The Long Read: How to have an effective – even courageous – conversation in the age of Zoom

15 June 2020 -

Graffiti of computer with 'STAY CONNECTED' written onscreenInterrupting and being impatient are deadly sins. Above all, try to listen with intent

Guest blogger, Kevin Murray CCMI

In the given circumstances, we’re all aware of the sense of urgency to change, to get things done, to do things in new and different ways. While this can present opportunities, it can also be a huge trap for managers, who may fall into its gaping jaws and fail to communicate at all while paradoxically putting even more effort into communicating.

The danger is that so many managers think that communication is simply about telling members of their team what it is they need to know and passing on information from above. It isn’t: great communication is about two-way conversations. And it is only when those conversations are courageous that employees are truly inspired. Yet, the majority of managers are uncomfortable with conversations, especially those that might have conflict and emotional outbursts. A study by the CMI in the UK showed that managers dreaded difficult conversations at work, more than having to have difficult conversations at home. The chief reason for this fear was a lack of confidence about being able to persuade the employee, and that the conversation might become too emotional. Two-thirds of British managers admitted to becoming stressed and anxious in anticipation of a forthcoming difficult conversation. More than half would do almost anything to avoid having that conversation and would prefer putting up with a negative situation rather than tackling it.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The CMI study also showed that more than 80% of British managers had never had any training on how to tackle conversations at work.

Person-to-person conversations

Charismatic managers are able to engage with employees in a way that resembles ordinary person-to-person conversation, and these daily talks with their staff enable greater levels of flexibility, more innovation, higher levels of employee engagement and very tight levels of strategic alignment. Their conversations are characterised by a more open and personal style, which these leaders try to make common practice throughout their organisations.

Ideally, these conversations are face-to-face, but you can have them online just as effectively. Too often, managers think of communication not as a series of conversations, but as a process of broadcasting messages through newsletters, e-mails, corporate videos, internet sites and other means of ‘push’ communication. I know many managers who spend a great deal of time doing this, and then feel intense frustration that nobody seems to have heard them, understood or changed the way they behave.

Charismatic leaders know that to get people engaged and fully supportive of decisions, you have to go through a process of vigorous debate. This conversation may take longer than you would like, but in the end, you will implement faster and more successfully if you take the time. Employees will want to talk with you about what their concerns are, and they want to feel that you are engaged with them. It’s only when you consult with them on how to achieve goals that you create buy-in. And the only way they can have input into the process is if you sit down to talk with them about it, including via video links.

Conversations start before you enter the room (or Zoom)

Charismatic conversations start before you even enter the room. They start when you think more precisely about what it is you’re trying to achieve. You need to be clear about the intent of the conversation you want to set in motion. When thinking about your conversation, use these questions to guide your planning:

  • Is your forthcoming conversation about informing members of your team? Do you need to talk with them to see whether they understand fully what is now required?
  • Are you trying to align people to the strategy? Is this a conversation about ensuring that people understand the team’s purpose and values? Do attendees know what the key targets are for the year and what strategic priorities they are working towards?
  • Is the conversation about solving a problem? Are you asking them for their views on what’s going wrong or are you asking for ideas on how to solve the problem? Have you identified the barriers that stop people doing what you need them to do?
  • Is this a conversation about improving the way things are done? Is it about deadlines and quality targets? Are customers happy and, if not, are we getting the right feedback and information to help us improve our performance?
  • Is this a conversation about implementing strategy in the right way? Is everyone clear on what they have to do, and what performance criteria will be used? Do they understand the timelines and deadlines?

Great conversations are underpinned by intent; to strengthen relationships, build the team culture, and improve trust and commitment.

Listening with intent

In any conversation, a charismatic manager listens with intent. Don’t go into meetings and express a view before anybody else has as this will discourage genuine discussion and debate. Charismatic leaders are not the ones in the meeting with the most to say, but they do know how to ask searching questions and are focused on the result, not the personalities.

Using your active listening skills, appreciate each person and contribution, each view and idea, and be genuinely inquisitive and interested. Charismatic leaders avoid pulling rank, as this will only encourage people to shut up. They work hard to ensure the people feel it is a safe environment to give them bad news and guarantee a no-blame culture when they do. Interrupting and being impatient are deadly sins in conversation, whereas recognition and encouragement fuel great involvement.

One of the great skills of charismatic leaders is to encourage employees to give voice to their imagination, especially during problem-solving or creative conversations. When a good idea is brought up, they latch onto it and move the conversation on to the best ways to implement the idea. They always try to create the clarity you need for action; there has to be a discussion about the ways of implementing ideas, who owns the actions, what performance measures are the right ones, what deadlines and quality standards are required.

Guide conversations, with care not to shut people down

Sometimes, leaders do have to guide conversations and put forward their point of view. There is always a danger of interrupting too much and shutting down employees’ contributions, but when leaders ask the right questions, the employee debate that follows will lead to the right answer, without the leader having to give it. I can’t stress this enough: when people have had a say in the things that matter directly to them, they are always more committed to those actions.

When a manager has remote workers, it is particularly important to keep them involved and engaged with other members of the team. When people work together they have a chance to have lots of micro-conversations, and these enable the frank and uncomfortable conversations that sometimes have to happen in order to deal with problems and progress. But remote workers do not have these smaller interactions, so charismatic managers spend time encouraging all the members of their team to interact and reach out to each other. During videoconferences, for example, good managers always pay particular attention to involving and acknowledging members of the team who are participating from remote locations.

Turn up more often

Managers can drive engagement by simply turning up in more face-to-face discussions. Showing up for the conversation is far more charismatic than staying in your office and sending emails. As many as eight out of ten managers surveyed by online polling company YouGov felt that they talk frequently enough with their employees about how things are going – however, only 40% of employees agree. That is six out of every ten employees feeling frustrated about the lack of time they have with their boss in conversation.

In spite of how counter-intuitive it seems, the more time you spend in conversation, the faster you will help your teams to achieve your goals.

Kevin Murray CCMI and is a business author and speaker with more than 45 years of leadership experience. This is an exclusive extract from his new book Charismatic Leadership: The skills you can learn to motivate high performance in others (published by Kogan Page). You can find out more about his work here.

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