There are over 11 million corporate meetings every day in the United States, yet how often do we walk into a corporate meeting wondering why we are there? Or walk out angry that we’ve wasted another precious hour and accomplished nothing?
What makes for a good conversation, or a meaningful meeting? Why are good conversations so elusive? How can we use our communications and leadership skills to ensure that more conversations at work excite participants, enable them to connect deeply with each other, and enhance organizational productivity?
These were some of the questions raised in an NSA/NC Salon held last Sunday, hosted by Wendy Hanson, featuring Chapter President-Elect Jim Ware.
Jim is the author of Changing the Corporate Conversation (forthcoming) and a former Harvard Business School professor who has spent his entire career teaching clients how to invent their own futures. He is the founder and Executive Director of The Future of Work…unlimited, Global Research Director for Occupiers Journal Limited, and a Partner with the FutureWork Forum. He is also a co-founder of the new Great Work Cultures movement.
Jim believes that as leaders in organizations and communications specialists we all have an opportunity — and responsibility — to focus our energy of drawing out the unique insights and experiences that each of us brings to the workplace. Teams that understand the power of collaboration, rooted in authentic conversation, make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
The Social Construction of Reality
My own interest in conversation pre-dates my life in the corporate world. Reading C Wright Mills in my Leicester University Sociology class left an indelible impression. His 1940 paper on Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive explains the social, rather than the psychological, reasons people say what they do in conversation with others. Certain statements will be acceptable in some contexts, not in others. Indeed, as I’ve written here before, the ‘technology of interaction’ in meetings points to a whole raft of unstated assumptions, social norms, cultural influences and power relations underpinning conversations.
Want to see these social forces in action? They’re not difficult to spot. It’s as simple as watching when an idea voiced by a woman in a meeting is ignored, while the same from a man is applauded. Or listening to how much more loudly people laugh at the boss’s jokes than yours.
Following Mills, sociologists such as Garfinkle and Goffman developed the sociology of conversation analysis. In formal meetings, as well as informal interactions, responses which agree with the position advocated tend to be offered sooner than statements that disagree with those positions. One consequence of this is that agreement and acceptance are easier alternatives and a natural outcome of many meetings.
So, next time you’re in a meeting where they call for ‘honest feedback’ just remember the warning of the French philosopher:
But I digress.
To hear some of what Jim shared at the meeting, click on the podcast icon below.