Leadership Conversations

Leaders need to have conversations to help people handle uncertainty and differences

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There are familiar ways of doing things that have worked for so long that people operate almost on autopilot in many organisations. It’s not laziness – it’s just that human beings are built to repeat patterns that work. We often drive the same route to work every day, have weekly meetings with standard agendas and prefer to choose our favourite meal every time we visit our favourite restaurant.

The role of a manager has long been to make sure things happen according to familiar patterns, often labelled as processes or plans in a business context. However, the world is changing. Organisations are more complex, with many connected teams and functions, and as a consequence, processes can be heavy and intensely bureaucratic, slowing everything down.

In the outside world, your customer wants to be excited by your product, wowed by the service you offer, and wishes to experience your business as agile and responsive. And, in addition, wants all this at a competitive price. It is no longer enough to have standard processes which people blindly follow, and it’s also not enough to expect a manager/leader to have all the answers when the standard procedure isn’t sufficient.

Your people need to think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions, and be flexible and agile while still delivering if they are to succeed. In this situation, the shift to leadership is to help people navigate collectively – aligning on the underlying need and direction but giving people space and coaching on how to get there. It’s been what we have seen from the best examples as people adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we begin to transition towards a ‘new normal’, the need for this leadership capability is even more evident.

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The shift to leadership conversations

The central aspect of the shift is to recognise that when we are no longer entirely relying on familiar patterns, two things surface – uncertainty and differences.

Uncertainty because there are no guaranteed solutions – if there were, you would already be employing them. Differences because individuals see things differently – this can lead to hesitation or, at worst, to conflict and blame.

Many people don’t handle uncertainty and differences well. If we don’t simply avoid talking about them at all, conversations often fall into one of three categories:

• We have a problem/opportunity – just fix it: This conversation focuses on the current situation. Sometimes that is required, but people become very reactive if you always use it and just look for fires to fight. They lose the bigger picture of overall direction, and don’t explore new solutions.

• Just deliver results: This conversation ignores the current situation and potential solutions and focuses solely on outcomes or results. It’s part of the picture, but focusing on results often leads to people doing what they already know, harder and faster, or picking random new ideas and hoping they work. Neither approach works well.

• I’ve got an idea: This conversation focuses on a solution, often the one suggested or approved by the senior person involved, without worrying too much about addressing the current need or what direction it will move us in.

All three types of conversations are useful – leadership join them together to allow the group to navigate the uncertainty and difference more usefully. For example:

Get people together to discuss the situation (A) and get different views on the actual need. You haven’t discussed solutions yet, just what problem or opportunity you are trying to tackle. And differences here are easier to resolve because if you have different perspectives, you should be able to look for facts and data to help clarify what is happening.

Then discuss what outcome or result you want to aim for (B), again using different people’s views. Some people will want to move only a small way, and others will want a more significant shift. There will be other differences, but this is about surfacing those differences and getting people to align around a shared direction of travel.

With those two stakes in the ground, it’s much easier to discuss different solutions – different ways to get from (A) to (B). It’s easier because now it’s less about people’s personal preferences – any solution can get tested against how well it moves you from (A) towards (B).

The other aspect of this approach that helps with fundamental uncertainty – when you aren’t sure what will work is that practising this shifts the discussion from having one big plan, which everyone has to agree on before they get into action, into a series of experiments. You start at (A), discuss, align around a fuzzy goal (B), agree on something to move you forward, and get into action. Next, you stop and have the conversation again: where are we now, what have we learned, have we adjusted our target and next steps? And so on.

As people get more used to this way of thinking, they need less direct control, just regular check-ins for progress checks and realignment.

This process is “coaching”, but it’s not coaching as it’s often understood. Most people connect coaching with personal development, and hence conversations about careers, changing style and behaviours – about the individual in general terms over time. This process is coaching real-time on a very specific situation – it’s much more practical and applied, and it’s more about getting different people connected and aligned. Looked at this way, every conversation is a coaching conversation if the intention is to move things forward.

Summary/tips

Simple discussions, where everyone agrees already, resolve themselves very quickly. This structure is to help when situations are uncertain and people have different opinions:

1. Ask if we are clear on what question we are trying to answer or what problem/opportunity we are trying to solve (A). In more detail, it’s questions like:

• What’s working now?

• What’s not working now?

• How do we know?

• What are we happy to stop or to let go?

• What do we want to keep?

• What’s the most important thing to focus on?

2. Ask what outcome or result we are trying to achieve (B). This question sets both the direction of change and the scale of the task (a big or small difference). In more detail, it’s questions like:

• What result do we want?

• How will we know it when we have it?

• What will we see, hear, and feel?

• What will be the same/different to now?

• What will other people see, hear, feel that’s different?

• What will our evidence be that it’s working/successful?

3. Ask what options you have to get from (A) to (B) – not just the top-of-mind options, but maybe some new or different ideas, too. At this time, solutions can be explored without it just being someone’s opinion, but with a clear context of how well they would help you get from (A) to (B). They can also be run as experiments or pilots to get more evidence.

You don’t have to ask all three sets of questions every time – just the ones where you think there is the most confusion or disagreement. Over time, people get used to the pattern and can move through it more quickly.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 50,000-plus members located in more than 145 countries and territories work toward common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and upholding the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi NCR, ICF Hyderabad, ICF Mumbai, and ICF Pune.

The author Alan Arnett is a seasoned business leader and coach with 30 years of experience working across multiple sectors. Helping leaders tackle the challenges that come from needing to run the business and change the business simultaneously, is his forte. His work includes anything from handling new roles and/or new teams; to delivering strategy, change and innovation or improving personal influence, flexibility, and resilience. Whatever the situation, he focuses on helping people make tangible progress when things get messy. He holds a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential from the ICF and has an MBA from Cranfield School of Management.

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