Recently, I’ve been exploring how to better explain the relevance of my dialogue-related work, in which I draw attention to the relationship between the shape and quality of conversations and what happens next. Crucially, different ‘forms’ of conversation are more useful for some purposes than others. Therefore, it pays to understand how best to create the conditions for bringing about a particular outcome.
This usually means consciously changing the way we engage with others, and the way we handle ourselves. This can present a stumbling block: as leaders, we’re adept at ‘good enough’ conversations. Decades of experience in talking and listening may mean we have little appetite for the effort of refining our practice. Further, when our conversations don’t turn out well, it’s easy to attribute this to the shortcomings of others.
In my search for a narrative to motivate leaders and their teams to invest time, energy and money in learning how to build capacity for dialogue, individually and together, I’m road-testing a ‘software’ metaphor. This is not without irony, as I’m a technology Luddite!
I’ve previously written about parallels between human development and adding software and apps to a computer (or phone). As we add multiple programmes, ‘updates’ and files to a device, the operating system can become sluggish. Initially, minor incompatibilities and inefficiencies can be managed by ‘patches’, reinstalls, clean-up tools or defragmenting the disk (or equivalent). Eventually though, more drastic action is required: upgrading the kit or operating system.
In leadership development, we often add tools, knowledge and other ‘apps’ to our personal repertoire incrementally. Some new approaches generate small dissonances with our existing practice. The ‘conflicts’ may show up as inconsistencies between what we say and do; working harder to less effect; or being inflexible in our view. Whatever the symptoms, an overload of our internal ‘operating system’ is eventually expressed in the external world.
This internal ‘operating system’ is an individual suite of deeply-coded beliefs, habits, values, principles and experience that guides our way of being in the world. When this inner architecture becomes stretched, tarnished or unclear, we might try to recover by adding a new ‘app’ (tool/technique), or reboot by going for a run (short term) or on holiday (medium term). Eventually though, we may need a more coherent response: an overhaul of the foundations of our leadership practice.
What does this mean for teams and organisations?
In a working alliance of several people, individual energies and tendencies combine to configure a collective operating system. While this patterning may be influenced by factors such as an organisation’s purpose, customs, practices and culture, it becomes tangible in the way people talk and listen to each other. The ‘look and feel’ of human interactions reveals an underlying ‘code’ for communication: a conversation ‘operating system’ which, without attention, endures as people come and go.
In technology, an OS runs largely in the background. However, it determines whether programmes and apps work or not. Similarly, a conversation OS will favour some types of exchange and hinder others. For instance, ‘code’ that emphasises results and competition may limit the scope for talking about collaboration or innovation.
Making this connection, it’s clear why some crucial conversations stutter or get derailed. If such fruitless patterns recur, frustration becomes the norm, especially if new tools or techniques don’t deliver their promise. Upgrading the OS requires something radical: putting in the work to understand how your conversations take shape and, together, building capacity for generating new possibilities.
This is the territory of dialogue: does your conversation OS need an upgrade?