Conversations: The Most Important Leadership Tool

Let’s start with one radical idea…

The only tool a leader really needs to build high-performing teams is communication.

Honestly, all good leadership comes down to communication.

Today’s leaders achieve far more employee engagement and credibility when they take part in genuine conversation with people at work — either with those who work for them or with them.

A conversation, at its core, is a frank exchange of ideas and information with an implicit or explicit agenda.

Smart leaders engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation rather than on a series of commands or a one-way top-down approach. This hierarchical system is no longer useful or even realistic.

Conversations need to be less memos, emails and publications, and more… human.

Why conversations are an important tool

A unicorn leader’s goal is to create a high-performing team, which in turn, will generate change and innovation. Thus ultimately, leaders use conversations to generate innovation.

Fostering a culture norm that instills a conversation sensibility at your organization is important.

One of the many benefits of having “human” conversations at work is allowing large or growing companies to feel internally like a small business — familiar, welcoming, and connected.

By talking with employees rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture the essence and qualities that enable startups to outperform better-established rivals — offering flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, and tight strategic alignment.

It is through conversations that we, as managers, can establish psychological safety for our team members. We can lean into vulnerability and signal belonging cues.

It is in our conversations that we adapt our language and style to our members’ personality types.

It is in our conversations that we show emotion, emphasize as humans, and emotionally engage with our team.

And finally, it is in conversation that we empower our team to make decisions.

So, again, communication is the greatest tool a leader can have.

The 4 themes of conversation

Smart leaders find ways to use conversations. To manage the flow of information in an honest, open fashion.

One-way broadcast messaging is a relic and slick marketing material. It has as little effect on employees as they do on customers.

But, people will listen to communication that is intimate, interactive, inclusive, and intentional.

These four essential attributes of interpersonal conversations, leaders begin to master their most important tool.

1. Intimacy:

Shift the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas.

The organizational conversation is less corporate in tone and more casual. Less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.

It requires leaders to minimize the distances that typically separate them from their employees. Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential—especially in times of remote work and the global pandemic. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity.

Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making power seek and earn the trust of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically.

2. Interactive:

Shunning the simplicity of monologue and embracing the unpredictable vitality of dialogue.

A conversation, by definition, involves an exchange of comments and questions between two or more people. The sound of one person talking is not, obviously, a conversation. The same applies to an organizational conversation, in which leaders talk with employees and not just to them.

This interactivity makes the conversation open and fluid rather than closed and directive — leaders don’t just talk at or to their employees, but they talk with them.

In part, a shift toward greater interactivity reflects a shift in the use of communication channels. Social technology gives leaders and their employees the ability to invest in an organizational setting with the style and spirit of personal conversation.

Yet, interactivity isn’t just a matter of finding and deploying the right technology. Too often, an organization’s prevailing culture works against any attempt to transform corporate communication into a two-way affair.

For many executives and managers, the temptation to treat every medium at their disposal as if it were a megaphone has proved hard to resist.

3. Inclusive:

Turns employees into full-fledged conversation partners, entitling them to provide their own ideas, often on company channels.

Inclusion adds a critical dimension to the elements of intimacy and interactivity. Whereas intimacy involves the efforts of leaders to get closer to employees, inclusion focuses on the role that employees play in that process. It also extends the practice of interactivity by enabling employees to provide their own ideas—often on official company channels—rather than simply parrying the ideas that others present. It enables them to serve as frontline content providers.

They can create content and act as brand ambassadors, thought leaders, and storytellers.

Brand ambassadors.

When employees feel passionate about their company’s products and services, they become living representatives of the brand.

This can and does happen organically—lots of people love what they do for a living and will talk it up on their own time.

Thought leaders.

To achieve market leadership in a knowledge-based field, companies may rely on consultants or in-house professionals to draft speeches, articles, white papers, and the like.

But often the most innovative thinking occurs deep within an organization, where people develop and test new products and services.

Empowering those people to create and promote thought-leadership material can be a smart, quick way to bolster a company’s reputation among key industry players.


People are accustomed to hearing corporate communication professionals tell stories about a company, but there’s nothing like hearing a story direct from the front lines.

When employees speak from their own experience, unedited, the message comes to life.

Leaders who use inclusive conversations raise the level of emotional engagement that employees bring to company life in general.

4. Intentionality:

Intentionality differs from the other three elements in one key respect: It enables leaders and employees to derive strategically relevant action from the push and pull of discussion and debate.

Conversational intentionality requires leaders to convey strategic principles not just by asserting them but by explaining them—by generating consent rather than commanding assent.

A personal conversation, if it’s truly rich and rewarding, will be open but not aimless. The participants will have some sense of what they hope to achieve. They might seek to entertain each other to persuade each other, or to learn from each other.

In the absence of such intent, a conversation will either meander or run into a blind alley.

In this new model, leaders speak extensively and explicitly with employees about the vision and the logic that underlie executive decision-making. It reflects a shared agenda.

As a result, people at every level gain a big-picture view of where their company stands within its competitive environment. In short, they become conversant in matters of organizational strategy.

Source: Leadership is a Conversation: Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind

The 6 must-have conversations for managers

Now that you understand the four themes of conversation and how to make them more approachable or accessible to your employees, here are six must-have conversations.

#1 Communicating clear and specific performance expectations and measures of success.

#2 Providing candid performance feedback.

#3 Conducting formal and informal appraisal to help with professional development, career planning and compensation.

#4 Encouraging associates to speak openly and candidly about issues.

#5 Explaining business unit goals and results and how associate contributions made a difference.

#6 Encouraging and rewarding associates who do the right thing for customers, clients and shareholders.

The fastest and most effective way to improve team performance is by training your managers. — Gallup 2020: It's The Manager.

Final Thoughts

As we've established in this blog, conversations are the most valuable tool a leader can have.

However, not all manager know, or are properly trained to properly hold space for these organizational conversations.

Unicorn Lab's Leadership Development program, among many other topics, it covers effective team communication and prepares managers for these must-have conversations.

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