How Leaders Can Create New Contexts

Leadership occurs in communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  Verbal communication, however, does not mean just talking.  Talking is not the same as communicating and not all talking is equally effective.  If it were, all of us would have a much easier time doing the things with other people.

One aspect of leadership communication is creating a context for other people.  By context I mean a “container”, a “frame”, or a “point of view” that allows people to understand and make sense of things.  As Gail Fairhurst, a professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati points out in her book on the Art of Framing, leaders, particularly those involved in change, create frames – alternative views of the world – that help people give meaning to things that are happening or that they are doing.

Framing is evident in the story of the traveler who comes upon three stonemasons hard at work on blocks of marble and asks each in turn what he is doing.
“I am sanding down this block of marble,” said the first;
“I am preparing a foundation”, replied the second;
“I am building a cathedral”, declared the third.
The three statements create a different context and put what each mason is doing in a different light.  Although each mason is doing what appears to be the same thing, how the work occurs to them and what it means is different by virtue of the context they have created.

Leaders create contexts through the use of what we call initiative and understanding conversations.  In initiative conversations, leaders say the future they want to accomplish, why its accomplishment is important or the difference it will make, and the time frame in which they would like to accomplish it.  Of particular importance for people in this conversation is the “why” accomplishing the future is important.  Understanding conversations then allow the leader and those who may follow the opportunity to more fully explore the nature of what is being proposed, how it might be accomplished, what will be required, etc. thereby clarifying and developing a context for them.

Creating contexts through initiative and understanding conversations is a critical part of leadership and personal leadership effectiveness.

Effective Workplace Communication Requires Using the Right Conversation

How often have you heard (or made) one of the following complaints (or some variation thereof):

  1. We have a real communication problem here.
  2. They don’t tell us anything, and when they do tell us, it’s not much.
  3. They never give us enough information.

The absence or inadequacy of communication is one of the most frequently voiced complaints in the workplace.  Perhaps the only complaint more frequently voiced is some version of “there is no leadership”.  Interestingly, the complaint is always from people on the receiving end, never on the sending end.  In fact, if you talk to leaders and managers, they are likely to tell you they are “always communicating” with people.

So, when it comes to communication in the workplace we have this interesting conundrum: leaders and managers insist they are communicating, but people on the receiving end insist they are getting no or poor communication.  Is this simply an issue of misperception?  In some cases, but misperception does not account for all of it.  In fact, my research and experience indicates that misperception accounts for very little.  The bigger factor is that managers don’t distinguish among the types of conversations they are using and whether they are using the appropriate conversations.

There are numerous articles that offer recommendations on how to improve workplace communication.  One article, for example, proposes that managers change the style, method, content, timing, and frequency of their communications.  Another article recommends such things as avoid gossiping, getting overly personal, or raising controversial subjects.  Although these recommendations all contribute to more effective workplace communication, they all ignore one simple fact – not all conversations are the same.  If managers use the wrong type of conversation, or use the right one inappropriately, getting the style, content, etc. right won’t make any difference.  They will still be ineffective.

Many people erroneously believe that understanding is the source of action.  Understanding may be necessary for action (e.g., you can’t sum a column of numbers if you don’t know addition), but it is not sufficient to get people to act (e.g., knowing how to add doesn’t mean you will tabulate the column of numbers).  A result of this belief is that considerable attention is given to trying to improve the chances people will understand our communications.  The assumption being that if people clearly understand and comprehend the communication, then they will behave in the desired manner.

Check it out for yourself.  How many times have you “explained things again” when people didn’t do what was expected?  Or how often have your heard (or said) something like “What didn’t they understand?” or “How could they not understand this?”  I have found in my work with managers that when they don’t get what they expect, their explanations frequently become longer and more detailed.  They earnestly believe that people didn’t do what was expected because they didn’t understand something.  And if the longer explanation doesn’t work, managers blame the other person for being lazy, stupid, uncommitted, incompetent, etc.  Rarely do managers consider that they may be using the wrong conversation to get what they want, or that if they are using the right conversation, they are using it inappropriately. Understanding is only one of four types of conversations used by managers.

There is only one type of conversation that reliably gets people into action and that’s a performance conversation.  Performance conversations involve making requests and getting promises.  Although there are a variety of ways (styles?) one can go about making requests and getting promises, they all boil down to asking the other person to take an action or produce a result within a specified time period.  For example, “Will you schedule a brainstorming session of our lead designers for the last week of April?”

If what you want to accomplish is people taking a specific action or producing a specific result within some time period, then the appropriate conversation to use is a performance conversation.  On the other hand, if you what you want is to inform people, develop a plan for accomplishing a goal or objective, or have them understand something, then the appropriate conversation to use is an understanding conversation.  However, if you use an understanding conversation on the assumption it will lead to people taking specific actions or producing desired results, you and the people with whom you have the conversation are likely to be very disappointed.  They will not know what actions or results you want or by when, and you will not get the actions and results you expect.

And what do you think the result of this disappointment will be?  Well, among other things, they are likely to say “We weren’t told”, “The communication wasn’t clear”, or “We weren’t given the right information.”  In other words, they will blame “poor communication”.  You, on the other hand, may say something like “I don’t get it.  I told them everything they needed.  What more do they want?”  In other words, you will say there was sufficient communication.

Sounds like the very conundrum we started with, doesn’t it?

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