09/01/2015

Nigel Purse, Founder, The Oxford Group, and Author, 5 Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement and Performance at Work

Throughout human history people have talked to each other — using smiles and frowns, touch and gesture, myths and stories — to build relationships, establish trust and get things done. It’s almost the defining characteristic of being human, to engage in conversation.

It used to be believed that our over-sized pre-frontal cortex was an adaptation arising from our evolutionary ancestors’ use of tools. Today it’s believed that our brains evolved primarily to allow us to manage and keep track of the social relationships that are so vital to our success as individuals and teams. And language — and conversation — are the key tools our brains use to manage these relationships.

We know from the writings of historians, story tellers and playwrights through the ages that human beings, and leaders in particular, have varied in their skill and readiness to engage others through conversations and dialogue. Some have been warm and convivial, easily building the bonds of loyalty; others have been cold and distant, achieving results through force or positional power. But until today’s modern era of technology they had no choice but to talk to those around them - the people they relied upon to achieve their goals.

Over the past three decades technology has provided leaders with more and more ways to avoid engaging their teams and colleagues in face to face, human conversation. At least the telephone still meant two people could hear each other’s voices. Today email, instant messaging and social media allow leaders, if they choose to, to hide behind their desks and laptops, and to issue requests, demands and instructions without the requirement to build a personal relationship with their colleagues or teams.

And there is a real danger here. At the heart of effective leadership are effective relationships, and effective relationships are built through conversation. Technology does not recognise this simple truth, and sadly, neither do many of today’s leaders. It might appear to be highly efficient to send an email to your team members explaining the rationale for a new team structure. After all, it took just fifteen minutes to write it and another second to hit “Send” and everyone got to read the same information within a few minutes of it being despatched. What a waste of time to schedule ten separate one to one meetings, each of which might last up to an hour! And you’ve also avoided having to deal with people’s anxieties or concerns, which you might find uncomfortable and would certainly be time consuming. But of course we all know how we react to being on the receiving end of such one way communication - disengaged, disempowered and unlikely to feel ownership for, or commitment to, the new structure for the team.

So technology makes it easier for us to avoid the face to face human interactions that we fear may cause us discomfort or simply take up our time. But if today’s leaders are to be as effective as they need to be in our rapidly changing world, they need to resist the temptation to rely upon technology as their primary communication medium, and build face to face, human conversations back into their daily life at work (and beyond). Doing so will not only make you a more effective and productive leader, but will also give you a deep sense of fulfilment and enhanced quality of life. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, a technical expert or a generalist, a sales executive or an accountant, you can become a more effective leader by consciously building face to face conversation back into every day of your working life.

For those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world and have well paid, fulfilling jobs, technology enables us to live lives that are full of comfort, entertainment, travel and leisure. But the one thing that technology cannot do is to help us build deeper, more lasting personal relationships. Such relationships, at work and beyond, rely on the deeply human experience of being physically present and in conversation with another person, sensing their feelings, moods and emotions in the way that human beings have uniquely evolved to do over the millennia. Technology creates the illusion of communication because it appeals to the rational, logical part of our brains. But what the latest developments in neuroscience tell us is that, whilst we can be rational, actually much of our behaviour is driven be our emotions and only after this fact do we use our logical thinking to rationalise our actions.

Communication that is technology based — especially email, instant messaging and indeed many formal communication channels — plays to, and comes from, our rational selves. We present the logical case and the rational arguments for a decision or action. We forget that when technology-based communication is received, the person on the other end cannot help but react with their emotions too. And emotion is a much more powerful driver of our feelings and actions than logic.

So has technology replaced the art of conversation? Yes, in many business settings we believe that it has done so. Leaders have embraced technology-based communication as the rational, logical way to get their messages and instructions over to their teams in a way that is quick, clear and efficient. But in so doing they are missing a profound truth about how people, and leaders, build the trusting relationships so essential in getting things done — that human beings build relationships through open, trusting one to one conversations.

So the next time you are composing an email to the members of your team, take a moment to ask yourself whether, in the end, you will gain more in terms of engagement and commitment by taking the time to sit down with each of them and simply talk it through, face to face. And if a face to face meeting is really impractical, at least pick up the phone instead. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result!