Speak My Language – get your leadership message across

Speak My LanguageMy recent article for Quiver Management Everybody’s talking – breaking the pattern of ineffective conversations explored how leaders can use David Kantor’s Structural Dynamics model to have more effective conversations. David, a renowned systems therapist, has focused his career on helping people manage their conversations. His research has led to development of this model as a way to understand and describe any human interaction.


The Structural Dynamics model is based on empirical research and demonstrates that every speech act can be categorised as having one of four types of action (Move, Oppose, Follow, or Bystand); one of three types of content or language (Power, Meaning, or Affect); and one of three types of rules (Open, Closed, or Random).


Making sense of the language we speak – Structural Dynamics

In this article I explore the content or language dimension of the model (Power, Meaning, or Affect) described as the Communication Domain, and consider how leaders can use it to to adapt their leadership conversations to get powerful results.


If you really want me to understand you then as The Cure songs says “Speak My Language”. Yet we often expect others to understand when we are speaking to them in our language rather than theirs. In this context I’m not referring to language in the linguistic sense but rather language in the sense of the Communication Domain, which describes the focus of our attention and the sort of topics, issues and content toward which we gravitate.


Let’s start by considering the type of language that would fall into each of the three categories of the Communication Domain. Those with a propensity for the language of Affect take note of others’ wellbeing and how they are reacting to what is being said. They emphasise trust and motivation and look to provide a climate of warmth and caring thus building connection and intimacy e.g. “This decision seems pretty heartless. I wonder how people will feel about it.” Others may have a propensity for the language of Power and will talk about accountability, competence and completion, and enjoy crossing items off their list and moving projects to closure e.g. “Who’s going to make sure that there’s follow-through here?” Finally, those with a propensity for the language of Meaning are focused on thinking, logic, and developing a sense of purpose and seeking a deep understanding how things work e.g. “We must understand how the results will reflect our standards for accuracy.”


The language that you use most frequently is reflective of your Communication propensity and has been shaped by your interest in the topics described above. Sometimes we do not recognise or value ways of speaking other than our own, and this increases the likelihood that we are going to speak at cross-purposes; leading to one of the most common reasons for a breakdown in communication. For example, when one person talks in Power while the other one speaks in Affect, they can misunderstand and become suspicious of each other’s message or intentions.


How leaders can use this model for powerful conversations

Let’s explore the value of this model by looking at a real example. Bill, a senior executive, was asked at a town hall session to describe the qualities of a strategic supplier relationship. His response was “transparency, trust, and a sense of kinship” and it was apparent that his response resonated with the person asking the question. Did it do so with everyone in the room? Based on the language he used it’s likely that Bill’s communication propensity is Affect. So how could Bill have helped those with a preference for Meaning or Power to better understand, the answer of course is to speak their language. For example he could have described the features of a strategic suppler relationship as:


• a sense of purpose founded on mutual clarity and understanding of what success looks like, (Meaning)

• leading to clear accountabilities and a relentless focus on delivering the right things at the right time, (Power)

• enabled by strong relationships based on transparency, trust, and a sense of kinship. (Affect).


We are all familiar with the warm reaction we get when we go to another country and we speak their language. We get a similar reaction when we speak to someone using the language of their Communication propensity.   You’ve probably witnessed the person who goes to another country and expects his language to be understood, and then reacts by speaking louder when that doesn’t happen, which of course seems ridiculous to the observer. Yet we can fall into that trap when speaking to someone with a different Communication propensity. I’m currently working on recognising when I’m starting to turn up the volume on my Affect language when all the other person wants is that I speak in the language of Meaning or Power.


A wider repertoire across the three Communication propensities, and the skill to recognise the right language to use in any conversation is invaluable for 21st century leadership. Jack Welch has recently said that leadership today is about truth and trust; achieving that requires leaders to “speak my language”. In your next conversation notice the language you are speaking and hearing, and adapt accordingly.


Do you have any experiences of using communication theories to create more powerful conversations? Please share your thoughts and experiences.



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Leadership Conversations…Destined for Success?

Business concept: Head With Padlock on digital backgroundA recent infographic linking Emotional Intelligence (EI) to leadership success prompted me to reflect on what’s getting in way of leaders becoming more emotionally intelligent. My perspective is that much of the information provided around developing your EI is focused on answering the “why?” and the “what?” questions rather than helping with the “how?”. Yet in my coaching work, I encounter leaders who recognise the need to develop their EI, but struggle with how they can manage themselves to be more personally and interpersonally effective.


Over the last couple of years I’ve been looking at how the development of EI might be supported by other tools and techniques e.g. mindfulness, leadership presence, and dialogue. All of which can help answer the “how?” with regard to developing your EI. They also ultimately led me to the work of David Kantor. David has spent decades studying communication, and based on his research he has developed a model, Structural Dynamics that sets out why face to face communication succeeds or fails. From a leadership perspective, he takes the view that great leaders are skilled in shaping leadership conversations destined for success.


Structural Dynamics is based on four speech acts that can happen in any conversation. You can make a Move, “We need to shorten the time spent in these meetings.” You can Follow someone else’s Move, “Yes, I’ve been concerned about the same thing.” You can Oppose “I don’t accept that, we need time to cover every topic on the agenda.” Or, you can step back from the situation and Bystand, reflecting on what you notice, without agreeing or disagreeing: “John wants shorter meetings, Helen wants to keep them the same length. What other views do we have?”.


The ability to read the room to understand what’s going on in terms of the structure and dynamics of the conversation, and to then choose the right speech act is the key to enabling the team to achieve a successful outcome. This skill can be developed and Structural Dynamics provides a practical framework to enable leaders to develop their skills in noticing the patterns of speech and in taking action to create a successful conversation. At last we have a framework that enables leaders to understand what is going on in the room, and to make a choice as to how they will create a conversation where everyone can speak with their true voice.


Structural Dynamics can also help the team develop their individual and collective EI, and provide the foundations for building a high performing team. A team where members can and will choose to: support good ideas, oppose things that won’t work, gain and explore other perspectives, and truly listen to what others are saying.


As a leader, how much would you want that for your team, for you, for your organisation?



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Rise of the Zombie Organisation?

Zombie handsI’m not usually a fan of seasonal posts, so apologies to anyone else who shares my prejudice as I talk about zombie organisations in the run up to Halloween. I’ve had a few bad customer experiences recently and now I can’t help but wonder if there is an underlying trend…the rise of the zombie organisation?


What prompted me to reflect more on my experiences was that all shared a number of common characteristics, despite the organisations being very different in terms of industry and reputation, and indeed how the issue was resolved.


Let’s start by looking at the three experiences:

1. I had a problem with my Broadband provided by a major telecom company and every time I called the support line we went through the same conversations It would start with an eternity waiting in a queue and then having to go through the same conversation as  the agent attempted to work through a script that by call six I knew much better than him. At the end of the calls which were usually at least an hour in length, I inevitably came away with no resolution of my issue and feeling although someone had been sucking the life force from me.


2. In this case I posted a review on the site of a major retailer as they had sent me some shoes that were not as described on the  website (i.e brown and cream rather than black and white). I then received an email informing me that my review had been rejected as it did not comply with their guidelines and that I should read the guidelines and resubmit. There was no indication of what was unacceptable about my review or how it was not compliant.


3. My business is a customer of a major UK bank and I set up a payment that had to be processed before the end of the tax year. The bank’s fraud detection system identified it as a potential risk: an agent called me, didn’t get an answer, left no message, and promptly cancelled the payment and sent me a letter to inform me. The letter of course arrived after the tax year end date.


I’ve been reflecting on those experiences which all showed little awareness of the impact on the customer; and that prompted me to think about how the organisations seemed to be behaving like mindless zombies. This morning I Googled the definition of zombie and  found that Wikipedia defines a zombie as “a hypnotised person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli”. My initial experience in the three situations described above left me feeling that I was indeed dealing with zombie organisations.


What made it feel that way was the failure to look at the situation through my eyes or to show any empathy for how I might be feeling. My sense was that the individuals were being transformed into process zombies who’s only focus was adherence to the process and completion of another task. Could it be that the pursuit of efficiency and cost reduction is creating a customer service culture devoid of  humanity and empathy? And, at what cost to the individuals in the organisation or its customers?


The 2nd and 3rd experiences were resolved in a satisfactory way, and in both cases that involved providing me with an explanation of what had happened, and apologising for how the action taken had impacted me. In the 2nd case it was possible for the organisation to correct the error that had been made in rejecting my review, while in the 3rd case the bank offered some compensation. Not surprisingly, the apology and explanation were what really mattered to me as a customer.


More interesting is how I came to be dealing with someone who could show some initiative and empathy. In the web review situation, it finally took someone on the reception desk to put me through to the Chairman’s office where I spoke to Mike who took ownership and could see the ridiculous nature of the email message I’d been sent. In the bank situation, I was so incensed, I took to Twitter, and this prompted someone to contact me. Again, Sorcha who took ownership demonstrated an understanding of how poorly the situation had been handled and how the process had simply failed me as a customer.


We may choose to conclude that the zombies have not fully taken over organisations 2 and 3. Organisation 1 may be a different matter, despite trying every way of contacting them, I’ve been unable to find signs of any remaining core of humanity here. It would seem that zombies are running the show with consciousness and self-awareness truly eliminated. As a customer, I’m making a choice and running away from the zombies!


As a leader, what are you doing to ensure that the zombies aren’t taking over your organisation and driving your customers to flee? Do you truly know what it feels like to be a customer of your organisation?


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Liberate your Forgiveness…and Transform Your Organisation

prison 3d and bended metal bar“Many organisations today are like gulags. People are anxious, there’s a lot of paranoia. [But] what should be remembered is that people who don’t make any mistakes don’t do anything. They’re too busy covering their backs. They’re not going to try anything new.” Manfred Kets De Vries writes in a recent article that looks at how his work has led him to view the art of forgiveness as a key attribute of transformational leaders.


What stands between an organisation being experienced as a fun and inspiring place to work where risks can be taken and mistakes will be forgiven rather than the Gulag described above where paranoia and anxiety are rampant? It simply is down to how leaders think, feel, and act. Manfred suggests that if we look at the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu we can see the power of forgiveness in shaping successful transformational change.


Great leaders like them are highly skilled in self awareness and self management; they can recognise the emotions that are arising and choose how to respond in the way that will get the best outcome for the organisation and the individual. That appropriate response is unlikely be launching into a blame game that focuses on prosecution and recrimination. Instead they will choose to focus on forgiving and letting go to open up the opportunity for change.


It’s perhaps unlikely that Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu were quite so wise in their twenties, and it’s more probable that their time in prison or under house arrest offered opportunities for self reflection and learning, and a deep insight into just how unproductive a lack of forgiveness can be. So how does one become a more forgiving leader; step one, is recognising and managing your emotions to create the possibility of choice in how you respond, step two is then using your empathy to look at the situation from the other party’s perspective, and to attempt to walk in their shoes. Perhaps by considering: what led to certain things happening? what was that person’s intention? how might my behaviour have contributed to this outcome?


None of this is impossible for most leaders, and the required skills can be developed by self reflection and learning, or perhaps more effectively by working with a coach and seeking feedback. You can start now by asking yourself:

– how would my team describe my approach to handling mistakes?

– what can I do to shape a culture where mistakes are forgiven and we simply learn, let it go, and move forward?

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It’s now or never!

It's Now or Never!

So much of the press coverage of our NHS is negative; over the last few weeks we’ve been told that having your operation at the end of the week increases the likelihood of dying, and we’ve also heard that being treated in a hospital with fewer doctors per patient is also correlated with a poorer outcome for patients.

Not exactly rocket science, particularly for anyone who has any contact with the NHS, yet this way of working has persisted for decades. Change can be hard, particularly when you are at the front line struggling to keep chaos at bay as so many now are in the NHS. What seems to happen in the NHS is that more processes and procedures in place as a way of achieving change, and all it delivers is less time for patient care.


Change is hard because it involves challenging attitudes and habits so ingrained that often we are no longer even conscious of them, and then being willing to take a risk in adopting new behaviours that are unproven. Successful change is linked to the acceptance of the need for continual improvement and development. Howard Morgan positions our choice as to continually improve or to never change and “be comfortable with the idea that what you are doing now is all you ever need to do“.


Today I came across press article about something positive happening in the NHS and it seems to have happened when an individual chose the former of options given above. Dr Steven Allder has made changes at his hospital that address many of the challenges around cost reduction; yet the key driver for his action was providing the care that patients actually needed.


This successful change, prompts some questions for all leaders:

– What can you do to find and nurture the “Dr Allders” in your organisation?

– How can you support your people in fighting for change that delivers what your customers actually need?

– How can you prevent the values in your organisation from being dimmed by process  overload?



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It Really is Better to be a Giver

Give and Take

I recently came across an article that offers a new perspective on the impact of behaviour on organisational success: In the Company of Givers and Takers. The article’s author, Adam Grant, takes the view that an organisation’s success is determined by the generosity of its employees. I guess that hypothesis could go some way to explaining the dramatic failure of the Banks that prompted the start of the recession.


Grant identifies three styles of interaction, that he names: giver, taker and matcher. The givers seek to help others and often do so without any strings attached; that could be by offering help and support, making introductions, or sharing knowledge. The takers are focused on getting others to serve their ends; while keeping a tight boundary around their own time and expertise. You can probably guess that the matchers are those who strive to maintain a fair and even balance of give and take.


Grant’s hypothesis is grounded in research and he draws on many studies to support his views. For example, one study shows that higher rates of giving are predictive of higher productivity, profitability, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. So that’s pretty clear; to get great business results leaders need to encourage the givers. Not so easy as it sounds; many organisational procedures and policies  send out mixed messages about what good looks like e.g. forced performance rankings, bonus pots, individual metrics all create the sense that employees are operating in a zero-sum world.


Perhaps, it’s not surprising that the givers are over-represented among the least successful performers: due to being too available to everyone else and/or being exploited by the takers. More surprisingly, the givers are also over-represented among the most successful performers; due to the trust and goodwill that they have built. Grant suggests that the success of the givers and the fall of the takers is determined in part by the matchers who believe in a just world. That means they go out of their way to help and support the givers, and also work hard to ensure that the takers are not rewarded for their exploitation of others.


As a leader, what can you do to clear the way for more givers to thrive and succeed?



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Blind Spot or Lifesaver?

I was recently working with a group of leaders  and we were using Johari’s Window as a framework for reflection and exploring what they had learnt about themselves during participation in their leadership development programme. Much of the conversation focused around the Blind Spot quadrant of the window which represents those things that other people can see about you that are not visible to you. For example, it may be that your “thinking face” can make you look as though your are irritated, or it may be that others see you as very skilled in managing opposition. The key is that other people can see this and you can’t, so you can only find out about it from them.

Looking back on the session there were a couple of things that struck me. The first arose from someone’s observation that Blind Spot has a negative connotation. For example, the blind spot when driving is the other vehicle that we are likely to collide with if we don’t check the mirror before we manoeuvre. It was a great reminder that the language we use has a powerful effect on our expectations. Blind Spot suggests something we’ve missed, and typically we anticipate that will be bad. So perhaps when we are looking to get some insights on any potential Blind Spots it might be more effective to start the conversation with “What do you notice that I do well?”

Someone else then highlighted that when riding a motorcycle this action of checking in the mirror is called the Lifesaver. The use of the term Lifesaver creates a different energy and is much more action oriented than the term Blind Spot; it’s a great reminder of how language  can engage and prompt action…or not!

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Attitude Follows Behaviour

Don’t worry this isn’t  going to be a cheesy blog on New Year resolutions and change. Instead, I’m going to reflect on how attitude change can sometimes sneak up on us without any conscious effort.


I’m sure you’ve noticed that since the recession began we’ve been inundated with special offers and deals. I started off a bit skeptical about the value these would offer; and stuck with my attitude that it was worth paying full price to have the restaurant, hotel, or spa of my choice.


Then I noticed that some of my friends were giving these deals a go and were having a great time. So I decided to try out a couple of restaurants offering special deals and had a good experience, that prompted me to book a weekend break, a spa treatment etc. Now looking back, I can see that my attitude to deals and special offers has changed completely and I find myself seeking out the very thing I would have avoided.  It’s a fantastic example of how behaviour can change our attitude, although I’m not sure it’s what the retailers intended.


I’ve also seen in organisations that attitude is shaped by personal behaviour and by the behaviour of leaders. I have encountered  situations where the CEO’s coercive behaviour has led to others adopting that leadership style and shaped a prevailing attitude that it’s okay to scream and shout at at your team.


The good news is that we can use the power of behaviour to shape attitude to help us  embed and sustain organisational or personal change. Often change programmes attempt to change attitudes right upfront and to win hearts and minds to achieve behaviour change. It can be more effective to implement behaviour change and let the attitude change flow from that.


So as we start this new year, ask yourself, what attitude is being shaped by my behaviour as a leader?



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No Surprises?

Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent post Ten Reasons People Resist Change prompted me to reflect on how our desire to get it right before we share it can get in the way of successful change. She reminds us that “Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It’s better to plant seeds”.


Perhaps we could learn something about successful change by looking at how products are launched? Successful product launches involve the consumer right at the start via market research and focus groups, typically this results in one or more prototypes that are tested against consumer preferences and reactions, a marketing campaign will then provide some teasers and stimulate demand, and then finally the product is launched. Even Apple use some of these tactics to ensure that the product launch is not a total surprise.


Yet I regularly work with clients who want to hold off revealing anything about planned changes until everything is finalised. In some cases, this may be the right approach because of commercial sensitivity but often it’s based on the fear that if we announce something and it changes then that is a failure.


However, the cost of not planting those seeds about what the change will or won’t be is the resistance generated by our dislike of surprises. We all need time to get used to the idea of change and we naturally resist change that we have not had the opportunity to shape or influence.


Next time you introduce a change in your organisation, ask yourself at what point is your view of the change good enough to share and to get some input that will make it even better?



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Change can be painless…you choose!

I often tell my clients that they can choose to make change painless or hard and my recent experience with a new laptop brought that to life for me! My trusty old laptop was reaching the end of its life and simply couldn’t cope with the demands of all the new software that  I’d added over the last few years. Yet I resisted replacing it and found lots of rational explanations as to why I shouldn’t for example, it would cost too much, Windows 8 will be here soon. I sensed a little resistance to change and as we coaches have to practice what we preach I bought a new laptop. If only the story ended here!

As with many changes we make I wanted to have my cake and eat it. I planned to take all the software and settings and data from the old laptop across to the new one. Sadly at this point, I didn’t recognise that change may mean giving something up. So I purchased some software that would copy everything from the old laptop to the new. I then transferred everything across, it took several days and  it didn’t quite go to plan… like most change. I found the new laptop now had a mixture of old and new settings and that some things were missing and it was no longer performing quite so well…neither was I!

At that point I experienced the shift we often encounter when we are embarking on a change, I started to look at my old laptop and think it wasn’t so bad; why did I want to replace it. Fortunately I realised that maybe it was time to apply some of the coaching skills I use with my clients.

I asked myself how much did I really need to take from the old laptop, and of course the answer was that all I really needed was my data which was quite straightforward to transfer. I started to come to terms with the idea that I would need to let go of something to really take advantage of the new laptop. At that point I decided to risk restoring the new laptop back to factory settings, and to focus on getting my data and a few key pieces of software installed.

I guess I had made the shift from resisting change to accepting it and everything started to fall into place. The new laptop was running like a Formula One car and I was thrilled!

So what are the key lessons in making a painless change:

  • we are programmed to resist change, so challenge your desire for the status quo
  • recognise that change may demand giving something up but make sure it’s the bath water not the baby
  • be aware of the tendency to start to view the old way of doing things through rose-tinted glasses
  • change demands taking some risk, chose what is acceptable for you
  • understanding and recognising your emotional reaction to change makes it more likely that you will succeed.

You’ll learn to love the new way of doing things, if not it’s time for another change!

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