Of stories and conversations
Conversations in an organization need to be nurtured for it to retain a chance to stay alive and throb with energy
Inclusion is not something that can be asked for, nor can it be given. It is a seamless byproduct of conversations where one person is interested in another
Quick. Answer these questions.
How many times have you walked into a discussion or a performance conversation and seen uninterested people fiddling with their phones or peering into their screens when someone was speaking?
Have you needed to pause and ponder if there could be a different way in which people in an organization could relate to each other?
How many times have you wished that your workplace was more ‘authentic’ with meaningful relationships?
If the answer is ‘yes’ or even a ‘maybe’, perhaps it is important to examine what causes an organization to tick.
While an organization’s quarterly numbers, swank infrastructure, digital presence paints one kind of picture to the world, its real health can be best deciphered by one element—The quality of conversations. The idea may sound simplistic, but conversations are indeed the nerve centre of an organization.
Think about the following instances
The decisions that the Board takes on the next acquisition; the following up for a bill payment; the response to a customer complaint; the allocation of work between functions and teams; the way the marketing spend is planned. The common thread among all these instances of decision-making is a conversation.
An organization that will thrive in the future is the one that will continually adopt and adapt to the changes around it. As the company changes, conversations become the unitary measure of its life and health. They may be digital or in person, at a water cooler or in a meeting room. To foster a climate that encourages conversations is a superlative end to have in mind especially so in a world where the bias towards action can uncharitably regard ‘conversations’ as a larcenous anathema. Having said that, where does one begin?
Conversations aren’t taught
For one, conversations aren’t taught in a classroom. Examining what could be a sustainable solution that permeates the entire workforce requires more than just a training program. Besides, this isn’t about a skill. Talking to each other is the most natural of things that we do as human beings. It is a means of connecting with one another. Conversations in an organization need to be nurtured for it to retain a chance to stay alive and throb with energy. They can be so broken all around that we may not even know it! They can sound alien, filled with jargon and divorced from a natural way of how one human being would engage with another. However, imagine if the conversations in the organization happen along the lines of how we talk to friends and family where there is an implicit degree of trust, dignity and camaraderie; where it is okay to have different points of views without being disagreeable. When these conversations are sustained, then they can help people see other points of view and create the bedrock for more meaningful relationships.
Story—A great form of conversation
One of the greatest forms of conversations that have survived mankind is a story. Stories are disarming and convey meaning much beyond their content and when shared sans jargon in a distinctly ‘every-day-conversation’ mode, they hold more firepower in their belly than perhaps what this sentence can convey. A story is a narration of an experience that helps people relate to the storyteller and the subject of the narration. When such stories are traded and heard across an eco-system for a time, a new reality is created. But just like a garden, this eco-system has to be nurtured with more stories and amplification of some.
Identifying processes within an organization where conversations anyway ‘must’ happen is a great place to start seeding the idea of stories. Goal setting, performance appraisals, development dialogues are all examples of situations where the parties concerned have a default conversation, but one which is shrouded within a ‘process’. If we dived into the core of these processes and have a real conversation, the thick layer of vacuity that fills the surface evaporates.
Each of these processes lends themselves well for leaders and managers to engage in trading stories and having a dialogue. With a few more ladles of free flowing imagination, these stories can be curated and retold. They can be interesting without being frivolous, expansive without being out of bounds and creative but not divorced from the pressing realities of an organization.
These can serve as the arteries and veins that keep the network alive by bringing different perspectives onto the table. The online platform adds another dimension, besides timelessness and scale—the dimension of generating offline conversations about online content. Over time, these stories and platforms take a life of their own and employees in an organization begin to own and share more. Greater cohesion and better results ensue. More of what is real gets shared. What is unreal generates its own conversations and the networks correct themselves.
Some years ago, a seemingly unsurmountable dilemma confronted me. Try as I might, a solution stayed beyond the precincts of my small mind. A business leader that I had regular conversations leaned forward and asked me a question. “Have you considered asking people what’s to be done instead of telling them your plan?” Clearly I hadn’t. He shared his own examples of where it worked for him when he placed his dilemma in front of the people who he was trying to help to get more satisfactory results. He quoted his boss who maintained that people’s understanding of real problems are far more aligned with reality than their manager’s belief in them. That day, his stories and his inviting space taught me that inclusion is not asked for nor can it be given. It is a seamless byproduct of conversations where one person is interested in another.
If there is one age where conversations and stories are more important than they ever were, it is the age we live in. This is an age where every voice can ensure it gets counted and it can do so with a twitch of the fingers while lazing in the bed. An age where people have the power to collaborate and rise above guns and tanks when their voices aren’t being heard enough; a place in time where being told what’s to be done invites scorn at first, apathy eventually and disengagement in between. (May I draw your attention to reports that have been screaming for a while now that three quarters of employees of major corporations in the world are disengaged? Somewhere in those reports reside rich stories of dead conversations and the swirling ghosts of sadness).
The opportunities that the connected world presents us are vast. A vibrant organizational eco-system that can play host to thriving communities that collaborate to meet dynamic challenges is possible. A tinge of imagination and dwelling in the world of dialogue and stories is all it takes. To summarize:
· Conversations bring life to the organization. To help authentic conversations flourish, creating the environment that fosters them is critical.
· Narration of experiences a.k.a stories, bring alive context and content at a shared time and space. They help people to relate to each other in an easy free flowing manner.
· Asking questions rather than giving answers and enabling people to create their own solutions. When people create solutions, they own them as well. Belonging is a natural outcome. Engagement is a non-issue.
It may sound easy. So, give it a try. An invitation to sit down talk and listen to each other.