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20 ways I fail to ‘think together’ with others; 20 reminders for productive dialogue in meetings – FREE prompt cards

Are you left with the feeling that there was always more which could have been achieved when we gather together with others – in brainstorming, decision-making or problem-solving meetings? We are told that increased diversity should release the creative potential of multiple perspectives. Yet our day-to-day interactions seem to prove the opposite: we observe and (yes, let’s admit it) contribute to the ignoring of deeper human needs, low levels of exploratory inquiry, the unloading of pre-recorded thinking, the prevalence of judgement and the consistent undervaluing of quiet or divergent voices.

Below are 20 things I do or fail to do in meetings with colleagues and which reduces the potential of our collective intelligence. I have attempted to remind myself of what is needed to ‘think together’ – and so went back to William Isaacs and his book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. These reminders are especially important when the pressure is on to get things done quickly to respond to the pace of change around us.

  1. I listen with an enthusiastic finger on the trigger. As others are speaking I’m reloading. I look for a space to come in and say what’s on my mind – the things I want to tell the group – but not always what the group needs. I need to take my finger off the trigger more.
  2. I listen selectively. I quickly join the dots between what others have said (or what I want to hear to fit my view of how things should be). When I’ve done this I use this partial picture to defend my views. I need to soften my focus and listen to the whole of what they are saying.
  3. I find listening to views which diverge from my own very hard to do. The opposite perspective and style causes almost a physical allergic reaction in me. I don’t tell them of course. I just wait for views which will later confirm my own. And jump on that bandwagon. I need to listen more to what opposes my view.
  4. When I hear minority challenges to majority thinking I’m saying to myself, “yes, but…”. Especially when it’s late in the day, I’m tired and have a thousand other things to do. Or I say the fashionable “Yes, and…” (but really mean “Yes, but”). I need to make it easier to support challenges to collective thinking more often and earlier in our meetings.
  5. I jump to conclusions – I think I know what people mean (because I’m joining the dots at the speed of sparking neurons). I need to slow down and check what people really meant and their intention.
  6. Because I ‘know’ people, I have some pretty clear assumptions about how they think and what they’ll say. I see mind reading based on our history of collaboration as a necessary efficiency tool. I need to throw away my assumptions and see people ‘fresh’ each time we meet.
  7. I love fixing problems and people (people problems are my nirvana!). So, those with opposite views to me need fixing – and I know what’s best for them and us. I need to respect opposing views without always trying to fix them.
  8. In the search for ‘alignment’, those with divergent views receive a collective withdrawal of breath and a metaphorical rolling of eyes which says ‘do we really have time for this detour?’ I admit to mentally rolling my eyes on a number of occasions. I need to do some deliberate conflict mining and find space in our meetings for those with a different view.
  9. I feel uncomfortable when there are personal conflicts floating around for too long (see 7!).This needs to be fixed! I need to be able to hold the tension of divergent views until we can enquire into them more deeply.
  10. I’m more introverted than extrovert. So I can spend time listening to others (admittedly doing 1, 2, 3 & 4). But when I’m sure of what I’m saying and get invited in I can take up huge slices of airtime as I piece together my chunks of thinking for the benefit of all. I admit I do this more when I’m the boss. I need to avoid serial monologues and say to myself that if I take time I need to make time for the quieter participants with untapped potential value.
  11. I like asking questions in meetings. Questions get people to think…about what I intend to propose. I must admit that I prefer asking others questions to which I know the answer. I need to have the courage to ask questions to which I don’t know the answer.
  12. When I ask those great questions to get others to think I fall into the trap of judging or disguising my statements as ‘questions’. I have been known to ask leading questions like: ‘Don’t you think…?’ I need to ask questions to enquire. That means I must admit I don’t know.
  13. Sometimes we go around the houses in our meetings and at the end everyone feels we have elegantly danced around a magnificent elephant in the room. I need to ask what we are systematically ignoring in our conversations.
  14. I love answers. Closing things down and moving on feels like progress – post-it notes clustered and prioritised on the wall, something on a flipchart, preferably action items, so I can move on to the next priority on my ‘to do’ list (there’s SO much to do).  When we’re exploring something new or difficult, I need to ask more ‘hard’ questions (see above) rather than just being satisfied with giving or getting partial answers.
  15. I am frustrated because in my more introverted moments I’m bursting to share my doubts about what’s been said in the last 20 minutes of the meeting. But what’s the point. They seem to know so much more about this topic than me. No one is inviting me in or expressing alternative views. I need to take responsibility for expressing my views with conviction – my voice needs to be heard.
  16. Sometimes I say something profoundly superficial – just to cover up my embarrassment at not knowing quite what to say. I must say something. We’ve been told that to keep talking is good. In meetings here in the West everyone seems to contribute to filling the minutest crack of silence (except when our colleagues from Finland join us). Yes, some of us need to think before talking, while others talk to think. I mustn’t underestimate the creativity of silence so that we can have a space to think together.
  17. I want to say intelligent things. Be thought of as an insightful contributor deserving of respect. But to do this I find myself in a state of déjà vu saying the same things I said yesterday in other meetings… and last year at that conference…which I said the year before when I met my wife’s friends. I’m contributing to a Groundhog Day loop of repeated, pre-packaged thoughts. One of these days I may even believe they are the ‘truth’. I need to remind myself that true creative thinking is more likely to be inarticulate and raw. That is humbling, so I will encourage colleagues to leave their ‘polished talk’ at home in the quest for more hesitant but original collective thought.
  18. Back to my loading-the gun-approach. Sometimes I’m patient enough to politely wait until others have finished their contributions. Then I take the baton and tell them what I think. I need to encourage silence after people have spoken so that we can let their meaning ‘grow a little inside us’
  19. In some meetings I leave thinking that I’ve talked too much and suffocated the airtime; in others I have sat on my opinions thinking it wasn’t the right time, the right forum, the right channel of communication or doubting my ability to express myself with sufficient coherence or tact. I need to find the balance between being too quiet and taking up too much territory.
  20. When I’m in attentive listening mode I hear all the diverse perspectives, the false starts, the unspoken frustration. I then filter this through the needs of my own agenda.  I need to put my ego on hold at these times to ‘represent us all’ in expressing what the group is trying to say.

To remind me of these 20 points I have created 20 prompt cards to increase the focus on connection and creative results during meetings, teleconferences and videoconferences. They are particularly useful for multicultural teams where diversity of approach can make dialogue more challenging.  They are based on my synthesis of practices in William Isaac’s Dialogue – the Art of Thinking Together.

To get the card sets:

  1. Reply YES in the comments on LinkedIn:
  2. Sign up here to get the card set –>

Or share this article if you like the cards and think others would find them useful (eg. colleagues, friends, team members or even bosses!)

You will receive a file from me by email containing both a portable small card set (13.5cms x 10 cms) and a larger A4 set.

You can use the cards as:

  • a personal prompt in your pocket to get into the habit of supporting dialogue
  • a shared approach in a team to approach problem-solving and brainstorming sessions
  • an introduction to teleconferences or video conferences to sensitize everyone to good practices for dialogue
  • a self-reflection tool after meetings – everyone selects a card which they think they personally need to pay more attention to next time, sharing it with the group
  • a feedback tool after meetings – everyone receives a card from each colleague present as the aspect they would like you to focus more on next time – getting very similar cards from everyone is a powerful message (cards can be given face up or face down)
  • Please share suggestions for other ways to use the cards in the comments – together we can put our collective intelligence to work immediately

How can I motivate my team when I don’t feel motivated myself?

Companies are living organisms and, to thrive in rapidly changing times, they need to constantly renew and reinvent themselves. That means changes to structures, roles, processes and priorities. A successful organization is always in a beta state; always becoming; never static. Inevitably that can lead to increased uncertainty and periods of ambiguity. It can be challenging to know how to redefine yourself, your contribution and that of your team. It can be tough to manage your own emotional response to a new set of circumstances. As leaders of people we can sometimes feel overwhelmed, confused and unsure how to re-energize ourselves and our team. On the other hand, we are expected to break the cycle of demotivation and act like shock absorbers, coping with whatever is thrown at us and acting as a source of inspiration to the people who rely on us.

So, what can we do when we are responsible for energizing our team, but when our own energy levels are low, having been blasted by a wind tunnel of change? Firstly, it’s not about hiding your emotions, having a fake smile or being falsely optimistic. It starts with managing our own emotional reactions. Here are 5 ways to have a positive impact on yourself and others in times of organizational turbulence:

Your reactions are your responsibility, so take charge of them. No person or situation can make us feel anything. We all have a choice in how we react to others and to our circumstances. The choices we make will directly impact on our motivation. If we blame others (eg. ‘them’, ‘the system’) for how we feel by judging them, we fail to take responsibility for our reactions; if we blame ourselves ‘for not being good enough’ we end up in the role of victim. Negative feelings such as being ‘frustrated’, worried’ or ‘insecure’ occur because our needs are not being met. Be curious. Take some distance (and a few deep breathes). Find out what your unmet needs are. Take control of the feelings by labeling them. Then think about how you can satisfy your needs in new ways. For example, you may feel frustrated because your need for autonomy is not being met like before. In the new circumstances how can you satisfy this need for autonomy? Be creative with yourself.

Surround yourself with energizing conversations about possibility. It’s tempting to have conversations with others who share your feelings. There is a reassuring comfort in meeting up and shaking our heads together about ‘how it used to be’ and justifying why the change we’re being asked to make ‘just won’t work’. But these types of conversations will just feed our negativity and provide an excuse for doing nothing to transform our mood. Instead, search out and connect with colleagues who reinvent themselves when their circumstances change. We recognize them immediately. They are ‘Yes and…’ people, not ‘Yes, but…’ people. They elevate the focus of every conversation from survival to possibility. They bring a genuine and contagious spirit of enthusiasm that makes the challenges faced seem insignificant in the context of a greater purpose they are committed to fulfill. Go to them when you are feeling in low spirits. For example, changes disrupt the status quo and have the potential to get departments and teams to rethink and renew their relationships with each other. So why not explore together how the positive disruptive impact of a change can open up new opportunities for greater collaboration between you. Take the chance to use the change as a bridge to cross departmental or country boundaries, rather than close up and defend ‘your team territory’.

Keep things simple. All day long we have a silent constant conversation with ourselves at up to 4,000 words per minute – 10 times faster than normal speech. And because ‘we know what we mean’ we don’t even have to use complete sentences, so it’s a very condensed conversation.  This is where we tell ourselves elaborate stories, light up fragmented thoughts like fireworks and create elaborate cause and effect relationships. When we are anxious these conversations often project the worst case scenario and can verge on paranoia. This noise in our head can be overwhelming and paralyze us. But these thoughts are all about you. And by getting the focus off of you and onto a greater purpose you can make many of your debilitating and negative emotions disappear – leaving room for thoughts focused on transforming the future. So next time you find yourself deafened by the noise of your inner speech, stop and focus on three simple questions: “What is the greater purpose I’m focusing on here in my company?”, “What can I do to make the biggest contribution to this purpose?” and “What’s the first small step I will take now?” Then take that step. Now. We can work out later how we could have taken that step better. For now we don’t need to be perfect, but we do have to get going and move forward. Making concrete progress towards something which has meaning for us is always energizing. It changes the conversation inside us too.

Understand the feelings and needs in your team. As you start to take control of your own emotions, needs, support networks, purpose and commitment to action you are in a more balanced place to take the next step: understanding the important unmet needs within your team and how that makes them feel. With this information, it’s easier for you to find ways to satisfy their needs. For example, you can find out who can take on additional responsibility when opportunities arise by matching the work with their needs. Show how they can develop in the new activity by learning and cultivating more skills. Identify together the next step they can take now and how you can support them. Get other people moving forward. Counteract inertia with movement.

Celebrate and share the positive success stories: When you are navigating in a new context requiring new skills, you can shift your focus from performing perfectly to consistently learning and improving. Similarly, your own team members are looking for clues to reduce their uncertainty, so publicize the concrete successes and progress you are all making as you take small steps to achieve your outcomes linked to a greater purpose. If your team is praised by others – let them know. In times of uncertainty people want to hear that their contribution matters, so now is the time to increase unsolicited and unexpected positive recognition for their efforts. They look to you to counteract the anxiety they feel in facing the discomfort of adapting to new challenges. You don’t have to feel motivated to behave in a motivating way towards others. You can listen, share successes, give positive feedback, etc. even if you don’t feel like it. You don’t have to get permission from your feelings to act according to your values, and it’s always easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of behaving.

So, in summary:

Take charge of your own emotions – develop response-ability (an ability to choose how to respond)

Go out and build a support network of people around you who will energize you and get you focused on future possibilities

Deal with the conversations in your head and take a single step towards a purpose which has meaning for you and your organisation

Then understand how you can support your team by getting to know their unmet needs and how that shows up in their feelings

Focus on positive feedback as people start learning how to do new things, rather than on perfect performance – behave your way into a new way of thinking with concrete success stories (we are doing it; it’s happening; it’s real!), rather than thinking your way into a new way of behaving.

To learn more about how we accelerate Global Agility: the ability to think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA world go to the Gobal Agility section of our website.

Change, Tips

BREAKING NEWS: certain types are more successful in navigating today’s global workplace – and organisations are failing to promote them!

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a multidisciplinary team of neuro-scientists and decision theory specialists at Cambridge University have just unveiled astonishing preliminary results on human genetic analysis based on sophisticated neuroimaging research. The data clearly suggest that people with certain genetic makeups are significantly more successful in working internationally and in handling the complexity, ambiguity, unpredictability and volatility of today’s business world.

Are you one of the people researchers are calling ‘global surfers’?

Surprisingly, what the researchers are also discovering is that rather than valuing these neurologically and genetically ‘advanced’ types, organisations are actually systematically filtering them out as they move further up in the management ranks, they are also being sent on international assignments in only 20% of cases and, perhaps worse of all, they are even paying them less. As you can guess many of these ‘global surfers’ are leaving the organisation disillusioned and unfulfilled. Sounds crazy, right? Why would organisations choose to actually reduce their international competitive advantage by dissuading these innately global types from taking on key roles in the company? Because these neurologically and genetically ‘advanced’ types are…women.

And the above ‘research’ is just a provocative piece of playful fake news to get you to consider some hard facts.

Here they are. Research in Italy shows that less than one in two women work, even though 59.7% of graduates are women. These women graduate earlier and with higher grades than men. The pay gap for women is on average 17% less than men. Only one woman in ten in Italy is in a middle management position. Yet the International Monetary Fund study of 2016 has shown significant increases in profitability for every woman who enters the top leadership team or Board.  The Boston Consulting Group Innovation through Diversity Report in February 2017 shows that there is a high correlation between more balanced gender diversity in management teams and innovation revenues – especially in large and complex companies. The Bank of Italy has shown that if female employment rises to just 60% the GDP in Italy would rise by 7%. The graph from a McKinsey report in 2015 below charts European women’s reduction in presence at each successive career step. 


TCO International has recently started partnering with Valore D to develop the ‘Global Agility & International Mindset’ of women in its membership of 156 companies which employ over one million people in Italy. Valore D is Italy’s leading association to promote diversity and female talent and leadership for organisational and national growth. At the kick-off event for an ‘accelerating path’  for 39 women middle managers I was struck by the precision with which organisations are shooting themselves in the foot by not having more women in senior management. Our own focus in TCO International on creating value out of diversity is often impeded by finding ourselves in front of leadership teams with ties on.

Valore D initiated its ‘Accelerating Path’ for women talents to help close the gap in women’s strategic positioning in organisations. Women managers tend to be more present in Shared Services, Admin and HR roles (24%) but less so in strategic roles such as CFO and Strategy (16.5%), Operations (9.9%) and CEO (3.9%).  The focus of the development path is therefore on preparing women for these underrepresented roles. The aim is to close the competence deficit. This is one way to gain parity of presence at the top.

Our own program with Valore D takes an opposite approach. It is about valuing a competence gap which already exists between men and women – and where women are intrinsically more able – and which we believe is central to meeting the key leadership challenge for today’s organisations: Global Agility – the ability to think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world.


Here is why. Back in 2009, with our partners in WorldWork Ltd we published (Cultus, 2009) an analysis of the database of respondents to The International Profiler questionnaire focusing on 22 factors which contribute to success in an international context. We found significant differences between the emphasis men and women gave to the international competency set. Women gave remarkably similar emphasis in areas of international competency to those, irrespective of gender, who had lived abroad for at least 18 months abroad as an adult (expats). Women tended to show an intrinsic expatriate mindset and skillset even if they had never had such an experience. Compared to men, women have a significantly higher focus on spirit of adventure, valuing differences, relationship building skills in unfamiliar contexts, adaptive languages skills and acceptance of local approaches. In higher growth Asian and South American markets they are more able to match the implicit local communication styles and read between the lines. Men, on the other hand, seem to take a stronger ‘push’ orientation, focus on longer-term goals without being distracted along the way, communicating their intention clearly and showing sensitivity to the formal and informal power structures which influence decision-making.

It seems that in navigating as a ‘minority in a foreign land’ woman had tended to build up the experience and skills needed by expats, but in their own companies in their own country.  The irony is that recent relocation reports show that less than 20% of women are selected for expat assignments.

Not only do women tend to have a higher natural state of readiness for international assignments but the very competencies which expats develop as a result of their adaptation to the unfamiliar, unpredictable and ambiguous nature of their new environment are precisely those which organisations need even in domestic contexts. Today’s managers are expected to be adaptive to complex, changing and unpredictable scenarios impacting on the business. Top teams exhort their middle management to take more risks, think bigger and be more intrapreneurial – networking with less predictable partners in the pursuit of innovation opportunities. Women’s significantly higher focus on seeking out bungie jumping variety (high Spirit of Adventure scores) suggests that they are more adept at operating in a world with lower levels of personal control.  This requirement to make things happen, less by a push focused, directive style and more by horizontal influence across the role and task ambiguity in today’s matrix structures is playing to women’s strengths. Women are simply more able to draw on pull influencing styles – as our own work on exploring TCO’s Influencing Agility questionnaire database shows.

There is a double irony in all this. Many women have developed home-based expatriate experience like a phoenix from the ashes of their career paths in their local country organisations. At the same time, these extended ‘foreign assignments in my local neighbourhood’, have now prepared women for greater readiness for the new VUCA world which is no longer just the territory of pioneering expats.

Can this neurologically and genetically advanced group of ‘global surfers’ finally get the recognition that they have core competencies basic for today’s organisational survival and growth? The madness is to go on as before.

We look forward to having an equal balance of gender in our Global Agility open programs so that we can also accelerate women’s innate and acquired skills, boosting their real competitive advantage in todays’ promotion stakes.

PS With a coherent belief in the power of diversity and inclusion, Valore D’s catalogue programs are open to both men and women 😉

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