How conversations help us grow

We don’t develop alone. As a colleague, and as a leader, there are many ways you can contribute to the growth of others. I would like to share some thoughts on how to create an environment where professionals can thrive, together.

Think now for a moment that you have a one-to-one conversation with one of your team members. You ask the person; “can you describe a situation where you feel you performed really well at work?”. Perhaps there is no answer, so you will need to follow up with a few nudges. For example, you say that you perform best when you have a clear goal, and you know why you have this goal. Then you may ask – do you feel the same? They are probably going to agree that this sounds quite good. This could be a conversation starter about what the ideal state of work is – when do we get to be the best versions of ourselves at work?

Conversations are important to people
Humans interact through language. Good conversations at work are essential for fostering growth.

Here’s a list of some plausible factors that people could come up with:

  • We have a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve, together
  • There is room for my opinions to be heard and valued
  • I can use my competence and personal strengths to drive results that are valued by others
  • The work itself is interesting and challenges me to learn
  • We have the necessary time and resources to build fundamental knowledge and skills
  • I get clear feedback and support from my manager
  • We all make an effort to contribute to the success of others
  • Our team enjoys good work-life balance
  • We have realistic career development opportunities (vertical and horizontal)
  • Ambition is welcome

Your list may look different, but variations around purpose, autonomy and community are typically ingredients of most people’s ideal working environment. Caring about what that means for each individual, is the essence of professional empathy. If your job as a leader is to facilitate results through others, how can you do that?  

Humans are good at spotting flaws. Engineers and analysts are perhaps the most skilled of all at this. This is why it is so easy for us to start with a problem when we want to achieve improvement. I think it is better to start by focusing on personal strengths. If you perform work every day where you feel you are not developing, or that your competence is not needed for the type of work being done, it is no wonder if you feel disengaged after a while. The best way to find out if someone’s strengths are matching the work they do, is to ask them. Have a conversation about strengths, and how to best use those strengths in the work we do, as a starting point. That is a much more positive tone and helps build a sense of having value in the work community, as opposed to the more typical approach of focusing on a GAP assessment of a skills matrix.

Professional development is key to the motivation of any professional. Without it, engagement dies. If the organization has no training budget and going to conferences is riddled with bureaucracy and layers upon layers of approval requests, this is likely to hurt employee retention more than factors such as low compensation or a high workload. Training is valuable to each individual, but of course it brings benefits to the organization too. We all know this. Don’t accept a situation where people cannot get training. It is not fair to the employee, and it is not sustainable for the company.

Learning is not only done in trainings. We should aim to learn every day, as individuals, and as organizations. A lot of people have never thought about all the opportunities to learn that exist as part of the work they do every day. As a manager you can improve the effect of learning from doing the work by making it more explicit. For example, during investigation of a particular security incident, analysts learn about new TTP’s, as well as how to detect and stop them. Or, when creating a new policy, discussing with stakeholders and collecting feedback is a great opportunity to learn about the perspectives of different stakeholders. Common to both cases is that this learning is very often wasted. It remains in short-term memory only and can often only be retrieved again by relearning it the next time a need for this knowledge exists. This is why we need to be explicit about expectations to learn on the job.

Everyone should have some time every week to reflect on what has been learned, and what it means for them in the future, as well as for the team and organization as a whole. If we set aside a fixed number of hours for “skills development”, encouraging employees to spend some of that time reflecting on what they have learned on the job over the last week, is an example of good management. Don’t mandate how people reflect or document what they have learned but sharing ideas on how to do it is a good idea. Some like to write a work journal. Some prefer blogging, some would rather create proof of concept code. Most people have never thought about doing this, or what they prefer, so encourage experimentation.

Some things that people learn on the job are mostly improving individual competencies. But some things are worth sharing, and it is good to challenge existing practices when they are suboptimal. This is how we move forward. Those practices can be policies and guidelines, they can be habits, or they can be ways of using technology. Encourage sharing where sharing is due. Encourage challenging the status quo and improving the way things are done. Continuous improvement is not a result of a management standard or policy, it is the result of culture. We need to make it happen. As a leader you should visibly share knowledge, visibly challenge practices, and encourage others to do so too. When people see that you are doing it, and not only talking about it, the message becomes much more powerful. A good place to start inviting such contributions is to take a page from lean management and ask: “what is something we spend time on today that we could stop doing without any harm to the organization or our department?”

Of course, our hypothetical bullet point list of a great working environment that will help us perform at our best, is not only about learning and training. Another important aspect here is relationships at work. This is what we can think of as “work community”. A leader is a catalyst for work community; not necessarily the driver of it but the leader helps the organization choose healthy pathways to build community. From our bullet points, the desire to have room to be have opinions heard and valued, packs a lot in one sentence. What has to be in place for us to have such a situation? We definitely need a certain level of psychological safety, so that people don’t feel threatened of ridicule or being ignored when they raise their voice. We can achieve a sense of psychological safety when we can trust that our surroundings have our best interest in mind. The people we surround us with want us to succeed. At the same time, we must accept disagreement and honesty. We should not expect any idea to be accepted at face value, we should expect, even demand, that every idea is challenged. But it should be challenged constructively, respectfully, and without any implication of us thinking less of the person bringing the idea to the table. Bringing a bad idea to the table is infinitely better than not bringing any ideas to the table. A culture of silence is the place where creativity goes to die. So, what can you do to foster this ideal state where people love to contribute and really feel that their contributions mean something to the department, and to the organization?

One thing you can do to instill trust, is to be vulnerable. Put yourself at risk by sharing your ideas with your team and ask them for feedback. Not the type of feedback often given to managers, such as “OK” or “looks good to me”. Ask for concrete feedback on “what do you like about this suggestion?”, “what do you dislike about it?”, “why do you think so?”, “how can we improve it?”. Let people see that you don’t have all the answers. If the case you are trying to improve is difficult, let people know you think it is difficult. Taking away the notion that you have to know everything is helpful for reducing imposter syndrome.

Empathy is key to trust. We cannot expect to have the same kind or relationship with everyone on the team, or to reduce relationship management to a bullet point list, but we can seek to have valuable and trusting relationships with everyone on the team. To build healthy relationships that foster trust, investing time in working together and in having conversations about both work and life itself, is time well spent. Listen actively in conversations, and care about the ambitions and wants of the other person, as well as the organization. Active listening is a skill worth practicing every day.

Another thing you can do is to think about how you balance relationships versus results.

What have you done lately to support the personal ambitions and career plans of your team members? For example, if one of your the team members has a personal dream of publishing a novel, how would you think about that in terms of your manager-employee relationship? Is it irrelevant to work, should you discourage such ambitious personal plans due to fear of their thoughts being spent on non-work-related projects, or should you support it and help them balance those ambitions with responsibilities and ambitions at work? I know what I think is the best choice, but your view may be different. It is worth thinking about.

And that brings me to the end of this post, thinking. Leadership is difficult. People are complex, and there are so many things that influence how we behave and think. This is why leaders also need support structures. You will have doubts, and you will have seemingly intractable judgments to make. Having a mentor is helpful, someone who can empathize with you as a leader, someone who knows to ask good questions and help you reason. Supporting each other in the leadership team is essential; share your management practices, your doubts, and how that difficult conversation went (while respecting the privacy of your team members, as appropriate). If you want to develop as a leader, I highly recommend finding a good mentor. Good mentors elevate your thinking.

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