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Project Summary: The Benefits Of Rich Dialogue

It was a few years ago that my ex-boss called me and asked me if I could work with him and his team. Let us call him Brett. Brett had been with the business for six months and had taken over from a previous leader who was reputed to be toxic. They had recently re-measured employee engagement via the AON Hewitt Engagement Survey and had received the reports. The engagement score was 41% with 21% of people actively disengaged. The engagement had been in a steady decline over the past three years and this recent one had a wide spread amongst various teams, with a level of 0% in one functional area. Their employee engagement strategy needed to be a critical aspect of their plan moving forward.  

Brett was concerned and believed that his team, while exceptionally talented, would benefit from sustained investment in their own training and development. His insight was that there were cultural and legacy issues that possibly impacted how the team behaved with each other and how they led their teams. This had resulted in poor scores across significant drivers of employee engagement and a reduction in key metrics for measuring employee productivity.

Brett had been quick to respond to the feedback from the employee engagement survey and understood the potential for this lack of motivation and engagement to impact organisational performance. In six months he initiated a systematic, inclusive communication process that led to a significant improvement in the organisational climate. He was keen to accelerate these early wins and wanted to invest in his leadership team, knowing that they were a key driver of business success. The expectation was that there would be a turnaround in the performance of the cluster he led as a result of this investment. The business environment is competitive with complex regulatory imperatives that are potential risks to the bottom line. As a result, timely communication, risk assessment and management of stakeholders are important drivers of business performance that need to be improved.  


My approach to this assignment was to create a discovery process to become acquainted with the executive teams, their core strengths and values as a way to create a shared understanding of what is possible if this team were to invest in their own development. I assumed the role of an appreciative inquirer, which would allow me to then use the discovery and insights from this inquiry to design and create an experience for this team that would be a catalyst for their own development. The intention was to facilitate deep thinking and reflection in a group setting, making it safe for the team members to give each other honest feedback and grow. At the executive team level, this would then translate into improved employee engagement scores and increased organisational performance. The discovery process was done through one-on-one interviews and a quick share of key strengths in a team meeting. This was the groundwork for continued efforts with the team using two key diagnostics to enhance emotional agility and boost individual thriving through disciplined reflection processes. The core philosophy that drove the design of the program was that a shared understanding of each other’s values, desires and strengths would lay solid foundations for trust and enhanced collaborative work that was based on knowledge of the diverse frames of reference for each of the team members.

Between stimulus & response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning


Process And Engagement Practices

  The first workshop was a powerful, well paced deep dive into each of the team member’s values, aspirations and motivations. Each of them used these insights to develop their leadership brand. Over a period of a few hours, in a beautiful offsite in a natural reserve, people spent time in personal reflection, paired conversation and group work to create their own brand, share it with their team and refine it. This then led into a more intense session of gaining insights from their thinking styles. The set up for this was an experiential introduction to the Life Styles Inventory (LSI), one-on-one coaching and a scaffolded insight generation process that felt safe and rewarding.


The team spent a couple of hours to work on a live business issue as a way to use their insights about themselves and others to work together in a more effective way. They then used these insights to build a development plan for themselves that they shared with the team. The second workshop was focused on developing emotional agility. The Mayer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) was used as a basis for creating awareness of the importance of recognising, using, understanding and managing emotions in self and others.  

This workshop again, afforded plenty of time for peer coaching and structured personal reflection to generate personal insights. The third workshop was a re-measure of the LSI and a consolidation of the learnings over the two years that we had been working together. The theme of the workshop was compassion. The idea was to map the constructive thinking styles of the LSI on to the incentive / resource focused and content focused affect regulation systems (see image below).

The intention of this workshop was to primarily create awareness of the power of compassion to self and others, establishing also the business case for “being in the blue” as those with experience using the LSI might say. Individuals had done their strengths survey and shared their top strengths with each other with a view to talk about their own favourite strength that they enjoyed using at work as well as to elicit feedback from the team on what strengths they would like to see being used. This was a powerful engagement practice. This workshop also had several structured personal reflection, peer coaching and group exercises that were used to generate and share insights. The Performance Pyramid was then introduced as a way for each of the team to develop restorative rituals to build their own capacity. Seethe diagram below:



The experience of working with an intact team that is so deeply invested in their own development, as well as in creating the conditions for their teams to thrive, is incredibly rewarding. Even more rewarding is noticing the positive change in dynamics, the elegance and kindness with which difficult conversations happen amongst the team and the personal intentions to notice, listen, act. There has been a significant improvement on the Self-Actualising and Achievement Thinking Styles of the team as a collective. This translates into a way of approaching difficult issues with confidence and self-efficacy in overcoming obstacles, a clear sense of purpose, shared values and vision in tackling challenges and a growth mindset that is characterised by learning from experiences. There is also a significant improvement in the Humanistic- Encouraging thinking style, which is indicative of an unconditional positive regard for self and others, which manifests in a striving for improved outcomes/ results. Employee Engagement scores have improved to 60% in a short period of two years through a sustained effort by the executive team in improving communication and providing clear direction to the teams through several inclusive processes. Over a period of two years, the team is working collaboratively on complex business issues, with improved levels of engagement amongst their teams, which has resulted in a turnaround in business performance. At a very personal level, I was blown away when the most sceptical person on the team called me, with a grateful smile, “Yoda”. The other comment that made this work worthwhile was this: “you open doors for the conversations to continue”. This is why I do what I do. What doors might open for you when you can generate rich dialogue with those who are important in your life?    


The LSI and MSCEIT were used as key diagnostics for the leadership program. These are based on solid evidence of the impact of emotional agility and effective thinking styles on psychological well-being and performance (David, 2013; Lafferty, 1989; Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004a, 2004b; Ramchunder & Martins, 2014; Salovey, Mayer, Caruso, & Yoo, 2008) . Acceptance Commitment Therapy processes were introduced as a way of processing feedback, self-talk and commitment to acting in a way that is congruent with values (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006). The development processes and coaching were based on an appreciative process, using strengths and the ideal self as the motivator for change (Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006; Boyatzis, Rochford, & Taylor, 2015; Cooperrider & McQuaid, 2012; Howard, 2015).  

Further Reading & References

Boyatzis, R. E., & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as the driver of intentional change.Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 624-642. doi:doi:10.1108/02621710610678454

Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., & Taylor, S. N. (2015). The role of the positive emotional attractor in vision and shared vision: toward effective leadership, relationships, and engagement. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 670. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00670

Cooperrider, D. L., & McQuaid, M. (2012, 2012 Summer). The positive arc of systemic strengths: how appreciative inquiry and sustainable designing can bring out the best in human systems. The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 71+.

David, S. (2013). Emotional agility: how effective leaders manage their negative thoughts and feelings. Harvard Business Review, 91, 125+.

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006

Howard, A. (2015). Coaching to vision versus coaching to improvement needs: a preliminary investigation on the differential impacts of fostering positive and negative emotion during real time executive coaching sessions. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00455

Lafferty, J. C. (1989). Life Style Inventory: LSI1 self-development guide. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004a). Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications. Psychological Inquiry, 15(3), 197-215.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2004b). A Further Consideration of the Issues of Emotional Intelligence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(3), 249-255.

Ramchunder, Y., & Martins, N. (2014). The role of self-efficacy, emotional intelligence and leadership style as attributes of leadership effectiveness. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 40(1), 1-11.

Salovey, P., Mayer, J. D., Caruso, D., & Yoo, S. H. (2008). CHAPTER 11: The Positive Psychology of Emotional Intelligence. Counterpoints, 336, 185-208.

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