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Authentic Conversations

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In this groundbreaking new book, the Showkeirs take something people typically think of as merely functional—ordinary conversations—and show the power they have to create, sustain, and change the very nature of workplace culture. Conversations can lead to an engaged and energized workforce, or to one that is alienated and uninspired. If you want to change the culture you must change the conversations.

All too often workplace conversations—between managers and direct reports, peer-to-peer, or with external stakeholders— create parent-child relationships. People hide facts, sugarcoat reality and claim helplessness to try to control interactions and get what they want. The Showkeirs expose the destructiveness of these manipulative conversations, and demonstrate how we can move to honest and authentic interactions that create adult relationships. By intentionally and thoughtfully changing conversations, organizations will engender increased commitment, true accountability, and improved workplace performance.

Drawing on more than 25 years of experience as organizational consultants, their book offers examples of parent-child and adult-adult workplace conversations in a variety of settings, circumstances and industries. They also provide a hands-on guide, including sample scripts, for dealing with a host of potentially difficult conversations.

Authentic Conversations goes to the heart of why so many people today are disengaged, uninspired, and uncommitted to their organization’s success. It challenges the conventional wisdom about managing people and sets out specific, concrete ways to consciously make conversations the primary driver for change.

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13 Chapters

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CHAPTER 1 Revolutionary Conversations for Adults

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Imagine, for a moment, working in an organization where power was distributed so widely that everyone, from the CEO to the call-center employee, understood what was at stake for the business. How would the way you talk to each other change?

In such an organization, you and everyone you worked with would have the right and the responsibility to embrace the risk in a volatile market and choose to be accountable for the whole business. By possessing organizational power, you would be responsible for maximizing your skills and competencies to contribute to greater business success. You could do the work and manage the work. You and your coworkers would be responsible for their own motivation and morale, for having a point of view and publicizing it with goodwill, all the while focusing on everyone’s success, not just your own.

With extensive business literacy as the foundation, you could make sound decisions affecting quality, customer service, and the cycle time that affects profits without constantly dealing with layers of bureaucracy. You’d have access to resources for solving problems and be accountable for employing them wisely. With a managing strategy that values partnership, committed adults would choose to be accountable for results.

 

CHAPTER 2 Relationships That Don’t Work at Work

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Most organizations operate with a cultural dynamic that is as familiar as it is difficult and unproductive. Familiar because we have all experienced it in some way or another within the context of our families. Difficult because in today’s demanding business environment, an entrenched parent–child culture in the workplace won’t lead to the best results.

Reams have been written about parent–child cultures in the context of organizations and the workplace. For those interested in learning more, we encourage an exploration of the writings of Eric Berne and Thomas Anthony Harris. For our purpose here, the idea isn’t so much that management represents parents and employees are the children. Rather, we are talking about the conversational roles used routinely in the workplace that establish and reinforce parent–child cultures. If organizations don’t find a way to shift to an adult–adult culture, they will be ill equipped to survive in the highly technical, global, diverse, and changing-at-the-speed-of-light marketplace.

 

CHAPTER 3 The Myth of Holding Others Accountable

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Let’s get this on the table right away. The notion that you can hold other people accountable is a myth, a dangerous illusion that denies a fundamental reality of human existence. People always have a choice about their beliefs and actions. You choose to be accountable—it can’t be forced upon you. When you continue to have conversations about holding others accountable, you are only perpetuating the myth and the parent–child dynamic.

Several years ago, we were working with senior management in a large clothing manufacturing company. This company was making business changes under a very difficult set of marketplace circumstances. They were doing what management teams often do in these situations: cutting expenses, reducing payroll, rearranging structures, reengineering processes, and searching for techniques to manage the diverse constituencies that would be affected.

Preliminary meetings where several of the changes were introduced had not gone particularly well. The news was bad and people were upset. Senior managers had done the best they could to cajole, reassure, and promise employees that they should get on board with the changes for the good of the company. Soon after, a senior executive received an anonymous memo:

 

CHAPTER 4 You Can’t Make All the Fourth Graders Happy

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When Jamie’s son, Zak, was ten years old, the two of them took a soccer road trip along with Zak’s friend Luke. They were chatting over a fast-food lunch when Luke suddenly made an important announcement. “Hey, did I tell you,” he said excitedly, “that I was elected as the fourth-grade class executive?”

Zak was impressed. “Man, you’re lucky. We don’t even have class executives.”

Jamie was curious. “So tell me, Luke, what exactly does the fourth-grade class executive do? Do you run the fourth grade?”

Luke shook his head. “I don’t really run the fourth grade. My job is to go to dances and other school events and make sure all the fourth graders are happy.”

Jamie could do nothing but laugh at Luke’s job description of an executive. At age ten, Luke saw his job as being as responsible for the happiness of the entire fourth grade. We do start ’em young.

This is a humorous illustration of the difficulty created by workplace conversations that center on caretaking. It shows how ludicrous the idea of one person being responsible for another’s emotional welfare really is.

 

CHAPTER 5 Hostages to Disappointment

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We were on a courtesy bus provided by a large hotel chain, heading to the airport. Without provocation, the bus driver began haranguing his captive audience about how terrible it was to work for the hotel. The management was unjust, he said, the employees were exploited, the practices and policies were stupid and unfair. On the fifteen-minute ride to the airport, everyone was held hostage as his critical rant persisted. Upon arrival at the airport, we were all experts about the failures of this hotel in its treatment of employees and customers. Relieved to get off, we boarded our flight hoping the same kind of monologue wasn’t on the pilot’s agenda.

After that incident, we asked ourselves, “How is it that a large organization like that hotel chain has employees who will represent it to customers in such negative and deprecating terms? How does a business survive this?”

Employee cynicism is not restricted to the hotel business. Listen to the conversations you have at work. Listen to the conversations employees have among themselves at any place of business. When you’re at the grocery store, the mall, restaurants, the airport, or the bank, pay attention to how people are conversing about their jobs. We’ve even heard call-center service representatives trashing their employers as their customers listen helplessly on the other end of the line. Disappointed employees spewing their cynicism about the workplace—within earshot of their customers! When that kind of cynicism is so pervasive, what does it say about organizational culture and the conversations that sustain it?

 

CHAPTER 6 Change the Conversation, Change the Culture

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What will workplace conversations sound like if people are no longer talking to each other in the ways they used to? When compliance is no longer the organizing principle, how does that change the way they engage each other?

Until now, we have been focusing on conversations that support traditional relationships and parent–child cultures. We have made a case for the business and relationship problems these cause and how they profoundly inhibit change, marketplace response, and business results. We have dealt briefly with the possibility of new conversations and what they might include. The purpose of this chapter is to delve beyond these initial looks. We construct the fundamental nature of the changes required for sustaining adult relationships and creating a new culture. We also present a general framework for new conversations.

Confronting the initial change in workplace conversations and sustaining that change for the long term are extremely challenging and can feel daunting. Underneath the conversations themselves are significant emotional issues that each of us must deal with. You have to be willing to articulate your doubt about yourself, even if you fear the vulnerability this creates. You have to summon the courage to raise difficult issues in a culture where that is seen as being a “whiner,” someone who is uncooperative or even a troublemaker. It requires reframing your thinking to consider your contribution to the good of the whole, when you have been accustomed to plotting how to get ahead and make your own department look good. You have to confront within yourself what it means to be committed, to be accountable, and to take responsibility for your contribution to a problem or difficult situation. You have to be willing to let go of old disappointments and forgive others—and yourself. You must no longer view your job as a way to make a living, but as an opportunity to create your own future, engage others with a shared purpose, and infuse your life with meaning.

 

CHAPTER 7 Moving from Manipulation to Engagement

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One staple of our workshops is a list of conversation techniques that are often used for manipulation and effect. We created this list off the top of our heads, and it was dishearteningly easy to make. We simply named techniques we commonly used or experienced others using.

Language used for effect means choosing words and a message aimed at creating an effect in another. It is the language we choose when we’re trying to elicit a specific reaction. It’s the language people choose when they want to make others feel guilty, to shame them, calm them down, flatter them, or even to motivate them. It might sound like “You’re not going to eat this after all the trouble I went to prepare it?” or “Maybe you’d get more accomplished if you weren’t spending so much time gossiping in the break room,” or “Why are you getting so angry? You’re blowing things all out of proportion.”

Language for manipulation is a method for getting what you want without being direct about it or without giving the person you are talking to the benefit of a bigger picture. If you’re direct about trying to win another person over to your side, for instance, that is not manipulation. But if you intend to get someone to do something or to see things in a certain way without disclosing your intention, that is manipulation.

 

CHAPTER 8 Stop Courting the Cynic

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Before you can change the conversation, you need to know who is doing the talking. That observation sounds so obvious that it may not seem worthy of examination, but it’s critically important.

The truth is that you wake up every day and choose which part of yourself to send out into the world. To change the conversation, you have to be aware of who is showing up. You can send out the part that is longing to do good work in the world. This part wants to contribute to the greater good, make a difference, and leave a legacy. It’s a part that infuses your work with commitment and passion as you go about giving something of value to others. This part aspires to be noble, to be of service, and to create worth.

But you may also find yourself paying attention to the part that is always on alert for the next inevitable letdown, because experience tells you that the world is a disappointing place. You see yourself trying to survive and prosper in a place that seems unjust and uncaring, where you are inevitably hurt and disappointed. This part longs for security, for someone to reassure you that everything will be taken care of. You want protection and safety, not constant reminders that things might not work out and that most things are out of your control.

 

CHAPTER 9 Cutting the Ties That Bind

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CHAPTER 10 Declaration of Interdependence

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In more than twenty years of doing our consulting work, we continue to hunt for the organization that says, “Our biggest problem is that people are too darn accountable for the success of this business.”

Chapter 3 explored the myth of thinking we can hold other people accountable. Being accountable, motivated, and committed is a choice people make, not a mandate with which they comply. We see compliance in others and choose to believe it is accountability. We give compliance to others because we are afraid of our own freedom.

It has been said that the hardest rules to follow are the ones you create for yourself. Choosing accountability for the success of the whole means creating a mindset that says, “I am choosing to be accountable for this business even though there are no guarantees. The future is always uncertain, and I am still going to be accountable.”

Organizations have spent many years narrowing the focus of people’s accountability at work, sometimes right down to the task level. In the mass production model, individuals repeat the same task hundreds of times per day. In education, teachers teach the same lesson plan year after year. Deviating from the curriculum can have career-limiting repercussions. The common thinking is “I am responsible for my job (as it has been defined for me). If you don’t do yours, that’s not my problem.” Even if people recognize that it is a problem, they generally don’t see it as their problem to manage. Coupled with the myth of being able to hold others accountable, this narrow focus on jobs, tasks, or roles is a huge contributor to the accountability problem in most organizations.

 

CHAPTER 11 Open Season—Remove the Camouflage!

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Steven, a vice president of human resources at a large hospital, came rushing through the outer office where his secretary sat. He shook Jamie’s hand quickly and continued briskly into his office for their long-scheduled meeting. As they began to talk about some of the difficult issues the hospital was experiencing, Steven shuffled through stacks of paper and files on his desk and credenza. A few moments later, his phone rang. Steven answered, had a brief conversation, and then hung up. Jamie reengaged the conversation regarding the hospital. As he continued talking, he watched Steven open his desk drawer, extract shoe polish and a rag, remove his tasseled loafers, and begin polishing!

When we tell this story at workshops, most participants are appalled. They comment on the rudeness of Steven’s actions. That is one way of looking at it, to be sure, but Jamie uses this story to illustrate two things that can get in the way of authentic conversations: not paying attention to what is going on in the moment, and taking things personally.

 

A Practical Guide to Authentic Conversations

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Throughout this book we have focused on the intentions, commitments, and skills necessary to change ordinary workplace (or anyplace) conversations from traditional parent–child conversations to authentic conversations among committed, accountable adults. We have focused on accountability, caretaking, betrayal, cynicism, helplessness, and other conditions that create a need for conversations when people face change or other challenges. We have explored the importance of dealing with your own indirect expressions of vulnerability and confronting that resistance in others.

In the following pages, we offer practical guides for authentic conversations that occur thousands of times a day in every workplace. We created these outlines using the commitments and skills contained in this book as a way to help you hear how authentic conversations might sound.

Like life, conversations do not follow a script. They are fluid. They change from moment to moment, situation to situation. Even so, when trying to engage more authentic conversations in an environment where they are not customary, guidelines and outlines can be useful. They can help you clarify your intentions and remind you of the essential skills you must keep at the fore-front so that the conversations serve your intention or purpose.

 

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