Crucial Culture Conversations
In a team culture-building clinic I ran recently, I found myself reflecting on how crucial conversations are to creating constructive cultures. One of our CLEVER Culture Scans had highlighted several cultural enhancements this team could make. The ironic twist was that before they could talk these over or take action, they first had to face-up to some very dysfunctional discussional habits that prevented them talking over anything much at all.
It’s a hold-back many of us encounter. To create more constructive cultures, you’ve got to talk over what needs to happen. But that presents an immediate problem.
Conversations is something that largely gets overlooked when we talk about how cultures form and what makes them tick. It’s almost like they become so much a part of the furniture that we don’t notice them – so we underestimate the impact they have, both in, and on, a culture.
Yet if you stop to notice and take-stock, how people talk to each other is one of the most visible aspects of any culture.
You can’t really talk about culture without taking account of the crucial role conversations play in it. To start with, they subtly shape a culture. It’s also a good predictor of how functional or dysfunctional a culture’s likely to be.
Here’s a few ways conversations subtly shape culture and are also influenced by it.
- Culture Formation. As cultures are forming, conversations are the vehicle through which we develop cultural identity – what the culture is like – and also consolidate core beliefs that will ultimately determine the deeper character of your culture. From this, a common narrative emerges that starts to define the culture – it’s heroes, legends, symbols, rituals, customs and stories of trials and triumphs.
- Cultural Transmission also happens through conversations. When the culture finally takes shape, they act as the main way we transmit our cultural identity to new people – to let them know what the norms are and what to think, say and do to earn a badge of entry and acceptance into the culture.
- Cultural Continuity. Once a culture’s in full swing, conversations become one of the major ways we continue to reinforce the culture by embedding various beliefs and behaviour in it. And of course, its through conversations that we can also disrupt a culture, challenge and dis-confirm, highlight discontinuities, and manufacture a call for change
- Cultural Marker. Because your culture has allowed certain kinds of conversational norms to form and predominate, they now influence the kind and quality of conversations you have in this culture. Ultimately, conversations transform into a sort of determiner of culture.
- Cultural Determiner. If the quality of conversational interactions is good, you’re likely to have a lively, dynamic culture that’s strategy-smart and responsive. If conversations are closed, guarded, combative and conservative, you create a culture like that too. What I’m saying is that good conversational behaviours can prop up a culture while poor conversational behaviours can bring it down, because no one can get together and talk over what needs to happen to salvage it.
- Culture Carrier. Conversations are also culture-carriers. Dominant assumptions and core beliefs that distinguish different cultures are carried through conversations. When we open our mouths to speak, we think we speak for ourselves, but unconsciously, we often mouth the prevailing beliefs and values in our culture.
- Culture Revitaliser: And finally, conversations can act as a culture revitaliser. Raising the level of conversations and paying more attention to changing the nature of the conversations we have is an essential culture change tool.
As people learn new ways to talk to each other, their relationships and interactions subtly shift, behaviour changes, ideas flow in different ways and the culture may begin to shift and change too.
Conversations are not all the same. Some kinds are more constructive than others – and some forms of conversation are almost destined to disconnect us!
We often use the words debate, discussion and dialogue interchangeably, as if they’re all the same kind of conversation. Yet they’re not. There are distinct differences between them in terms of intent, purpose, behaviours displayed, the stance we take toward each other, and the ‘protocols’ that come into play in each.
These differences provide a handy model to understand the essence of constructive conversational cultures – and I guess, de-constructive too! You can put them on a spectrum with Debate or Argument on the one end, and Dialogue on the other – as in the diagram here.
Many team cultures operate from the debate or argument end of the spectrum. Conversations can become corrosive. Instead of connecting, we end up being combative – a common adversarial position many of us habitually adopt.
This is mirrored in our broader community culture. Western Society in general seems firmly and fatally attracted to a combative and adversarial approach. It comes out in movies, politics, geopolitical relations, and how we deal with difference. We seem to favour the rough-and-tumble of debate, and the spectacle of ‘win-lose’, over the quieter, collaborative reflective spaces of dialogue.
Debate’s an inappropriate style for meaningful interactions. Good conversations are characterised by dialogue and skillful discussion that encourage respectful give-and-take. Since debate’s the default mode for many workplace cultures, we need to learn how to have more connective dialogue – to think together, resolve issues and differences, value each other’s perspectives, and remain open and non-defensive.
In constructive cultures, conversations are open, frank, inclusive. People think together. and there’s a sense of unselfish cooperation, of pulling together. Dislocated cultures spawn conversational styles that are combative, argumentative, competitive, adversarial, critical.
Creating Safe Space
Conversations play a central role in any culture change process. They’re Phase-5 in our Culture Change Roadmap.
The conversations you started having about culture probably kicked-off way back before you ever thought of changing anything. And you’ll be having a rolling series of conversations about it right throughout the process.
To revitalise a culture, we first need to have conversations about our experience of it – how we find it and how we’d characterise its good and not-so-good aspects.
Conversations are a critical vehicle for doing things like creating a shared vision of culture change or drilling down to the core beliefs or tacit assumptions at the bottom of any culture. Continuously conducting conversations and dialogues is crucial to successful culture change. Expect to have key culture conversations about:
- Real purpose (what are we really here for?) and does our culture supports us in that
- Our vision of the kind of culture we have, and the type of culture we may want
- Future impacts – what if we don’t turn this culture round and change course?
- Cultural improvements – what aspects of our culture do we want to keep or change
- Resistance and Obstacles – what gets in the way of revitalising our culture?
- Cultural Actions – where do we start? What we need to do to renovate this culture
Culture change requires continuous rounds of dialogue. To do this, people have to feel safe. Otherwise they clam up and your conversations go nowhere, stay at a polite surface level, or deteriorate into acrimony.
So a really important aspect of this phase – even a prerequisite before you can enter into it – is to do something to raise the conversational safety and skill levels of people so they can start to talk about and engage in the conversations you want to have with them in a safe space.
This means that leaders and other culture-change helpers need to brush-up on their conversational capabilities to be able to convene constructive dialogues about culture and create the safe space needed for frank talk. For example:
- Finding out other’s views, positions and mental models about the culture.
- Exploring differences and frictions rather than get defensive about them.
- Fronting up to hard issues. Many people never tackle real issues because certain topics or views are unmentionable. You need to raise those undiscussables.
But before you can start, you come straight-up against the established conversational culture which right now, may not be so safe to talk or conversationally constructive.
Many workplaces cultivate adversarial, argumentative conversational culture hardly conducive to safe dialogue at all. So you need to begin to challenge the pattern and change that as you work on cultural revitalisation. In some cases, you may even see changing talking patterns amongst your teams as a way to change the culture.
Dialogue provides one way to create that safe space for conversations we’ve been talking about.
At the core of all constructive conversations is the ability to facilitate free flows of information and ideas, exchange meanings and arrive at better, mutual understandings. To openly and honestly express opinions, ask crucial questions, and share feelings and perspectives – even when some people’s views go against the mainstream, are controversial or hot.
And that’s what dialogue does. It’s a conversation where everyone can put forward their views in an equitable climate of respect and safety regardless of status, position or identity.
The protocols of dialogue encourage respectful give-and-take and help your teams move past competitive debate to stop competing and start thinking together – to develop new concepts and approaches and reach deeper insights about issues as the basis for collective action.
“A cool way to talk over hot issues…” is how I sometimes describe dialogue with due thanks to David Bohm. Dialogue circles create a cooler container for contentious topics, taking the heat out of dominating, defensive behaviours that crop up in more conventional conversations.
“The art of thinking together…” That’s how Bill Isaacs, former director of the Dialogue Project at MIT once defined it, “a conversation with a centre, not sides.” An apt pun on the oppositional nature of conventional discussion.
Dialogue generates an atmosphere where people feel they can throw any idea out there into the centre of the circle, and look together at whatever ends up in the middle. It invites us to reveal our tacit assumptions and unspoken beliefs. It creates opportunity for us to examine our preconceptions and prejudices and enables a meeting of minds around points of difference. Disagreements are balanced out by protocols of listening and respect for varied viewpoints.
From this, rather than criticism and confrontation, productive possibilities often emerge.
It’s a mistake to think of dialogue simply as ‘nice talk’. Dialogue enables you to tackle difficult issues more directly and air conflicting viewpoints. Ed Schein, legendary culture-commentator, says: “All problem-solving groups should begin in a dialogue format to facilitate building of sufficient common ground and mutual trust, and to make it possible to tell what is really on one’s mind.”
Culture change centrally comes about through conversations. One of the change leader’s most important jobs is engaging in a constant series of conversations to think together with people and create safe conversational climates where’s it’s more likely they will say what they think and participate openly.
Working on having better conversations can have a positive culture-building effect on your teams. You simply can’t talk about culture without talking about the crucial role conversations play in it.
And being able to cultivate conversational capability to enable people to talk over and unpack their culture is one of the most powerful tools a leader can wield. If we don’t create positive conversational cultures, can we really expect them to participate at will in the conversations we want to have with them – when we want to have them?
For more than 25 years, The Change Forum has been helping executives, leaders, project groups and teams in all sorts of work settings, revitalise and renovate their work cultures.
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