Conversation Starter: How Interactive Are You?

Until somewhat recently, organizational leaders had no choice but to rely on communication channels that were one-way in structure—and on communication practices that were one-way in spirit. In large and growing companies especially, channels such as the corporate newsletter and the executive speech have traditionally been the only practical means by which leaders could reach all of their employees. As a result, the culture of communication within organizations has tended to evolve in a way that favors monologue over dialogue.

That’s now changing, thanks in part to the increasing availability of interactive technology. Robust videoconferencing systems, dynamic intranet platforms, and software tools that turn executives into bloggers are among the technologies that enable back-and-forth communication to unfold across an organization.

Interactivity is one element of what we call organizational conversation. When that quality takes hold within a company, leaders are able to promote dialogue—dialogue between themselves and their employees, and dialogue among employees as a group. There’s more to being an interactive leader than adopting a certain kind of technology. That said, a leader can be only as interactive as the communication channels that he or she uses.

At many companies, leaders still rely extensively on traditional one-way channels. Recently, we surveyed participants in an Executive Education program at Harvard Business School on the practice of communication at their organization. (That program, Driving Performance Through Talent Management, gathers executives from every part of the globe, and from companies large and small.) Asked about the use of “letters and memos … from top executives to all employees,” the vast majority of respondents (87%) said that leaders in their company place a “medium” to “very high” degree of emphasis on that channel.

Meanwhile, according to these survey respondents, the use of newer social-media channels is considerably less prevalent. Most respondents (70 percent) indicated that the degree of emphasis placed on using a “CEO blog, aimed at employees” is “low” or “very low.” Fewer than half of them (43 percent) said that Web-based video technology is a “crucial tool for enabling communication” at their organization.

Our point here isn’t that you need to launch a blog, or to start recording YouTube videos, in order to communicate with your people. Interactivity, in fact, starts with a commitment to building a culture that supports back-and-forth communication—a culture in which people feel free not just to talk, but also to talk back. But your choice of communication tools does matter; it both reflects and reinforces your overall approach to leadership.

Here are four conversation-starting ideas—ideas that will help you become a more interactive leader.

1. Show your face. Thanks to the increasing quality and decreasing cost of network-enabled video technology, leaders today have a powerful tool for interacting with their people—even when company size and physical distance make in-person communication impossible. Virtual face-time, more and more leaders find, is better than no face-time.

2. Reinvent your intranet. Borrowing a practice that has become common on the public Internet, many leaders have installed tools on their company’s intranet site that allow employees to rate, share, or comment on much of the content that appears there. That simple innovation can turn a static message (a corporate announcement, a letter from the CEO) into the start of a conversation.

3. Cultivate conversation. Interactivity can flourish only where leaders have taken active steps to prepare the ground for it—only where they have nurtured a safe, open culture. Sometimes, for example, the most effective “open channel” that a leader can use is an open door.

4. Pull the plug. Digital technology can create a two-way connection where (as in the case of a large, global organization) that connection wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Yet it can also create a barrier—a wall of virtual chatter that ends up taking the place of true conversation. Interactive leaders, therefore, know when to leave their computer so that they can talk with their people in a direct, unmediated fashion.

The key to promoting dialogue in your organization is to strike a balance between technophobia and technophilia. Use digital communication tools to open up a conversation within your company. But don’t expect them to keep that conversation going if you’re not committed to it.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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