Robust Dialogues

Date:   Tuesday , July 01, 2008

As a manager, have you ever wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” with respect to
the following:
* Decisions taken in the team meetings are implemented poorly, if at all.
* You discover that no one owns any actions and it is all ‘back to square one’ all over again.
* The general approach to problem is ‘finger-pointing’ and not ‘problem-solving’.
* Nothing ever gets done without repeated follow up by you.

* General sign of consensus is displayed only in the meetings, and more cynicism and less ownership takes over once people are out of the meeting.

Well you are not alone. Many managers have a serious handicap when it comes to carrying the team along and getting them to deliver the organizational needs. However, your effectiveness as a manager is tremendously at risk. Over time, fire fighting becomes a way of life. Your own ability to make and keep commitments suffers, as you are not confident of the team delivering on their commitments to you.

Dialogue as the Unit of Decision Making
Decisions in organizations are made through dialogues according to Ram Charan, former professor at Harvard, whose work in this area of Robust Dialogue is seminal and illuminating. And this holds true whether it is a decision being made by the Board of Directors or by a small team of engineers executing a client project. What ails most of the team decisions is conspicuous absence of ’robust dialogues’. And consequently the quality of the decisions is poor, commitment of the team members to the decisions is either very weak or absent, and as a result, the implementation suffers big time.

Characteristics of Robust Dialogue
According to Charan, robust dialogues are known by the following characteristics:
* Openness: Team members are invited to participate with an open mind and the team leaders encourage the flow of discussions with an open mind as well. The outcome of the meetings is not pre-determined. Alternative perspectives are actively discussed and debated.
* Candidness: Employees speak their minds and do not indulge in ‘face-reading’ of the boss! Conflicts are viewed as productive and are channelized towards arriving at a better decision. Consensus is reached post candid expression of views.
* Informality: Discussions happen in an atmosphere of informality. Most meetings are far too formal to encourage spontaneity and openness. Leaders who convene the meeting encourage sufficient informality in the meeting, which will encourage candidness and openness on the part of the employees.
* Closure: Robust dialogues never end without a proper closure. People leaving the meeting know exactly what they are expected to do and by when. Dates and gates are determined and understanding of the accountability of each employee is done before they leave the meeting.

What Happens When Robust Dialogue is Absent?
When managers do not promote robust dialogue, those participating in the discussions see through the ‘hidden agenda’ of the manager, withdraw from active participation in discussions or hold back valuable insights and suggestions and finally do not feel committed to the decisions. Half-hearted consensus leads to unwilling implementation and when things fall apart to the dismay and chagrin of the managers, there are these corridor whispers, ‘I knew it was not going to work’, ‘manager did not pay attention to what we wanted to say’, ‘I was not committed to it anyway’, and the like. Charan says that ‘pocket votes’ and ‘silent lies’ result from such meetings where robust dialogue is not practiced.

Watching out for Dialogue Killers
Charan provides the following list of dialogue killers (that most managers will easily recognize) which drain the energy of those participating in the meetings.
* Dangling Dialogues: Confusion reigns throughout the meetings. No decision gets taken and everyone carries with him his own interpretations of the proceedings. No next step is agreed upon and so no one could be held accountable for any action. The solution is to ensure a proper closure and clearly determining who will do what and by when.
* Information Clogs: This happens as a result of not practicing openness. Failure to get all the facts on the table hurts the quality of decision and commitment. Employees start to share their concern and other key inputs slowly in bits and pieces post the decision having been made, but that will be too late in the process. The solution lies in ensuring that the right people are in full attendance in the meetings and are encouraged to share relevant facts and details even if it is uncomfortable to the manager.
* Piecemeal Perspectives: When a robust dialogue is not consciously encouraged people stick to their personal view points and narrow dialogues, resulting in lack of acknowledgement for others’ views. The solution is in drawing out everyone present in the meeting and ensuring their points of view are being heard.
* Free for All: When discussions are not directed carefully, negative behaviors tend to characterize the discussions. Charan warns that in a free for all situation, ‘extortionists’ hold the whole group for ransom, ’side trackers’ go off the tangents, and the ’silent liers’ do not express their true opinions.

Charan’s article ‘Conquering the Culture of Indecision’ (HBR, April 2001) provides brilliant insight into a lot more details about the robust dialogue that managers must encourage and practice in order to deliver high quality decisions that will engage the employees fully and keep them committed to the goals.

Managers Show the Way
In the final analysis, the situations many managers confront should not be surprising. Instead, a bit of a reflection and soul-searching on how they handle meetings and ensure openness, candidness, informality, and closure in all the meetings will protect them from the pocket votes and silent lies. ‘What you sow is what you reap’ is ancient wisdom and this applies to getting the best out of meetings. More importantly, as smart managers understand implicitly, it is the quality of the meetings and the decision making process therein that also determines the commitment of people towards implementing the very same decisions. Managers need not be surprised, instead, they must act and practice robust dialogue.