by Lois Zachary
Do you often rush decision-making because of a deadline? You don’t have time to get input or have a full understanding of the issue. Then, when it comes to implementation, does it feel like your team is going in one direction or various directions and not the way you want? What happened?
The old way of doing business through power, hierarchy and individualism has been displaced by a workplace that values partnership, relationship and organizational learning. As a result, soft skills development has become an essential part of the corporate training and development toolkit.
Creating and maintaining openness, using dialogue effectively, and checking for understanding are likely to become the new generation of soft skills basics because of their power to foster collaboration.
While soft skills as a concept seems so basic, embedding them in an organizational culture is a complex, complicated and continuous challenge. How is it that seemingly soft skills require such hard work? Mike Hammer, re‑engineering maven, reminds us that “the hard stuff is the soft stuff.”
Creating and maintaining openness can help you engage full participation from the groups with which you work and avoid getting stuck in the quicksand of “group-think.” Ground rules are a normative set of behavioral expectations, which, when implemented, help maintain group focus. They are agreements regarding promptness, participation, accountability, confidentiality, and decorum.
Using group norms helps maintain individual accountability and avoids misunderstandings and disagreements which can distract attention away from a planned agenda. At first, they may seem awkward and “different.” Too frequently, ground rules are adopted and then put aside as more immediate and urgent matters appear. You will want to be sure to set aside time to evaluate them to see if they are working for you or need to be modified. The ground rules you use to create an open environment lay a firm foundation for dialogue.
Dialogue is the glue of effective decision-making. It is a spirited process which can help move a group beyond the understanding of any single individual toward the co‑creation of shared meaning. It requires openness by those participating in it.
Dialogue helps establish and keep the big picture perspective at the forefront, and raises the level of discourse, which builds a common language. According to Peter Senge, the director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT, dialogue helps “individuals gain insights that simply could not be achieved in other ways . . . ” When a group is in dialogue, people are engaged and focused in the process of pooling knowledge and experience. People don’t get hung up on personalities or style. Instead, substance is the order of the day. Decisions are made at a deeper more thoughtful level.
In the time crunch which characterizes today’s compressed decision-making process, dialogue is often short-changed or completely overlooked.
The next time you need to explore complex and difficult issues consider the advantages of using dialogue to facilitate the process. You will find that the emergence of many different points of different points of view surfaces a new kind of mindset, one that is dynamic, energizing and more thoughtful than you thought possible. One of the best sources for how‑to guidance is a readily available paperback called, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization
Understanding is deepened and embraced more fully in an open climate where it is as established way of doing business. John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Labor, reminds us that “Without some grasp of the meaning of their relationship to the whole, it is not easy for individuals to retain a vivid sense of their own capacity to act as individuals, a sure sense of their own dignity, and an awareness of their roles and responsibilities.”
To fully understand, you need a context. If you often rush decision-making because of a deadline and without full understanding of the challenge, you’ve probably noticed that the implementation is not successful. When team members have differing perceptions of what that implementation ought to look like, they probably have a different understanding of the problem.
Especially in these unpredictable economic times, grounding decision‑making in full understanding of the issues at hand is critical. Take time to create common factual and conceptual grounding before making a decision and remember that no one is well served by a decision based on misunderstanding.
Creating and maintaining openness, using dialogue effectively, and checking for understanding are key soft skills for today’s competitive organizations. These three soft skills are subtle workhorses that take time to become part of an organizational culture. When used appropriately they can prompt powerful new ways of thinking and acting.
Lois Zachary is the President of Leadership Development Services, LLC. and an international expert on mentoring and leadership development. She has written several books on mentoring. The newest one is The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships. Other books include Creating a Mentoring Culture: The Organization’s Guide, and The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You.