Leadership Perspectives

Getting teams to talk about what matters: Six ways to create a culture of reflection and dialogue

Figures putting together puzzleIn my last post, I talked about the difficulty leaders run into when they treat strategic planning as a discrete event instead of the culmination of an ongoing process of reflection and dialogue.  When leaders bring team members together once a year for official strategic planning discussions, they often find that their people don’t know how to reflect honestly, critique without blame, and speak courageously of that which matters most.

Leaders can generate deeper, more candid self-discovery and dialogue by promoting a culture where it is not only safe to “tell it like it is” but where it is absolutely expected.  They can teach team members how to constructively assess performance, acknowledge threats, and discuss painful topics in frank terms.  Here’s how:

Make your organization a safe place to think.

Often leaders unknowingly thwart the thinking of others by shooting down ideas that don’t fit their mental models or preconceived notions. Other leaders appear to listen, but seem to disregard what is said, leaving others with a sense of “Why bother?”

Leaders must hear information and opinions – even that which points to weaknesses in their organization – without being defensive.  Otherwise, they will miss valuable information because everyone will be too afraid of being on the receiving end of the leader’s reaction.

Take a risk.

Promoting creativity means promoting ideas. Not all ideas will be good ones. Some ideas will seem good at first, but will fail. This seems like a risky proposition for a leader. It can also be a risky proposition for the employee if the organization is known to punish failures.

To stimulate innovative thinking and the free offering of ideas, accept the risk and lead a culture where failures are learning opportunities. It is the only way to create a safe place for team members to think.

Make learning a priority.

People who are actively engaged in learning, regardless of whether that learning directly supports their job function, tend to gain personal resourcefulness, confidence, and excitement. New learning stimulates them to stretch, and to think and reflect on new ideas.

Promote learning in your organization first by setting the example and being a personal learner yourself. Then promote learning and growth in those around you.

Take team members out of their silos.

To promote creative thinking, encourage team members to regularly work on problems and challenges outside of their functional areas.  Even the most senior team members lose sight of the big picture when they are exclusively enmeshed in the issues and priorities of their own areas.

Sending managers to work along side those in other functional areas helps each see the inter-connectivity of their departments while reaping the added benefit of breaking down barriers and facilitating communication and cooperation.

Ask learning questions and teach others to do the same.

Albert Einstein supposedly said, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” Leaders need to stay curious and exercise their curiosity through learning questions. Learning questions are those questions that leaders ask because they genuinely don’t know the answer – or they believe they know the answer but are willing to suspend their beliefs in order to learn what others think.

Last year, I devoted an entire post to “How to ask good questions.”  You can read it here.

Make strategy an ongoing process.

Whether carried out in the office or at an offsite location, formal opportunities to discuss strategy should be conducted on a regular basis.  Such sessions provide the opportunity to discuss progress on previously identified strategies and serve as an incubation center for new and innovative ideas.

Approach the building of an open, curious, and reflective culture with intentionality and provide more opportunities for team members to tackle the real strategic issues of the organization.  You will find the annual strategic planning process more rewarding, and at the same time less necessary, because team members won’t wait for an annual process to talk about the strategic issues that matter most.

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