We all talk: sometimes to particular persons; sometimes to anyone who will listen; and sometimes to ourselves when we can’t find anyone to listen. In this blog, however, we’re only interested in a certain kind of talk: conversation--and just conversation within the business context. Indeed, we believe business conversation, whether face-to-face, or in texts and emails, is a unique technology made necessary by the knowledge economy. So the old saw, “stop talking and go to work,” is now outdated and obsolete.
Two young salmon are swimming upstream. From a distance they see an older salmon swimming towards them, downstream. As the young salmon cross paths with the older salmon, the elder says “The water’s nice today, huh boys?” The young salmon say nothing. Then one of the younger salmon looks to the other and says, “What the fuck is water?”
Based on more than 40 years of experience and a great deal of communication and behavioral research, we’ve concluded that in the knowledge economy, conversation is the real business of business. This is a reflection of how the skills of the economy have changed in historic ways. And it’s also a fact hidden in plain sight. Years ago, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, obsessed with the difficulties of language, pointed out that because of their simplicity and familiarity, the things that are most important for us are hidden. In other words, you don’t see something if it’s always in front of your nose. That’s why we don’t easily recognize what’s most striking and most powerful—that business first and foremost is about conversations.
Conversation is the foundation of all other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances. This conclusion leaves a lot of people out. Some of them went into their jobs hoping they wouldn’t have to talk much. Most have no humanities courses to support conversational skills. If, like many, they’ve had a communication course or two, conversation won’t have been in the mix. Furthermore, most grew up in families that were conversationally challenged. The consequence is
Now, mostly dead is slightly alive. In “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman.
Sometimes it’s just a verbal tic. But a significant group of generally smart professionals periodically shoot themselves in the foot with its use. They can resolve a problem, break it down into bits and pieces for a solid resolution--and even explain their rationale. But along the way their input loses its credibility for a simple reason: they don’t understand that hedges limit their credibility.
It’s not just the Upper Midwesterners who hedge, but New Yorkers, Virginians and even Californians. Furthermore, it’s not just women who do it: a surprising share of men do the same thing. This small behavior happens too frequently—and inevitably means...
Question any leader or executive about their success and eventually they’ll tell you that their mentor played a big role. Today, however, there is no Jedi-Master Yoda, wise and powerful, taking on people and unlocking the paths to business immortality. The onus is now yours to find numerous mentors, build the relationships, learn from them, weave the skills together and create your successful identity. No single master, but a collage of mentors.
The need for mentorship is more profound than ever: success without mentors is nearly impossible. Compounding the issue is that choice assignments in this hypercompetitive world are in short supply. So it’s the mentored employee who will be presented with better opportunities, faster promotions and top salaries.
Even worse, research reveals job performance does not impact what happens to most people in most organizations...
I kid you not. That’s the actual title of research reported in the Journal of Management Studies. One of the authors, Mats Alvesson, has a long history of ground-breaking research. And this is another feather in his cap. Not quirky, it’s really, really smart and very useful research.
This is one of those studies which tell you more than you want to know about how organizations actually work. The researchers don’t screw around. They nail organizational BS to the wall. What’s unique about the research are...
It’s the smart folk that do well in business. At least that’s what we’re told—and I suspect that to some degree it’s true. But if it’s the smart folk, what really is smarts? Or, to put it in a more academic framework: what is intelligence?
Cognitive psychologists have played around with these issues for decades and they’ve arrived at similar conclusions. Typical is that of Harvard’s well-known Howard Gardner, who first captured my attention in 1983 with his study of “Multiple Intelligences:” To my mind, a human intellectual competence must entail
Identifying African behavior as stereotypical is dangerous stuff. I've learned from experience to issue caveats about most any racial or ethnic stereotype, admit to stereotyping and beg forgiveness--especially before using an ethnic or racial stereotype. Even then, you're liable to have to push through assumptions, in spite of the fact that the use of stereotype can be highly valuable for explaining behavior.
However, one of my young friends recently expressed his frustration at Nigerian and Somali friends who call to say they're in town and want to go out for a drink the same night. After experiencing this behavior on numerous occasions, he asked why they don't ever give him advance notice so that he won't have to reschedule his time to meet with them. They both responded, "It’s just African." In our diverse culture that kind of...
In business, as in other vocations, what’s not said is often far, far more important than what is said. Indeed, sometimes people lose their jobs, opportunities, a raise or a promotion because they fail to understand what’s not said. So, in many of my posts, when I write about “subtexts,” I’m referring to these covert meanings, hidden commitments, “undiscussables,”or what's not said.
Reading a conversation can provide unstated information on such things as organizational politics, influence, needed adaptations, special expertise, and the potential, or lack thereof, for collaboration on specific issues. It reveals such things as how to...
David Brooks beat me to the punch again. I had half finished a blog on Geoff Colvin’s fascinating new book, “Humans Are Underrated,” planning to finish it in the next couple weeks. But no, he reviewed it in a superb column, “The New Romantics,” emphasizing business’ return to the importance of the relational. Still, there’s a lot more to be said about Colvin’s seminal work.
Colvin emphasizes that most business tasks are relational (i.e. conversational). Ironically, technological forces are actually driving the need for relational or conversational skills. Case in point: tech project managers are essentially conversationalists. (They don’t code and for that matter don’t need to know how to code. They just need to understand coding and what it can do. But they’re responsible for making certain those development jobs get done well and on time.) Recently I checked out project management positions available just in the city of Minneapolis. Linkedin surfaced 801 openings in a couple seconds. A friend of mine, recruiting for a staff augmentation firm, told me that a good tech project manager in Minneapolis can get up to $140-$150,000.
Reframing the competition with computing. Colvin’s point is that trying to figure out what computers can’t do and getting an education to fill that need is wrongheaded. The driving question is...
Analysis of business conversations inevitably reveals that they are chock full of misunderstanding, differences of opinion and inherent disagreement. Yet, it has been more than a dozen years since anything significant on managing conflict has been created. But in a recent and highly awarded study UVA’s Kristin Behfar and her colleagues have provided a new, very practical approach to conflict prediction and resolution.
Rather than focus on conflict types, such as task or relationship orientation, they found that by manipulating two dimensions—directness and intensity—they were able to predict conflict success or failure.
Directness is defined as how straightforward—or “direct”—measured by words and body language somebody communicates information to the other person. Intensity is seen as the emotional component. Is the information presented on almost a matter-of-fact basis—or does it involve...