A Team Leader's Key Instrument: Conversations, Not Small Talk

Before you plunge into this, take a moment, and think about leaders that you have admired in your life. This could be a teacher, scout leader, sports coach or boss. Go on. Do it now.

When you think of a leader in your life that you've admired, does a specific conversation come to mind?

I think most people can remember at least one—maybe even several—conversations that they have had with a great boss. A conversation that somehow shifted something in their thinking, understanding or behavior.

Great conversations have a powerful impact.

But great conversations are also time-consuming. For exactly that reason, they're also often the most neglected part of your leadership toolkit. Most people don’t seem to find the time.

That's a shame because when you neglect your conversations, you miss out on one of the most effective leadership instruments at your disposal.

Now, conversations are not just conversations; they come in many forms. Some are constructive or destructive, important or irrelevant, or inspiring or draining.

As a first-time team leader, the first step is to become more aware of your conversations and in that process look at:

  • Quality;
  • Participants; and
  • Frequency.

What is a quality conversation?

Most conversations can be categorized as anything from weak at one end of the spectrum to strong at the other end.

A strong conversation has three key ingredients:

  • Advancement of an agenda;
  • Shared learning; and
  • Strengthened relationship.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have weak conversations. At best, they lead nowhere. At worst, they produce confusion and distrust.

A high quality conversation typically has three stages.

The initiator of the conversation sets up their agenda with an honest feeling or sincere expression of need. This signals the importance of the agenda to the other participant(s) in the conversation. At the same time, it can also be a request for help and an invitation to contribute.

Strong conversations often follow a natural path of convergence or divergence that goes something like this—

In the first phase, you establish rapport and set the scene.

You frame the situation, explain your view and if possible, illustrate what you mean.

In the second phase, you explore, primarily using questions. You are probing in an effort to uncover and surface the real assumptions behind the issue as well as to make sure that you have as many facts as possible on the table.

Once you and your team have a common understanding of what's going on, you can all move to the third phase where you examine alternative ideas and solutions. This is a phase where you can try and stretch your thinking and not fall into the trap of grabbing the first solution that surfaces.

Finally, you need to make choices and decide what actions to take. This is a critical phase because often team leaders assume that everybody is in agreement about what it is the team needs to do. Everybody sees everything the same way; therefore, there’s no need to go into details about this. Time is running so all nod, grab their stuff, and rush off to the next thing on their agenda.

But more often than not, this isn't the case. Some people hear what they would like to hear. They can all fall into the trap of going with half-baked inferences and assumptions.

In the final phase of a great conversation, the team leader and their members must agree on explicit action steps: Who does what? When?

In order to move elegantly through this diamond, it's helpful to learn certain communicative dance steps. These are called advocacy and inquiry.

Who are you talking to?

The next thing I would like you to consider is who are you actually having conversations with?

Take a moment and think about the week that has passed. Who did you talk to beyond just How are you? or Did you watch football yesterday?

What quality conversations have you had and with whom?

Maybe even more importantly, who did you not have conversations with?

Why do you think you didn't have conversations with exactly those people? Often, one's most immediate answers to that are no timethey weren’t available, or something else in that category. But often these are only excuses.

When you explore this question deeper, you often realize that there are some people you have a tendency to avoid having real conversations with. There can be many reasons for this, from simply not enjoying the company of those people to having conversations with them that always end up negatively. It might also be that you have disagreements that you don’t want to resurface.

But also be aware if there are people that you’re not having conversations with because you're assuming that it’s not necessary. They know where to find me; they are capable and will tell me if they need me. That may be true but my suggestion is to test your own assumption on this. You might be surprised.

Whatever the reason is for avoidance, it should be a big red flag waving in front of you telling you something needs sorting out.

Because having or not having conversations and with whom is part of your behavioral pattern.

How often are you having quality conversations?

The next thing to consider when you look at the people that you're responsible for is to evaluate the frequency with which you have powerful conversations with them.

Look at the list of the people on your team and think through it: How often do you actually sit down and have powerful conversations with them?

Are you happy with this frequency? What do you think would happen if you increased the frequency for all or some of them?

If you think back to my previous blog post on Action, Behavior, and Conversations, you looked at the concept of being powerful or powerless. That applies here as well. Powerless leaders have weak wishy-washy conversations; powerful leaders have strong engaging conversations.

Generally, there's a huge need for more real conversations out there, not less. Quality conversations are the glue of relationships in a team. They are highly motivating and generate trust.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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