The command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable. Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations—that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.
We arrived at that conclusion while conducting a recent research project that focused on the state of organizational communication in the 21st century. Over more than two years we interviewed professional communicators as well as top leaders at a variety of organizations—large and small, blue chip and start-up, for-profit and nonprofit, U.S. and international. To date we have spoken with nearly 150 people at more than 100 companies. Both implicitly and explicitly, participants in our research mentioned their efforts to “have a conversation” with their people or their ambition to “advance the conversation” within their companies. Building upon the insights and examples gleaned from this research, we have developed a model of leadership that we call “organizational conversation.”
Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.
Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. But mental or emotional proximity is essential.
In developing our model, we have identified four elements of organizational conversation that reflect the essential attributes of interpersonal conversation: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. Leaders who power their organizations through conversation-based practices need not (so to speak) dot all four of these i’s. However, as we’ve discovered in our research, these elements tend to reinforce one another. In the end, they coalesce to form a single integrated process.
Intimacy: Getting Close
Personal conversation flourishes to the degree that the participants stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally. Organizational conversation, similarly, requires leaders to minimize the distances—institutional, attitudinal, and sometimes spatial—that typically separate them from their employees. Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically. Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.
This intimacy distinguishes organizational conversation from long-standard forms of corporate communication. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas. It’s less corporate in tone and more casual. And it’s less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.
Conversational intimacy can become manifest in various ways—among them gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal.
Gaining trust. Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.
Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Michael Slind is a writer, editor, and communication consultant. They are the coauthors of (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).