The old ways of doing business through power, hierarchy and individualism are no longer working and have been replace by the values of partnership, relationship and organizational learning. It is easy to understand why the ability to foster openness, dialogue and understanding is a competitive advantage today. It not only makes good business sense but it impacts all the learning that goes on in the organization. Let’s take a look at these three concepts in more depth.
Openness. Openness is the means for engendering full participation of a group and avoiding get locked into “groupthink.” One way to create a climate of openness is to establish common ground rules about how you want to conduct business. Group norms (often called “house rules”) establish a common set of behavioral expectations, which, when implemented, help maintain focus. Group norms are agreements regarding promptness, participation, accountability,confidentiality, and decorum. Enforcing group norms avoids misunderstandings and disagreements which distract attention and get in the away of a planned agenda. To be effective, they must be agreed on by all members of the group. When first adopted, they may seem awkward and “different.” When you establish group norms, be sure to set aside time to evaluate if they are working for you or need to be modified. Too frequently, “house rules” are adopted and then put aside as soon as more immediate and urgent matters are on the table. Maintaining openness requires discipline and evaluation all the time.
Dialogue. Dialogue is the glue of effective decision making. It is not synonymous with discussion, transaction or exchange of information. Rather, it is a spirited process by which a group moves beyond the understanding of a single individual toward the co-creation of shared meaning.Dialogue helps establish and keep the big picture perspective at the forefront, raises the level of discourse, and builds a common language. Says management guru Peter Senge, dialogue helps “individuals gain insights that simply could not be achieved.” When a group is in dialogue, collaborative learning takes place because people are engaged in the process of pooling of knowledge and experience. People don’t get hung up on personalities or style. Substance is the order of the day. Dialogue promotes exploration of complex and difficult issues from many different points of view. In fact, a new kind of mindset emerges as new insights surface. Decisions are made at a deeper more thoughtful level.
Understanding. John Gardner 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.” Very often decisions are rushed because of a deadline and therefore made without full understanding of an issue. When this happens implementation is not likely to be successful because people still retain differing perceptions of what that implementation ought to look like. Especially in these turbulent times, grounding decision-making with full understanding of the issues at hand is critical. Take time to create common factual and conceptual grounding before making a decision. No one is well served by a decision based on misunderstanding.
While the concept of soft skills, at first, seems so basic, embedding them in how an organization conducts its business 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.”
Openness, dialogue and understanding can prompt new ways of thinking and acting. Soft skills are not about eliminating information or giving short shrift to due diligence. By increasing the capacity of individuals through soft skill development, intellectual capital can be more effectively harnessed. A short term investment of time and energy becomes a long term gain. Openness promotes the necessary climate for dialogue. Dialogue is the glue that creates a deeper level of understanding. Understanding promotes effective decision-making. These intertwined soft skills are powerful, albeit subtle, workhorses in today’s changing organizations. Fostering development of soft skill practices in a corporate culture can help employees become more confident, competent and decisive. In these times of increasing complexity and uncertainty, we need soft skill development more than ever.