The dialogic mindset and host leadership

gervaseI was recently delighted to be contacted by Gervase Bushe (pictured right) and Bob Marshak, widely known for their work on ‘Dialogic Organisation Development (OD)’.    They have made a key distinction between ‘diagnostic practice’, which is about diagnosing and curing problems, and dialogic work where the focus is on convening and generating change in conversations.  My own work over the past two decades in building Solutions Focus work in organisations is a part of this general dynamic, and has been listed alongside more than 30 other schools of dialogic work on the http://www.dialogicod.net/ website.  Bushe and Marshak have also published a new book on Dialogic OD – a must-read for those interested in this topic.  I will be reviewing it soon.

Gervase was in touch as he had been thinking about what ‘dialogic leadership’ might look like recently.  He was very excited to discover our work on leading as a host, and was immediately excited at the possibilities offered by this metaphor.  Hosts focus on bringing people together around a topic of joint interest and making sure that the conversations/interactions are supported in ways which help everyone to give of their best, so the connection is a very apt and useful one.

Gervase and Bob have produced a very interesting paper this year on The Dialogic Mindset:  Leading Emergent Change in a Complex World (pdf download).  It’s very well worth reading.  They start from the ‘visionary’ leadership tradition, where someone (usually a ‘great man’) shows the way and sells their vision to the organisation.  They connect this model with a Performance Mindset – the idea that leaders provide targets, resources and motivation to others to move their organisations forward.  They comment:

The Performance Mindset isn’t necessarily opposed to a Dialogic Mindset. It recognizes that organizations cannot continue to perform without learning. Stuff happens, things change, and people have to adapt, yet in the dominant leadership narrative, learning depends on experts, wise teachers, and heroic leaders who can show us the way.  It does not know how to deal with situations where no one knows the “right” answers or where ”best practices” are not applicable.  The Performance Mindset knows very little about how to inquire into collective experience in ways that catalyze the emergence of new ideas, processes, and solutions by aligning with and amplifying the untapped wisdom in the organization.

They then contrast this with the Dialogic mindset – the idea of a leader who focuses on the power of narratives and conversation as the fabric of social and interactional change.  Particularly in complex and VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments, nobody – not even the leader – can know enough to solve all the problems.  Rather the leader’s role is to bring together those involved, so they can make better progress than they would have done separately.

This leadership works to enrich social networks so that people with similar motivations and ideas can find and support each other in order to take on complex conditions and adaptive challenges through self-initiated actions and small experiments.  Rather than vet ideas, manage projects, check implementation plans, and so on, the Dialogic Mindset wants to encourage the emergence of new ideas and possibilities fostered by different narratives and meanings that challenge the status quo.

In this rich and carefully structured paper, Bushe and Marshak look not only at seven key elements of a dialogic mindset, but also at the key element of holding anxiety in uncertain environments and also the ‘ego development’ needed by leaders to embrace this concept in practice and set aside their need to be the controlling centre. They quote research on this which aligns with the work of our own Stephen Josephs (co-author of Leadership Agility) that show that only 15-20% of adults develop to a stage where they may be prepared to work in this way.  I propose that the powerful-but-everyday metaphor of leading as a host may offer a mindset expanding route not only for those already at such a level, but also those on the way.

The paper is very well worth careful study – download it now.  I am hoping to get together with Gervase Bushe on his next visit to the UK – it will be very interesting to see what further connections and possibilities we can produce in our dialogue.

BUSHE, G.R. & MARSHAK, R.J. (2016)  THE DIALOGIC MINDSET: LEADING EMERGENT CHANGE IN A COMPLEX WORLD. ORGANIZATION DEVELOPMENT JOURNAL, 34:1, 37-65.

 

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