The essence of a dialogue is an enquiry that surfaces ideas, perceptions and understanding, which people do not already have. Thus, people use dialogues when they explore uncertainties and questions that no one has answers to. In this way they begin to think together, and use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom.
Dialogue is useful in some situations, but not in all. For instance, dialogue may be a potent catalyst for enabling leaders to create a winning strategy, or integrating large amounts of complex information into a coherent picture of the organisation’s current position in relation to its wanted position. It can help leaders face and make tough strategic choices, help down-the-line management and other employees come to terms with uncertainties and find trust in and enhance the strategic direction. A real dialogue is one that helps people gain further understanding, which means that dialogues are less helpful when solving operational well-understood problems.
At its best, conversation is an equal opportunity endeavour. It enables people to share ownership of the substance of their conversation. As a consequence, they can put their own ideas, their hearts and souls into the conversational arena. Inclusive leaders raise the level of emotional engagement, which employees bring to the organisation’s purpose and meaning, and turn them into conversation partners. This sets the stage for an open dialogue, fluid and with unpredictable vitality, rather than a closed and directive monolog by the leader. Today, social media gives leaders and employees capabilities to invest in an effective organisational setting with the style and spirit of a dialogue.
A leader should strive to balance the conversation in order to promote learning, since participants take different roles. Some people offer direction and initiate ideas, while others complete what is said and support what is happening. Some challenge what is being said and others provide perspective on what is being said. When necessary, the leader must balance these roles and look for ways to maintain the balance in people’s interactions, e.g. strengthening opposing arguments to what is heard and discussed or reinforce bystanders to take more active part in the dialogue. With the ambition to differentiate and integrate differences in viewpoints, the leader needs to pay attention to what is missing in the conversation and encourage others to contribute with the missing parts. An atmosphere of respect encourages people to look for the sense in what others are saying and thinking. Having an open mind to new thoughts, impulses and judgments lies at the very heart of the concept of dialogue.
To enhance an organisation’s capability to define the strategic direction and execute upon it, leaders need to view the organisation as a living human system capable of renewal. The key dimensions for defining and executing a strategic direction are quality of direction, quality of learning and quality of implementation. To strengthen these dimensions, leaders need to establish social operating mechanisms and use them in honest ways. Tightly linked and consistently practiced, such mechanisms establish clear lines of accountability for making decisions and executing them.