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January - 2009 - issue > People Manager
Making-a-Difference-with-Conversations!
C Mahalingam (Mali)
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to address a large group of Executive MBA students at IIM, Bangalore. I chose to interact with them on the subject of “Making a difference for the people.” Managers make a difference for the organizations through the people they manage. As a result, making a difference for the people leads to making a difference for the organizations we are a part of.

The discussions and interactions were held in four parts. Part one focused on ‘what does it mean to make a difference’. This covered ‘why managers need to make a difference for their people’ and even more importantly why ‘difference’ means ‘many different things’ for different people! Part two focused on understanding ‘what today’s managers are accountable for in an organization’. The third part related to ‘understanding today’s employees, their expectations and mindset and how managers can relate to them’. The final and most important part was related to various zones of ‘differences that managers can make’.

The significant learning for the participants and me during this session was the power of conversations that managers can unleash on a daily basis. The quality, frequency, and depth of conversations managers can practice with their team members can be far beyond anyone’s imagination. It has to be practiced, experienced, and realized. I will try and share some perspectives on this through this column.

Conversations at Work

Conversations at work, when handled with care, prove to be a powerful change agent. Theodore Zeldin has the following to say about conversations: “Conversation is not just about conveying information or sharing emotions, nor just a way of putting ideas into people’s heads….when minds meet, people don’t just exchange facts- they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, and engage in new trains of thought. Conversations just don’t reshuffle the cards – they create new cards!” Such is the power of conversations and so much is the difference managers can make for their people if they understand this well.

Peter Block’s work in the area of conversations is particularly useful for managers. He talks about six different conversations that build ‘accountability and commitment’. Both these are within the domain of what manages are expected to deliver. These six modes of conversation are described below:

1. The Invitation Conversation

Organizational accomplishments happen through choice and not out of mandate! And managers powerfully leverage conversations to invite people into accomplishing many things—small and big—every day. Given the context of recession in which we operate today, employees are required to participate in many initiatives that involve sacrifices and debates about right and wrong. The managers’ task is to name the debate, issue the invitation, and invest in those who choose to show up and sign up! Those who accept the call—the invitation, will bring the next batch of people into the conversation and assist in their signing up for the causes.

2. The Possibility Conversation

Organizational life (and therefore a manager’s life) is both about solving problems for today and about building the business and organization for tomorrow. The ‘possibility conversation’ a manager has with his or her people frees them to improve, innovate, and challenge the conformist tendencies. All transformations revolve around successful conversations about the future. These conversations need practice to gain expertise since they, by their very nature, put forward the freedom of choice, change, creation, and commitment.

3. The Ownership Conversation

This conversation happens between managers and their people very regularly on a daily basis without carrying this tag, that of a conversation around ownership of task, accountability, and responsibility. In large and growing organizations, it is not uncommon to see situations punctuated by confusion, finger pointing, responsibility ping-pong, and the like. Powerful ‘ownership conversations’ restore responsibility, establish ownership and accountability, and ensure that the goals are accomplished willingly. Peter Block rightly describes innocence and indifference as the enemies of ownership. Responses like, ‘it does not matter to me’, ‘whatever you want to do is fine’, and the like are very common during managerial conversations with people. And good managers do not leave the conversation at this level. They ensure the result of the conversation is an informed buy-in and co-creation of the future for the function or department or the organization.

4. The Dissent Conversation

As the name indicates, this is a conversation that allows people to say ‘No!’. The fundamental principle here is philosophical in nature. If we cannot say ‘no’, it is fair to conclude that our saying ‘yes’ has no meaning! Seasoned managers know that commitment begins with doubt, and saying ‘no’ is an honest way of expressing the doubt that is lurking in the minds of people. Conversations of this nature must be valued and viewed with all respect. Unless managers understand why people dissent, they cannot design plans and programs to remove the doubts and restore faith.

5. The Commitment Conversation

This conversation is about making promises to colleagues we work with about our contribution and commitment to the larger success of the project, team, or the organization. When managers use this conversation, it will help in ensuring that what they get is just not ‘lip service’ to collaboration or teamwork, but an authentic assurance. Again, mature managers and leaders realize that organizational success is not always determined by the many who ‘promised’ participation or collaboration, but by those, even if they are few in numbers, who are indeed committed and actually meant what they said and lived up to it!

6. The Gifts Conversation

This conversation is one where managers can make a huge difference to people they work with. It is about conversations that focus on what gifts and strengths bring people to work, and not what weaknesses and deficiencies that may be observed in people. The time we spend with our colleagues in office is so precious; it makes sense to leverage the best they bring to work and not to waste time and energy on what they cannot do. Strengths that gain momentum in organizations revolve around this philosophy. Appreciate enquiry as a field of organization development, focus on this positive side of the organization, and try to hit upon what we can do to build the organization around these positives.
Making a Difference with Conversation

Most of us want a real conversation that is meaningful, courageous, and that really pushes the frontiers for ourselves and for those who work with us and for us. Good conversations of the types described above break through the walls of silence on the one side and walls of false platitudes and superficial chatter on the other. It is often a conscious choice that managers make. And when they do it, it opens up immense possibilities for leveraging the most precious human capital we have with us. We make a huge difference for them since they contribute to making sacrifices, satisfying the customers, cutting down waste, and conserving resources with a passion and energy. But more importantly, we as managers will have made a huge difference for our people for they are now in total sync with the thing they should do and what they actually do!

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