Sarah coaching on how to stop the sabotage

Management culture often makes a mess of meetings. Group think means conviviality trumps people telling the truth. Managers are disconnected from the people they serve and make decisions in a vacuum. When mistakes are made, the ‘blame game’ starts rather than managers seeking to learn from what has gone wrong.

These dynamics have all played out in the Post Office scandal. Add a lack of accountability (the Post Office is an independent body that isn’t accountable to anyone), a contempt for the ‘little people’ and faulty assumptions (that the sub-postmasters were ‘takers’), no wonder it took 20 years to see justice done. Without the determination of Alan Bates (who connected with others who were in a similar position of standing falsely accused), the journalism of the BBC, Computer Weekly and Private Eye, the commitment of several MPs, the willingness of an engineer to blow the whistle at Fujitsu and, of course, a recent ITV drama, the issue might never have made it the top of the nation’s news.

What’s even more shocking, and sad, is that the Post Office tragedy is not an isolated case. A similar pattern of poor meetings, lack of listening, no accountability, and misguided assumptions has meant that managers at public or quasi-public bodies have failed to join the dots or conspired in cover-ups leading to the on-going sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham and Telford, and the tragic death of numerous babies at Shropshire and Morecambe Bay hospitals. As Camilla Cavendish writes in a recent FT article, “the machine rolls on.”

Without changing these dynamics, management culture sabotages public confidence in our public institutions. It erodes the pride that people need to have in their work. It scuppers the positive impact that is the very purpose of our health care systems and public bodies. The question is: what can we, as leaders, do about this?

Building a culture of dialogue

A core change that leaders can make is to grow a culture of dialogue. By making a few small adjustments, what needs talking about gets aired and shared.

There has been much discussion over the past decade about creating a culture of coaching in organisations. This is closely related to building a culture of dialogue. A simple definition of corporate culture is ‘the way things get done around here.’ [1] Key features of a corporate coaching culture are to create an environment where each person is able to maximise their potential, where the default style of leadership and employee engagement is coaching; and where people are supported and challenged to increase their self-awareness and autonomy in order to achieve workplace goals.[2]

Inspired by this, I define a culture of dialogue as being a place where creative conversations rather than defensive interactions happen. Instead of people avoiding tough topics or taking rigid positions, they feel safe to speak up and raise issues. Teams discuss what’s tricky. Leaders ‘hold space’ for building a shared understanding. They listen attentively, speak authentically, respect differences of opinion and suspend assumptions. These small changes have a big impact: they stop group think and start a dialogue about what matters most.

The power of stepping back

Dialogue begins with a few changes in behaviour. We offer someone our undivided attention. We take a step back and bring in our curiosity more than our convictions. We ask open questions rather than assert yet another opinion.

Only an open, unmade-up mind will be able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture.  A different conversation becomes possible when we ask ourselves: What am I missing here? How does this other person’s truth relate to the truth I am carrying? What’s the bigger context that contains these different perspectives?

There is a lightness to dialogue, even if it feels clunky to start with, that revealing ourselves and seeing the larger picture brings. As Parker Palmer, an American author, educator, and activist writes, “the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.”[3]

‘Suspend’ your inner dialogue

The quality of the conversation you have with yourself directly affects the quality of the conversation you have with another. Attending to this inner dialogue goes against the grain of the conventional corporate world. Many managers mistakenly associate self-reflection with vanity or self-absorption and stay stuck as a result.

In his book On Dialogue, David Bohm uses the metaphor of a polluted river to underline the importance of attending to how we’re thinking not just to what we’re saying. If you focus on cleaning the water, you’ll find that the river quickly gets contaminated again. Better to ‘go upstream’ and remove the toxins at source. To stop subverting a conversation, clear up your inner dialogue, rather than focusing only on how you talk outwardly[4]

A key capacity to cultivate is what David Bohm calls ‘suspending’. This involves laying out your thinking in front of you so you can examine it. Just as a chandelier is ‘suspended’ from the ceiling so that you can walk around it, see it and examine it, when you ‘suspend’ your chatter, you can see whether it undermines or strengthens a conversation. Suspending is the middle ground between repressing and acting out. It is a subtle skill and yet one of the most powerful to develop to ensure that a dialogue takes place.

There’s a great tool that helps you to ‘suspend’ and attend to your inner dialogue. Chris Argyris (a professor at Yale School of Management and Harvard Business School) originally developed the Left-Hand Column (LHC) exercise, which Peter Senge and colleagues have popularised. In the LHC you write out the unexpressed thoughts and feelings you had during a difficult conversation. In the right-hand column, you write out the words that were spoken as best you remember them (for a full set of instructions, see here.) This ‘suspending’ helps you to see the assumptions you’re making and examine whether you need to change them.

Stop the sabotage

Our inner dialogue, left unexamined, can undermine our ability to talk with another person. Our unexpressed thoughts and feelings write the real script for the conversation. If our thoughts are full of judgment or false assumptions this negativity will leak into our conversation, no matter what we say. If our thought pattern is supportive or more spacious, we are more able to listen and new possibilities can emerge as we talk. We might even stop being trapped in meetings that go nowhere or that end up creating a mess for others. 

[1] Deal, T. E. and Kennedy, A. A. (1983) Culture: A new look through old lenses. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 19(4), 498-505.

[2] Passmore, J. and Crabble, K. (2020) Developing a coaching culture in your organisation. In Passmore, J. (Ed) The Coaches’ Handbook: The Complete Practitioner Guide for Professional Coaches. Routledge.  

[3] Palmer P. (1998) The Courage To Teach. John Wiley & Sons.

[4] Bohm, D. (1996) On Dialogue. Routledge.

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