Despite the claims of Groysberg and Slind at Harvard Business Review, leadership is not a conversation because staff do not listen. The staff do not listen because what is being presented as a “conversation” or a “dialogue” is instead a monologue. On the surface, the idea that leadership is a conversation is interesting, logically seductive, and well intentioned. The danger is that this can be misleading, misunderstood, and be potentially dangerous. When I say dangerous, I mean that in some situations, there are no questions to ask or to answer because the commands need to be followed. To put it bluntly, leadership in a war zone is not a debating club.
The article misses two fundamental points about communications and leadership. First, good communications systems work because people listen and redistribute and respond to the ideas being presented. To the extent that the officers can make sense of the plan, they can follow it and, most importantly, they can repeat it. The less it makes sense or is understood, the less it is repeated or followed. Instead, the middle managers, in particular, will try to make sense of it and translate it into what they need or simply ignore it.
Second, the article overlooks what leaders do and how they do it. They may need conversations to work, but that does not mean that leadership is a conversation. Instead, it is about extracting as much information as needed from the organisation to generate plans, respond to problems, and maintain the business. At the same time, leaders need to organise internal communication systems to make sure critical (negative) information (the bad news) is communicate upwards. Without such a system, the conversations will be like those with a tyrant, always telling them what they want to hear and not what they need to hear.
Leadership is about decisions and decisions are about an uncertain future.
Leaders have to decide. To decide they need information, analysis, and evidence for deciding between options or alternatives. In many cases, they are deciding against potential outcomes and alternative futures for the organisation. They have to make decisions based on past situation (path dependency) that weave together current projects, each going at different speeds and complexity, to achieve possible outcomes. Leaders need to weave together opportunities, threats, and capabilities to move an organization forward. They need information, drawn from various sources, to decide a course of action that will bring forth a new future state for the organization. They are like a weaver or a midwife in developing and delivering these plans.
To improve their decisions, leaders need the critical information to help them see what is wrong. They can see what is right about an organisation. If what is wrong is obvious, and then the priority is immediately past the point where conversation will serve a purpose. One does not have a conversation when the boat is sinking. What leaders often lack, for effective decision-making, is what Denis Tourish calls critical upwards communications. In organisations, critical upwards communication is the “bad news” or the “negative” news about what is not working. For example, widget X is not selling, or project Y is late, or performance target Z is not being met. Due to human nature, bias, and the wish to be the bearer of “good news”, people avoid communicating critical information. The staff will more often than not, privilege the good news over the bad.
For leaders to work, they need decisions to be operationalized. What this means is that organisations need hierarchies. Leadership is not a crowd sourced function. If anything, a crowd is a leaderless, instinctual group, which will follow a sub-optimal decision process. Leaders provide a decision hierarchy to allow good and bad or sub-optimal options to be ranked and chosen. Even then, leadership is not simply decision making based on a criteria or a pre-set algorithm. Instead, it is closer to the weaving. The solitary weaver, though, will not work because they have to work within the organisation.
Staff want leaders that are worth listening to
If a leader tries to hear bad news from a conversation, they will hear noise and not clear signals. Lyndon Johnson was quite effective at talking to junior officers in the United States government to verify information. However, he was not having a conversation; he was verifying what was being said. The approach was effective for what he needed. By contrast, conversations only work if someone says something that is worth hearing. To have those conversations, you need openness and information sharing to be encouraged and rewarded. Senior managers will have to trust their staff. On the surface, this seems obvious and easy in theory, yet in practice, this proves extremely difficult. As an aside, political organizations, such as the public sector trust is even more difficult to develop. In these organizations, senior managers are responding to the public and politicians.
To develop trust, the organizational culture needs to be changed and this is where leaders need to be saying things that will make the staff want to listen and respond. Too often, monologue is the operating mode rather than listening needed for a dialogue. In this Greysberg and Slind’s other article on the interactive leadership is helpful. The conversation within the organization needs to be changed. However, this is not about leaders have “conversations” with the front-line staff or sitting down with them for lunch. These are listening exercise for the most part. The authority and responsibility status of each party creates a gap that makes it difficult to have a meaningful work conversation. To put it differently, how many junior employees are going to tell the CEO what they think is wrong with the company, their service, or their product line? Will they trust their own line manager even if they trust the CEO to have the conversation?
Leadership and the Involvement effect
If a leader gets involved in internal communication frameworks, it distorts the purpose. Like the Observer Effect, the involvement of a leader will influence the conversation. People will have conversations, pose ideas, and suggest things to gain favour, impress, and create influence instead of creating an open communication process. All of these approaches will distort what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that the staff need to be able to share information, have the wider conversations so that the good news and the bad news can be draw out by the senior managers. For Yammer, or any other internal communication system, to succeed you need more than interactive leadership. All leaders are already interactive in their own way. Instead, you need the leaders and senior managers encourage and reward a culture of sharing information.
Do you have enough trust to have Yammer? Will conversations change that?
A system like Yammer requires a high level of organisational trust and staff that are willing to listen and share, without fear. To test if you have a good internal communication system with the necessary trust, consider whether your organization is willing to Yammer. Their response will tell you what type of internal communications culture you have. What you will find though is that in some organizations that information and knowledge are power to be hoarded. These organizations will not have a culture that shares information. “Why do you need to know that? What is it your business how my unit works?” In these situations, communication is simply on a need to know basis. A conversation will be unlikely to change that culture.
Leaders may want to exclude rather than include others in their decisions. They may believe that the fewer people who know, the more effective their decisions. In such a culture, power and status are reinforced and conversations will not challenge or change that culture. In these organizations, a hierarchy of information and communication are controlled to maintain status. A conversation will become window dressing to show that the leader and senior managers are “engaging” with staff. As a result, they have sub-optimal decisions. The staff will not want to interact because they know that they are being told what has been decided and not being involved in the decision. Instead, they are kept in their own ponds (their own department) and within those ponds, they communicate on their own lily pads. As a result, communication across the organization is informal, incomplete and more likely based on rumor and incomplete and inaccurate information.
Leaders may use conversations to achieve their ends. However, leadership is not a conversation. A conversation is an unguided exchange between equals. Leaders, by their nature, are unequal within the organisation and they must not confuse their organizational or work persona with their private or informal persona. Leaders who believe that conversations are a destination, or believe that they are leadership, will find they hear less of what they need to hear and more of what people think they want to hear.