Today's workplace

A culture of blame or one of being conversationally wise?

Written by Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope

The last two weeks have shone a light into the corners and the wide-open space that illustrate the importance of how we talk to one another at work. After all, it’s through conversations that we share our ideas, influence, lead and take people with us, manage performance, show that we care, and get things done.

Leadership IS a conversation.

What we’ve seen through the reporting of the dismissal of Tony Danker, the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) after complaints about his conduct in the workplace, and the resignation of Dominic Raab as Justice Secretary and Deputy PM after an investigation into allegations of bullying against him, is the paradox of conversations. On the one hand conversation sounds simple – we have conversed for millennia; we learn to talk from the moment we’re born. On the other – conversations are complex, messy, and full of risk. The very words we chose have power, and that’s before we delve into the neuroscience of what drives us to show up in meetings in the way we do. One person’s experience of being candid and forthright is another person’s experience of being aggressive and undermining.

We haven’t been up close to exactly what happened in either of the events, but what is becoming apparent is that we appear to be entering a seismic shift in the workplace and right at the very heart of it is conversations.

Conversations are the lifeblood of our workplaces and our most immediate way of creating culture and creating change. How we hold our conversations can work for us or against us, lead to trust or distrust. They can help us feel safe and as though we belong or make us feel threatened or excluded.  Conversations are complex, multifaceted, contextual, and individual.

Our world is changing. Hybrid working, trauma as we emerge from the pandemic, AI and technology, five generations in the workplace. The impact of these different contextual elements on our conversations is significant. They profoundly test our ability to hold face-to-face interactions, and the speed at which we expect ourselves to achieve our to do lists, leaves little room for human connection with those we work alongside.

When we don’t talk or don’t talk honestly, we end up working in separation or silos. There is less collaboration, less connection, and productivity falls. It becomes more difficult for us to maintain our physical and mental health, manage increasing loneliness and lack of meaning, and, in an environment where inequality is still alive and kicking, add the greatest value through the work that we do.

When we started our research in 2015, we asked, ‘What makes a good leadership conversation?’ and the findings were loud and clear. We want more human connection at work. We want different types of conversation to those that are typically transactional, or task focused. We want to be part of conversations where we feel listened to and valued. Conversations that include more respect, insight, honesty, and challenge at the same time as being supportive and personal. This cannot be overstated: if we feel seen and cared for, then we are far more inviting of challenge.

Developing wisdom in our conversations by being more aware, more human, and more skilled means we can uncover more meaning and joy in our work. By supporting our colleagues to do the same for themselves, the ripples go on.

We can all learn how to talk differently with our colleagues, how to structure and run our meetings to be effective and inclusive, how to build environments with our conversations that foster brilliant thinking. Yet this sometimes requires us to let go of being ‘expert’ and instead grow our curiosity in conversations. And this is often our greatest challenge.

If recent events have shown us anything, it’s that forward-thinking leaders need to reconsider how they communicate and connect with people through their conversations. What we choose to talk about, and how we go about our conversations, carries huge potential to impact the success of our teams and our organisations. Each one of us has a choice about how and if we want to become more thoughtful and skilled in the way we talk to one another. From the deepening of self-awareness in how well we listen, to ensuring we invite quieter voices into the room. From the willingness to gently hold back from giving advice when someone is struggling, to having the courage to speak honestly despite our feelings of vulnerability and fear.

We all need to become wiser in how we use our conversations. Every day.

There’s no better time than now to start.

Our book ‘Conversational Wisdom – Strengthening human connection through the power of conversation’ is being published by Routledge on 19 June 2023.

By Sara Hope