Communicating as a Leader

Leadership and Communication: Fostering Learning in Organizations

Dr. Dan Kaufman asked:

One of my favorite sayings is, “the trouble with communication is the belief that it actually occurs”, (unknown author).  In many organizations run by top down, command and control methods, this is particularly true. Information is parsed out based on need to know and, even more importantly, the input of those involved in the day to day operations of the organization is not requested, respected, or considered important to the overall functioning and identity of the organization.  From this view of leadership it is not surprising that far too often employees interpret for themselves the limited information that they receive and act on that information according to their own needs and values. When operations don’t proceed as expected leaders blame the workers and exert pressure on them to perform as expected which leads to resistance, further breakdowns in communication and most importantly wasted time and energy.

More and more, the success of any organization is based on the ability of that organization to develop a shared meaning about what the organization is and does, to establish networks of communication in which shared meaning is developed, communicated and evolves as differences within the organization signal the need for change. This is the emerging paradigm of leadership that Dr. Scott Mills refers to.  Difference in this paradigm is welcomed. Differences of perception and understanding are, like the story of people who only have access to only one part of an elephant, describing what they experience from their limited perspective, often the result of those involved not having all the information they need and only seeing the situation through their own frame of reference. These frames of reference are also called mental models.

Mental models are the lenses though which we view and respond to the world.  Our mental models begin developing early in our lives as master programs for dealing with situations and other people.  Our interpretation of the world is based on the health of our early relationships with our parents and later through our interaction with others in our lives. The more problematic our early relationships the more our mental models are designed to ensure that any early discomfort or pain does not reoccur in our current relationships. We learn to be critical, to be passive, to not trust others etc. It’s important for us to be aware of our blind spots so that we can recognize when our history is coloring the present and inhibiting our communication and our understanding. It’s also important to realize that the mental models we develop also block our own natural flow and essence barring our way from fully expressing the essence of who we are and what our part in the emerging universe truly is.

Our lenses color what we believe about the world and about others.  For example, do we believe that others are trustworthy?, do we believe that others are morally grounded and virtuous?,  do we believe that others are good natured or have evil or hurtful intentions? Do we believe that the world is a safe place or a scary one. How we answer these questions will guide how we communicate with and treat ourselves, and others, when in a leadership role.  Much of what we call leadership is expressed through our communication with others and the lens through which we view and think about our communication can have a powerful effect on our ability to lead and to learn, and to live.  Since organizations are largely about relationships, shared meaning, commitment, and communication, being clear about our own tendencies is extremely important for our health as leaders, for the health of our coworkers, and for the organization. We can build walls between us and our employees or bridges of understanding.

There is a good deal of research to show that, in our culture, when faced with difficult and/or embarrassing situations, we respond with what Chris Argyris labeled defensive routines or Model I behavior.  Roger Schwarz and others have labeled the same behaviors the unilateral control model. The behaviors associated with these models are intended to maximize winning, to be right, and to minimize the expression of contrary information and feelings.

For the purpose of this article I will use the term unilateral control model (UCM) to describe those behaviors that limit learning and create mistrust.   This model has at its base a set of core values and assumptions that individuals operate from that generate specific behaviors and strategies and result in a particular set of consequences. The consequences are usually not those intended.  More often than not, individuals use this model without being aware of it and with the best of intentions. They are usually quite surprised when they realize that their espoused theory in action (what they say they will do) is very different from their theory in use (what they actually do) and are even more surprised and befuddled when unintended consequences result from their actions.  So, what are the values and assumptions, behaviors and strategies, and consequences associated with this mental model? 

The core values associated with the UCM include seeing conversations in terms of winning and not losing.  In other words, you are interested in making your point (wins) and minimizing points inconsistent with your point of view (losses).  Negative    feelings are discouraged as they are seen as creating problems and making things worse and you act rational believing that your understanding and presentation of an issue is absolutely logical.

The assumptions of this model flow from the core values and are consistent with the belief that you, more than anyone else, best understand the situation.  Those who disagree obviously don’t fully understand which is why they see things differently.  You are right, they are wrong!  If others have different understandings then you question their motives, seeing yours as pure and good for the organization, while theirs are seen as self-serving.  Lastly, it is clear to you that your feelings are justified and therefore you have a right to get angry when others are wrong and don’t understand the situation. In order to prove that your values and assumptions are correct you design your conversations in such a way as to accomplish your goal of controlling the conversation and winning. 

The strategies that emerge from this set of assumptions are aimed at maintaining a position, and saving face. I will advocate my position clearly from the perspective that I know what’s best. I will keep my reasoning private, for if I share the reasons for coming to the conclusions that I have, others might disagree which might lead to problems.  I will also not ask others about their point of view for the same reason, it might lead to disagreement with my own position. I’m sure that you can predict what the consequences of the UCM are.  Almost always the result is misunderstanding, defensiveness, conflict, mistrust, limited learning, reduced effectiveness, and a reduced sense of satisfaction at work.

Clearly this model is not consistent with learning, with trusting others, with valuing others creativity, with understanding the importance of sharing information in order to allow freshness and openness to change.  In today’s fast changing world the kind of stagnation that this kind of thinking epitomizes will often lead to the downfall of an organization whose boundaries, both between workers within, and without the organization, are like brick walls that keep it isolated and unable to change even when it is obviously necessary.  Dick Cavett once said that “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear”.  This typifies leaders with this perspective. 

In the emerging paradigm the flow of information leads to meaning makin
g on the part of employees and the development of a shared vision and clear identity of who they are, what they do, and what they stand for. Information
has been defined by some as the difference that makes a difference. When leaders share information and encourage workers to communicate across boundaries the result is new relationships, more information, and when necessary, a change in the identity of the organization.  The organic nature of this framework keeps an organization nourished, healthy, and responsive to the world around it.

So, what kind of communication model or mental model typifies this kind of organization? It is what Roger Schwarz calls the Mutual Learning Model (MLM).  We’ll now spend some time unpacking the core values, assumptions, strategies and consequences associated with this model.  There is ample evidence to suggest that in order for true change to occur one must be able to change the way that they think.  Problem solving from within the same framework or paradigm leads to the use of different strategies that most

often lead to similar results.

The four core values of the MLM are valid information, free and informed choice, internal commitment, and compassion.  Valid information means bringing all information to the table, whether it supports your position or not, so that it can be validated by all those involved in the decision-making.  Free and informed choice means that individuals agree to do things because, after having reviewed all available information, they believe that it makes good sense not because they’ve been sold a bill of goods by their boss or manipulated or coerced into it.  Internal commitment flows from the first two core values in that when people agree with and understand the decision being made and have had the opportunity to review all relevant information, it is likely that they will have a sufficient level of commitment to fully implement the decision.  Lastly, compassion means that when sharing perspectives we agree to suspend judgment and be empathetic to self and others.

From these core values naturally flow the beliefs that others may see things that you don’t, that differences are opportunities for learning, and that everyone, to the best of their ability, is trying to act with integrity and with the best interests of the organization.  Here, everyone has a part of the answer and, when those bridges of understanding are built between one another, they can get a glimpse of the whole picture together. 

Schwarz describes 3 key principles associated with the MLM.  Curiosity means having the desire to learn more about something and being interested in how others came to understanding of the situation without arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong.  Transparency is the result of sharing all your information including the reasoning you used to reach your conclusions.  Lastly, Joint Accountability means that everyone, including the leader, shares responsibility for the current situation including the consequences it creates. This includes individuals addressing directly with one another any issues that exist between them.

The strategies associated with the MLM are called Ground Rules.  If you look closely you’ll see that the ground rules are ways of ensuring valid information.  The ground rules include testing whether your assumptions about others are true, sharing all relevant information, using specific examples to explain your reasoning, describing the reasoning that led to your conclusions, and explaining your underlying interests in desiring a particular solution. In addition to sharing your conclusions, you ask others to add anything that you might have missed, you jointly design next steps with others and make it safe to discuss undiscussable issues.  Spend some time thinking about the consequences that arise from the MLM vs. the Unilateral Control Model.  It’s clear that in this model everyone involved learns more, makes better decisions, has a greater commitment to decisions, and the quality of relationships improves. 

This model is consistent with Dr. Mills’ description of leaders who lead within the framework of the emerging paradigm.

“Leaders who live in the new story help us understand ourselves differently by the way that they lead. They trust our humanness; they welcome the surprises we bring to them; they are curious about our differences; they delight in our inventiveness; they nurture us; they connect us. They trust that we can create wisely and that we seek the best interests of our organization and our community, that we want to bring more good into the world”

Though the ground rules are helpful tools to use they are most valuable when one is able to “see” the world through new eyes and when we, as leaders, are able to embody this new world view in our work and in our interactions with others. William James said, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices”.  The emerging model of leadership requires a paradigm shift, one that can only occur through trusting, engaging with others, seeking understanding, and believing that through working together our organizations and our world will change for the better.

Self-Observation Exercise:

For the next week, let your focus be on simply noticing how you enter into conversations with others.  Is your intention to convince them of your perspective or to learn together?  Are you directing information at them or are you creating a space for them to openly share ideas and information?                     

At the end of the day, pick three conversations that you had during the day.  You may also use this exercise with emails if you do a lot of emailing.  In a few sentences describe the interaction, your intention behind it and the outcome.  Notice if there are any patterns that emerge for you throughout the week. Be prepared to share your observations with the group.

Author:  Dr. Dan Kaufman

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