Why you need to change your conversational habits

Written by Megan Reitz Monday 24 August 2020
Who are you talking to? Why them in particular? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to listen to some other voices too?
Two women having a conversation at work

First the question was “When are things going to get back to normal?” Then it was “What’s the ‘new’ or the ‘next’ normal going to look like?” These questions clearly point to our longing for certainty and control; for someone, somewhere, to tell us “This is how it will be”. The questioners need to prepare themselves to be disappointed.

VUCA? We had no idea…

In recent years, debate in leadership circles has centred around the future of work. We’ve pondered what we might need to do to stay ahead and stay in control, as automation, artificial intelligence, the 100-year life and the gig economy gained ground apace. We’ve sagely talked about our VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) as if it were A Thing and wondered about how our leadership might need to change as a result.

And then this year happened.

We’ve been catapulted into (re)action in a manner no one could have predicted. (Well, it was predicted, but it remained hypothetical, improbable and rarely discussed in any serious scenario planning in the boardroom). We have experienced the fragility of our privileged existence. This crisis has brought other impending disasters such as climate change just that little bit closer to felt reality, and the mother of all recessions may well be round the corner.

This perfect storm of events, culminating in high personal stress and critical concerns about organisational survival, has meant we need to re-examine – urgently – the way we manage and lead. Do we need to update our models of leadership and management to survive and thrive in the context in which we now find ourselves? If we lead in the way we’ve always led, we’ll get what we’ve always got. Is that a viable option?

But leaders are thwarted in this quest in one crucial way: they’re still listening to the same voices. Or, to put it another way, the same people are still being silenced and ignored. Our way of seeing power, status and authority and our consequent expectations of who should speak up, be heard and lead remain the same. In other words, our conversational habits, and with them our management and leadership, remain the same.

We’re stuck in our conversational habits

Conversational habits shape who says what, who gets heard and what actions get taken. They have enormous consequences; these patterns influence our relationships, careers and satisfaction with life.

We cannot and will not reimagine the future or lead in ways that are agile, compassionate and purposeful unless we alter our conversational habits. Different people need to be able to say different things and be heard in different ways. We need to enable employees at all levels – but particularly those who have traditionally been silenced – to speak up about their ideas, challenges, ethical dilemmas, mistakes, anxieties and passions.

Are your staff speaking up? Are you sure?

My research has identified three main reasons why leaders are overly optimistic about the level of transparency in their teams:

  1. The superiority illusion. Nearly every respondent in our survey of 5,650 people thought they were better than their boss at listening to others. As long as the thinking is “we’re not the problem, they are”, we’re unlikely to look in the mirror and commit to developing our skills.
  2. Advantage blindness. Ben Fuchs coined this term to describe our blind spots around bias and privilege. Many leaders have labels that convey status and authority in certain contexts. For example, in many boardrooms, labels such as “male” and “white” convey status and mean that you’re expected and encouraged to speak up and your voice tends to get heard more easily than others. When we have these advantageous labels, it is nigh on impossible to imagine life without them – and that means we often assume that others’ experiences are similar to our own.
  3. A dearth of (truthful) feedback. If you’re perceived as powerful and then ask others to give you feedback, people will probably think twice before giving it to you straight. The questions we ask of others tend to be pretty poor: “Can you give me some feedback?” or “Was that OK, do you think?” Don’t be surprised if this results in a watery smile and a “Yeah, yeah, hmmm, all good” response.

How to really listen up

Three suggestions to help managers and leaders change their conversational habits – and our collective future:

  1. Know how scary you are. You may think you’re approachable – and indeed you may be approachable – but you must be able to see yourself as others do. Ask yourself, “Who might find me intimidating? What can I do to put them at ease?”
  2. Check who’s on your ‘little list’. It’s all well and good CEOs talking passionately about the importance of having a team that speaks up, but do they then pause and say, “but I do have my little list of the people who ‘fit’ and those who don’t”? Little lists can be helpful; after all, we need to discern, and we can’t listen to everybody and everything. But why are some people on your “listen to” list and others not? This is the territory of unconscious bias, so check your list. Do the people you listen to look a lot like you? Who doesn’t appear on your list, and what are the consequences of not hearing their voices?
  3. Know your face. What signals do you send out when you’re listening? As leaders, we need to be aware of the signals we send with our body language, and we need to consider how we respond when others speak up. It’s these micro-moments that teach people to speak up again – or stay silent.

This was originally published in CMI Magazine, one of our exclusive member benefits. Learn more about membership here.

Megan Reitz is professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education (part of Hult International Business School) and the founder of Reitz Consulting. She is the co-author, with John Higgins, of Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard (Financial Times Publishing, 2019), which was shortlisted for the 2020 CMI Management Book of the Year Award

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