In my work, I have the privilege of working with thousands of successful, highly motivated, ethical and well-rounded leaders every year. One of the most important issues we cover, no matter what the industry or type of organization, is context. Why? Simply put: Because if you’re not able to purposefully create and sustain one context and not another, your ability to be successful and fulfilled – and sustain that success or fulfillment – diminishes dramatically.
I invite you to think about context in 3 dimensions: 1) for yourself, as an individual, as you live your life; 2) for your most important conversations and relationships, and 3) for your organization as a whole.
Part 1 of this series covered individual (personal) context. This is Part 2 of 3 and will focus on interpersonal context; that is, the context you create related to your most important relationships and most important conversations. Part 3 will cover organizational context.
So what, exactly, is meant by interpersonal context?
I invite you to consider and reflect upon the following workplace exchange:
Let’s say Randy and Chalmers work together at a large company. They are friends, their wives are friends, they socialize together, and they play on the same softball team. Randy joined the company 4 years before Chalmers did and Chalmers is now a first-year analyst on one of Randy’s projects. Regarding public identity, Chalmers thinks he’s basically an A player, maybe an A minus on a bad day. In reality, he’s a C, barely holding on, and Randy – his friend and also his manager over this past year – says:
“Chalmers, I’ve got to have a conversation with you and I’m not exactly sure how to have it. My concern is that you may over-react to some feedback I’m going to give you, and you may think our friendship is in jeopardy. Our friendship isn’t in jeopardy now and never will be. But there are some blind spots in your work. I’m calling them blind spots because I don’t see you working on them, and I know you well enough now to think that if you saw them, you’d be working on them. But because I don’t see you working on them, I’m concluding that you don’t see them.
I have another concern – you’re telling me at softball that you want a long career here. My concern is that unbeknownst to you, you’re on a trajectory right now that if it doesn’t change, that’s not going to happen for you. So I’m not sure of the best way to have this conversation… all I know is, we have to have it, because I care about your success, as well as the success of this project.”
The opportunity here is to speak into your concerns as a way to purposefully create context for your most challenging, most important conversations. As we know, this sort of context is not physical, but it’s utterly real and it impacts how you will be listened to, how you will be interpreted. I’m not suggesting that you make up new concerns. The move to make – the new conversational competency to develop – is to speak them if you have them, and do so with sincerity.
Everyone in a long-term relationship knows this: Conversations of self-disclosure are powerful. How different is it for you to share with your spouse “Honey, I’m upset with you about X or Y…” than your simmering in silent resentment about it? How different is the dinner table? How different is the car ride? The bedroom? Think about your historical norms of self-disclosure at work. As a leader, the invitation here is to move the needle toward a bit more business-appropriate self-disclosure, for the sake of consciously producing more powerful contexts for your most important and most challenging conversations.
Outside the military, leadership has already gone from “command and control” to “inspire and enroll.” Would you agree? And authenticity and sincerity are enrolling. Most of us have a good BS detector. We also have good authenticity detectors. When we experience authenticity and sincerity in our leaders, it enrolls us, and shifts how we listen. Creating such a context – on purpose – is a key conversational competency.
We claim this: If your context is strong enough, you don’t have to be impeccable with the content. That is, if the “space” you create on the front end is strong enough, you don’t have to be perfect with your choice of words and how you move through the actual content of what you want to say. Are we clear that in the above example, Randy had not gotten to the actual, job-specific content about what Chalmers was or wasn’t doing well on the project? All of this is context.
How hard was this conversation for Randy? Think about your experience in similar situations. To this, we ask these questions in workshops: How many of us have ever benefited from constructive criticism during the course of our careers? Every hand goes up. And how many of us have ever avoided giving it? Almost every hand goes up. In these cases, who are we serving? We’re not serving the other person. We’re serving ourselves.
We agree with many others who have observed: Ambitious people want to hear the negative feedback. Let’s repeat: Ambitious people want to hear the negative feedback. Now, do they want to hear it in a context of respect, safety and trust? Absolutely. But they want to hear it. For leaders at every level, and for everyone in the business of talent development, context is key. The ability to have what may have historically been “difficult” conversations – and to have them well – is tremendously enhanced by the ability to purposefully set context. And by speaking into your concerns, sharing them authentically with the other person, you are practicing and improving an essential conversational competency.
Remember one of our earlier basic claims: If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got. This is obvious to most of us. What we can now add is this – As a leader, one for whom the creation of context is important: If you always say what you always said, you always get what you always got. Speaking into your concerns is a predictable way to establish a possibly unprecedented context of authenticity.
Here’s a key question: Just because you don’t purposefully create a certain context for a conversation, does that mean you don’t have a context? No! You already have a context, no matter what. It just may or may not be one that’s conducive to the results you say you want!
One of the most powerful organizational contexts I have learned is called “Carefrontation.” Have you heard of this term, or something similar? If not, when you hear this term, what comes to mind? What does is seem that this term means? I characterize it this way:
· Confronting done with care and respect
· Challenging the other in a healthy and supportive way
· I care more about you than having my hands not sweat…
· I care enough about you to enter into a conversation with you that I’m not sure where it’s going to go and how it’s going to go…
· I care more about you than staying in my own physical comfort zone…
In the best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins shares characteristics of highly-effective leadership teams. If you’ve read the book, you may recall his descriptions of teams whose interactions involved healthy, respectful disagreement. Robust, authentic dialogue. He shares that one of Intel’s philosophies was “Disagree, then commit.” While he didn’t use the term Carefrontation, we can see obvious parallels.
In Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, one of the key dysfunctions listed is “Fear of Conflict.” Again, we can see the power of a context of Carefrontation to enable team members to move past this fear and into the authentic dialogue that characterizes powerful, effective teams.
The invitation here is to adopt your version of Carefrontation as the context for your most important – and most challenging – conversations and relationships. And speaking into your concerns is a proven and powerful way to begin strengthening your ability to do this. Once again, this is a conversational competency. And as with all types of learning, it takes time and practice.
Another way of understanding interpersonal context is this: How many of us like to know “why” we are being requested to do something? Or “why” X or Y is now required? Or “why” X or Y is now the new priority?
Context has everything to do with the “why.” As a leader, helping your colleagues understand the “why” is powerful. As someone in a long-term relationship, helping your partner understand the “why” is equally powerful. Simon Sinek has a wonderful TED talk entitled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action – The Power of Why” in which he makes this very point. An organization (or relationship) in which a shared understanding of “why” exists – from top to bottom – operates at a very different level from one in which only the “what” and “how” are understood. Many leaders are seeking ways to bring about decentralized decision-making with strategic intent. Helping everyone understand “why” is purposefully creating a context that enables this valuable type of decision-making to take place.
I offer the following context-related activity for those interested in moving from learning “about” into learning “to do” and learning “to be.”
I would love to hear from any of you who undertake this practice and would like to share your learning, your observations, your Results with me!
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Application: Interpersonal Context
Think about a conversation that’s important to you, that involves a person that you care about – either professionally or personally… and that you consider to be a challenging, difficult or sensitive conversation. Any conversation that you have been thinking about, knowing that you want to have… and have avoided is a likely candidate here.
Write your responses to the following questions.
1. What is the desired Result you are seeking by having this conversation? Allow yourself to think broadly here… quantitative and qualitative Results. Short-term and long-term Results.
2. What are the concerns you have – right now – about this person, their future, their public identity, what may be at stake?
3. What concerns do you have about this conversation, how it may unfold?
4. What concerns do you have about your relationship with this person?
5. If you have avoided this conversation, what have you been concerned about that has had you take the Action of avoiding it?
Take a look at what you have written above, and think about your responses.
Remember the benefits of a context of carefrontation.
Declare yourself a beginner in the domain of purposeful context-creation.
Center yourself by giving yourself 2-3 minutes to sit quietly, breathing deep down low in your stomach (vs. high in the chest).
Be focused on being fully present and fully authentic… and fully open to both learning something yourself, as well as supporting the other person, in the upcoming conversation.
Should you so choose, invite the other person into a conversation in which you begin by:
1. Asking for permission to share your perspective
2. Apologize for having avoided the conversation (if this is the case)
3. Speaking into your concerns (see above)
4. Acknowledging your beginner-hood in having this type of conversation, and
5. Acknowledging that the other person may have very valid points and perspectives which you have not thought of and which you are not aware of.
As Julio Olalla says, “We know where conversations start… but we do not know where they may take us!”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got – which seems especially relevant in situations like the ones we’re covering here – is this: What are the Actions you can take in these types of situations that, no matter what the ultimate outcome, will leave you with the fewest regrets?
I invite you to be fully present and fully authentic – speaking into your concerns – in all of your most important and challenging conversations.
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I wish you only continued success, fulfillment and contribution – on all fronts. And I look forward to hearing from any of you, especially those who are doing the real-world Application exercise…
… and remember: Never Stop Learning!