Work gets done in conversations. Specifically, conversations where ideas get discussed and actions get taken. I’ve observed that there are times at work when relating to the person who has hierarchical authority as “the boss” doesn’t serve the conversation. There are times when we want to get rid of the “authority hangover”. In those moments, we need to be able to switch to relating to each other as peers in order to fully engage in the topic of discussion. There’s an opportunity for both parties in a conversation to clarify up front the purpose of the conversation they’re about to have and whether or not there is a role purpose for hierarchical authority in that dialogue. This is why every conversation could use a preamble.
Without a preamble to our conversation, we run the risk of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
DEFERENCE: IN THE URGENCY OF THE MOMENT
The hierarchical nature of a leader’s role is akin to the authority of a skipper on a racing yacht. The crew’s deference to the skipper’s role authority and decision making is what’s required to win the race. Decisions are communicated efficiently—and sometimes in a manner that would negatively impact relationships in any other setting—so actions can be taken in seconds to maximize speed. Anything less would destroy the efficacy of the crew. If we establish before we set sail that role hierarchy will be the context of our conversations during the race, we eliminate any interpersonal strife and leave ourselves free to focus on sailing towards victory with velocity.
Make sure the crew know there’s no disrespect intended during the race: it’s all about executing our roles for high performance.
DIALOGUE: IN MOMENTS OF REFLECTION
Not all moments at work warrant relating to each other in this hierarchical way. There are times when we want people to relate to us as peers. Moments when we don’t want the hierarchical nature of our functional roles restraining our dialogue and limiting our performance.
An assistant vice president I was coaching recently wanted to know how to take the subtle threat of hierarchy out of a conversation she wanted to have with one of her program directors. She was considering two very different aspirational futures for her business unit, and she wanted to explore with him what each might entail. She was scheduled to talk with him on another matter, and so this would require that she help him switch to relating to her as a peer in the middle of a conversation.
Together, we designed a concise preamble to make that transition.
First, declare what the purpose of the conversation will be. In this case, she wanted to discuss two possible futures she was considering for the unit.
Second, acknowledge the value of the other person’s perspective. As assistant vice president, my client was not all-seeing and all-knowing. In fact, she has had no direct contact with customers and frontline employees for the past two years, while the program director had. He would have a point of view and opinions that could inform their collective thinking.
Third, invite the other person to be in the conversation as a peer. The intention would be to explore all ideas they came up with as if they had equal authorship for all of them. That meant that her ideas would not be given preference based on her role authority.
Fourth, clarify that the conversation is to learn together from each other, but that the final decision will be yours to make. By stating who the ultimate decision maker is, it clarifies for both people the boundary between peerful and hierarchical relationship.
The program director seamlessly took up her invitation. Together, as peers collaboratively brainstorming possibilities, they created a third option that the assistant vice president had not seen. That option, although more aggressive than the other two, could enroll other key stakeholders in a larger initiative that had stalled for lack of additional resources. By deftly shifting the context to a conversation of equals, she was able to simultaneously build relationship and produce unexpected results.
As leaders, sometimes we have to go out of our way to address the invisible dynamics of role authority. When we do, people can relate to us without deference or reverence. ln these moments, we come together as two people committed to the same outcome to share what we see and effectively get work done.