the sweet spot, by contrast, is a journey set on the hero’s path. Building our conversational capacity requires we vacate the ego-protective confines of our fortified village, face down our fight-or-flight demons, and side with the better angels of our nature. We must struggle to subordinate our base predilections to a higher set of values, countering our arrogance with humility, our certainty with curiosity, our caution with candor, and our timidity with courage. We remain true to our course by kicking our ego to the curb and setting our internal compass on informed choice. This is the hero’s path, the road less traveled.
It’s not a casual journey. Whether we’re build our own capacity for working in the sweet spot, building the conversational capacity of our team, exploring conflicting ladders of influence so out team can double-loop, learn, or mobilizing people to engage an adaptive challenge they’d prefer to avoid, we’re a long way from the village. Whenever we chose to head down one of these daring paths, we’d better have our demons in check.
The good news is that we don’t have to travel this road alone. We can seek out and enroll partners, colleagues, friends or teammates as fellow learners – people eager to head up and out of their own sheltered, self-limiting village by acquiring the mindset, learning the skills, and using both to tackle increasing difficult issues and situations.
The journey is worth every step. Less tormented by the fight-or-flight demons that beleaguer less-disciplined souls, a person with these skills can elevate performance of their entire team. A team armed with this discipline can dramatically improve its performance because team members higher conversational capacity allows them to learn from conflict, make informed decisions, and better navigate difficult terrain. Because they’re not overpowered by the defensive routines that bedevil progress in other organizations, they’re better equipped to double-loop learn when they encounter wicked complex un-precedented challenges.
In the grand sweep of human history, our modern organizations are a recent invention, and we still have a lot to learn about building institutions that work. I wrote conversational capacity to provide a light for those people who choose to leave the village and head down the road less traveled. It maps out a way to build better, healthier, more balanced organizations, and in the process, grow to be better, healthier, more balanced people.