Public sector engagement: the role of conversational practice

Conversations at work
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Based on an innovative and forward-thinking whitepaper, this blog series highlights several key parts of how a new empoyment deal for public sector staff could revitalise the sector and tackle disengagement.

The TEDD® model views the organisation as a ‘conversational arena’, recognising the importance of day-to-day conversations between managers and their team in managing performance. Such conversations can be viewed as ‘pathways to performance’ (Francis et. al; 2013).

These daily conversations range from more formal, pre-arranged discussions to brief, informal corridor conversations.

Conversational practice covers ‘conversations for change’ (Ford and Ford 1995, 2010) in which managers play a pivotal role.

These daily conversations make the employment deal a reality by ensuring the promises and obligations belonging to the psychological contract are upheld and supportive systems are maintained.

TEDD® divides conversational practice into two types of conversation:

  • performance-focused
  • solutions-focused

Solutions-focused covers the conversations that are about ideas, such as suggesting and finding solutions to problems, in terms of how those are initiated, received and encouraged.

Performance-focused conversations refers to the practical implementation of the ideas generation conversations, in terms of delivering the solutions. This is a great example illustrating effective performance-focused conversations:

‘My manager is open to suggestions from the team to improve work performance and actively puts them in place if appropriate’.

The ideal scenario is for there to be little or no gap between solutions and performance-focused conversations.

People should be encouraged to propose new ideas and given the support to put those ideas into practice, as reflected in the previous example.

However, we frequently find that solutions-focused conversations tend to happen more frequently and effectively than the performance-focused conversations.

This could be because local authorities tend to have a level of bureaucracy and hierarchy in decision making, which can create barriers to putting ideas into practice, as this feedback suggests:

  • ‘The line manager and particularly the Head of Service are an obstruction faced by an efficient team’
  • ‘To be creative is not allowed by my manager who is very rigid in their thinking’.

Key driver analysis

When key driver analysis was performed on conversational practice, the perceived level of trust in the line manager emerged as the most potent driver.

The line manager plays a crucial role in creating an atmosphere, which promotes trust, creativity and innovation, as we can see from the following feedback:

‘We have an excellent working relationship which works on the basis of mutual respect, sharing ideas and tackling issues together’

‘I am encouraged to come forward with ideas and to use my own initiative to improve ways of working’.

What’s more, other important key drivers included clarity around how one’s personal objectives aligned with the team’s overall objectives, working collbaratively to generate solutions to workplace issues and being able to engage in conversations with the aim of developing more efficient working practices.

The key driver analysis suggests that for conversational practice to thrive in the workplace, it requires first of all trust in the line manager.

The line manager needs to ensure individual team members can clearly see how their line of work fits in with the wider team. Doing this creates a sense of meaning and purpose helping to drive performance in the long term.

Line managers must develop an inclusive managerial style in which everyone in the team feels their contributions are respected and worthy of consideration.

An open, tolerant atmosphere where new ideas are explored without the fear of reproach lurking in the minds of employees is necessary for productive workplaces.

The free text comments provide us with a fascinating look into the kinds of performance enhancing managerial styles practicsed by some managers.

For example, the following employees identify their manager's approach to conversations as driving overall performance and therefore customer service, by questioning the way things are done:

‘We regularly have discussions about how to improve service delivery. He asks for my input and listens to it and enables me to challenge the status quo. Most recently this has resulted in improved business planning and a tasking process that allows us to use our resources more efficiently.’

‘My line manager has actively encouraged me to ask questions and challenge assumptions’.

Conversely, the line manager in the next example is demonstrating what Julian Birkinshaw would describe as gluttony, one of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of management (Birkinshaw, 2013), a micromanager:

‘I feel that my manager wants to be in control of everything all of the time, and does not like the idea that I can challenge the way tasks or processes are delivered with the aim to improve services’.

When employee voice is not encouraged and ideas for alternative ways of working are ignored, innovation is also discouraged, adversely impacting on service delivery leading to a frustrated and demotivated workforce.

Unfortunately, “can’t do” and “we’ve always done it this way” views prevail, stifling any attempt to move things forward to a more effective way of working for staff and customers alike’.

Where managers listen, empathise and encourage autonomy via the conversations they have with their teams, we see more complimentary descriptions of management style:

  • ‘My line manager is open, engaging and reflective which enables me to get the task done’.
  • ‘My line manager and I have ongoing and open conversations about caseload complexities, smarter and safer ways of working and shows empathy not only to me but also to all team members’.

If you would like to read more about conversational practice, take a look at this piece from the CIPD.

References

Birkinshaw, J.,  (2013) Becoming a better boss: why good management is so difficult. John San Francisco.Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Ford, J. and Ford, L. (1995). The role of conversations in producing intentional change in organisations. Academy of Management Review, vol.20, (3)  541-71.
Francis, H.M., Ramdhony, A., Reddington, M., & Staines, H. (2013). Opening spaces for conversational practice: a conduit for effective engagement strategies and productive working arrangements. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24 (14), 2713 – 2740.
Francis, H.M. & Reddington, M. (2010) ‘Redirecting and reconnecting theory - Employer Branding and the Employment “Deal”, BSA Work, Employment and the Society Conference. 

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