Everything that we know as a species has been built on communication, bringing people together into collectives which created more and more advanced languages to share thoughts, emotions and ideas and ultimately to get things done.
By engaging in conversation, we engage those we converse with; we can increase their motivation and commitment, attend to their concerns and, in the case of employees, put them in the best possible position to excel in their work. At a time of year when most people are in the worst position to do so, when Blue Monday comes around and motivation levels are at their lowest, we need to make a genuine effort to inspire people to bring their ability and commitment to their work.
Recorded memory shows us that all humans, and leaders in particular, have varied in their readiness to engage others through conversation, in their competency, and in their style. Some have easily built valuable and productive bonds while others have remained cold and distant, relying on force or positional power to achieve results. Until today’s era of global, real time connectivity, leaders had no choice but to talk to the people on whom they’re relied for their own success.
Over the course of the last thirty years or so, the rise of digital communications technology has given leaders an easy escape from face-to-face engagement. Telephones, at least, transmitted voice and allowed for some kind of genuine connection. Email, social media and instant messaging now allow leaders, should they choose that path, to hide behind their laptops and ping requests, instructions and demands around their business without the need to build personal relationships with their teams.
There’s a real danger here; effective relationships lie at the heart of effective leadership, and they cannot exist without conversation. Many of today’s leaders do not acknowledge this simple truth. Technology (often) allows for efficiency, and sending an email to your team members explaining the thinking behind a new team structure may seem highly efficient: it took ten minutes to write, a second to send, and will promptly drop the same information in everyone’s inbox. Not only do you save the time you would’ve taken to schedule multiple and potentially lengthy one-on-one meetings, you also avoid having to deal with your team member’s concerns, which could be both time consuming and uncomfortable. We’re all familiar with this sort of one-way communication, and we know that when we’re on the receiving end we can feel disempowered and disengaged, decreasing our commitment and involvement.
In order for today’s leaders to match up effectively to the challenges of a rapidly changing world, they must resist the temptation to use technology to avoid face to face interactions and build face to face communication back into their work life. Genuine human conversation doesn’t just increase a leader’s effectiveness, it affords a deep sense of fulfilment and enhances our 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.
Technology affords comfort, entertainment, leisure and travel to those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world and have fulfilling, well-paid jobs. Technology cannot, however, help us in building deeper, more meaningful and more lasting personal relationships; these relationships rely on physical presence. In genuine conversation we sense another’s feelings and perspectives, as we have evolved to do. Technology appeal to the rational part of the brain, creating the illusion of conversation by allowing the transmission of content, but recent developments in neuroscience suggest that much of human behaviour is driven by emotion, being placed in a logical context through a process of rationalisation.
This is something we tend to forget or ignore; we send emails which present a rational argument for an action or decision, but forget that the recipient cannot help but react with their emotions (a far more powerful driver of action than logic) as well as their reason.
Has technology, then, replaced the art of conversation? In many business contexts, we believe that it has. In embracing a rational, logical and efficient communication medium, leaders miss a profound truth of human interaction: that humans build relationships through open and trusting conversations within the context of physical meetings.
The next time you’re sitting behind your computer, composing an email for your team, consider whether you might actually, in the end, gain far more in terms of commitment and engagement simply by taking the time to schedule one to one meetings, sitting down with your team members and talking through it face to face. If a face to face meeting is truly impractical, at least pick up the phone instead of relying on your keyboard. The power of conversation has determined the success of humans throughout history, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the results you can get by building conversation back into your work life, and beyond.
By Nigel Purse, co-author of 5 Conversations