Powerful Conversations In Organisations

Have you ever experienced a problem within your organisation that you decided to tolerate rather than address? Whether they're seemingly smaller-scale problems like a new employee expense-tracking system that’s confusing to use and demands more time from people than the old system did; annual performance review processes that lack a coaching approach; or the fact that the weekly team meeting always starts 15mins later than scheduled. 

You may also have encountered larger-scale problems, such as a demotivated sales team with a long record of hitting well below their targets despite constant "pep talks" from their team leader; a high turnover of executive level staff; or tenders for certain project types that are always lost to the competition. 

It’s a tragedy when organizational problems like these are accepted as “status quo”. As just the way things are. 

It has been my observation that this unhealthy tolerance occurs when people are confronted with the discomfort of facing the problem and choose what they believe is the easier option to ignore and tolerate the problem. Which is actually the harder option. It causes way more discomfort in the long-term to ignore and tolerate a problem. 


Ignoring and tolerating is a recipe for underperformance. 


It’s also a recipe for frustration within the organisation as well as frustration for customers and other stakeholders. A lose-lose.

Fortunately, there’s a way to address organizational problems like these that is both effective and enjoyable. 

So how do you effectively tackle organizational problems? 

We have Aristotle to thank for being one of the early pioneers to define two types of problems in the world. Simple problems and complex problems. He defined simple problems as problems that have a definite answer. Problems like “What’s the floor area of this room?”, “How do I fix my broken car radiator?” or “What’s the distance from here to the moon?" Aristotle explained that the tools to solve simple problems like these are logic and analysis. The answer to simple problems may require skilled expertise, detailed knowledge, and expensive measuring instruments, but the answers exist and they can be discovered by applying logic and analysis. 

Aristotle defined the second type of problem, complex problems, as problems that do not have just one answer. Problems like “What kind of government should Indonesia adopt?”, “How can we provide quality education for every child?”, or even “What should we have for dinner tonight?”. These are complex problems because they do not have one correct answer. The vast majority of organizational problems are complex problems. Problems like “How can I motivate my sales team?”, “How can we ensure our executives want to stay with us for the longer-term?”, or “How can we make our annual performance review processes more effective?” Aristotle explained that the tool for solving complex problems like these is: conversation.¹

A conversation between all parties involved that allows everyone to express their view, to brainstorm possible solutions, and to create a way forward together that results in a collaborative and action-based project (or number of projects) that has the buy-in and support of all involved. With agreed accountability for the project components. 

This kind of conversation puts an end to any “us vs them” thinking, which is often one of the causes of the problem in the first place. 

After running many of these kinds of conversations in organisations, I’ve seen that they work best when all parties show up with a willingness to unconditionally respect all members of the conversation, to listen deeply, to suspend prior opinions, and to voice what needs to be said. These are the Socratic principles for powerful conversations. Conversations like these create powerful outcomes.². 

Conversations like these allow the uncomfortable questions to be asked and discussed constructively without people getting defensive. They provide the necessary foundations for a creative response that effectively addresses the problem/s being faced.  

These conversation principles apply to both a one-one coaching conversation where organizational leaders work with a good coach, as well as a whole group conversation where a quality facilitator works with a team or multiple representatives from different teams in a workshop setting. 

I’ve seen impressive results for leaders and teams who have applied these conversational principles to their organizational problem-solving. Some of these stories include a demotivated sales team who sprang into life and consistently outperformed targets after implementing a highly visual tracking system for their sales activity; a management consulting firm who saw their projects shift from being always over budget to coming in well under budget by having clearer accountability for project tasks and reducing the size of project teams; a professional services firm who saw a significant increase in employee motivation after implementing a coaching approach in their annual performance review processes; and a large government department in the child protection space who built a brand-new building that brought together multiple service providers under the one roof (literally) for the very first time to enable swifter collaboration and response times.³

This process only worked in the examples above because the leaders of these organisations understood the importance of committing the necessary chunks of time for powerful conversations about the particular problems they were facing and bringing the right people together in the room for these conversations. The right people were people who were ready to practise unconditional respect, to listen deeply, to suspend their opinions, and to have the courage to speak what needed to be spoken. 

David McDermott


¹ Aristotle, Rhetoric

² Steve Chandler, Time Warrior

³ William Isaacs, Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together