The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority – Kenneth Blanchard*

Many leaders are extremely successful despite their leadership style being forceful and even dogmatic.  Joseph Grenny at VitalSmarts, the international partner of corporate culture experts The Human Edge, says that Donald Trump and Jack Welch jump to mind.  However, our learnings have proven that we are most effective during times of crucial conversations when we express ourselves cautiously and encourage others to challenge our views.

So does this mean that crucial conversation skills can only be applied in certain situations? Firstly, it is important to define what a crucial conversation is.  It is a situation that has high stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotions.

What we know is that there is a profound difference between performance and relationships. National politics is more about performance than relationship. Performance is monologue not dialogue. It must be brief, simple, and memorable. Relationships are none of these. They require dialogue. Conversations are often lengthy, nuanced, and messy.

Just prior to the US election, VitalSmarts did an interesting experiment that illustrated these views.  More than 3,600 subjects, who held strong political opinions, were asked to watch a brief video clip of someone who either agreed or disagreed vehemently with their view. Some watched a clip of someone sharing their view in an aggressive and dogmatic way. Others saw a clip of someone sharing their view strongly – but in a way that showed respect for those who hold alternate opinions. Then, the subject was asked to rate the likeability, intelligence, and persuasiveness of the person they just observed. The results were enlightening.

Those who watched a dogmatic person who agreed with them rated them as far less intelligent, likeable, and persuasive than someone who disagreed with them – but disagreed reasonably. And the differences were not subtle – those who presented their views with passionate respect were:

  • Five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
  • Four times more likely to be seen as likeable
  • Three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
  • 140% more persuasive
  • 140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
  • 180% more likely to maintain relationships with others

The questions is, if a respectful approach to communication makes this profound a difference in how people perceive you, how could someone rise to power by doing the opposite?  Part of the answer, I believe, lies in how the video was introduced to the subjects. We did not say, “Watch this person on television.” Instead, we said, “Imagine this is your co-worker who is trying to engage you in conversation…”

It also turns out that the rules that govern memorability are different from those that generate a sense of connection and trust. Conflict and repetition promote memory. So, in political performance, we need a foil or antagonist to create a sense of conflict. We dramatically juxtapose our view with that of the antagonist and we repeat the same simple dictum ad nauseum. In this context, exaggeration increases effect.

But imagine someone trying this approach in a conversation! It wouldn’t work. You’d walk away. They would rupture relationships. Interestingly, even politicians and larger-than-life business leaders must be bilingual in this respect – or they will pay a price. There is a difference between winning a campaign and building an organisation and relationship. VitalSmarts have studied the latter for three decades and can say unequivocally that if you attempt to use political performance skills in the sustained relationships of your life, you’ll pay an enormous cost.

Does that mean you’ll fail completely if you violate respectful communication practices? No. Because success is not about a single variable. But it does mean that you’ll fall short of the success you could have had if you had managed this one variable better. Some succeed in spite of their weaknesses, but rarely because of them.

Interestingly, one of Jack Welch’s most coveted cultural goals was to build a culture of candour. He knew that an organisation that doesn’t habitually speak truth to power is doomed to suffer for the lack of it. My guess is his public persona was different in some ways than his interpersonal approach.

Visit humanedge.co.za or contact Carina Serfontein on 012 345 6281 for more information on the upcoming Crucial Accountability and Crucial Conversations public programmes.  The Human Edge is an innovator in corporate training and organisational performance, providing solutions and skill-sets for creating lasting sustainable behaviour change.

The Human Edge is the sole licensee in Africa for VitalSmarts, the global company involved in enabling lasting behaviour change and dramatically improving results across the Fortune 500.

* Kenneth Blanchard is one of the most influential leadership experts in the world, co-author of the iconic bestseller, The One Minute Manager, and 60 other books whose combined sales total more than 21 million copies.