Constructive conversations are a vital part of any leader’s job description. But the importance of conversation and communication as a leadership skill is something that can often go unexamined. There is now extensive evidence that shows there is a time and place for conversation — and that any leader or aspiring leader would likely benefit from a more serious consideration of the pitfalls of some types of dialogue. Critically, the nuances that lie within and around conversations are often as important as the conversations themselves.
Let’s look at three situations in which conversations, per se, may not be the answer to effective leadership:
“All talk and no action”: Conversations may create the illusion that something is being done or that one is progressing when all that is being done is communication without the necessary action. This is something we all have experienced and struggle with at work — unaware that there is scientific evidence that helps explain what leaders can do. As early as 2004, Margaret Archer, a well-respected researcher, explored the concept of how one’s actions are impacted by one’s “reflexive” nature. She defined three types of reflexives: “communicative reflexives” are those who require others to complete their internal conversations to enable successful performance; “autonomous reflexives” do the opposite — they shut themselves off from others in the completion of their internal conversations and are much more strategic; and “meta reflexives” are those who use strongly held values to guide their reflexivity. Archer concluded that when you depend on others to help you complete your conversations, you are more likely to remain unmoved within the organizational hierarchy whereas those who rely on their own internal conversations move upward and meta reflexives move laterally within organizations.
While no one style is likely to be exclusively present in any person, this study points to the value of moving in and out of conversation. Specifically, conversation draws our attention outward and creates a feeling of movement, but is often ineffective unless one takes time to translate this experience into an insight and inner conversation that moves one upward within an organization, or when one wants to encourage others to advance as well.
Heightened emotional sensitivity: Although conversations that progress exclusively through mutual understanding and emotional connection can be helpful when forming teams, they can also be very destructive in negotiations particularly. We may be in trouble if all we do is “feel” what another person is saying in order to understand them. A prior series of studies has demonstrated that this type of emotional sensitivity can, in fact, be detrimental to to the outcome of a discussion at the bargaining table. Instead, another form of empathy, cognitive empathy, may be more useful in discovering hidden agreements within the negotiation. This kind of conversation requires using one’s head as well as one’s heart when negotiating. Often, we are content to simply demonstrate that we understand how another person feels, but this is not enough. It pays, in the context of a negotiation, to actually view things from the other person’s point of view so that one can escape one’s own biases.
“Delusional” consensus: Conversations are also often held in order to achieve consensus, but consensus on its own does not imply effective leadership. Humans as a group are prone to multiple illusions, distortions and psychological traps, and having a consensus about these may lead to mass delusion rather than actually effective leadership. One need not even go as far as Hitler or apartheid to make this point. We are all prone to falling into psychological traps, and if we were all prone to these cognitive biases, we might have consensus but be completely wrong.
So what can we do if we are subject to these situations? First, Archer’s research would suggest that all conversation should be followed by internal reflection (see “autonomous reflexives” above) to avoid stagnation. Feed conversational data to yourself consciously and allow your own brain to process this deeply. Secondly, the studies on cognitive empathy suggest that we should not get carried away by sharing emotions during negotiations, but also share points of view. And the fact that we may all fall into psychological traps suggests that decisions need to transcend consensus and may need to be implemented as “best guess” alternatives.
These studies suggest that being an effective leader requires being conversational as well as internal; using your head and your heart; and at times, acting against the consensus of the group. The next time you’re drawn into a conversation, see if you find yourself falling into any of these traps.
Check out Paragon Strategies Strategic Decision Making Class on June 20 at http://www.paragonstrategies.com