Are workplaces that have engaged employees also environments that are conversational cultures? I posed that question after a webinar delivered by engagement experts, Quantum Workplace. The response was that while conversation was a part of engagement practices, engaged cultures were not necessarily conversational in character. I’ve been pondering this for a few days, and am unsure if that is an accurate observation.

businessman_zipping_mouthWhat defines an engaged culture and what defines a conversational one is open to debate. It may be comparing apples to oranges. My suggestion, though, is that a disengaged culture inherently excludes conversation, and even an engaged workplace culture would show higher performance if it were more conversational.

What does a culture of engagement look like? The Institute of Employment Studies defines engagement as: “A positive attitude held by the employee towards the organization and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organization. The organization must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employer and employee.”

“Virtually everyone I see is experiencing some deficiency of human contact…  people feel lonely, isolated, or confused at work.”
Edward Hallowell

Similarly to Dan Pink’s arguments on what drives us, engagement is not just motivation and goes beyond job satisfaction, which is transitory and transactional in nature. It can be seen as a combination of commitment to the organization and its values and a willingness to help out colleagues or, in other words, to be a good organizational citizen. Engagement is something the employee has to offer: it cannot be ‘required’ as part of the employment contract. In that sense, engagement requires the employer to engage the employee; it is not a passive activity. The organization has to take proactive steps to ensure an engaged workforce, reflecting something of Buber’s I-You relationship instead of the I-It relationship (see a previous post here on Buber’s thinking).

Engagement requires a sense of belonging within the organization, with friendships and willing teamwork a part of the usual way of doing business. Operational contexts and systems that place people and teams in silos or, worse, create goals and structures that engender political tension and internecine competition are hindering the ability of employees to create an environment for organizational citizenship.

The workplace culture is what will be heard in the cafeteria, the cubicles and the corridors. Employees talk about and demonstrate culture in their beliefs and stories, in their behaviors and actions. In the end, the internal culture is expressed through the lens of human narrative and experiences.

A conversational culture is one where what it values, what it does and how it structures itself honors the following principles:

  • Curiosity and Openness: An attitude of openness, where questioning is the norm, and boundaries between departments and teams are permeable. We should enthusiastically converse with people whose knowledge and experience are at the edges of our own, triggering what Frans Johansson calls the “Medici Effect,” from which innovation arises. A closed culture is the opposite of autonomy and mastery, which Dan Pink says are necessary to drive us to higher performance.
  • Chance: Business is afraid of change. Modern business practices are built around conformity. A conversation has a will of its own. The power of conversation lies in its unpredictability. There is nothing wrong with talking about a specific issue or on a determined topic, but the absence of an agenda allows serendipity free reign, and helps us learn to deal with uncertainty. As philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah observes, “the point about conversation is that it doesn’t have a point.”
  • Empathy: Feeling and seeing as others do is essential for design thinking, highly productive sales, engaging customers, and anchoring executives to the realities of the workplace. A lack of empathy in executive leadership may affect the entire organizational culture, imbuing it with what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “collective narcissism.” Goleman asserts that “The best bosses are people who are trustworthy, empathic, and connected.”
  • Passions not Job Titles: While we sometimes associate our jobs with who we are, we do not typically identify our true selves as our job. People usually have interesting passions beyond their job title, which we don’t want to check at the workplace door.
  • Silence: “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation,” said Cicero. Listening requires diligence. In our silence we can sense the emotions, hidden meaning and physical language of our colleagues. It also allows time for reflection and a deepening of our understanding. Silence also frees conversation itself to evolve and move to unexpected places. You cannot engage unless you know how to be quiet.
  • Courage: Brené Brown asserts that courage is vulnerability. Sometimes, we must take the plunge and remove our masks, despite the pressure on us at work to “perform” to the job description or the political expectations. Difficult conversations require courage. The ongoing activity of conversation facilitates our ability to sidle up incrementally, bit by bit, to challenging and difficult issues.

Organizations that model themselves around the Institute of Employment Studies’ observation that engagement is a two-way street, requiring the organization to create the circumstances for engagement, are those organizations whose culture will seek to incorporate those aspects of a conversational culture I have referenced, and will embrace a conversational environment.