As our world changes, our conversations must change

For the last five years, Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge has been researching capacities that help us break habits and create more productive ones that foster a culture of growth and innovation.

Many leaders I am working with are realizing that their old conversational habits are not helpful in this dramatic new social and organizational reality.

They are wishing that they or their team were better at some things, did more or less of some other things. For example, faster agility, greater innovation, higher engagement, lower stress. But whilst their conversations stay the same, albeit now over a virtual platform, nothing will change.

Culture refers to our moment by moment interactions – and how those interactions get stuck into habits and patterns which can serve us – or can hold us back. For the last five years, I’ve been researching two capacities that help us to break habits and create more productive ones.

Creating productive habits

Firstly, the capacity to be mindful. This is our ability to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment with an attitude of openness and compassion. When we are mindful, we can ‘AIM’: we are ***A***llowing, ***I***nquiring, and ***M***eta-aware. In other words, we are able to accept our current reality rather than fight against it or blame others, we are curious about ourselves, others and our environment, and we have the capacity for perspective – we can observe our thoughts, feelings and sensations and our teams’ dynamics as they are happening, at the moment.

Being able to AIM means we open a space in which we can respond to our circumstances rather than react in autopilot. Habits never change unless we have this space.

Secondly, the capacity to create a speak-up culture. No leader is going to singlehandedly ‘rescue’ our team or our organization. No individual can ensure we emerge strong and ready for whatever comes next. However, a leader can help to harness the collective intelligence of their team, enabling team members to voice ideas, to learn and adapt. There’s a problem though that we uncovered in our research on ‘speaking up’: most leaders are under the impression that they are already pretty good at doing this….but their teams disagree.

There are two key reasons for this blindness. Firstly, nearly every leader we’ve worked with tends to suffer from ‘superiority illusion’ – they think they are better at listening than their colleagues – which means they don’t need to learn to be better (although their colleagues would disagree). Secondly, they suffer from ‘advantage blindness’: they forget that their various labels and titles (hierarchy and often gender, race, age, background, and network) convey status and authority which means that speaking up is experienced as less risky to them. They then assume others must experience similar ease. They say their ‘door is always open’ and assume it is easy to come through. They also don’t realize how those titles and labels might intimidate others.

Fortunately, leaders can learn to be mindful, and they can learn to develop a culture of psychological safety where others can speak up to innovate and learn, ethically, and compassionately. Now is a good time to build both these capacities and set the foundations for a healthier future.

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Megan is a Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Hult Ashridge where she speaks, researches, consults, and supervises on the intersection of leadership, change, dialogue, and mindfulness. She is on the Thinkers50 radar of global business thinkers and is ranked in HR Magazine’s Most Influential Thinkers listing.

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