BOOK REVIEW: We Must Be the Change

Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment

This review is by Jeffrey McCollum

This book is challenging and provocative. It's not one you can breeze through because it has this unsettling knack for holding up a mirror and saying, "Hey look. There's something here I want you to see." The something it wants us to understand is how deeply our everyday conversations at work are riddled with a lack of authenticity and how that lack stifles engagement and personal accountability. As a result, business results are less than they could be.

At the heart of this problem is an enormous collusion–a pattern of parent-child conversations that have become undiscussible in daily life. These norms in turn create organizational culture. The Showkeirs' fundamental premise is if you want to change a culture you have to change the conversations–difficult and, in their view, dangerous work. To change those conversations we have to accept our complicity in them.

The book is broken into two broad sections. First the Showkeir's lay out their case for change. Then, the offer a set protocols for shifting those conversations.

The case for change starts with an identification of "relationships that don't work at work ". Specifically, they point out how the following conversations–holding others accountable, caretaking, coping with disappointment and colluding with cynicism–are so deeply engrained that we take them for granted. "In all cases, these types of conversations have a detrimental impact on the culture and the business", they argue.

The conversations rest on a set of "old" management assumptions that see people as objects, ignore individual freedom and will, use policies and procedures that ensure compliance and emphasize leaders and experts while ignoring those who work in the system.

Leaders who see their role as "holding people accountable (as opposed to them being accountable) and who seek to protect their organizations from the rough and tumble vicissitudes of the market place (as opposed to helping them understand those realities) are operating from an implicit parent child model. This model puts unreasonable expectations on the leader and creates dependency in those led. [Although the Showkeirs chose not to venture into a discussion of contemporary American politics, it was hard for me to avoid looking at their arguments in the light of how self interest seems to be trumping service on the public stage.]

The Showkeirs explore the power of cynics to sap organizational change efforts of vitality and momentum. They become, in effect, a black hole into which hopes for a better future disappear. Leaders who seek to protect people from disappointment by promising safe landings in all difficult circumstances create cynics.

The antidote to all of this is to promote an "adult to adult culture" in which each individual in the organization:
* Becomes the eyes and voice of the business
* Brings an independent point of view
* Is expected to raise difficult issues
* Extends a spirit of goodwill to the endeavor
* Creates business literacy in others
* Choose accountability for the success of the whole business
* Manages his own morale, motivation and commitment

These qualities propel an organization from manipulation to engagement. People in the organization are enabled, ennobled and empowered–by their own choice. Manipulative conversational practices like name dropping, hidden agendas, over promising, sarcasm and exaggerated optimism or pessimism are replaced by authentic ones. All of this requires that we remain vigilant to three levels that operate in any conversation: the content, others' emotional responses and our own emotional responses. To business that operate on the belief that "business is about logic and fact based decisions", these three realities are radical in their own right.

Having laid out their case, the last portion of the book is a "practical guides to conversations like:
* Facing a difficult issue
* Seeking an exception (a radical reversal of the common organizational practice that it's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission)
* Proposing change
* Introducing a mandate
* Renegotiating an established relationship
* Initiating endings
* Dealing with individual performance

These types of conversations, done in a manipulative parent-child environment, tie people in knots. Done authentically, they create clear, clean communication which, in turn, drives business performance to higher and higher levels.