A Different View of Organisations
by Terrie Lupberger and Richard LeKander
Our initial thought about an organisation is that is a place where people in some sort of configuration or structure (as represented by an organisation chart), direct or collaborate with each other (depending on their place in the org chart) to carry out certain tasks, to produce a particular product or service, that results in satisfied customers and profits.
While this interpretation is valid, we'd like to offer a different interpretation that may give you, the leader or coach, more leverage for success in your role.
When you think of a company or organisation, you may see the name, the place it operates out of (such as an office or building), the branding or image associated with it, the people 'inside', or the offers of products and/or services. Interestingly, if you think about it further, you realise that all of these attributes could change - who is employed there, the location, the offers, the customers, etc. and yet the company could still exist.
A different interpretation we want to propose about organisations is that they are linguistic phenomena - that they come into existence out of specific conversations and are based on the capacity human beings have to make declarations and make mutual commitments with each other. A company is not a thing, an artefact, a name or group of people, a building or a product. The right word is not organisation but organising.
This phenomenon we typically call an organisation is actually an ongoing relationship and connection among a group of people who organise to produce something. In this sense, an organisation can be thought of as a recurring network of conversations.
Think about it, what is it that people in organisations get paid for?
When asked this question most people answer by describing some task or function that they carry out. A manager may say that he or she writes letters, attends meetings, makes decisions, consults with customers, provides intellectual knowledge or skills to customer issues, produces reports, etc.
When pressed, people discover that they actually get paid for having conversations. This is especially true at the managerial and leadership level. Managers speak, listen, communicate with others, promote some conversations and attempt to avoid others. Their work is conversations. The organisation is created through a conversational act of declaration. Managers then hire, promote, fire, assign, monitor progress, set direction, declare vision, make sales, build alliances and ultimately fulfil promises and add value to a customer - all through conversations. Leaders and managers get paid for having effective conversations that lead to the desired results.
How do conversations structure an organisation?
An organisation is declared into being through language by specifying its boundary what it is and what it isn't, who is 'in' and who is 'out', what it does and doesn't do. The boundary is created by a declaration of an individual or group of individuals who have the authority to make the declaration.
For example, if you are employed by the organisation, you have been included by a declaration of someone invested with the proper authority to do so, such as an HR Director or CEO. The organisation's mission, its values, its promises, and its standards are all declarations made by those in a position to do so.
The organisation's leaders develop synergistic conditions by creating a story about the future that states what is possible and they bring forth a shared commitment among all those in the organisation to realise that vision together. This shared future and the accompanying story allows greater effectiveness and efficiency in that the goals and objectives--the reason for their existence-- live in the collective interpretation. In fact, "an important function of leadership is to tell this story about the future in such a way that employees are enrolled to fully participate.
Within the boundaries of an organisation, we construct recurrent conversations (business processes), create and deploy supportive tools (computer systems, forms, communication systems) and design and build an infrastructure (buildings, offices, meeting places, etc.) in which we conduct our conversations. In addition to our recurrent structured processes, we carry out ad hoc conversations that coordinate our action and address our problems and opportunities when they arise. Each person that participates in the organisation does so out of mutual commitments with others. Each person's role within the organisation is determined by the requests, offers and promises he or she makes to and with others. Compensation is based on the value those offers and promises provide.
One of the advantages of this dynamic network of conversations we call an organisation is the development, over time, of a shared background of understanding. The shared background allows people to make and fulfill promises to each other without being told what to do and what the specific conditions of satisfaction are each time. By producing a shared background of understanding and weaving a permanent set of conversations that we call business processes and systems, the organisation saves time and produces efficiency and effectiveness.
Being human at work
It is people who participate in the tapestry of conversations that generate the results and outcomes. And, because people come with their personalities, dreams, emotions, habits and limitations, these too become intertwined in the conversations of the organisation. They can't leave their emotions, histories, stories or other habits at the door when they enter the workplace. Additionally, those habits are largely transparent to them. In one way this phenomenon is good in that it fosters efficiency. In another way this transparency produces problems and breakdowns and another important act of leadership then is to notice and address the blindness that comes from the conversational habits of the individuals or teams.
Related to being human at work is that everyone brings their own set of cares to the organisation. As human beings, what we do and the results we aim to achieve are informed by what we care about. The same is true for groups who organize. Looking through an ontological lens, care is an emotion that manifests in behaviors and actions. If we disconnect or are disconnected from our care in our actions, we can become fearful, apathetic, resigned or complacent.
As human beings at work, we feel more ambition, peace and connection when our actions are connected to what we care about. Conversely, when our actions are disconnected with what we care about, we sense a missing vitality and aliveness.
Passion goes missing and meaning and value are not generated by the activities themselves.
Passion, ownership, and meaningful engagement are what every organisation hopes for from its members so connecting care to action is a concern that is fundamental in leadership. Another critical act of leadership is to be explicit about what the organisation is taking care of and to help the individuals connect and align what they do every day to their own cares and to the cares of the organisation.
The Role of the Organisational Coach
Organisations are simply yet profoundly constituted by networks of conversations. And, as critical as conversations are to the success of the organisation, traditional management and leadership practices have overlooked the complexities and hidden power of conversation. Conversational competency is the least understood and most ignored dimension in business improvement programs today.
The strength of a company is always tied to the strength of its conversations; its weaknesses are tied to ineffective or missing conversations. Most, if not all problems or breakdowns within organisations result from missing conversations, mistimed conversations, conversations had in the wrong mood, conversations had poorly, conversations out of rhythm.
A key element of great leadership is being conversationally competent while also being able to observe and address it among the organisation's members. This the opportunity for the organisational coach - to help the leaders, managers, teams, and individual contributors observe (and change) any areas of blindness in their conversational competencies,
Historically, in business and especially in academia, we have viewed conversations primarily as transmissions of information. First I transmit and you hear and then you transmit and I hear. This theory of communication assumes that whatever is transmitted is re-played accurately by the receiver. This dance of transmissions has been our common understanding of conversations for a long time and we are proposing a different understanding to work from.
Speaking and listening point to two different dimensions of language.
Every time someone speaks there is someone listening? The listener is often another person but we also have the capacity to speak to ourselves. We even listen to silences and create an interpretation or story about what the silence means.
In actuality, we cannot have speaking without listening and vice versa. When this interaction of speaking and listening happens, we call it a conversation. A conversation, therefore, is a dance that takes place between speaking and listening.
We make many distinctions about conversations; in fact we can make infinite distinctions in this area. We can distinguish who initiates the conversation, the status of the conversational moves (you owe me a reply), whether the conversation is ongoing or whether it is closed, what the conversation is taking care of, etc.
In organisations we can distinguish many kinds of conversations needed to sustain organisational success and individual well being. Each conversation requires a corresponding mood and rhythm to be fully effective. The right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation. The right conversation not had timely or often enough won't be as successful.
For now, we want you to consider that your effectiveness as a leader or coach has a lot to do with how well you have conversations that get the team, individual contributors, departments, etc. to move towards the desired future.
The groundwork for observing organisations as a conversational phenomenon is now laid. We asked you to consider that your effectiveness as a leader or coach has a lot to do with how well you have conversations that get the team, individual contributors, departments, etc. to move towards the mutually agreed-upon future according to agreed-upon promises and standards.
By considering organisations as networks of conversation it allows you, as a leader, to design your conversations in a way that makes you responsible for the kind of relationships and actions you generate. Watching and listening to the day-to-day conversations of your organisation and to the conversations of those you are leading (or coaching), will enable you to distinguish the mood and the conversational competency present. You will begin to develop the competency to make suggestions or 'reveal your observations in a way that supports the participants in the conversations to think differently and take new actions.
Speech acts of requesting, offering and promising - as well as assessing and asserting - are the building blocks of conversation. We also explored how conversations are always intertwined with the emotions, body, culture and systems and these elements are necessary to pay attention to in producing good conversations that lead to the desired outcomes.
While there are many kinds of conversation to have to produce desired results, we have outlined six essential ones here. These conversations are critical for effective actions and individual well being which are both necessary to create high functioning organisations. These other conversations are: Action, Possibilities, Relationship, Possible Conversations, Learning, and Care.
The Conversation for the Coordination of Action [execution]
Conversations for action involve making requests and offers, and setting clear conditions of satisfaction so that the performer of the actions knows what actions to perform - and to what standards - so that the customer is satisfied. Here we use the terminology 'customer' to mean anyone who is being made promises to. For example, a Board of Directors is the customer of the CEO to whom they have been made promises of certain organisational results. A CEO is a customer to those within the organisation who are fulfilling promises to produce the results the CEO has promised to the Board. A manager is the customer for the work promised to him or her by his or her employees.
In this type of conversation, customer and performer engage to identity actions needed and/or actions already taken; to make an assessment as to whether the actions are sufficient to address and fulfill the promise; to capitalize on any new opportunities, etc.
Related to the conversations that assess actions is the Conversation of Red Flags. If a promise is in jeopardy of not being fulfilled on time or to the declared standards then a conversation is needed with the customer of the promise to discuss options. In this conversation the promisor lets the customer (for the promise) know that there is a breakdown/concern and they also come with what they are doing to take care of it. If they aren't clear what actions are needed, they request help.
The Conversation for Possibilities [brain storming]
This is a conversation to speculate about and explore new possibilities and ideas. This is the conversation for expanding our horizon of possibilities. It is a conversation for making assessments and building new stories about what could be possible.
This conversation demands a different mood from the ones needed for coordinating action. It requires a mood of speculation, of ambition and wonder, of openness and learning. This conversation also requires different rules for engagement. It is a conversation for thinking together and respecting the legitimacy of other people's interpretations and opinions. It is proper to question the grounding for other people's opinions and ideas but not to negatively assess the idea or argue about the truthfulness of the suggestion. Every innovation is based on the capacity we have to generate possibilities that were not articulated before. These possibilities do not live like something "out there" to be discovered; they are generated out of nothing in the conversations we have with others. By designing the mood and rules of this conversation, we set the stage for innovation and for expanding our possibilities.
The Conversation for Relationship [culture]
A simple way to explain conversations for relationship is to consider them to be the conversations in which we establish the context and understanding of how we are going to coordinate our requests, offers and promises with each other. In our rush to act, we frequently miss these so we want to stress how important it is to have conversations that predispose us to coordinate in a healthy, respectful and dignified manner.
Important building blocks for creating good working relationships are dignity, respect and the ability to produce mutual satisfaction.
Dignity and respect are essential in any meaningful relationship. The essence of respect and dignity is connected with our acknowledgement and permission for being able to decline or counter-offer the requests made to us. In addition, it is the acknowledgement that even after a promise or request has been made that there may be circumstances that require that the promise be revoked or modified. Ultimately, it requires us to adopt a worldview that legitimatizes each person's unique way of seeing the world. The freedom and permission to say no is an essential context for successful action to take place.
In addition to -granting each other permission to decline and see things differently, we also need to be explicit about how we want to be treated and what actions produce satisfaction and well being for us.
In the conversation for relationship we set the stage and context for how we plan to work together. We place trust, dignity, respect, understanding and satisfaction on the table for discussion.
The Conversation for Possible Conversation [set up]
Many people do not see the difference between a conversation for stories and personal ungrounded assessment (also known as 'whining') and a conversation for action. They don't realize the power language and conversations have to change the future. The common interpretation is that language and conversations describe an existing world, make sense out of what has happened and assign responsibility (either blame or praise) for what has transpired. People normally don't see the active nature of language and conversations that transform the existing reality and bring forth a new reality in the future.
We need to examine why some people don't engage in conversations for coordination of action. Sometimes, they don't know what action to take or what action needs to be done first. Other times, they assess that the person they need to talk to is not open to having the conversation. They may be afraid that making the request or offer will generate an even more serious breakdown. They may not have the "body" or emotional competence to make a request or offer.
In these situations, even when it is not possible to engage directly in a conversation for coordination of action, there are still options left before returning to conversations for stories and personal assessments. One of these options is the conversation for possible conversations. This is a conversation in which we discuss not the original breakdown, but the breakdown of not being able to open the conversation we assess we must have.
Like all conversations, this conversation is held best in a certain mood, in this case one that is non-threatening. It should be a mood of mutual respect, peace and invitation. Mediators and diplomats are normally highly competent in developing these kinds of conversations.
As an example, you notice that one of your clients has declared a breakdown to you but for some reason is not able to have the needed conversation with his or her boss. We could coach that person to have a conversation for possible conversations with the boss in which he or she says something like: "I have a concern I'd like to discuss with you. It occurs to me that every time I want to discuss the issue of productivity, you appear unwilling to have the conversation. This is frustrating for me since I have some ideas that I believe would be helpful. I know that this is only my interpretation of the situation and you may hold a different viewpoint. I also recognize that you may not wish to discuss this issue-at this time. However, I invite you to listen to what I have to say and I am open to listening to your point of view as well. Would you accept this invitation?"
The Conversation for Learning [failures & successes, what standards are missing?]
Obviously, conversations of learning can occur at any time. This is the conversation where the individual or team declares that they may be missing a skill or perspective or competency to successfully take the best action. Unfortunately, many people avoid this conversation for fear of being negatively assessed and organisations don't go far enough in their conversations of care and relationship to convey that learning is highly valued .and not considered the result of failing.
With the force of a compelling narrative or story that provides meaning and with the foundation of openness and relationship formed by having respect, dignity and well-being on the table, we can overcome producing a culture that fears assessments. This is what we mean by a learning organisation; a place or environment where learning is welcomed and constantly present rather than a sign of weakness or failure.
In our learning conversations we assess the results we have obtained against the promises and standards and share our interpretations -both positive and negative - for the sake of identifying what learning is needed for better results. The learning conversation is driven by questions and exploration around topics such as: Is it time to revise and modify our standards of performance? What standards are no longer sufficient? What standards need more specificity? How do our standards further our bigger purpose and orientation? What standards impose on our desire for trust, respect, dignity and wellbeing? Do our processes and systems contribute to our purpose and context of relationship? Do we speak about trust and then have systems and rules in place that come from a place of distrust? Do we still care-about our promise? Is this the game (business) we want to be in now? Is our organisational culture conducive to our desired results? etc.
As we know, learning can involve changing and improving the actions we are taking and also changing and shifting the observer we are (as individuals and as teams). Both forms of learning are equally important and involve asking for help.
The Conversation of Care
Leaders ensure that the actions of their teams and the individual contributors are in alignment with the objectives and goals of the organisation and that those actions are as efficient and effective as possible to achieve success (however that is defined). That's a very functional and common interpretation of leadership. However, some contemporary thinkers and writers on the topic of leadership would say we've become painfully obsessed with 'effectiveness' in our culture to the detriment of satisfaction, enjoyment and meaning in the workplace.
Consider that another interpretation of leadership is that leaders also create meaning for those effective actions. Good leaders help connect what-the -individuals -in the organisation are doing to what they care about. They help align those individual cares with the bigger picture of why the organisation exists and what the organisation is taking care of through its work.
Why does this matter? Because meaning provides purpose and people with purpose will take intentional action - actions taken by design and thoughtfulness - not actions that are simply the result of reacting to circumstances. They will bring more enthusiasm and creativity to their work. In 2008, the McKinsey Quarterly published a piece on Centered Leadership, How Talented Women Thrive. They concluded that meaning in their work is extremely important to women leaders and that meaning (for both men and women) is one of the motivators that lead to greater job satisfaction and higher productivity.
Consider that meaning is based on what we care about. In fact, we can't generate meaning without knowing what it is we care about. A leader connected and aligned to what they care about is a powerful organisational force. They create compelling visions and possibilities for the individuals in the organisation to align their own cares with. They paint a picture of the future that others want to be part of They build a bridge between what the individual cares about and how that ties in with the mission/vision/work of the organisation. We can actually sense it when we walk into an organisation where the members are operating from their care.
Contrast that image with an organisation where the members and leaders are not connected to what they care about. The tasks themselves become empty, tedious if not downright laborious. It's not uncommon for the members to feel like they are sacrificing for a paycheck or job security. It's hard to be creative and innovate from that place.
The conversations of care include asking questions of the organisational members such as: What are our actions taking care of? What future are we aiming for? How do our actions take care of our overall care, mission, and purpose?
In this brief paper we have started to lay the groundwork for observing organisations as a conversational phenomenon. Creating this new observer can allow you to design your conversations in a way that makes you responsible for the kind of relationships and actions you are generating. Watching and listening to the day-to-day conversations of your organisation and to the conversations of those you are leading or coaching, will enable you to distinguish the mood and the conversational competency present. You will begin to develop the competency to make suggestions or reveal your observations in a way that supports the participants in the conversations to take new actions and achieve their desired results.
In this paper we have enlarged our understanding of organisations, action and leadership to include particular kinds of conversations needed for healthy and thriving workplaces. Consider that effective action - that as at the core of all great organisations - requires a context of care, relationships, and learning. From this perspective, it then becomes imperative for leaders and managers and the coaches that work with them to become conversationally competent. This means learning to have the right conversation, at the right time, in the right mood.