Every morning she walked past the reception into the elevator and pressed the button for the 7th floor. She walked down the long corridor and turned left, at which point she could see her corner office at the end of the hall. Her days were packed with meetings, until the time came for her to retrace her steps and go home. This occurred day in and day out, until someone made two rather mundane observations – she had never spoken to the majority of the staff in her division, and this was a problem.
This vignette was inspired by a story shared with me by Alan Arnett, founder of The Exploration Habit. A suggestion was made that the leader in the vignette make it a priority to stop and talk to someone new each time she was going in or out of the office. Despite spending her days in meetings, this leader found it hard to approach staff that she had never spoken to. How would she break the ice? Would they be nice or just stare blankly? How would she explain why today she stopped to talk to them, after years of just walking past without even a glance or a nod?
Conversation is like a muscle. Without exercise, it atrophies. And just as marathon runners and sprinters each have different muscle composition ranging from slow-twitch and fast-twitch, some individuals are better at presenting in meetings and others are better in spontaneous conversation. But it isn’t due to some genetically determined trait that we’re stuck with, exercise can strengthen the conversational muscle.
The leader found it challenging to change her behavior, but the hardest part was that first encounter. Each time it would become progressively easier; until it ceased to be a concern; until it became habit. It is natural to feel overwhelmed with taking that first step, since breaking the ice is the hardest part. Pedro Medina, social entrepreneur, educator and catalyst, has developed a methodology called SERENDIPITY, which lays out the process from identifying the person to approach to building the relationship. Medina understands serendipity “not just as the happy accident, but as an intentioned happy accident, a directed happy accident, a strategic happy accident.”
Many of us have observed the negative effects of closed-off behavior described in the vignette, either in organizational leaders, or perhaps even in ourselves. And while there are countless experts offering advice on networking, ranging from Harvey Mackay’s Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty to Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone, such solutions are generally focused on the individual rather than the organization. That’s why I was excited to see Anand Rao’s recent post, Why You Need to Build a Culture of Conversations that begins from a deep understanding of the value conversations play in organizational effectiveness.
The biggest danger from the above vignette is that each of us see this as an individual challenge that we need to overcome alone. As Anand tells us, it isn’t just about setting up more meetings on the calendar.
“The culture of conversations goes beyond creating deliberate opportunities to converse. It requires a purposeful intent on the part of the organization to encourage its employees to participate in conversations, and among others share tacit knowledge.”
Does your organization create safe spaces for such conversation?