The art of conversation

Nigel Purse and Nick Cowley highlight the importance of authentic, two-way conversations to build trust and engagement.

Many organisations promote an approach where leaders are expected to be decisive, compelling, visionary individuals. Photo credit: Fotolia 
In so many organisations, leaders seem to have forgotten (or failed to learn) the importance of genuine human interaction: of building personal trusting relationships with those they lead. Maybe it’s because it’s only recently that we’re starting to understand the correlation between a worker’s productiveness and their relationship with their manager.  
More Features 

How to establish a culture of growth and development 

The challenges of matrix management

Overcoming noisy communication​

The challenge of free will 

A Fortune 500 financial services company recently hired Robert – a senior executive from a competitor – to succeed their long-standing and successful CEO. Robert was widely respected as a shrewd and technically-savvy operator in the business. Robert’s role was to run a major part of the business for two years before becoming the new CEO. The organisation lined up behind the plan and analysts, investors and commentators were all informed.
Yet, Robert never stepped up: he moved into another operational role with a competitor. The CEO was embarrassed to have lost his successor, analysts marked the business down and the stock price dipped. Robert was a diligent worker, showing up early every morning and working late into the evenings.
He moved into his office on the C-suite level of a tower block in Canary Wharf, putting in place an infrastructure of processes, reports and regular meetings in order to manage the part of the business for which he was responsible. He published his vision for the future of the business, defining what values it would stand for. He had meetings with customers and analysts, and overall was efficient and business-like. 
However, within a few months of Robert’s move to the company, a key member of his team left for a competitor and then another. A third transferred to another part of the business. Performance dipped and key individuals continued either to leave or to make it clear internally that they were looking to do so.
“We couldn’t work for him,” we were told by executives attempting to work under Robert, “It was just too hard. You never knew where you were with him. One day he would be charming and warm; the next he would cut you off at the knees in a meeting.
He never left his office or walked round the business and talked to people. It was impossible to build a relationship with him. We never once had discussions about our development or personal goals. It was all transactional – just about the business and the performance targets. It just stopped being any fun. There’s only so long that you can take this. The best people in his team simply walked.
Why would you put yourself through that when you don’t have to? In the end, the CEO realised he had zero credibility as his successor and they agreed he would resign and they would manage it as an amicable departure, but no one is really under any illusion as to what has actually happened.”
New era of leadership
We believe that there is now compelling evidence exposing the need to enter a new era of leadership, an era in which the importance of the relationships leaders have with their teams is properly acknowledged. Relationship has always been at the heart of effective leadership, but only in the sense that the best leaders have known this instinctively.
In many organisations today, relationships are viewed as an additional extra rather than an element of any good leader’s primary toolkit. As evidence of the clear link between people’s engagement and their performance at work has emerged, some organisations have begun to make the quality of the relationships leaders form with their teams a priority. 
Some have gone as far as setting explicit expectations of leaders concerning the building and sustaining of trusting relationships, seeing this as a key part of their role and showing them how to do it.
At the Oxford Group, we have not only witnessed this first hand, we’ve also had the opportunity to partner with organisations to make this new, people-centred approach a reality.
In many organisations the idea that proactively building trusting relationships is a central part of a leader’s responsibilities is either absent or even actively rejected. Many organisations promote an approach where leaders are expected to be decisive, compelling, visionary individuals.
Their drive and force of personality is valued over their ability to form relationships with their team. Whether these leaders have trusting relationships with those working under them has little to do with their perceived ability as a leader or what is expected of them. This view is enshrined in the ‘leadership curriculum’ and ‘competency frameworks’ of many organisations.
Indeed a school of thought still exists that leaders should not get ‘too close’ to their people, for fear of undermining their authority. We have even recently heard the outdated view advocated that effective leaders ‘keep people on their toes by instilling a bit of fear and uncertainty.’
In today’s world of work where you need people to bring their intelligence, creativity, passion and commitment to their work, such an approach is doomed to failure. Indeed we will argue this is a deeply unhelpful view of what effective leadership looks like.
We hope to show that working to build trusting relationships is the first and most profound duty of as a leader. When you have trusting relationships with the people in your team, anything is possible; when trust is absent, little of long term, sustainable value can be achieved.
Power of dialogue
It is possible to work at building effective, trusting relationships by rediscovering the power of honest, authentic dialogues. Throughout human history people have used all sorts of forms of communication to build trust and form collaborative groups.
Language is ultimately the foundation of civilisation, but somehow today in a world of technology, which connects London with Sydney, in which the other side of the world is a shadow’s width away – we’ve forgotten this simple, fundamental truth. As humans, we can’t function effectively without relationships. The quality of our lives depends to a great extent on the quality of the relationships we have, and our performance at work is just as strongly influenced.
There is overwhelming evidence from professionals working in the field, research academics and government investigations, that where employees have high levels of engagement, there is a transformational impact on organisational performance.
This research also reveals the way that employees perceive their relationship with their immediate leader to be the primary cause of these feelings of engagement. Relationships, therefore, are not something you can take or leave: they are a fundamental aspect or a leader or organisation’s ability to attract the best candidates, maintain the best employees and to get the best out of them day-to-day.
Leadership is about the trust, understanding, humanity, stewardship and concern you show those you lead. Leadership is innately relational; no relationship, no leadership. If you can build authentic, trusting relationships, enable them to flourish and add value to their lives, you will earn their loyalty as well as inspiring lasting commitment.
 “How employees feel about their job starts and ends with their direct supervisor,” global research organisation Gallup says. “If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they are very likely to be engaged. If companies throughout your country hire the right people to lead and actively encourage the engagement of their workforces, economic dominance will be sure to follow.”
Effective leaders, then, use authentic dialogues to build trusting, productive relationships with those they lead. Focusing on making these conversations part of your daily life, both at work and elsewhere, will not only make you an effective leader but also enhance your life more broadly, giving you a deep sense of fulfilment. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, there’s growing evidence that you can deepen your relationships by purposefully building these conversations into your working life.
You don’t need to be a great conversationalist for this to work. You don’t even have to be particularly articulate; you just have to be authentic, approaching each conversation with a genuine interest in, and intention of understanding, your colleague more deeply, providing support and encouragement and showing care and stewardship.
We’ve worked with thousands of leaders in hundreds of organisations around the world and identified five core conversations used by the most effective leaders to build trusting, productive relationships:
Establish that relationship: A conversation aimed at deep mutual understanding between yourself and colleague of your respective preferences, motivators, de-motivators and drivers, enabling you both to figure out what makes the other tick.
Agree mutual expectations: A conversation about both what you’re trying to achieve at work, and why. From this conversation you should be able to draw an understanding of what you can expect of each other in terms of support.
Show genuine appreciation: A conversation helping a team member focus on where they are being successful, on jointly understanding the reasons for their success, showing how much you appreciate their contribution and identifying further ways in which they can use their skills and talents to benefit both the organisation and themselves.
Challenging unhelpful behaviour: A conversation to establish a more effective set of behaviours in cases where a team member’s actions are impeding team performance.
Building for the future: A conversation which explores a team member’s aspirations, allowing you to create an environment in which that team member can build their future career within your organisation.
They may seem obvious, but every leader we talk to agrees that in modern working life these conversations either don’t happen enough, or don’t happen at all.
These conversations are neither additional dialogues to be thrown into an already busy working day, nor are they a linear set of operations to achieve a final end goal. The most effective leaders have internalised these principles, moving smoothly from one to the next during their day-to-day interaction with their team.
Ending up off track or stumbling over your words doesn’t rob a conversation of its power for positive change. What people respond to is authenticity; genuine interest and intention to make a meaningful connection.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Groysberg and Slind describe the “new reality of leadership communication” as having two drivers:
Generational change – millennials and other younger workers gaining a foothold in organisations have increased the expectation for dynamic, two-way communication.
Technological change – the ubiquity of the internet and the constant rise and spread of social media, has begun to render a reliance on older, less conversational channels of communication untenable.
Contrast the approach we outline with the old, top-down model of business communication. “Smart leaders today,” say Groysberg and Slind, “engage with employees in a way that resembles ordinary person-to- person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.” 
We can also make a helpful contrast with the conventional Performance Management process, which frequently places the focus on the system and paperwork rather than the relationship or quality of the conversations.
Consider the ‘process’ of performance management as distinct from the ‘spirit’: the process focuses on entering the data, holding the appraisal sessions on time. By comparison the spirit should be an authentic and honest dialogue between manager and team member to understand achievements, strengths, future focuses and the development they need in order to grow, and to be fulfilled in their role and ultimately their career.
In our book, 5 Conversations, we explore the evidence for the way in which the quality of your working relationships with team members drives their willingness to go the extra mile and their commitment and intention to stay.
We explain the way in which these factors prove crucial to team and organisational performance, and how to integrate these five specific conversations into your day-to-day leadership practices. We also show you how to make the critical changes of mindset that will lead you to make a permanent emotional commitment to leading in this way.
By trying this new way of leading you will feel the power of building deeper and more trusting relationships, hear the feedback of your team and hopefully see the change in the next financial report. 
About the author 

Nigel Purse is the chairman and director of The Oxford Group and he can be contacted at: Nick Cowley is director and head of management development at The Oxford Group for more information contact



Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *