Tag Archives: dialogue

Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

I was reflecting on a social media post by a successful IT leader the other day; it was a list of his rules to live and work by. He had talked about them enough over the course of his career that people had asked him to write them down. (As an aside, I’ve found other cases of people asking leaders to codify their life instructions; it seems to be a fairly common event.)

These particular guidelines were very good; the work of a thoughtful, caring, dedicated colleague and leader. Things anyone wise would take to heart. My own reaction centers not on what the guidelines said but on the way the guidelines came about. Upon their genesis, which seems arbitrary.

In any group of humans working together a set of rules develops over time that define who we are and what we do. How we talk to each other, who gets more authority, what skills are valued, what behaviors are off-limits, etc. You might say these rules exist on a kind of consciousness continuum. Some are visible: talked about, written down, and even posted on a wall, like an office sign that says “no smoking.” But most rules are invisible. We don’t talk about them much, nor do we write them down, and they may not even be thought about consciously. These hidden rules are perhaps the more powerful and meaningful rules, and they are not always pretty. They might contradict more visible rules, or otherwise be something you aren’t particularly proud to say out loud. For example, one deeper rule might be “we actually do smoke; we just do it when the boss is out, and we open the windows and turn on the fan to hide the fact.”

One of my interests has long been to help make these deeper rules visible, discussable, and changeable. To give people the conscious tools to acknowledge and adjust (if they wish) their workplace culture, improve their interpersonal relations, even revise their own deeply personal decision-making.

That’s why the IT leader’s list caught my eye. His list is his way of saying “these are the rules I think we should follow” or “let’s change the rules to these.” This move is good in a lot of ways: our leader is perceptive enough to sense what is going on around him; he is reflective and imaginative enough to think about how things ought to be; he sees the world as a place that can be improved (plastic in the original sense, of “moldable”); he thinks he and his colleagues have the power to make changes; his proposed rules are in the service of improving the lives of others; by making a list, he shows that he knows there are rules; etc. All good.

And what would be better still, although admittedly harder, would be to engage the other members of the organization in the creation of such a set of rules. To invite them into a space where they could contribute in the perception, acknowledgement, and adjustment of the way they worked together. If one person on their own has good ideas about how to fix things, wouldn’t more people have better ideas still? If you could get your colleagues productively engaged, a lot of benefits would accrue, among them two key ones: you might get their buy-in to helping you enact the new rules thereafter, and you might empower them to keep on talking about and improving cultural rules forever. Which is probably the ultimate goal: to leave behind a culture that has the tools to continually improve itself.

Getting more people involved is easier said than done, I admit. Why? Well, one of the most important rules is like the movie Fight Club: we don’t talk about the rules. Our identities and social status are wrapped up in them as they are. If we mess with the rules, it’s not clear what will happen. If I am to start being honest about what needs to improve, for example, things might come up that I don’t want to change. Maybe I will be asked to get better, and maybe I won’t be able to! Very scary. Power dynamics also have a rule-reinforcing effect: we are, in general, famously reluctant to tell our supervisors what we are really thinking and feeling, and vice versa. Easy to get a group of reports to talk candidly about the rules of their relationship with their boss if she is not in the room. Harder to get to the same level of honesty with her there. But a level of semi-radical openness is what you need to surface and rewrite the rules.

The IT leader might be the only person in his organization who can safely produce a list of rules as he did. The worst case scenario for him is that his staff may politely ignore his list. There is rather more risk for a person at a lower organizational level to spontaneously propose changes like these.

Having said all this, it’s not too late for this leader’s list. You could use it, once made, to open up a conversation, even if you hadn’t involved people theretofore. It could itself be the entry into engagement; if you could get interested staff in a room, put them at ease, and build some trust, you might ask them what they felt about the IT leader’s guidelines. Which resonated with them, which didn’t, etc. You might get them to articulate one or two rules they felt were important in their own lives and work. You might get them to think about what role unspoken rules play in their organization. And so you might have the start of an effective rule-changing conversation that could both help you improve things in the short term and build the skills in the staff to continue improving things in perpetuity.

Schein on Dialogue

23 Aug

I am enjoying Edgar Schein’s “On Dialogue, Culture, and Organizational Learning” (Organizational dynamics 22.2 (1993): 40-51). My summary.

Dialogue in the general parlance means conversation. But dialogue, for Schein, is different. It starts from a change in mental approach–the use of a somewhat unnatural “suspension”–instead of reacting when we hear discomfiting information that triggers us, we pause for a moment, and evaluate what we’re thinking. “Is this feeling I have true? Or is it based on a mistaken perception?” we ask ourselves, and wait a bit for additional information before we decide how to act. Dialogue means bringing a kind of mindfulness, or cognitive self-awareness as we talk–“knowing one’s thought as one is having it,” says Schein.  Thinking about a thought rather than being the thought. Leaving the animal-like, mechanical push-and-pull of a conversation, and watching, as it were, partially from above.  As Schein says:

I have found repeatedly that if I suspend, I find that further conversation clarifies the issue and that my own interpretation of what may have been going on is validated or changed without my having to actively intervene.

“Not having to intervene” feel unfamiliar? Probably because conversations where people are practicing this at first feel different than other conversations. There is no debate. Instead there’s a feeling of a “disjointed . . . random conversation.” The point is not to “convince each other” but to “build common experience.” People think of the process–at first–as a “detour or slowing down of problem solving,” but Schein notes such dialogues are necessary. And he says people come to want them, once they’ve got the feel.

Why?  Why focus on building experience instead of problem solving? Because it heals the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and problems caused by clashing mental models that are a bane of organizational subcultures. For Schein, our continual problem is that we form tacit and private understandings, beliefs, norms, assumptions, languages in our different contexts, teams. or hierarchical levels, and without work at getting these on the table, we won’t understand what people in other teams or at other levels are saying. And they won’t understand us. We also won’t say we don’t understand, because we are socialized “to withhold information that would in any way threaten the current ‘social order;'” so the misunderstanding remains until the cross-functional project we’re working on stalls, and we point fingers.

But if we’re using dialogue, we’re watching ourselves thinking as we simultaneously listen to what people are saying, we’re seeing and assessing our built-in assumptions as they pop up, we’re thinking about what language means, we’re holding multiple possibilities in mind simultaneously. Because we’re suspending our reactivity in favor of listening to the modulations of the group thinking, it’s less about individuals talking to each other (as happens in traditional feedback, for instance) and more about the group as a kind of network or hive mind. A good group-think, where the group thinks and learns at a higher level than the individuals could on their own, rather than the opposite. Through the meandering dialogue process we form a new understanding of how the group uses language, how it conceives of its work, what mental models it uses, and, perhaps most importantly, we create a psychologically safe space where we can efficiently develop new languages and new models. Not to mention we also get better at using dialogue itself, until it becomes an efficient tool we can put to use whenever we feel the need.

In any event, without dialogue, says Schein–and this is the kicker–you can’t do much at all. Dialogue is “at the root of all effective group action,” it allows groups to “achieve levels of creative thought that no one would have initially imagined,” and, finally, without it, you can’t learn, you can’t change, and you can’t adapt:

Learning across cultural boundaries cannot be created or sustained without initial and periodic dialogue. Dialogue in some form is therefore necessary to any organizational learning that involves going beyond the cultural status quo.