Do you mean what I mean?

We vacationed in San Jose Del Cabo this winter. One day as we sat by the pool, an older gentleman started talking with my husband. I noticed a lady sitting and watching nearby. I went over and asked, “Is that your husband talking with my husband ?” “No”, she said, “I am his traveling companion”.

Well, that had me stumped. What exactly is a traveling companion, I wondered? We talked about other things but that interaction has haunted me, and made me think about the power of language.

Let me explain. Had she replied “Yes, that is my husband”, I would have immediately “checked off a box” in my mind, saying to myself, “Yes, husband and wife, just like Gary and me”. Instead, her precise and provocative language caused me to think and invited many questions (which I did not ask at the time).

Language has the potential to open up dialogue and at the same time, language can dull the mind. In our busy lives, language can be a form of shorthand, where we hear one word and like a magnet, the word draws all sorts of assumptions and meanings in our mind, which we do not take the time to test. How often have you been in meetings discussing “engagement”, “accountability”, “leadership”, etc. without checking whether everyone shares the same meaning?

Dave Snowden, an expert in social systems complexity, describes how he and his colleagues worked on a body of theory and practice for over two decades and named it “Cynefin” deliberately to ensure this work would not be easily dismissed as a “decision support matrix” or another “theory of change”. But do we have to go so far as to make up new words to prompt dialogue and clarification? I don’t think so.

Language in the workplace can be a minefield of misunderstandings. We can take simple steps to ensure we are aligned:
• Do not assume that you associate the same meaning to words that others do.
• Ask, “Tell me more…” to seek to understand others. And then share your perspective.
• Develop glossaries.

A spirit of inquiry will serve you well.

Psychological Safety

Many companies begin each meeting with a Safety Share to highlight safety risks in the environment. As a facilitator, I am equally concerned about ensuring the psychological safety of participants. Psychologically safe participants feel accepted and respected, and are willing to take risks.

I have learned not to underestimate the anxiety created in high-risk meetings. Will I be ridiculed or ostracized for my opinions? Will I come across as competent? Will people turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment that has become commonplace under the guise of humor? Will there be retribution later? For these and other reasons, I am committed to creating a psychologically safe environment.

Psychological safety starts with my contact with participants in advance of a facilitated session. In my one-on-one interviews, I ensure people know what they share with me is in confidence. Interviews help me prepare for the group dynamics and I coach each person to raise issues to the degree they feel comfortable.

To create a safe and productive environment at the start of sessions, I propose groundrules or rules of engagement such as:

  • Every person participates. No one person dominates.
  • Focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Respect each other’s views.
  • One person speaks at a time.
  • It’s okay to disagree but not to be disagreeable.
  • Peel the onion – go beyond superficial comments.
  • What’s said in this room, stays in this room (like Vegas).

I set the expectation that we all share responsibility for the quality of the dialogue and results of the session.

I use processes to “discuss the undiscussables” in a safe and respectful way. Depending on the dynamics, I might:

  • Post a summary of the themes I heard in the interviews.
  • Use “eyes closed” voting and then display the results to get the reality in the room visible to all.
  • Use a talking stick to ensure each person has an opportunity to be heard in their own way and at their own pace.
  • Call a pause after an emotional moment to enable people to reflect, recover and recommit.
  • Intervene to balance the power dynamics.

I am mindful of the wellbeing of the group and each individual. I have found the guidelines for the guardian’s role in the Circle Way by PeerSpirit very helpful.

Psychological safety is about driving out fear and enabling all parties to have the discussions they need to have in a productive manner. Work safely, my friends.

Measuring Trust

Trust is a fundamental building block for relationships within families, co-workers and communities. Trust has been called “the bandwidth of communication” – low trust resulting in constrained or no communication, and high trust characterized by open sharing of information and feelings.

For businesses, trust impacts such things as turnover, innovation and reputation. Peter Aceto, CEO of Tangerine Bank, takes an even bolder view on the importance of trust, “Forget price, products, & services. Trust is the new competitive advantage”.

Trust is an abstract, subjective concept that is linked with many other factors such as integrity, competence and dependability. As a result, trust is hard to measure. But it is critical for organizations to know where they stand in terms of trust with their employees, customers and stakeholders. Organizations want answers to questions such as “Are trust levels going up or down?”, “Where does our organization stand with respect to trust compared to other organizations?” and “What factors contribute to building trust and trustworthiness?”

The following are examples of surveys used to measure trust:

Trust within teams and organizations

Organizational Trust and Engagement Index, FranklinCovey

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, Patrick Lencioni

Trust trends in society

Edelman Trust Barometer

Statistics Canada Social Capital Report 2015

Unfortunately, survey results provide indicators, not measures of trust. In its white paper, How Do You Measure Trust?, FranklinCovey proposes a three-pronged approach to measuring trust:

  1. Use surveys to raise awareness of trust levels.
  2. Observe and measure the frequency of behaviours that create or destroy trust.
  3. Calculate the economic effects of trust (customer loss, fraud, etc.)

Setting the Stage for Dialogue

I first experienced the power of dialogue at the hands of an expert facilitator from the World Business Academy. The facilitator was hosting dialogue sessions with diverse groups of employees as part of an intensive corporate culture change effort.

I called my first experience “a waterslide” conversation. Within minutes of the facilitator sharing the groundrules, I felt myself plunge into a stillness of deep listening, genuine inquiry and fresh insights.

Hal Saunders of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, defines dialogue this way:
“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other”.

Here are some groundrules used to set the stage for dialogue:

1. Speak to the center of the circle rather than to any person.
2. Really listen. What does the dialogue bring up for you?
3. Speak only when moved. Be “economical” with what you say.
4. Leave a space for silence after people speak. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Digest what was said.
5. Speak in “I” statements and only on behalf of yourself.
6. Do not use any evaluative comments – neither supporting nor disagreeing. Simply make your own statement.
7. Ask questions to the center of the circle. Do not direct questions to any one person.
8. Everybody is responsible for following and ensuring everyone follows the rules for dialogue.
9. Speak in a way that others want to listen, and listen in a way that makes others want to speak.

For more information on dialogue, I recommend William Isaacs Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

The founders of the dialogue movement believe we can change the world by changing how we talk and listen. I believe and hope that is true.

A Simple Model of Accountability

Accountability, or rather the lack of, has been a hot topic for many of my clients this year.  Its symptoms appear as failure to execute, unmet expectations and disappointed customers.  But what is at the root?  I have found that it is often a lack of clarity around what was requested and what was agreed to, and a lack of feedback on whether what was promised was delivered.

I had the pleasure of attending Bob Dunham’s program, “Elevating Organizational Performance”  this year. With a few simple diagrams, Bob illustrated how accountability is built in an organization. Here are four of the concepts that I have found most helpful to my clients:

  1. Accountability starts with a clear request, “Will you….?”.  The request could be from a boss to a subordinate, a colleague to colleague, or customer to provider.
  2. An effective request has the following components:
    • Relevant background regarding why the request is required and important
    • The expected time to fulfill the request
  3. The recipient of a request has three possible responses: “Yes”, “No”, or “I will get back to you with my answer by (Date)”. Of course, the recipient can counter-offer but the heart of accountability is a clear request and clear response.
  4. When the recipient of the request has fulfilled the request, the recipient asks the requestor, “Did I meet your conditions of satisfaction?” If not, the recipient of the request negotiates a new timeline and takes action to fulfill the expectations.

With this simple model, some groups realize they rarely close the loop to ensure their actions met requestors’ expectations.  Others realize that they “suggest” actions but don’t make clear requests, and therefore don’t get clear commitments.

Bob’s definition of trust as it relates to accountability is also helpful.  He says, “Trust is an assessment of the likelihood of a person following through on his or her commitments”.  The factors that are considered in making a trust assessment are:

  • Sincerity – Is the person’s response to my request genuine?
  • Competence – Does the person have the skills, knowledge and ability to deliver what they are promising?
  • Reliability – Does this person have a track record of delivering what they promise?
  • Care – Does this person care about me and this request?

This model appears simple but is “simplicity on the other side of complexity”.  Dunham and others such as Fernando Flores have found that the heart of accountability lies in clear offers, promises and requests.

The Power of Story

I am intrigued by the rise of storytelling and storytellers in organizational change initiatives.  For example, the City of Calgary hired Ken Cameron, a playwright, to be the “Citizen Raconteur” in support of the City’s Cultural Transformation Initiative. The City of Edmonton hired Todd Babiak and Shawn Ohler of Story Engine to support Make Something Edmonton, a story-telling initiative to rebrand the City. Stories are powerful, emotional tools for change.

Playwright Kenn Adams developed a wonderful tool called the Story Spine to create powerful stories. You simply fill in the blanks:

Once there was…… 
And every day…… 
Until one day….. 
And because of that….. 
And because of that….. 
And because of that…..
Until finally…..
And so……

I have used the Story Spine as a facilitation tool in a variety of settings from project kickoff sessions to preparations for a merger. For example, in a community development workshop, one group scripted this story:

Once there was a struggling community
And every day children and teens had nothing to do. There was vandalism. Families were going without adequate support. Neighbours were unconnected and isolated, hoping someone would do something to make things better.
Until one day they heard about a new way of building neighbourhoods and realized they had the power to make changes.
And because of that they formed a resident group and invited their Councillor and some City staff to work with them in revitalizing their neighbourhood.
And because of that they created an action plan to find local solutions to local issues.
And because of that neighbours reconnected, and children and youth became actively engaged in their neighbourhoods, schools, and the larger community.
Until finally the quality of life and a sense of belonging increased.
And so we have a healthy, vibrant, engaged neighbourhood and citizens for the future.

The story structure gives participants permission to talk about current state problems, what is required for change, and expected lasting benefits.  Assumptions about cause and effect surface, and powerful visions are created.

What’s your story?

World Energy Center in Mongolia

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Mongolia was the opportunity to visit the World Energy Centre in the Gobi Desert.  A monastery was originally built on this site in 1821, and a new monastery was built on the ruins in the past decade.  People come from around the world to access the powerful energy,  which is reputed to result in health, fertility and wealth.

Energy is at the core of most of my work – leadership and organizational drive, passion, and resilience.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter recently wrote about energy in organizations  She urges leaders to relentlessly focus on the bright side, redefine negatives as positives and maintain a bias for action.

Organizations are facing an energy crisis.  Leaders can access, stoke and share their personal energy, which Kanter points out is abundant, renewable and free.

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