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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

What is happening to the art of dialogue?

‘Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.’

- Mahatma Gandhi

The foundations of culture are the norms that shape human interaction and relationships.

The foundation of organizational agility, even in a digital era, is working relationships.

In this post I will share a few thoughts on the importance of dialogue at work, at a time when online echo chambers, and increasingly extreme identity politics, may undermine unity within organizations.

A significant challenge right now, for governments and for organizations, is human cohesion. Huge emphasis is being placed right now on diversity and difference, quite rightly. I speak as a British citizen of Indian origin who cares deeply about developing inclusive workplaces.

As institutions focus on exposing sources of privilege and its ill effects, it is also critical to society that we build common ground. Listening empathically across our perceived divides, to seek to work with and make use of difference, requires a spirit of friendship.

Our ability to inter-relate, to develop deep, lasting collaborative working relationships with others, especially when working virtually, is not something to be taken for granted. The ability to inter-relate can be undermined by social media algorithms. These can deliberately guide users towards self-affirming, internally consistent information within online echo chambers.

Millions of people are 'at work', while in the background also consuming all sorts of information that may be quite misleading and even toxic. Social media feeds are filled with unedited factoids, citizen journalism videos, eyeball-grabbing imagery, and polemics from self-appointed public intellectuals. Much of the content is built on a scaffolding of entrenched ideological and political positions.

Social media content is often lacking in nuance, not contextualized appropriately, and lacks trustworthy data. The irony of saying all this in a self-published social media opinion piece is not lost on me. But it worries me that the internet is awash with highly polarized opinions that sow division. Many employees are now physically isolated, while a constant torrent of seductive and free content, which is largely user generated, competes with their colleagues at work for mindshare.

This creates a growing distraction and potential problem for businesses of all kinds when it comes to building a cohesive culture.

There are obvious challenges associated with building empathy and understanding with people we do not know, in the absence of adequate face-to-face human contact. Organizations have been unlocking the value of conversations, and physical proximity, as basic building blocks of organizational culture for some time. There are various subtly different methods and models in use for the development of better working relationships. Typically, an organization development consultant’s way of addressing challenges revolves around encouraging open and constructive dialogue, while using diagnostic tools to support organizational learning.

Mutual respect, the ability to ask good questions, and to listen deeply to the answer, mediate the quality of conversations in the most agile organizations. Agile and virtual working environments using various technology platforms allow people to feel they are connected. Good use of these platforms requires users to have the right dialogic skills and relational abilities.

Particularly taxing is the challenge of maintaining the right quality and level of communication in organizations which make extensive use of outsourcing. Using offshoring, outsourcing and agile project-delivery methods, while working virtually, all makes for complex communication and inter-cultural challenges. Research suggests that, in these cases, paying attention to the quality of communication is a vital leadership priority.

I am not entering into the debate about whether face to face or virtual contact is better. The short answer is they are very different and can complement each other brilliantly in myriad ways. What I am saying is that relying on just one way to communicate, or to work, is unlikely to be effective for most organizations.

Moving back up to the macro picture, right now, we are witnessing a near-complete breakdown in the quality of public debate and political discourse in the US and UK. I touched on this in my last post.

The level of aggression, absence of listening and disrespect people are showing each other across political fault lines, in public discourse, often in the name of freedom of speech, has been quite alarming to observe in recent years.

Identity politics is increasingly extreme and overt. Issues such as race, gender, social justice, and climate are fiercely contested. Strong views and hostility to alternative viewpoints can easily become the default starting point for conversations about difficult and sensitive issues. There is research suggesting that social media is partly to blame.

I have wondered for a while how and when this febrile political climate will manifest psychologically within organizations and teams. I am noticing that there do indeed appear to be visible factions and splinter groups that have formed around different orientations, within workplaces I encounter. Work is, for some, a front for political struggle. Perceptions of organizational justice reflect ideological movements in society. This is not new. Social media helps to fan the flames of discontent. Organizations have no choice but to respond.

This raises a question in my mind about how the practitioner community in coaching, work psychology, organization development, and human resources can help people and organizations move forward in this context. Perhaps aspects of our current situation require practitioners, and our clients, to get back to basics?

An inability to listen or learn from each other is an obstacle to progress. Conversations that build productive connections as we work towards common goals, require intellectual, emotional, and practical skill in how we relate to each other. In this context, technology can augment human contact, not permanently replace it.

Dialogue and constructive debate are human capabilities that enable social cohesion. Eye contact and embodiment are essential to building connections, and learning about others, especially across differences, or divides. Rational, purposeful, emotionally sensitive, adult dialogue at work must not be hijacked by a combination of a pandemic and political ideology. Professional relationships may require us to bracket the politics we experience in the outside world. However, realistically, such bracketing might be very difficult, if not impossible for some. Anyway, sweeping difficult issues under the carpet can be dangerous.

The art of dialogue and honest discourse in public life seems to be giving way to hysteria, tribalism, and online propaganda. Skilled helpers, such as psychologists, coaches, trainers, consultants, HR practitioners, and OD practitioners are natural custodians of dialogue and the spirit of friendship within working life. This role needs to be at the front of our minds in a digital world.

The risk of our inaction is that we allow the world of work to be infected further with the kind of miscommunication, permanent state of outrage and conflict we are already witnessing, but on a pandemic scale.

How can we enable unity in diversity?

How skilled are people you work with at having conversations that bring about change?

Are there taboo topics people would rather not talk about in a work setting and if so, why?

See also –

Bakshy, E., Messing, S., & Adamic, L.A. (2015). Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook. Science, 348(6239), pp. 1130–1132. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1160

Bushe, G.R., & Marshak, R.J. (2014). Dialogic organization development. In B.B. Jones & M.

Brazzel (Eds.), The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change. 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Wiley. pp. 193– 211.

Dreesen, T., Linden, R., Merues, C., Schmidt, N., & Rosenkranz, C. (2016). Beyond the Border: A Comparative Literature Review on Communication Practices for Agile Global Outsourced Software Development Projects. 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS), 5-8 January 2016. DOI: 10.1109/HICSS.2016.612

Garrett, R.K. (2009). Echo chambers online? Politically motivated selective exposure among Internet news users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, pp. 265–285. DOI:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01440.x

My books are available on Amazon:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose


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