The 10 Powerful Conversations Leaders Must Have

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The 10 Powerful Conversations Leaders Must Have

Dr Tim Baker,, is the author of seven books, including his latest: Performance Management for Agile Organizations, and provides his thoughts on leadership skills.

The enterprise of humankind is what’s missing in work settings across the globe. People have become robots at work and from what we’re told, robots will soon replace people. How ironic!

An organization—any organization—is a bunch of people working together towards a common goal. As L & D professionals, we tend to lose sight of this simple idea. We become obsessed with processes, procedures, methods, and systems. For the past 100 years, we’ve progressively dehumanized our places of work—although many argue that the workplace was never humanized! We’ve learned to systemize, homogenize, and mechanize human work—all in the quest for greater efficiency and cost-saving. We’ve forgotten that the human being is the center of work.

We performance manage people at work. They receive a job specification and job description, submit to a performance appraisal once or twice a year—all in the name of performance management. In between performance management rituals, the employee is expected to follow instructions, not upset the apple cart, and stick to the straight and narrow. Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, people are viewed as a resource—a small cog in the large wheel of production.

We label people at work as human capital, or worse: human resources. These labels dehumanize people and turn them into an abstract piece of the machinery of production. Human resources are lumped in with technological resources, administrative resources, and financial resources. Human beings are expected to leave their humanness at the door of the business and become a business resource to be manipulated to achieve certain business outcomes.

The business world is a cold, clinical, rational domain, devoid of humanness. Human resources—which has become an industry in its own right—has complicated things in its attempt to legitimize its existence. We’ve downsized, upsized, and right-sized the workforce. We’ve up-skilling, down-skilled, and multi-skilling our human resources. We’ve got function-based work, project-based work, key performance indicators, and key result areas. And it goes on. Where does the human-being fit within the debased professional jargon of HR?

We sense this dehumanization process. We make fun of it. It leads to Dilbert-like jokes and parodies such as The Office on TV. We’ve lost sight of the fundamentals of humanness. Organizations strive to be constantly high performing, maneuverable, and agile. But to achieve this, we need to get the best from the people that work for us. Enterprises need—more than ever—a competitive or adaptive advantage in a hyper-aggressive and warp speed marketplace. The cliché we keep hearing and using nauseatingly is that people are our competitive advantage. Paradoxically, we make our places of work less human, not more human.

We need to bring the human being back to work. How can we put people front and center of organizational life? How can we get employees to act as the people they are away from the workplace—at home? What do leaders need to do to make this happen? Why isn’t it happening now? What are the roadblocks?

The answer isn’t necessarily about being kind, gentle, and caring. Although I’m sure you’d agree—more of that wouldn’t go astray! I want people to give more of themselves at work. The aim is to get the best from people—to ignite their human spirit in the organizational work they do. The enterprise of humankind is what’s missing in work settings across the globe. People have become robots at work and from what we’re told, robots will soon replace people. How ironic!

The conversation holds the key. I’m convinced they are our salvation. Conversations are the powerful and underestimated tool to humanize work. Would you agree: We aren’t having authentic conversations at work. And I’m not necessarily referring to the ‘tough’ conversations—I’m referring to ANY developmental or performance conversations. Far easier to press a button and send a text or email. We rationalize that it’s faster, and simpler—easier. It saves time. And ‘time is money,’ as we’re regularly retold.

Here are 10 powerful conversations leaders must have:

  1. Climate review conversation

This conversation is about job satisfaction, morale, and communication. It provides a leader with a reasonable understanding of the fundamentals of how team members are tracking in their day-to-day work.

  1. Strengths and talents conversation

Instead of zeroing in on weaknesses, leaders ought to start with discussing the innate talents of team members and how they can be better utilized in their current and future roles.

  1. Opportunities for growth conversation

There is always a need to discuss performance management in the context of opportunities for growth rather than weaknesses.

  1. Learning and development conversation

Leaders need to talk to their team members about their learning and development needs. This isn’t just about sending people off to training courses—it is also about coaching and mentoring.

  1. Innovation and continuous improvement conversation

If leaders don’t have genuine and regular conversations with team members about how to make the workplace more efficient and effective, then new ideas will never surface. These conversations emphasize the value and importance of innovation and continuous improvement.

  1. Coaching conversation

Leaders should see themselves as coaches, and coaching needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue. There are numerous coaching opportunities throughout the work week that can lend themselves to a conversation.

  1. Delegation conversation

Like coaching, the delegation should be a conversation rather than a set of instructions to a team member. Surveys show time and again that leaders aren’t delegating enough or doing it as well as they should.

  1. Mentoring conversation

The best leaders understand the value of mentoring. Many of them had—or currently have—a good mentor. These conversations can be powerful opportunities for change.

  1. Visioning conversation

Leaders don’t spend enough time explaining what Dave and Wendy Ulrich refer to as the “why of work.” Conversing with team members about the overarching purpose of tasks and processes provides a context for performance.

  1. Encouraging conversation

Leaders—typically being self-starters—often don’t appreciate the value of encouraging others. Leaders need to be spending time encouraging others in some of the challenging work assignments they undertake.

Make it your resolution to have more of these conversations as a leader. You will be pleasantly surprised at the results it reaps.