Want to Measure Your Organization’s Adaptive Capacity? Try Having a Difficult Conversation

It’s hard to judge the level of adaptive capacity in your organization when things are going smoothly. We tend to wait until the road gets bumpy or the storm clouds roll in to ask ourselves how easily we can adapt, both personally and organizationally, to the challenges ahead. But one barometer of adaptive capacity that can offer a fairly reliable measurement of adaptive capacity is how often the leaders in your organization engage in difficult conversations.

Leaders that initiate uncomfortable conversations before problems become crises are better equipped to initiate adaptive change. Juan Carlos Eichholz explains how it is possible to discuss “the elephant in the room” while still showing empathy and compassion by engaging in what he calls a generative dialogue. This involves “acknowledging the elephant in such a way as to create enough disequilibrium to make progress on the issue, producing a generative dialogue where people feel the tension yet remain engaged in the conversation.” Organizations where these types of conversations occur on a regular basis are more likely to be able to adapt when conditions make it necessary.

It’s one thing to know that you need to be able to have this kind of conversation with an employee or with your team, but quite another to actually do it. So how can you go about ensuring that your dialogues are generative?

Here are a few tips for striking a balance between the problem or obstacle to be overcome and ensuring that the people on the receiving end don’t feel attacked, confused or undervalued:

  1. Make sure the conversation is two-sided. Give your listeners time to respond and voice their opinions, feelings and concerns.
  2. Give your employees regular feedback, and solicit feedback from them in turn. This fosters a culture of transparency and openness.
  3. Highlight the positive wherever possible. People tend to respond much better to positive feedback than negative feedback. Even when delivering bad news, acknowledge past achievements.
  4. Offer an action plan. Nothing feels worse than being criticized or asked to do your job differently without being given explicit instructions or explanations. Failing to do so can cause anxiety and frustration to spread throughout your entire organization.
  5. Be aware of cultural differences. If you work in a diverse or multi-national organization, difficult conversations might be handled differently depending on cultural context.
  6. Solicit help from others. Consider hiring a coach or reaching out to other executives. Ask for advice before you tackle a major problem.

No one enjoys difficult conversations, but avoiding them only feeds the elephant in the room. The sooner you address the root cause of the problem, the sooner your organization will be able to adapt and change.

Are you facing a problem and unsure of how to address it? Feel free to reach out via my website, Twitter or LinkedIn. I look forward to hearing from you!

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