Being a good listener, encouraging diverse voices to be heard and leading productive conversations are important aspects of good leadership. Conversations—whether in person or virtual—are key to effective decision making in organizations. Yet many conversations can be unsatisfactory and unproductive—too long, too short, too one-sided, disrupted, or where participants fail to contribute effectively.
With virtual meetings now a prime place for discussion and connection, it is more important than ever that workplace conversations truly work—advancing understanding, learning, and corporate progress.
In a recent study Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School and Tijs Besieux of the consultancy Leadership Footprint, considered the scourge of time-consuming, unproductive meetings as a symptom of a broader problem: unproductive conversations. Their research offers a valuable guide to fostering high-quality conversations—explaining how to minimize counterproductive participation (withholding and disrupting), and how to enhance productive engagement (contributing and processing).
Constructive conversations are the essential drivers of all forms of transformative change in organizations. Yet unfortunately, conversations at work are frequently unsatisfying, unproductive, or both. Considering meetings as an important context for assessing the quality of conversations and communication at work, Edmondson and Besieux refer to findings from these earlier studies:
- 71% of senior managers reported that their meetings were unproductive and inefficient, with 64% finding that meetings come at the expense of deep thinking (Perlow et al., 2017).
- Ineffective meetings negatively relate to innovation, market share and employee retention (Kauffeld & Lehmann-Willenbrock, 2012).
- Virtual conversations can be even more challenging and require explicit leadership effort to get them right (Edmondson & Daley, 2020).
- Change and communication are inherently intertwined. And change occurs in the context of human interaction, established by communication (Edmondson, 2002; Ford & Ford, 1995).
Conversations (whether formally in meetings or informally) only add value as a function of what people choose to speak up about, what they hold back, and how effectively the ideas and information available are processed by the group. Most obviously, it is difficult for a group to process information that isn’t shared.
Psychological safety—the feeling by individuals have that they can speak up without fear of rejection, retribution or recriminations—is an essential prerequisite for productive conversations. It is important for leaders not to undermine conversations by either disparaging individuals for offering ‘stupid’ ideas, or by enthusiastically endorsing ideas from their peers or superiors to the point where less senior employees dare not disagree. A climate where people are inclined to withhold their thoughts and ideas because they don’t feel they have a ‘voice’ in the conversation leads to frustration and demotivation.
A leader’s role in managing psychological safety, however, is more complex than simply ensuring everyone always feels free to speak up, as speaking up is not always productive. Not only can conversations drag on too long, but some individuals may speak up only to offer irrelevant, distracting comments, or worse still dismissive and insulting comments. What’s more silence is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than not contributing for fear of speaking up, many individuals will be actively listening and considering what others are saying. Remaining silent to actively listen is integral to the processing part of productive conversations.
To foster effective conversations, leaders need to distinguishing between the positive modes of participation—contributing and processing—as opposed to negative modes—disrupting and withholding. The researchers suggest these steps to encourage contributing and processing and reduce disrupting and withholding:
To diminish withholding:
- Acknowledge that you don’t know everything, and encourage participation from all.
- Demonstrate the value of open-ended questions and speaking up. And when an individual speaks up, ask others to offer their responses.
To diminish disrupting:
- Present the goals and timeframe of the conversation to keep the discussion focused.
- Insist on respectful interaction with no personal attacks and on preparation before participation.
- Sometimes individuals don’t realize how they are coming across, so help them be more aware.
To promote contributing:
- Carefully explain your thinking and explore the thinking of others.
- Challenge your own assumptions out loud, so that others will follow suit.
- Encourage effective participation by asking questions and applauding answers.
To encourage processing:
- Agree on how to process and when processing is most important (e.g., in client meetings or brainstorming sessions.)
- Emphasize the value of processing as a competence that impacts recruitment, performance management, rewards and learning and development in the organization.
Access the full research paper: ‘Reflections: Voice and Silence in Workplace Conversations’. Amy C. Edmondson and Tijs Besieux. Journal of Change Management, May 2021).