We’ve noticed a consistent gap in workplace conversations. To convey understanding, most people use easy phrases like “I understand,” “I appreciate that,” or “I get it,” and often say these phrases repeatedly in an effort to show that they understand. Few go so far as to offer a brief re-cap by saying something like, “Forgive me, but let me check if I’m tracking…”, and then asking if their re-cap is on target. Why bother with the extra effort? Well, maybe you think you understand, but in reality you don’t fully grasp what the other is saying. Or maybe the other person can’t find the right words and could use your help finding them. By 1) re-capping what you think the other person is saying, 2) asking him or her if you’ve got it right, 3) repeating these first two steps if necessary, and 4) ultimately getting an affirmative response, you’re showing that you understand. This practice is particularly important when others have been talking for a while, and especially if they’ve been repeating themselves. While it may seem unnecessary to check your understanding when others have been repeating themselves, this is exactly when checking may be the most helpful. Why? Because repetition is often a signal that the other person doesn’t feel heard, or believes you’re missing their point. Paraphrasing and getting confirmation usually ends the repetition because now you’ve shown that you understand, and the other person sees that further repetition isn’t needed. So our recommendation is simple: If the conversation is important and your goal is to understand others and have them feel understood, show that you understand first. Don’t just say “I understand.”
PMC is proud to contribute to executive education at Olin Business School at Washington University. In addition to teaching in custom programs offered by Olin to single organizations, Paul Paese also teaches open enrollment seminars that executives from any organization can take. This year Paul is again co-teaching Leading & Growing Highly Effective Teams with Markus Baer. This two-day seminar will be held virtually later month. For a description of the open enrollment sessions offered at Olin this year, see the program finder.
The National Science Foundation has asked WashU at Brookings to provide instruction on conflict resolution to executives at NSF. WashU at Brookings is a partnership of the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) Olin School of Business. Together, these two premier institutions work to deliver on Robert S. Brookings’ desire to “teach the art of handling problems rather than simply impart accumulated knowledge” to those in and engaged with government. The goal is to support the men and women who serve our country with cutting-edge leadership courses, either at the Brookings facility in Washington, DC, onsite at the requesting agency, or virtually. The WashU at Brookings instructor retained for this purpose is Paul Paese, of PMC. Paul will teach “Strategies for Conflict Resolution” virtually this month for NSF.
Candor in the workplace, even “extreme” or “radical” candor, has become a hot topic in recent years. And for good reason. The creativity, buy-in, and efficiencies possible through candid conversation are remarkable and well-documented. There’s no question that candid dialogue, when seen as the norm and practiced routinely, is a key source of competitive advantage — companies like Netflix and Bridgewater Associates are good illustrations. Yet practicing candor company-wide is not nearly as easy as popular writings imply, especially if a company’s existing culture is less than candid. At the top of the recommended reading list for candor-challenged workplaces is The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson. Published two years ago, this book addresses the often subtle yet widespread effects of fear in the workplace, and how fear impedes candor and creativity. The basic argument is that, for a culture of candor to take hold and endure over time, an organization must first propagate psychological safety throughout its ranks. We couldn’t agree more. This book is strongly recommended for leaders at all levels.
As many of you know, ever since the “Agile Manifesto” for software development was published about 20 years ago, Agile teams have been growing exponentially in number. At the risk of oversimplifying, Agile is an iterative approach to software development in which developers work collaboratively in small teams and deliver measurable work products in short time frames; in so doing, Agile teams are able to adapt and respond quickly to always-evolving client needs. Documented successes naturally led to the spread of Agile principles from IT to other organizational divisions. Just over a year ago, however, an article in Forbes declared “The End of Agile,” due to its scope of application having far outgrown the contexts for which Agile methodology is well-suited. But not so fast! As argued powerfully by veteran software developers Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick in their brand new book, Agile Conversations, most failures of Agile are traceable not to the methodology itself, but rather to the inability and/or unwillingness of its participants to regularly engage in the challenging conversations necessitated by the Agile framework. At PMC, we’re not at all surprised by this conclusion. As our teacher Chris Argyris pointed out decades ago, promising workplace initiatives will continue to turn into “passing management fads” as long as people avoid the hard conversations that will help them truly learn from each other. For more on the why and how of difficult conversations in Agile teams, we highly recommend Squirrel and Fredrick’s outstanding new book.
You’ve got your work cut out for you. Yes, expectations are high, but we believe in you. Please know we will do all we can to help you become a role model for your successors.