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Leadership Conversations: Insights into Organizational Change

Kathy Cowan Sahadath
Publication date: October, 2012

Organizational change is a constant factor in the business world and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or as a way to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change (Marshak, 2002). Not only have change initiatives been on the rise, but the importance of managing individuals through change has been gaining importance (Applebaum, Berke, Taylor, & Vazquez, 2008).

Public and private sector organizations are rethinking their mission, values, and operations against a new 21st century environment (Cinite, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2009). They are looking for opportunities to restructure and transform themselves to take advantage of the opportunities of a globally connected world in which people, driven by values and equipped with knowledge (Mengis & Eppler, 2008), will collaborate and innovate. Leadership conversations will play a pivotal role in making this happen.

In this paper, I address how leadership conversations influence organizational behaviour and shape organizational members' mindsets. The paper is a summary, based on my own research (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) and attention is focused on how leaders create and sustain conversations during times of unprecedented change. The reader will see how leaders gain a greater appreciation of how closely their conversational behaviors are intertwined with the creation and leadership of change, business effectiveness, and performance.

What are Leadership Conversations?

To effectively navigate and influence the change agenda (Ford & Ford, 1995; 2008), leaders need to be proactively engaged in focusing, shaping, and influencing an organization's communication through the spoken aspects of conversations (Scott, 2004). Because conversations are a highly flexible, interactive, and iterative form of communication, employees can ask clarifying questions, deepen certain aspects, and explore the larger context of a specific issue. Compared with written communication formats, people create shared experiences through face-to-face conversations. They use these conversations to build trust and strengthen relationships (Mengis & Eppler, 2008) and to influence successful organizational change by relying on different types of conversations (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995).

In the context of this paper and for our discussion, leadership conversations are the verbal interactions between senior leaders and their direct reports. And, because of this definition, the terms communication and conversations are one and the same. The paper will also advocate that the experiences of senior leaders (how senior leaders view their conversations) lead to a deeper understanding of how senior leaders effectively use their conversations to provide context and vision, meaning and purpose, and to influence and shape the change process.

Why are Leadership Conversations so Important?

Based on the conceptual work of Ford and Ford (1995; 2008), change conversations, as a communication vehicle, should be thought of as more than producing intentional organizational change. Change conversations can be used as an instrument in managing the process of change and leaders can persuade and influence others to accept new ideas, to change, to follow, and to take action. Within the structure of an organization, leaders at various levels seek to persuade and influence others (Daft, 2005; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007). A critical role for leaders today is to influence all levels of leaders and staff within an organization. This ability to influence and persuade results in success for the leader and contributes towards the effectiveness of the organization's change effort.

Communication becomes extremely important to the essence of leadership effectiveness. A leader's conversations can positively impact and facilitate the achievement of his or her work-related goals, as well as the achievements of others. Effective communication can produce higher levels of organizational affiliation (O'Neill & Jabri, 2007), improve the dynamics within the organization (Pearce, 2008), and create an open and engaged community within the organization. From this perspective, communication serves as the catalyst for change. The work of the leader in causing successful change in an organization is the work of deliberate and appropriate application of language. The leader's ability to communicate is key in enabling the organization to make changes appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. Kotter's (1990; 1996) work on communication continues to emphasize that leaders can inhibit or enable change to occur proactively or reactively, dependent upon the manner and tone of the message.

Conversations are Much More Than Communication

Historically, communication has been seen as a part of the change process, a tool with which to communicate what is going to change, how it is going to change, and who it is going to impact, either positively or negatively (Johansson & Heide, 2008). When conversation has been used as a tool within the change process, it typically is used to prepare people, increase understanding of the change, and sustain change. It has also been used to gather feedback on the change and enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. What comprises both the communication of change as well as the change itself, is the myriad of conversations that change managers and recipients have with each other for and about the change. It is in these conversations that vision, possibility, and opportunity are created, people are engaged and mobilized, and problems or breakdowns are resolved.

That communication plays an important role in change is not a new idea. Numerous writers have stressed the importance of leadership communication (Kotter, 1996; Lewis & Seibold, 1996), even to the point of suggesting that change may be seen as a communication problem that can be resolved by having people understand the change and the role they play in its implementation. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects (Svennevig, 2008). As Ford and Ford (1995) have argued, and others have shown (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995), successful change is a product of using different types of conversations at different times. Leaders may not realize they have a conversational pattern or that altering it can have significant implications for change.

Researchers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (Daft, 2005; Kotter, 1990; Lewis & Seibold, 1996; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007) outlined the importance of the leadership and communication connection as a process of persuasion by which one induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and followers. This notion was further supported as one of the critical aspects of leadership—the ability to influence others—particularly through communication and conversations. However, today's work environment is more diverse, more complex, and characterized by constant change. As a result, leaders face different and more difficult challenges when influencing followers.

Study Reveals Insights

In my study of transformational change leadership within a large energy company (Cowan Sahadath, 2010), leaders' change conversations were categorized into five progressive types of leadership conversations: (1) strategically intentional; (2) catalyst for change; (3) mindful; (4) build shared commitment; and (5) guide the change. I found that transformational outcomes could be achieved by leaders through understanding audience perspectives and when leaders adjusted their conversations to enable more shared meaning, context, and understanding. This knowledge is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.

Senior leaders (often referred to as the executive, senior leadership, or senior management) are generally the team of individuals at the highest level of organizational management, reporting to the CEO, who have the day-to-day responsibilities of managing and leading a corporation. In my work, I explored the verbal interactions between senior leaders (i.e., the participant group in my study) and their direct reports (the next level of management often referred to as middle managers).

This qualitative study investigated the variations in the way senior leaders experience their conversations during times of organizational change. It was an approach that uncovered how senior leaders experience, understand, and ascribe meaning to a specific situation or phenomenon. Based on key insights from my study, I will describe how leaders viewed their conversations and the direct contribution those conversations had on supporting changes and cultivating new opportunities for the organization.

Study Reveals Business Value

Leaders within an organization have various intentions and reasons to communicate: to provide information, to implement a change, to influence and motivate employees to perform better, to make decisions, to reward and recognize, to resolve conflict, and to coach and counsel. Knowing their conversations are instrumental in influencing the relationships and behaviors of their managers provides insight into:

  1. The role of conversation as a critical mechanism for planning communication implementations during change.
  2. The role conversation plays in affecting the outcome of an organizational change initiative as essential to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.
  3. The extent to which change conversations can help to decrease anxiety, increase motivation, and support the adoption of the behaviours or activities needed to achieve the desired outcome.

Additionally, my study provided an opportunity for senior leaders to:

  • Voice what they attribute to the value of their leadership conversations in moving the organization toward or away from its business goals.
  • Gain an appreciation of how their conversations profoundly change relationships.
  • Express and focus on what is important to them as leaders orchestrating change.

Implications for Practice

The practical implications of this research for future improvements in leadership conversations, organizational change, and change leadership are many. The following table summarizes the opportunities for leaders and change management professionals to reflect on and apply practical approaches to help assess individual business situations.

Leadership Conversations Leadership Practical Applications

Senior leaders perceived leadership conversations:

Five Categories

- Leadership conversations are strategically intentional

- Leadership conversations are catalysts for change

- Leadership conversations are mindful and purposeful

- Leadership conversations build shared commitment

- Leadership conversations guide the change

Building Leadership Capability:

Leaders/Change Leaders

- Leadership conversations construct a new organizational understanding of organizational change goals

- Advancement in development of leadership development and organizational change strategies

- Creating space for conversation

- Organizational change management professional advances

Types of Leadership Conversations To help leaders assess their conversational pattern and to leverage conversation as their primary method of communication during organizational change, I developed a series of conversation worksheets (excerpt from Cowan Sahadath, Creating Conversations for Change, unpublished) designed to support, facilitate, and reach a deeper level of understanding around the types of conversations held during organizational change. A sample of questions from the worksheets is included below with each insight from my research. These questions were created based on my research conclusions. Reviewing these questions may lead to new ideas about what you might consider doing differently to get value from the change conversations you lead.

Strategically Intentional Many researchers have suggested that change is produced in and through conversations and discourse (e.g., Barrett et al., 1995; Ford, 1999; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001; Marshak, 2002), and the most influential conversations may be those that occur at the level of everyday conversation (Barrett et al., 1995). These interactions are the primary mechanism available to managers for affecting change. Leaders in my study described their understanding of conversations as purposeful efforts, where talk is about determining how people think about and respond to organizational changes.

Leaders articulated that their conversations need to be carefully crafted, structured, and linked to business objectives to influence the change needed. Whether focusing on leadership conversations as well-planned and structured, or executed purposively to create understanding and influence behavior, this category focused on preparing people for change, and gathering feedback on the change in order to enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. The following questions will help planning those conversations:

  1. Have you considered whether you have all the information needed for this conversation?
  2. Do you understand what values are reflected in your own position?
  3. Do your managers share your understanding of the change?
  4. How do you communicate and have those change conversations with your managers?

Catalyst for Change Conversations about change create opportunities for vision and possibility, people engagement and mobilization, problem discovery, and resolution. The challenges facing leaders go beyond determining what needs to be done differently. Conner (1993) stated that effective leaders are capable of reframing the thinking of those whom they lead, enabling them to see that significant changes are not only essential, but also achievable. Leaders must also address how to execute these decisions in a manner that has the greatest possibility for success. If organizations change when people begin to talk and think differently (Barrett et al., 1995), then leaders need to focus on shaping discourse and providing opportunities for dialogue. If change is truly about discourse, then the most powerful intervention depends on the everyday conversation that leaders initiate.

Leadership conversations, as a communication vehicle, are significant in order to begin a process of creating broader opportunities for organizational understanding. The following questions may facilitate delivering conversations to create opportunities for a new mind-set, and act as a framework for thinking about and leading complex change:

  1. How have you changed the culture so that managers are not focused on status quo?
  2. Are you spending more or less time working together with your managers?
  3. How have you become more adaptive? Who do you involve? How do you involve your managers?

Mindful Awareness Using conversation as an effective communication method requires leaders to use their conversations purposely. This occurs when leaders openly discuss their awareness of what they are saying and the impact of their words. Further, conversations are purposeful and framed, and go where they need to go, based on the variety of audience perspectives and interests. To help leaders use conversation in this manner, the following questions are intended to expand one's comfort zone, to create circumstances for developing mindfulness, and for acting mindfully:

  1. Has your relationship with managers changed over the past two years?
  2. Do you interact differently with your managers than you had two or three years ago?
  3. What do you do differently today as a leader that you didn't do five or ten years ago?

Building Shared Commitment The results of this study suggest a clear shift towards skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. The development of these skills is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business. To create an environment that facilitates the new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently. In this study, leaders approached their conversations authentically, and managed to build understandings around the common vision for the organization.

The following questions may provide an opportunity to build understanding and commitment to current goals, future possibilities, develop a genuine relationship with teams, and connect accountability through this dialogue:

  1. Are you emphasizing the need to change the culture and to listen to and engage with your people because you think engaged employees will be more productive?
  2. As a leader, how do you affect what people in all aspects of your business do, how do they get the message?
  3. Culture change is something that companies talk about but often don't actually achieve. How are you thinking about changing the culture?

Guiding the Change My study revealed that leadership conversations guide an organization in achieving something significantly or fundamentally different from what they have done before. When leaders share the values and vision with their teams, and when everyone collectively understands the key drivers and the strategies that are being employed to address them, everyone can be collectively committed to the major strategic efforts of the organization. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects. The study found that leaders do realize they have a conversational pattern and that altering it can have significant implications for change. Questions to consider:

  1. What are some of the strategies you use to discuss business priorities and values?
  2. In what ways do your goals reflect the business goals?
  3. What have you done over the past year to keep your managers/employees informed about how the business is doing?

Building Leadership Capability

Researchers and practitioners have come to understand leaders, leadership, and leadership development in many ways. The implication that future leadership development can provide a more informed understanding of leadership as a practice, involves new skills in collaboration, teamwork, and innovation required to achieving business objectives and results.

I indicated previously that the results of this study suggest a clear shift toward skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. Skill development in this area is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their industries. To create an environment that supports the development of new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently.

Opportunities for leadership development may involve:

  • Challenging assignments that take leaders out of their technical expertise and into a business that involves a broader range of people across the organization.
  • Connecting less experienced leaders with those who already practice participatory management and provide aspiring leaders experiences to actively learn on a day-to-day basis.

Creating Space for Conversations

The results of my research suggest that there may be more conducive approaches to helping to develop organizational opportunities that enable moving from conversation to conversation, and knowing when to create opportunities for spaces for conversations. To clarify, creating space occurs when a leader supports an environment that allows for comfortable, profound conversations, as a way of building opportunities for others. A responsibility for today's leaders is to create space for their managers, a space where distinct businesses and people in the organization come together and have meaningful conversation; a space in which people can generate new and different ideas. Questions leaders might ask to explore the overall change that is occurring in the organization:

  1. Are the types of conversations you have with your managers during times of organizational change building a common understanding of the facts about the change?
  2. What role does your communication efforts play in engaging your managers in key change initiatives?
  3. In leading an organization through change, what questions do you think are important to ask?

Change for Change Management Professionals

The main contribution of my research for practitioner purposes is in highlighting the need to transform the way change management professionals approach communication efforts for senior leaders. There are new avenues to explore for leadership development and for effective organizational change management. It seems that leaders are aware that conversations are a way of intervening strategically. Findings indicate that there was unexpected discovery among my participants that suggests opportunities for executive leadership development (i.e., increasing the ways that a leader employs leadership conversations) and understanding of the multiple ways that effective leaders make meaning of leadership conversations. To be able to adopt the best change implementation strategy, leaders and change agents need to understand the complexity of forces involved when a large-scale change is implemented and know the multiple ways leaders make meaning of leadership conversations to have the greatest impact.

The more organizational change management professionals understand about the influence of leadership conversations on an organization and its leadership, the more they can contribute to the organization's success.

Changing the Conversation

A deeper and broader understanding of how senior leaders experience and interpret their leadership conversations is a significant contribution to understanding the complex organizational change in the business world today and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance, and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change success.

 

About the Author

kathy-cowan-sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy is a Program Manager at Hydro One Networks Inc. in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations in the company. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of the company, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve the company's overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy's professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, California.

In addition to Kathy's corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer and board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.

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