The impact of talk
In our conversations with people, our talk is fluid. It is in the ebb and flow of our dialogue that relationships are formed and culture is constructed. This article explores how leaders and leadership teams might set about creating their own cultures, not so much through ‘behaviour’ but thorough their ‘talk’.
Shelly Gable (Professor of Social Psychology at University of Southern California) depicts this nicely in her construction of four types of social interaction, from ‘active constructive’ (“Hey, that’s great. Well done on that promotion. Tell me all about it!”), through to ‘active destructive’ (“You got that promotion … YOU?”), via ‘passive constructive’ (‘Yeah I heard”), and ‘passive destructive’, (“Yeah … later maybe?”).
What’s important about Gable’s model is that it shows clearly how changing the accent of conversation can have profound and immediate effects on the relationships around us.
The importance of the right type of conversation at the right time is not lost on organisations. Where the tightly regulated nature of the situation makes it possible, organisations will script conversation. A good example of this is at call centres.
Situations and talk
But not that many situations lend themselves to this model of efficient, scripted conversation. You’re more likely to experience situations where tackling challenges and opportunities cannot be achieved without highly sophisticated verbal skills and interaction being present, such as:
- Structured conversations, where the inputs are known and where the outcomes may be approximated but are not fully anticipated. Standard team meetings with clear agendas are good example of this.
- Spontaneous conversations, where the inputs are unknown and the outcomes cannot be anticipated. Reacting to unforeseen events and scenario planning are good examples of this.
These are the verbal capabilities that literally set the tone for the culture of an organisation. Where leaders inquire, for example, they will create a culture in which the search for clear and deep understanding is valued; where they challenge, a tone is set for always pushing forward beyond given performance expectations. Many leaders are capable of combining these (and other) voices to create highly specific and nuanced cultures.
Leaders and culture
SoundWave user Andrew (GM Pharma), for example, has a pattern and preference for the SoundWave voices inquiry and challenge. The first opens up conversation (“so tell me more…”) and engages people, driving participation, widening and deepening understanding. The second, demands more (“why are we doing it like this?”), keeping people on their toes and holding the tension. All of this is done with grace. There is no sabre ratting, just the skilful construction and holding of dialogue.
This combination of voices influences others down through the organisation. Its spontaneous styles affects the way dialogue is held in structured and scripted settings, ensuring that scripted conversations retain less of their alien resonance.
Clare (Ops Director, Pharma) talks about the framework of the SoundWave model in these terms.
“It gives us a concrete process to define how we talk to each other. It has given us a better basis for having great dialogue and also a safe process to call out when the discussion could be better.
For example if someone is challenging a topic in a way that seems like ‘attack’ we would now call that out. Because everyone really understands the voices (and has practiced them before starting to use them in the business) it’s acceptable to do that.
It helped me really realise how I spoke to my team and during coaching. Learning the appropriate use of voices made me a better leader, allowed me to empower my team and helped me become a better listener.”
Teams and culture
Beyond the impact of the leader comes the collective effort from the senior team. How does it deal with commonly occurring events (high performance, low performance, late delivery, fast delivery, etc) in a way that deploys a common style of verbal interaction, setting the tone for the culture?
Adopting Shelly Gables ‘active constructive’ framework might ordinarily be thought to do the trick but there are two objections to this. Firstly, ‘active constructive’ all of the time doesn’t chime with many cultures outside of the USA and many individuals wouldn’t do this very authentically. Secondly, most organisational cultures are complex combinations of factors and a more complex solution is needed.
For example, whilst an active constructive response to a person’s promotion might sound like this:-
“That’s great. What are your new duties? When do you start? What did they say about why you got it”
A response that includes the two desired dimensions might sound like this:-
“That’s great. Why do you think you got it? What feedback did you get? How could you have impressed more? How will you prepare for the new challenge?“
A response that steered more towards appreciation might sound like this:-
“I’m sure you were the best candidate by a mile. What’s next for you? Where do you think you could end up in this organisation?”
And a response that steers more towards the entrepreneurial like this:-
“I’m not surprised you got it; you’re talented. I’m surprised you didn’t apply for it a year ago. What held you back?”
The differences are subtle but important in two ways. Firstly, the nuances have different effects on people, the one calming, the other tension inducing. Secondly, they are easily created. Team members at senior levels should have an intuitive sense of how to shape language to achieve different outcomes when pressed and helped to do so.
Culture is socially constructed and the primary way in which people become social is through their conversations with one another. The unselfconscious way in which we speak leads to the creation of culture as a random reflection of our characters and the systems and processes in which we work. Systems and processes can be changed and behaviours can be shaped, but talk, which is fluid and around which we have great creativity, can be brought quickly into our conscious realm and imaginative used to create the constructive cultures we desire.