Communicating as a Leader

A Case Study of a Modern Workplace Revealing Major Deficiencies in Awareness and Communication Capacities

Bob Calkin asked:

I have found in my work that the majority of knowledge workers are not achieving high performance largely because of low level of what we call awareness and communication capacities.

I want to now share some data that we collected in relation to a work force carrying out Level 1 Knowledge work. We tested 99 people in a contact centre. The systems and processes were well established and people underwent a period of training in the systems and processes. I’ll elaborate on this shortly.

Level 1 Knowledge work in this case involves tasks where the workers interact through the telephone dealing with customer queries. In this residual space the worker is expected to achieve an outcome that reflects the organisation’s policies and leaves the customer satisfied that their query or concern has been properly dealt with.

The main capacity required for this work is the capacity for participating in crucial conversations. Crucial conversations are those where the stakes are high, where there are conflicting interests, and where emotions run hot. Most of the conversations between workers and the organisation’s clients are of this type.

Workers are expected to resolve the conflicting interests and retain the client as a customer of the organisation. When a worker is engaged in a crucial conversation they cannot be managed, they are on their own, this is their residual space where they need to be able to own their work, be able to evaluate their own performance, have an inner vision of the work, take unconditional responsibility for the outcome and be masters of the work.

Workers undergo training in the organisation’s processes and policies. They receive training in how to handle stressed clients. They receive guidance in confronting a range of different scenarios and how to resolve the issues relevant to each scenario. They also receive training in telephone techniques. As well as this during the training period the workers’ involvement with clients is monitored, and they receive coaching and advice as to how to correct any mistakes they might have made. The training is comprehensive and thorough.

The performance of all workers is monitored and key performance indicators are used to evaluate performance. Regular coaching and advice is provided by supervisors and team leaders. It could be expect that the work force would be capable of high performance in the light of comprehensive training and regular coaching and advice about achieving the key performance indicators.

Our data, on the other hand revealed the following breakdown of the performance standards of the workforce:

Achieved high performance 39.1 per cent

Achieved adequate performance 45.5 per cent

Not achieving adequate performance 15.4 per cent

These figures reveal that notwithstanding comprehensive training and regular monitoring around key performance indicators 60.9 % of this workforce were achieving only adequate or less than adequate performance standards.

Awareness and communication capacities

There are three awareness capacities and three communication capacities:

The awareness capacities;

Treating everything that arises as an opportunity to learn;

Taking unconditional responsibility for choices made;

Exercising emotional mastery;

The communication capacities;

• Having high level capacity for crucial conversations;

• Negotiating disagreements effectively;

• Making and honouring promises through commitment conversations.

Treating everything that arises as an opportunity to learn is about being prepared to listen to others in order to ensure that the best decisions are made. It’s also about telling your truth, but at the same time respecting other people who have a different view or represent a different set of interests to you. Finally it’s about how you replace a mindset of unilateral control to one of being open to learn new things.

Taking unconditional responsibility is about recognising that we have choices and in order to be a player in the drama of life we accept unconditional responsibility for our choices. In the workforce we analysed we found that only 17.17% demonstrated both a high level of responsibility and high performance.

Achieving emotional mastery is one of the most important awareness capacities. In the workforce that we reviewed only 26.26% showed a high level of emotional mastery and high performance indicating that the level of emotional mastery in relation to high performance within this workforce was not particularly high.

The communication capacities are about the mode and means of communications within the workforce. All work involves talking about what needs to be done. A great deal of the talking takes place in the residual space where the systems and processes don’t reach, and where workers cannot be managed. We also negotiate our disagreements to make decisions and then we make promises to ensure that things get done. These capacities encompass the communication capacities. In the workforce under review the main focus of work is talking and conversation. It’s clear from the performance data that in terms of these three communication capacities there is a great deal of room for improvement.

Our experience is that there is a low level of development of the communication capacities. This is one area where some of the greatest gains in productivity improvement can be obtained.

Most people seem to think that because they have a good mastery of language and can make themselves understood that they are good communicators. Our experience is that when it comes to crucial conversations there is a great deal of room for improvement. In this case the training programmes in place were not reaching the level required to bring the awareness and communication capacities up to the level needed to achieve high performance. This is one of the things we have found that traditional training programmes have little lasting impact on changing peoples’ behaviour.

We know more about the way to organise our collective activity, about business processes and systems and the psycho-dynamics of human activity than at any other time in history. We have also never had better qualified people technically than in this present age.

Managers and leaders tell us that they are working very hard, right at the extremes of their powers to improve the productivity and output of their organisations. This was certainly true of the contact centre that we are talking about here. The managers and leaders were working hard and right at the extreme end of their powers. They are overworked and overstressed and so are their people.

We (the sum total of humanity) also have an incredible amount of knowledge, and a great many highly qualified consultants ready to advise us about how we can create an organisation to meet the demands of the modern business regime. Why is it then that in spite of all this knowledge real change is hard to achieve? Why do training programmes and efforts at motivating the rank and file people have such dismal results?

As Kegan and Lahey observe in their ground breaking book “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work”, there is a maddening insufficiency of being well informed. We all seem to have an inbuilt immunity to change. Each of us can be committed to make changes but these commitments are like New Year’s resolutions, by the 10th January they are forgotten and we revert to our old ways. Despite all of the efforts to make things better, create a culture of trust and solidarity and relieve the management and leadership burdens of stress and burn out, the outcomes are disappointing.

Doesn’t this suggest that a new way of working, of leading and managing i
s needed that addresses the immunity to change that we all have?

At CMI we have developed a methodology that involves a new method of managi
ng and leading that results in real change. This reduces the stresses and strains that managers and leaders experience and helps them achieve the results that there overworked and stressful efforts fails to do. The entry point is what we call the awareness and communication capacities, and our means of identifying how these capacities can be transformed to make change and high performance possible and to take advantage of the fund of knowledge and expertise that is available. You can learn more by visiting our site


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