Imagine coming out of a meeting and thinking about how honestly people shared their opinions, how disagreements were met with understanding, and how you took a few tough nuggets and differing perspectives and heard everyone. What was happening was real dialogue — the kind of conversation where raw opinions can be out there and no one is judging anyone.
I can already hear you: “Not in my organization,” you say. Not in the kind of hyper-structured/way-too-polite/distrustful kind of place I work.
You may be right. Certain aspects of your organization’s culture may be getting in the way of true dialogue:
Leaders: Often, being in a position of leadership means that you are meant to provide answers and direction for people. In the context of dialogue, however, the impulse to provide a solution or say something definitive to stop a debate actually stifles flow. Here’s what this looks like: a conversation is getting heated, differing opinions are rising, and people are beginning to question the very system in which they are working. “Are we doing this right?” and “Why don’t we…” are phrases that are beginning to crop up. At the sound of this, a leader stands up and provides a definitive explanation: “This is the way we do it.” Suddenly, the active exploration that was verbally (and mentally) taking place has been stopped in its tracks by a message that essentially says “I don’t want you to explore this.”
Structure: Organizations need structure. The division of work, especially for large, multi-stakeholder organizations, is necessary to get things done efficiently. Unfortunately, this division of work creates silos, prompting folks in an organization to lose personal connection with their counterparts in other departments. Without a personal connection, employees struggle to feel safe enough to share a dangerous opinion or a wacky idea, and it is difficult to find enough trust in which to root dialogue.
Formality: Respect the hierarchy. Focus on the data. Stick to business. In cultures where formality is the norm, personal beliefs and opinions take a back seat to a “play-it-safe” mentality. The fear that a dissenting opinion might stir the pot (and cost someone their job), keeps employees from speaking up, even in meetings where the goal is to get new ideas out into the open.
Making dialogue at your organization happen requires more than hope. These are deeply ingrained aspects of culture that require real, deliberate steps to change:
Develop leaders as facilitators: In cultures that rely heavily on hierarchy and default to formality, managers have highly visible and recognized authority. Without a demonstration from those managers of the very behaviors that make true dialogue possible—vulnerability, the suspension of assumptions, the willingness to be wrong—employees will not feel safe enough to exhibit the same behaviors (Google’s work with Amy Edmondson’s idea of psychological safety demonstrates this perfectly). Find a facilitator committed to helping managers engage in a dialogue of their own, so managers can experience techniques for conducting dialogues with their employees. Then, encourage your stand-out managers to experiment with dialogue in their own areas.
Find a sub-culture that can become an incubator for dialogue: Is there a manager willing to lead their department to change the way they communicate? Make that particular unit your pilot project. Consider providing a special training to this unit and allow the members of this unit or department to develop a capacity for dialogue in a more controlled environment. Allow this manager and his or her employees to learn the basics and practice dealing with the discomfort that comes with being in true dialogue, so they can become champions for the skill in the rest of the organization.
Institutionalize dialogue: In an organization that relies on structure and hierarchy for stability, making time and space for dialogue requires a deliberate change to the framework of daily organizational life. Meetings for the express purpose of having a deep conversation about a particular topic, or the application of techniques for dialogue in regularly scheduled meetings builds this skill into the fabric of the organization. At this point, dialogue is no longer something you do on rare occasions; it’s a part of life. These changes in structure not only give “permission” to members of the organization to have these kinds of conversations but also demonstrates a commitment to the skill on the part of leadership. Leadership plays a significant role in setting the tone of bureaucratic organizations. Without clear signals, managers and employees won’t engage.
Even in the most open, flat organizations, employees and managers find themselves engaging in behaviors that are not conducive to open sharing, disagreement, and group problem-solving. In organizations with more structure, formality, and positional authority, cultural defaults may crush dialogue even more readily. Pointed action is absolutely necessary to spark employees’ sense of safety for engaging in this risky, yet rewarding practice. But be warned: the capacity for dialogue will not develop overnight. As with any muscle, this takes work.