• Paul Barnett

I don’t have time for better conversations

Updated: Sep 27, 2019


Leaders face many demands yet have too little time. So it is tempting after a quick review to cut to the chase, take the key decisions and get instructions out.

And yet that rarely delivers the result they hoped for. Counter-intuitively a shift in leadership style towards coaching conversations may improve outcomes, increase respect for leadership authority and save more time than it consumes.

What benefits would ‘having better conversations’ deliver?

Better quality relationships and conversations are self-reinforcing. More open sharing of perspectives will generate better decisions, identify potential pitfalls and help you assess how to avoid them.

Perhaps most importantly, being listened to and valued makes people engage and choose to put in more discretionary effort. Co-developing means people have a personal stake in making this work. It leads to a shift from semi-compliance to commitment, and to connecting with the corporate vision and purpose.

This would all seem straightforward. The result is that initiatives and change are more likely to be successful, and so leaders have a greater chance of delivering on the strategy to their stakeholders.

Why is this so hard?

It is hard to find clarity when faced with the sheer volume of issues, all clamouring for attention and many with high levels of uncertainty. So one problem is being pulled in many directions at once.

Traditional approaches to leadership can also frustrate. We want to be led by people who know what they are doing, so naturally select leaders with high levels of confidence. As was pointed out in McKinsey’s recently recirculated 2010 interview with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein, ironically these very traits often make leaders put too much trust on their own instincts rather than gathering useful input.

We have a core circle we listen to and then a much wider general group. The Dunbar Number proposes the brain can comfortably maintain relationships with, perhaps, 150 people. That may be fine for generally familiarity and being at ease, but Dunbar also suggested that about 40% of your social time is devoted to just 5 people, and two thirds to just 15. That concentration is a normal part of how humans function, but that restriction is likely to apply in work too. In part this would explain why it is unreasonable to expect leaders to cope with lots of people wanting attention. Social media may be shifting those numbers so the circle is larger, but the basic concept that we give attention to a very small group still seems valid.

What’s the answer?

Prioritise. As Stephen Covey explained, the trick is to keep First Things First. The Do Delegate or Dump approach might help you stick to that, and neuroscience suggests doing the most important things at the start of the day is effective, rather than frittering away your brain’s limited energy pool dealing with clutter.

Shift your leadership style and learn how to have good conversations. This was never taught at school – indeed many individuals are poor at having good conversations with those they love, never mind having good conversations in groups, or dealing with hostility between internal firm tribal groups (just look at how bad that is in politics). If you don’t value your people why do you employ them? If you do value them then be open to trying to understand why they see something differently to you.

Distribute leadership. You need good dialogue with your inner circle, and they need to understand how to have good conversations with their reports, and so it ripples out. Unfortunately, as is entirely foreseeable, too often the cost cutting sacking of middle management didn’t just ‘remove bureaucracy’ it also removed the glue connecting people together. After a quick profit increase, the result is poorer performance. Of course resourcing levels and profits matter, but careful thought is needed.

What does this look like in practice?

Be safe to approach. We have been learning from neuroscience just what a primary role the limbic system plays in our brains. We are built to be highly alert for threats and seek safety. It is not surprising Google’s research into their most effective teams showed the key factor was the level of psychological safety people felt in their working relationship with others, but it is reassuring data confirmed it.

So a question for leaders is what kind of experience would those approaching them anticipate? Unless others expect an encounter with you to be positive, why would they put themselves in danger of being criticised? Will they be put down in a meeting or will you value contributions and use it as a chance to develop people’s thinking rather than just say your ideas are much better?

Effectiveness is also dependent on the other party, so set some ground rules around how you will engage, how you will capture ideas and give some space. Ensure your core group understand how different members function when thinking through ideas. You may well have some people that are process oriented, while others like options, some who need space to think internally, others who use speaking out loud to work through their thinking – these are all classic sources of team friction.

And finally there is a difference between listening to someone and deeply listening. A coach witnesses their client so they feel heard and understood, but not judged. You hold space so more can surface and people can hear their own voice, and then you also can also hear what is underneath. Until you allow what is submerged to appear you are highly likely to find yourself blocked or diverted. It means slowing down to be fully present with others.

So consider committing to shift the leadership in your organisation more towards a coaching style. Sure, it takes some time but so does dealing with friction and setbacks that the current approaches create. If you want your organisation to be better able to survive in an unstable and technologically shifting world, perhaps you need to build your team’s flexibility, openness and ability to communicate well with each other?

Ultimately successful delivery of strategy requires a meeting of minds and the energy for collaborative action. But you can always choose to turn your back on that. After all, you are busy.

Author - Neil May


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