Talk IS Work
One of my favorite leadership memes depicts a bunch of executive-types rising from a board table to head home after a three-hour meeting. The caption reads, “the REAL meeting”. Sadly, for those of us in a corporate environment, you’ve likely experienced something similar. How many hours of the week do we devote to formal scheduled meetings that fail to move the needle on any of the pressing issues before the organization? Let me answer that for you… many, MANY, hours. So where are the decisions made? By the coffeemaker. In the breakroom. Often, amid little gaggles of employees informally gathered around an office cubicle.
Talk IS work. This simple statement rings true in most of our settings. Talk is important work. We accomplish big and small things on behalf of our teams and our organizations during these day-to-day conversations with peers, employees, vendors, stakeholders, etc. These small but powerful conversations outside of the boardroom (or the video conference calls) fuel innovation, trust, necessary risk taking, and host of other powerful dynamics that help our “brands” thrive and grow. The leader’s role in all this “talk?” Create the right environment for the conversation to happen.
Let’s shift to some specifics… Why is talk important? Talk… Conversation is an important precursor to effective and efficient decision making. Conversation is relationship. In the workplace, ongoing conversation builds sustained relationships that, hopefully, have trust as a defining feature. Talk in the workplace lets members of the team know that participatory leadership is a critical element of this particular organization; I can be trusted with making small decisions and contributing to the deliberation underway on the bigger issues.
In settings where Talk is nourished, employees see their managers and executive officers as leaders, not authoritarian figures. Ronald Heifetz, founding director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership notes, “Distinguishing leadership from authority helps us begin to see that if we understand leadership as a practice, as an activity, then it becomes available to anybody high or low, any place or position.” Talk also cultivates “collective sensemaking,” a dynamic that encourages a bunch of individuals – and their minds – to dig into complex problems so that elegant solutions come to the table. Management guru David Gurteen believes that great conversation also pushes through stale thinking, biases, and other forces that impale creativity. Gurteen says, “The more creative conversations are the ones that we have with each other, where we challenge each other (with respect), question each other’s thinking, point out biases, fill blind spots and thus burst the thought bubbles in which we live.”
Talk is good. So, how do leaders cultivate it? Well, my response will sound a lot like my commentaries on leadership empathy. Leaders nourish Talk when they are vulnerable. When a leader shares some of her “soft spots” with the members of the team, she is communicating, “It is okay to be vulnerable with one another in this space.” When we are willing to be vulnerable around others, relationship flourishes. Where relationship flourishes, honest and robust conversation is possible. This conversation – Talk – moves our teams and our organizations forward.