In Praise of Small Talk: Leaders Can Fuel Organizational Learning through Communication

By Zurawski, Cheryl | Communication World, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Small Talk: Leaders Can Fuel Organizational Learning through Communication


Zurawski, Cheryl, Communication World


At the end of the day, leadership is a process of communication. Effective communication enables leaders the world over to build trust, embrace change, shape organizational cultures and foster learning among their employees. Little wonder, then, that just as leadership is one of the core skills organizations seek to develop in their people, so, too, is communication. The two go hand in hand.

Pared down to its essence, communication is one person trying to share ideas and meaning with others. "Talk" is a primary means of communicating at work. It is also a powerful tool of leadership. Empirical connections between dialogue and leadership have been explored for more than 30 years, but only recently has the focus been on conversational exchanges between leaders and employees as opposed to what one or the other does to communicate effectively on the job.

Because research interest has shifted to these informal exchanges, it is possible to more fully explore how ongoing conversations can lead to knowledge creation and innovation. The IABC Research Foundation took a step down this path in 1998 with its study "Key Elements of Effective Supervisor/Employee Communication." One of the 21 principles distilled from the study underscored how learning in organizations can be nurtured through effective communication between supervisors (leaders) and their employees.

The significance of the connection between leadership and communication is not lost on leaders who recognize that it is an organization's ability to learn faster than its competitors that gives it an edge in the global marketplace. To help their organizations succeed, business communicators can benefit by tapping into the power of talk.

So what role does leader communication play in organizational learning, and how can communication leaders make the most of small talk for big results?

Some answers emerge from a 2003 qualitative and exploratory study conducted in a financial cooperative headquartered in Canada. The organization, which supplies financial products and services to its members, employs 250 staff and is among the top 25 businesses in its jurisdiction with consolidated assets over CAN$3 billion.

The study, supported by a wealth of academic literature in disciplines such as adult education, leadership, organizational communication and organizational learning, examined several factors related to conversations in the workplace, including

* the role conversations play in organizational learning

* characteristics of effective and ineffective workplace learning conversations

* leader and employee experiences with organizational learning through conversation

* best practices for enhancing organizational learning in conversations between leaders and employees.

At the time of the study, the financial cooperative was coping with change on many fronts. Globalization, new technologies, changing demographics and increasingly sophisticated consumer needs were driving efforts to reshape organizational culture to be more conducive to learning.

The study was conducted to help the organization understand how communication between leaders and employees could help reshape culture and support organizational learning. The study's significance lies in the connections made between organizational learning and organizational communication. Much has been written in each discipline, but little attention has been paid to the place where they intersect. Although the literature on organizational learning often focuses on groups and organizations, much less has been written about one-on-one conversations between leaders and employees. And while leadership research draws attention to the importance of effective communication, few studies mention learning as an outcome of conversation.

To bridge that gap, this study was designed to allow the researcher to interview both leaders and employees about their conversations. …

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