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Better Culture Starts with Better Conversations

The quality of your culture depends on the quality of the conversations. Which conversations are you avoiding? Which ones harm or nurture your culture?

By Gustavo Razzetti

October 14, 2021

Deep, regular conversations can transform your organization

The quality of your workplace culture depends on the quality of the conversations. The stories about the past, present, and future shape the identity of your organization. From watercooler conversations to passionate meeting debates, how people engage with each other (or not) is a true indicator of your company culture.

Poor conversations are frustrating, keeping your team stuck in the past.

Better culture starts with better conversations. Teams create better solutions via dialogue. Transform your company culture with effective conversations.

The Power of Better Conversations

Everything your team members do is facilitated through conversations. They envision the future through dialogue. They uncover new possibilities to move the organization forward. Conversations bring culture to life – both what's working and what's not.

Crucial conversations lie all around us – all the time.

Curiosity starts conversations. Conversations spark action. Action drives change.

From performance appraisals and brainstorming solutions to making decisions, conversations are the foundation of effective team collaboration.

Your organization's culture is created and reflected in the conversations people have – and the ones they avoid.  

"Silence usually means people are holding back," says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations.

When people don't feel safe to speak truth to power, they quickly become discouraged. Silence is a morale killer. People stop caring and sharing their views and ideas.

According to Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer, the antidote is promoting open conversations that allow critical information to be shared freely across the organization. This requires moving beyond the usual HR tools such as employee surveys or one-on-one meetings. These seldom move an organization forward.

Instead, Beer advocates for open conversations that allow leaders to hear employees' raw but necessary truths about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The skills we need in the workplace are the same skills we need in the bedroom, according to Clifford Notarius and Howard Markam.

The marriage scholars studied multiple couples amid heated rows and found most fall into one of three behavior camps. Those who get emotionally drawn in and resort to blaming, threats, and name-calling, the ones who silently fume, and those who speak openly, honestly, and effectively.

Upon examination, they found the couples in the third camp were more likely to stay together.

There are three types of conversations: the ones we avoid, the ones that kill culture, and the ones that transform it.

Denial is the state of knowing but not knowing, according to Grenny. He believes that "The health of an organization is measured by the lag time between when you feel it and discuss it."  Not addressing issues promptly makes things worse.

The difference between dysfunctional and effective communities is not the number of problems each one has. Research shows that the communities with the most problems are not necessarily the dysfunctional ones. They are actually more effective because they can deal with issues in the open. In contrast, ineffective communities hide or avoid their issues.

Well-functioning organizations don't duck tough conversations. They know that the only way to improve is by confronting issues head-on.

How to Have More Effective Conversations

Defining moments in the workplace are the result of crucial conversations – they shift our mindsets and behaviors.

Facilitating candid conversations is not easy. It requires courage. You must be able to work with people rather than through people. Take the first step. Listen more than you plan. Reflect, learn, and explore possibilities.

The purpose of conversation is to grow as a team, not to win an argument.

As Arthur Martine wrote in The Handbook of Etiquette: "The object of conversation is pleasure and improvement. Never let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery."

Converse, don't compete.

It's okay to disagree. Try to understand different points of view and what drives people's beliefs.

Art Markman wrote in Fast Company, "When you try to win a conversation, you may feel energized by the encounter, but it doesn't deepen your relationship with your opponent." The psychology professor encourages you to share your own opinions and the reasons for it but to "Do it with the aim of creating mutual knowledge rather than with the aim of bringing the other person around to your way of thinking."

Better conversations are built on four core skills, according to research by The Center for Creative Leadership:

Listening to understand: There are multiple levels of information we must tune in to during conversations. Move beyond the facts. Listen to the values at play and understand the other person's perspective.

Asking powerful questions: Great questions spark curiosity, opening new paths for more interesting conversations. Open-ended questions drive clarity, promote critical thinking, inspire reflection, and challenge assumptions. Often beginning with 'Why,' 'How,' or 'What do you think about…,' they set the stage to uncover new perspectives.

Challenging and supportive: Successful teams embrace cognitive diversity by challenging underlying assumptions. Psychological safety is vital to encourage candid conversations – to challenge the idea, not the person. Providing support is about ensuring that people have been heard. Find the right balance between challenge and support.  

Establishing next steps and accountability: Great conversationalists go with the flow – they focus on the journey, not the destination. However, regardless of their relentless curiosity, they always wrap up with concrete next steps. Your team should walk away from a conversation with a shared understanding, clear agreements, and next steps.

Fortunately, the four conversational skills can be developed. You can use them one at a time or together.

Creating Conversations that Improve Culture

Here are five ways to help you reflect on the conversations your team is having (or not). Use them to promote better dialogue.

1. Address conflict in the open

The problems you don't address won't disappear over time – they'll just get worse. That's the paradox of conflict avoidance: the tough conversation you don't have today will be even tougher tomorrow.

Grudges and past issues will keep piling up whether you silence or ignore them, increasing the conflict debt.

The stinky fish is a metaphor for issues that we don't want to talk about. The longer we avoid a problem, the stinker it gets. The Uncover the Stinky Fish canvas is a visual tool to start conversations about what everyone is thinking, but no one is saying.

Candid conversations are hard and uncomfortable for leaders and employees alike. But the stakes are too high to avoid discussing pressing issues.

Crossing the line – starting to address conflict in the open – requires courage. Promoting psychological safety is a paradox on its own. Courageous team members need to step up and start the conversation everyone needs to have, but no one wants to open by taking the first step.

Addressing conflict in the open is not easy. However, how you facilitate the conversation makes all the difference. Check out the three facilitation methods we use to address conflict in a psychologically safe way.

2. Reframe negative narratives

When Keith Bailey took the reins of one of Transpacific Industries' most troubled divisions, the business model wasn't the biggest issue, but the stories the company told itself. Deceptive organizational messages reflected both gone past glories ("We're extraordinary. Rules don't apply to us.”) and skepticism about the future ("No one can save this company. There's going to be a bloodbath").

Neither of those narratives was accurate. However, Bailey had to reframe the conversation to turn around the crumbling organization.

Most companies suffer from deceptive organizational messages that promote a self-defeating mindset. There are three types of stories that create cognitive distortions:

  • Victim stories ("It's not my fault")
  • Villain stories ("It's the leader fault")
  • Helpless stories ("There's nothing I can do")

Listening is critical to tackling the root cause. Through effective conversations, Bailey reframed the narrative by replacing old messages with a new conception of the company's potential. Transpacific Industries was able to recover, winning the Turnaround of the Year award in 2016.

3. Appreciate the positive

Building on the above, one of the best ways to reframe negative narratives is acknowledging the positive within your culture. Recognizing what's working creates a foundation from which you can build a better future.

As Niels Pflaeging said, "Telling positive stories about the past honors the people who participated in previous successes. It creates a coherent narrative by identifying strengths from the past that can create positive outcomes now."

Appreciative Inquiry is a culture change approach with a premise that within every organization, there's something positive. Leveraging what's already working can drive sustainable change.

Leaders tend to focus on what's not working. This approach tends to demoralize people, reinforcing the idea that the organization is broken. Focusing on the deficit  – what's missing/ wrong – sucks the energy and motivation.

In contrast, positive stories energize people, boosting morale and confidence.

Recognize the best in your people. The language we use, the questions we ask, and the stories we tell shape our mindsets.

Rather than seeing the organization as something broken that needs to be fixed, acknowledge what's working and use it as a foundation for culture evolution.  

4. Promote regular conversations

Not every team conversation needs to be planned or focused on an issue. Having regular, superficial conversations is also vital for keeping the culture alive. Smalltalk can take you to unexpected places.

Swedish companies such as IKEA and Spotify leverage the power of fikas to facilitate meaningful conversations.

The word fika (pronounced "fee-ka") is an inverted syllable slang term derived from "kaffi," the 19th-century Swedish word for coffee. Whether used as a noun or a verb, (one can "fika" or take part in "fika"), it describes the ritual of social coffee consumption, usually accompanied by a pastry or small piece of cake.

A fika is much more than a coffee break. It's a social phenomenon: setting aside a moment for quality time.

At IKEA, fikas play a larger role than simply keeping this Swedish tradition alive. Casual chit-chat usually takes team members to unexpected places, helping uncover problems that can quickly be fixed. IKEA understands that frequent conversations help address issues before they get out of hand.

Spotify hosts 'fail-fikas' to celebrate failure. Teams facilitate retrospective conversations to reflect on what went wrong, learn from mistakes, and identify improvements. Spotify knows that failure is part of success. The company relies on the power of conversations to improve its culture.

5. Design a better future

Better conversations encourage people to imagine a better future. Invite people to dream bigger with "What might be?" or "How might we…?" questions.

The World Café is a network of collaborative conversations to address issues that matter. The method resembles the intimacy, passion, and ambiance of traditional French cafés—this metaphor of a warm and hospitable experience taps into the collective wisdom of your team.

A small group of 4–5 people gathers around small coffee-like tables (you can do this virtually, too). Focus the dialogue on a topic and provide 3 to 5 key questions to get the conversation started.

Each conversation is meant to last 20 minutes. When time is up, rotate people so that they can carry their ideas and thoughts to other tables. Keep one host per table to maintain continuity.

The atmosphere of World Café opens the door to thought-provoking questions and engaging dialogues. It promotes exciting conversations through storytelling.

Better Culture Starts with Better Conversations

Effective collaboration is mediated through conversation. Your team needs better, more frequent conversations to improve how they work together.

Effective conversations are about growth rather than dominance. They help address the root cause. Crucial conversations are about building relationships, not just the outcomes.

Building a strong company culture starts with candid conversations. Which conversations are you avoiding? Which ones harm or nurture your culture?

We help organizations facilitate better conversations through our programs and consulting service. Reach out to see how we can help your team.

What do you think?



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