We need to talk: the rise of conversational management
By Margaret Regan, Director, Executive Programs, MIT Sloan School of Management
How often do you have a conversation with your manager? Weekly? Monthly? At your annual review? How about the head of your organization? In hierarchically flat organizations, the opportunities for employees to share ideas with senior leadership may come fairly often, but in more traditional organizations, opportunities may come much less frequently—or hardly ever. Is this a problem?
It turns out that organizations that seek input from employees regularly and strive for transparency in their business practices enjoy higher employee loyalty, attract better talent, and, as a result, are more innovative and competitive than those who do not. Of course, merely asking people for ideas will not be of much value unless you have an effective system to evaluate, select, and develop the best ones. Key decisions can still sit with leadership, however, those decisions can be made with the added benefit of a much wider pipeline of perspectives and ideas.
Amplifying the employee voice
It’s important to be clear about who has “voice rights” vs. “decision rights” in an organization, but giving people a voice is key. Catherine Turco, Associate Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, describes this approach in her fascinating book, The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media.
Last November, I had the pleasure of sharing a conference stage at HKIHRM with Yassine Jalal, Movement Facilitator at OCP Group. OCP, based in Morocco, is one of the world’s leading producers of fertilizer with a core mission to feed the world’s growing population sustainably. OCP has been a custom Executive Education client of ours for eight years—long enough to see how the company has been interpreting and implementing what they’ve learned in our classrooms. As such, it was especially gratifying to hear Jalal speak to an international audience of human resources professionals about the Movement, a transformational initiative to spur innovation at OCP by sourcing ideas from employees at all levels of this almost 100-year-old, large, and complex organization.
The conference where Jalal and I presented was called “Human AR: Agility x Resilience, Connecting with the Future Workforce,” and that’s exactly what the Movement at OCP is all about. Launched in the spring of 2016, the initiative had the goal of reshaping the company for the future, i.e., investing time and effort in its digital transformation, globalization, and becoming an “organization of learners” where employees are fully engaged in and committed to its shared success.
Practically speaking, OCP employees were invited to form self-organized, autonomous teams to tackle business challenges of their choice, on their own timelines, and working in ways that made sense for individual groups. The company’s leadership provided structured support by creating a management committee that served as a liaison between the teams and OCP’s senior leadership, and by designating facilitators who were always available for advice, resources, and motivation.
The Movement has enjoyed tremendous success at OCP. In his presentation, Jalal shared that since 2016, the initiative has stimulated creativity and innovation among employees; ideas have been transformed into team projects and even into business units. Today, OCP has an active database of more than 1,000 actionable ideas, sixty new teams, and five business units—all linked to the company’s strategic goals of becoming more global, more digitally savvy, and furthering its development as an “organization of learners.” Little of this would have been possible had OCP’s senior leadership not made a systemic effort to really listen to their employees.
It is also worth highlighting that giving voice rights to employees at OCP has also fostered a spirit of communication and exchange across groups within the company, contributing to breaking down silos, which we can often see in large, complex organizations.
Challenging cultural norms
As Jalal was describing the success of the Movement to our audience in Hong Kong, they were completely engaged and curious. In many Asian cultures, business structures are rooted in very traditional power dynamics, which can be difficult to shift. As it turns out, this can often be the case in Morocco as well.
In the 1980s, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, developed a model that shows that where we live often determines how we work. Some of the key concepts in this model are Power Distance and Individualism. Power Distance is the extent to which the less powerful members accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Individualism is the degree to which ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after themselves and their immediate family. In collective societies, people belong to groups (families, clans, organizations) who look after them in exchange for loyalty.
It is likely to be a bit more difficult to increase voice rights and empower people up and down an organization in countries where the Power Distance Index is high, while the Individualism Index is low, which is very much the case in Morocco (70/46), Hong Kong (68/25), and China (80/20). In contrast, in the United States, the ratio of Power Distance to Individualism is 40/91.
It’s worth pointing out that since OCP is a large, established company in a hierarchical society, the decision to disrupt the norms was a bold one. The employees’ enthusiastic response provided clear proof that it was a wise decision as well. OCP’s Movement has challenged norms by putting the employees in control, while providing only general guidelines. It was a highly unusual approach, and the results are even more impressive because of that.
Improving the quality of conversations
I believe that a huge portion of the Movement’s success lies in OCP’s commitment to dialogue between employees and management. Open, honest, and productive dialogue does not come easily, especially in large organizations where there are as many perspectives on what constitutes a quality conversation as there are people. As such, being very deliberate and thoughtful about creating space for and facilitating quality conversations at your company can have tremendous impact and return. So, where to begin?
There are some core characteristics of quality conversations that we all know but may not be practicing on a regular basis: genuine curiosity, empowering questions, active listening, suspending judgment, being aware of your mental models, building on the ideas of others, and not jumping to a solution based only on your past experiences. These may sound simple, but practicing them intentionally can be a challenge. I have run listening and questioning exercises in various countries and I often observe that the people who identify themselves as “good listeners” and “open to new ideas and solutions” often struggle the most. As more and more organizations recognize the benefits of improving communication, they’re starting to offer training for employees to hone these skills.
Developing the future workforce
Here at MIT, many researchers are exploring the future of work and what advances in automation, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence mean for the human workforce in the immediate, middle-term, and long-term future. According to Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) and a leading authority on the subject of the future of work, there are plenty of jobs out there that can only be done by humans. Those jobs draw on our uniquely human skills ranging from empathy to artistic creativity. I believe we should continue to cultivate these qualities if we want to stay relevant in the workforce, regardless of the carbon contents of our colleagues. Coincidently, the distinctly human skills that Brynjolfsson references are the same qualities that enable quality conversations.