How Leaders Engage: Learning to Be an Agile Leader
Showing Up Is Important. Engaging Is Paramount
In “How Leaders Show Up: Learning to Be an Agile leader” we learned that research consistently and clearly demonstrates that team effectiveness is highly dependent upon the quality of communication between team members.
The quality of communication is how we explain why some teams are high performing and others struggle. It’s how we explain why some organizations are successful at large organizational changes and others are not. And it’s how we explain why we might have very engaging and productive conversations with some people and end up in complete frustration with others.
In our work with leadership teams, what we often see is that leaders spend a great deal of time focused on the “what” in their business:
- What’s the target for next quarter?
- What’s our revenue?
- What are we doing to innovate and transform?
- What’s our roadmap?
- What metrics will we use to show progress?
However, leaders spend very little—if any—time looking at how they engage.
Conversations are the foundation for all of our interactions. But there is a structure to how conversations unfold—to how we engage—that determines how well we perform. Just like the structure of a riverbed determines the flow of water in a stream, the structure of a conversation determines performance.
Structuring Conversations To Improve Engagement
At TeamCatapult, we’ve found that when we introduce engagement from a structural perspective, leadership teams are able to start seeing things much more clearly:
- How they are getting in their own way
- Where their espoused values and beliefs create dissonance with their actions
- Where they are having more meaningful and productive conversations to solve the more complex and adaptive challenges in their organization
When we can see and name the structure of conversations in a non-biased way, it’s easier to see where the structure is either enabling or getting in the way of a positive, productive outcome, and it’s easier to feel at choice in our interactions.
Structural Dynamics To Improve Conversations
The theory of “structural dynamics” was developed by David Kantor in the early 1970s. It emerged from his work in family systems therapy but was extrapolated in the 1980s to characterize interaction in any system, including the relationships that exist in organizations.
4 Kinds Of Action for Effective Interactions
In structural dynamics, there are 4 kinds of action that need to be taken in every conversation in order for the interaction to be effective.
The 4 action competencies are:
- Move: this is when someone initiates an idea. It sets the direction in a conversation.
- Follow: this action continues the direction of the conversation, supporting what is happening an/or offering clarification.
- Oppose: this action challenges or disagrees, and offers an alternate perspective.
- Bystand: with this action, someone notices and names what’s happening in the conversation in a morally neutral way. The bystand action often bridges competing ideas.
For a conversation to unfold in an effective and meaningful way, someone in the room needs to vocally bring each and every one of these actions into the conversation.
Field of Conversations
Everything we want and desire from business agility stems from our ability to have conversations that explore ideas, perceptions, and understanding. From our ability to surface together what people do not already have on their own.
“We call this type of conversation a dialogue.”
A dialogue is when you explore the uncertainties and questions that no one has answers to. It’s where you think together, using the energy of differences to enhance the collective wisdom.
People often use the terms “discussion,” “conversation,” and “dialogue” interchangeably to mean the same or similar things. In reality, however, they are each quite different and result in very different outcomes.
From Monologue to Dialogue: Making a Choice
Most teams would self-identify as having lots of dialogue, but when you observe them for a little while you often find that they tend to spend most of their time in monologue. You hear one person dominate, or you hear two people locked in debate with two opposing views. In fact, very few teams are able to have skillful conversations or dialogue without some prompting and some intentional and thoughtful awareness.
Because our conversations are where we make meaning and sense of what’s happening in our organizations, it is critical to build that intentional and thoughtful awareness. This begins with understanding the basic fields of conversation. If we want to move forward more productively, we need to know where we are.
The “fields of conversation” is a framework developed by MIT lecturer Otto Scharmer in his observations of groups in conversation. It describes four different fields that we move in and out of when we are interacting in a group.
- “Courteous Compliance”
In this first field of conversation, we are downloading. In a new group, this is where people are figuring out what’s acceptable and not acceptable. In a more established group or team, this is where people are following the rules, and the conversation often stays on the surface. It is a polite field of conversation where the main action competencies of Move and Follow predominate.
If you stay in the conversation long enough, you will reach this second field of conversation. This is where debate occurs. The action competencies of Move and Oppose are most common in this field. Unconsciously, groups in this field of conversation will make an important choice: they will either stay with the Oppose and make space for it to be voiced, or they will silence the Oppose and go back to a state of courteous compliance.
- “Thinking Together”
For groups that stay with the often uncomfortable feeling of the Oppose action taken in the “breakdown” field of conversation, the reward is that they get the opportunity to “think together.” No longer focused on rehashing the past or holding tightly to views and opinions, this is the space where genuine curiosity enters. One does not have to agree with another’s point of view in order to inquire and be curious about it. As curiosity flourishes in this field of conversation, the group begins to focus on creating the future.
- “Generative Dialogue”On rare occasions, we might push beyond “thinking together” and enter the “generative dialogue” field of conversation. This is the true space of innovation, where we are no longer holding onto our own opinion but are creating new ideas together. Generative in nature, the action competencies we see in this field of conversation are Move, Follow, Oppose, and Bystand. Each action competency is active and voiced within the group.“What you resist persists.” -Carl Jung
How We Do Anything is How We Do Everything.
When we never leave politeness or debate fields of conversation, we just keep reenacting the past. We get stuck in our current beliefs and thinking. We do this for many reasons. Maybe we have leftover beliefs from how we have seen our mentors lead. Or there is leadership culture in the organization that says, “Let’s not have any surprises,” so everyone makes up their mind on discussion points before they arrive to a meeting. The trap in this thinking is twofold: it assumes that we already know everything we need to know, and it assumes that the decision point requires a technical solution.
There is risk and vulnerability to showing up and being in dialogue with others. It requires letting go of “knowing” the answers and the desire to have it all figured out. It also requires that we make space for opposition. Rather than viewing the Oppose action as something to be feared, we need to view it as necessary. Without opposition, we will remain stuck where we are.
And when we gain a new level of understanding, when we learn, and when our beliefs and mindsets shift, we achieve real change.