The Leadership Dialogue in Detail

A leadership dialogue is an open discussion between a team and their leader. The foremost and most obvious purpose of such a discussion is to give managers feedback concerning their behavior and leadership skills, and how they influence their teams. Even if we only consider the leadership dialogue at that level, at the level of direct behavioral and skills feedback, it is an important and effective people development instrument, as it gives leaders the opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of their team and thus increased ability and motivation to change and grow. To be able to change, we must first be aware of the aspects we would like to change. This fact might sound a bit like a no-brainer, but honestly, how often has each of us tried to effect change – at a personal, group or organizational level – without really knowing where the true problem is. Such attempts are, of course, ineffective and frustrating at best. Thus, first getting a good look at a situation really is the first step towards change and development. Psychologists Judith Green and Robert Shellenberger believe that consciousness is the basis for all self-regulation. Without awareness of a situation, they posit, we remain unable to change or develop it. (Green & Shellenberger, The Dynamics of Health and Wellness). With awareness, however, we hold the tool for change and growth in our hands.

 

The advantages of holding a leadership dialogue go beyond the feedback itself

The advantages in holding a leadership dialogue, however, go far beyond this. It also improves the communication and cooperation within the team itself, and leads to improved relationships, greater cohesion, stability, enlistment and sustainability. In short, a leadership dialogue is an instrument that supports both leader and team development on multiple levels, and can (and should!) be implemented regularly to monitor, support and increase team productivity and effectiveness as well as individual development and overall satisfaction.

 

To be effective, the dialogue must have a clear structure

A leadership dialogue is held according to clearly structured rules and is moderated by a neutral external person who ideally has training in feedback situations. The purpose of the dialogue is to discuss how the team experiences the manager and how the manager experiences him/herself within the context of the team. It closes with all participants agreeing on common goals for the next roughly 12-month period. Agreeing on goals is an important aspect of the leadership dialogue, as they lend the process sustainability and offer a specific instrument for measuring change and growth.

The three to four-hour leadership dialogue is held in three phases; the introduction, where the moderator explains the agenda, the goals and the rules; the group work, where the team and the manager separately work on formulating their feedback; and the group discussion, where the manager and team come back together to compare and discuss their findings and agree on goals for themselves as a team. The first introductory phase should not take more than 30 minutes and even less with groups that have already held such dialogues or in situations where a strong feedback culture is prevalent. The more often employees have been able to give and receive feedback in the past, the more knowledgeable they are about feedback processes in general and the more confident they will be about openly discussing sensitive issues. During this phase, while the manager and the team are still together, the questions for each are presented. The group is asked to formulate the aspects they appreciate most in working together with their manager (i.e. what should stay the same), and the aspects that make their workday less than wonderful (i.e. where would they like to experience change). The manager is asked to answer the same questions, but from his/her own perspective; specifically – where do I see my strengths in working together with my team (i.e. what do I want to continue doing the same) and where do I see potential for growth. It is important that the confidentiality issue is discussed early on in the process, as this is one of the largest factors that determine the success of any dialogue.

 

Confidentiality – how much does HR really need to know?

The degree of confidentiality is one of the most important issues that must be decided by human resources before any dialogues can be scheduled. Opinions, as can be expected, diverge considerably in this question. Some human resource departments are content knowing that the dialogue has taken place with rough moderator feedback concerning group dynamics and the degree of congruency between the manager and team feedback, others want a copy of the agreed goals for their employee files (similar to the process of recording staff appraisals) and still others want a copy of the agreed goals and detailed moderator feedback concerning the content of the discussions.

Experience has shown that the lower the degree of HR disclosure, the higher the degree of openness in the discussions. In other words, the higher the degree of ensured confidentiality, the greater the success of the dialogue. The chances of participants discussing real issues – that is, going beyond the superficial purely operative level – are greatly increased if complete confidentiality is ensured. Companies that use internal moderators or demand detailed reports of the findings risk minimizing the effectiveness of the instrument. So where, you might ask, are then the consequences of the feedback if the findings are to remain only within the team? The major impact of a leadership dialogue is the aspect of self-regulation. Issues discussed in the group can never be “un-discussed” and thus cannot be forgotten, unless the team collectively choses to do so, or does so by default (e.g. lack of interest or lack of empowerment). Regularly held leadership dialogues (each 12 or 24 months) make the lack of goal achievement apparent and give the team and the manager awareness of where the real problems lie (e.g. insufficient tools/knowledge/power, lack of trust, lack of interest) and must become topics for discussion within the manager/team constellation and lead to corrective action by the manager.

 

Does a questionnaire help or hurt?

There has been much discussion whether the participants of a leadership dialogue should receive and fill out a feedback questionnaire before holding the dialogue itself. There are many voices pro and equally many contra in this question. It should be kept in mind, however, that questionnaires are structured and defined by the author and not by the individual filling them out. This means that the feedback is structured and filtered even before the dialogue can take place. This fact minimizes the ability of each individual to say what he/she really thinks, because the issues are determined by the confines of the questionnaire. Additionally, free flowing feedback better empowers individuals to expand their perhaps newly gained feedback skills to other situations. Giving and receiving feedback is always a learning process for both sides.

After the introduction, the group and the manager separate. The moderator stays with the group to facilitate brainstorming, discussion and finally the formulation of constructive feedback. The brainstorming can be done in one group or two smaller groups, depending on the number of participants. If more than one group is necessary, then additional time is needed to consolidate findings and agree on joint feedback. Generally speaking, there need be no limit to the number of “positive” points presented, but preferably the number of “growth” points should be limited to around three to five, depending on the complexity of the issues. A practiced moderator will be able to guide the team in looking more closely at their feedback, thus often getting to the “core” issues from which many other issues stem. This helps the team consolidate and cluster the issues, thus facilitating a logical and understandable presentation. This group work can take from one and a half to two hours, depending on the number of participants and complexity of issues involved.

Following the group work, the manager returns to the team for the presentation of findings. It is a matter of discussion whether the team or the manager should present their feedback first. Generally speaking, the “stronger” the personality of the manager, the more important it is that the team is allowed to present first. The danger is otherwise imminent that the team-member(s) presenting the feedback lose(s) confidence during the manager’s presentation. This loss of confidence can easily result in a weak presentation (particularly of the constructive points) and thus a minimized opportunity for growth (for both the manager and the team). Also, the less experience the team has in giving feedback and presentation in general, the greater the need for the team to be able to present first. After both the team and the manager has presented, a discussion of similarities and differences in the two viewpoints should result. This discussion has great merit in giving both sides greater insight into the perspective and situation of the other and increasing mutual understanding. The dialogue closes with the formulation of up to three goals for the next 12 months.

 

Participants benefit on many levels

Following a leadership dialogue, participants report enjoying the fact that they were able to take time for themselves – to take time out of an otherwise very full day to discuss issues that greatly impact their work, but are completely different from the work itself. They find benefit in discussing and impacting the way they work with each other. Through these discussions, they discover greater team cohesion and increased buy-in – particularly in terms of the formulated goals. Team members that help formulate a goal are substantially more likely to actively support the reaching of said goal. And because the input of each team member is actively sought out, the collaboration and cooperation within the team is fostered. It is very enriching for the participants to get to know each other better and learn more about each other’s opinions and the way they see the world.

 

Dealing with conflict

Additionally, conflicts, both the already visible and those yet hidden, can come to the surface so that both the team and the manager can work with them in a constructive manner. Conflict, as we know, is the motor of growth and development, but nevertheless it remains a topic, which is avoided in many teams. Within the context of a leadership dialogue, however, we become able to openly name and discuss these issues to then move towards resolution and growth. Conflicts become opportunities to connect in a meaningful way, and finally redefine processes and relationships, opening up to new chances.

 

The leadership dialogue leads to holistic understanding, empathy and improved relationships

The leadership dialogue gives employees the opportunity to express what is important to them and to understand the situation from both sides. Through the support of the moderator, both the team and the manager can slip into the other’s shoes and thus better understand their experience, difficulties and opportunities. This cultivates mutual understanding and empathy, and thus again cohesion, stability and effectiveness – especially in times of crisis, where the relationships within the team become the deciding factor in surviving or thriving.

The leadership dialogue is also a wonderful opportunity to increase trust and respect and deepen relationships. The manager and the team both might have mixed, rather stressful, expectations leading up to the dialogue itself (especially the first time), but both will leave having had a very positive experience when the feedback is given in an open and appreciative environment. This opens both sides up to developing their own feedback culture and the desire to exchange meaningfully in the future. It improves the relationships on all levels when potentially difficult topics like constructive feedback are dealt with in a meaningful and appreciative way.

This is one of the major roles of the moderator – ensuring and sustaining trust, respect, appreciation (and humor) throughout the dialogue for both sides. This can engender surprising empathetic feelings, which, by the way, form the basis of the strong relationships needed to create sustainable and crisis-proof teams.