Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Teams becoming ‘real’ teams

Groups are collections of individuals who may be united, perhaps temporarily, by a common goal, but who work independently on their own method of implementation and may each have very different reasons for seeking the particular goal.

A real team is one where the members are more bound to a common purpose and share a sense of identity. They genuinely work together to address cross-boundary and complex issues, and together agree priorities and implementation plans. And they hold each other mutually accountable for results. They benefit tremendously from the capability to conduct dialogue.

The more stakeholders and interfaces involved and the more complex the issues, the greater the need for the group to act as a true team and to be able to dialogue together.

A group that practises dialogue, rather than practise debate or discussion alone, becomes a real team. Sadly, few do. Most try to turn complex problems into what may appear to be more like puzzles with specific solutions that can be argued out or delegated out.

Dialogue leadership skills

Avoiding this discussion-type approach to problems requires a leader who understands what dialogue in action looks like, and has a vision of how they want their team to be: a leader who can model the behaviours of respecting, asking great questions, suspending and voicing.

Particularly challenging are circumstances where a group has to come together quickly and address complex issues as a team. Building the trust in order to dialogue is usually a process that takes significant time investment. In can help to explain the ground rules to the group outlined in Dialogue – accelerating group capability and invite everyone to uphold them. Also, it can be helpful to agree to consciously conduct two parallel team processes:

  1. Addressing the task at hand
  2. ‘Self’-reflection on the process (where ‘self’ means on the one hand the individual and on the other the team).

This can accelerate the team’s learning and development.

Helping new team members

What also poses a challenge is the situation where the composition of the team changes on an ongoing basis. This can be the case where, over the course of 12 to 24 months, a new leader may gradually change out members of the team they inherited and/or members leave of their own accord. Judgement is required as to when a critical mass of new members has joined and significant investment makes sense. But as most teams will have membership turnover for one reason or another, it is wise for all newcomers to be given a clear induction into the team. This should include

  • Clarifying the purpose of the team
  • Clarifying the expected role to be played by the new members
  • The ground rules of mindsets and behaviours
  • Possible assignment of a buddy who is significantly more familiar with how the dialogue process works, and who can explain more outside the team environment.

For teams in a learning organisation, what counts most is tapping the quality of ideas that are available only to teams composed of members who practise a way of working together that gives the team access to the best of their collective, creative thinking.

Larry Levine (1990) on team learning and dialogue

Management teams

It is not surprising that in many organisations there is a collection of functional experts (accounting, purchasing, HR, marketing and so on) at senior levels who are used to being in the mode of ‘knower’. When they make it to the top table, they find they now need to work collaboratively together to pool their views on strategy.  Rather than ‘knowing’ (there is no right or wrong answer to the big strategic questions), formulation of strategy requires that the leader harnesses the collective wisdom of the top team.

Management groups that think together become management teams.

Siobhan Soraghan

Here, dialogue can yield optimum synergy – however few directors are familiar or comfortable with it.  It is not for the faint-hearted so it is usually an enlightened and brave Leader who foresees its potential and takes the plunge to introduce it to their top team.

A key reward for the top team is a shared and enriched mental map of the ‘big picture’ and broader context in which they operate, which benefits the quality of decisions they go on to make in their own area. Another benefit for individual senior managers is better relationships with their peers. This is priceless when embarking on high-risk joint decision-making of any kind: where they may otherwise have felt exposed, they now feel supported.