APPLYING DIALOGUE TO MANAGEMENT AND ORGANIZATIONS
Selected Examples From the Corporate World
The case studies below illustrate how the principles of dialogue were introduced with regard to decision-making processes in different corporate settings. Each case study differs not only from an industry, time and location perspective, but also in the way dialogue was used. They offer proof that dialogue is seldom applied in its purest and fullest form, but is instead adapted to the organizational setting and needs.
Dialogue in the Medical Industry
In this case study, the principles of dialogue were applied in the integration of two U.S.-based medical companies into a German conglomerate. The work with dialogue took place in 2007 on site at the acquired companies in the United States, with one of the authors of this article acting as a facilitator.
The circumstances were unusual insofar as the German corporation had bought two U.S. based companies offering similar products within one year. Their product lines were a portfolio addition and a new business for the acquiring firm. The issue now was how best to integrate the two companies into their new parent, align the different cultures and create a new "business unit culture." Ultimately, it was decided that they would first be combined into one unit and then integrated in the conglomerate.
The acquiring company understood that there was a need to hold information sessions about the new ownership situation and subsequently bring the new employees of both companies together. Since the first acquired company was based in Los Angeles, the first information sessions were held there, with a similar procedure subsequently used at the second company on the east coast (the future headquarters of the new business unit). In a next step, employees of both companies were then brought together for integration meetings. Bringing together different company cultures is a very sensitive business, and who comes to whom at what time is an important aspect. Dialogue principles like "listening to and respecting one another" become enormously helpful in an integration process and can serve as indicators and enablers of the next steps. This confirms Schein's assertion that dialogue is a necessary vehicle for understanding cultures and subcultures and is therefore a key element of any organizational transformation model (Schein, 1993, p. 40).
The HR departments worked together to organize appropriate events based on the principles of dialogue, while the facilitator identified managers in the new parent organization who were not only familiar with company culture in Germany, but had also worked in the United States and thus had the necessary background and expertise to answer any questions. The event agenda included background information, news about the integration process and the opportunity for employees to ask questions and find out more about the acquisition, the new corporate culture and the next steps. This is an important basic step for creating trust and openness in the initial phase of an integration process.
The meeting and the entire dialogue approach were a success: employees raised questions, valued the opportunity to meet company representatives in person and asked for more such events. So what made it different to other group events? Ultimately not very much, yet some things—like the frank, open attitude and obvious integrity of the managers, the facilitator and other representatives of the acquiring company—clearly made a difference. Since the situation as a whole was characterized by insecurity, mistrust and, at best, curiosity, this opportunity to raise questions and be listened to in a setting which allowed adequate time to address the issues and process the situation was viewed as a helpful step in bringing the companies and cultures together.
Dialogue in the U.S. Fashion Business
This case study shows how the principles of dialogue are applied at a U.S.-based women's clothing designer and retailer (Scharmer, 2012). The company was founded in 1984 in New York as a "one woman show," driven by the founder's own desire for simple, functional clothes. It now has some 1,000 employees and over 56 stores in 15 U.S. states and abroad.
Its approach to leadership is grounded in social entrepreneurship, supporting women and work-life balance. When the founder speaks about the company, the high value placed on a dialogue and team oriented, engaging corporate culture immediately becomes obvious. This is also expressed in the company's leadership practices and mission, which revolve around open communication, presence, accessibility, listening openly and showing respect. Employees are encouraged to ask questions, share information, respect other views and get people involved. They are also invited to acknowledge and appreciate efforts, value contributions and team up with others to incorporate different points of view into discussion and decision processes.
So how are the principles of dialogue formulated in the leadership guidelines actually lived in this company? One simple rule has proved its effect: each meeting begins with a 3-minute silence. This gives the participants time to center themselves and breathe, instead of just bursting in with their minds still at a previous meeting. The founder believes in the problem-solving potential of the team and speaks of "radical participation". In many companies, decisions are made by a select few; here, large-scale interventions like the "World Café"—which allow many people to think together and make outcomes directly available—are used all the time to make decisions, thus applying the principles of dialogue to decision making. In the "World Café" setting, participants sit at tables of three to five persons and work on given questions, scribbling their ideas down on a special tablecloth before changing tables and continuing to work on the same questions with new stakeholders at different tables. They are then invited to speak about the process and the results achieved in the whole group. Additional aspects of effective leadership are put into practice using dialogue principles. One such aspect is the belief in a "no blame culture." Many companies find their bottom line suffers because their culture does not tolerate mistakes or even honor them as a practical source for improvement. Through the founder's example, this company has developed a culture that encourages employees to be open about their mistakes and accept that they will make them. Mistakes are seen as a breeding ground for new solutions and a source of opportunities to learn.
Further examination draws our attention to the "lived dialectics" in this successful company. One such dialectic is the balance between "the individual and the whole," that is, between the individual employee and the big market picture (including customer needs, regulations and finance laws). The founder brings these two worlds into dialogue by working with employees on critical questions like "What is dying and what is being born?" This co-creative process is also the fertile ground for strategic decisions on products. This participative form of leadership is nurtured by a set of core values and a genuine belief that work is about relationships and a deep respect for elders, ancient cultures and intergenerational participation. The founder lives the dialectics of "the past and the present" and remains convinced that everything matters in life and in business—a conviction that is practiced in leadership and expressed in the company's product. The added value of introducing dialogue in this company is a participative and sustaining form of communication in which questions are at least as important as the answers.