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Choice over change, any day of the week

When we choose for ourselves we are more committed to the outcome. So, work conversations have to be structured in a way that allows employees to make choices for themselves. For most leaders, I know, this is extremely difficult. They may enter into conversation with colleagues, listen for a while, and then run out of patience and say: ‘Right, this is what we’re going to do.’ Usually they know what the answer is, and they’ve come to a view long ago about what is necessary. They impose their decision, rather than lead their team to the right choices. Doing it this way, however, ignores the choice equation. Giving people time to come to the right conclusions and make the right choices is far more inspiring and gains far more commitment than telling them what to do. Think of the task of leadership not as telling people what to do, but rather as getting your team to want what you want them to want.

In another, different, experiment (one that I personally witnessed), I took part in some team games being carried out by a client. The games were designed to illustrate what was happening in the marketplace, and by playing the game employees would come to a better understanding of the changes that were necessary in their working lives. In one particular session, the facilitators asked a team of eight of us to solve a problem – without speaking. We were able only to nod, shake our heads, gesticulate, wave our hands, point, shrug or roll our eyes. It was remarkable, but somehow we managed to get to a solution. It demonstrated how powerful body language is as part of our system of communication, and made us all much more aware of the impact of body language during conversations – a subject we shall return to later.

There’s only one potential pitfall in all of this. What if you have massively engaged people who then keep running into organizational barriers because they’re not empowered to make decisions nor enabled to carry out their jobs? Result? Lack of performance and, even worse, frustration and resentment.

The moral? Any process of engagement must also deliver empowerment. The one without the other will be frustrating in the extreme for all parties involved.

Too often, leaders think of communication not as a process of conversations, but as a process of broadcasting messages through corporate channels of communication. They use newsletters, e-mails, corporate videos, intranet sites and other means of ‘push’ communication. Some even spend considerable time doing this. And then they wonder why nobody seems to have heard, why nobody understands, and why nobody has changed the way they behave.

The reason is simple. Face-to-face communication is always best. Using the phone or videoconferencing is next best, but effectiveness is more limited the more people that are involved. The least effective tool in driving change is e-mail or text-based messaging. Why? Because, at best, written communications will inform or instruct but cannot guarantee understanding, support, commitment and new behaviours.

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