Chocolate conversations are a proxy for important conversations that get misinterpreted and result in unintended consequences. Everyone has them. They happen in both our business and our personal lives. The misunderstandings and different points of view that result from them can lead to misdirection in companies, poor execution, and loss of opportunity. Not clarifying a chocolate conversation can lead to failed mergers in business and failed relationships in both business and life.
I can almost hear you saying, “I’m a savvy business executive. I know how to have conversations and to communicate what I want. What are you talking about?” We seasoned business executives see ourselves as connoisseurs of leadership conversations. After all, we have them all the time. Don’t we? We have them in front of large audiences to communicate direction, a new strategy or marketing plan. We have them through e-mail, conference calls, and PowerPoint decks.
So why is it that what we intend to have happen as a result of these conversations — doesn’t happen? Let’s literally use chocolate as a proxy to answer this.
Around three o’clock every day, I get this craving for chocolate. I don’t always act on it. Yesterday, I couldn’t help myself. I was on calls all day, at the computer for hours, and I needed a fix.
I envisioned the candy dish in the coffee room and remembered the dark chocolate squares that were in it the other day. Everyone in the office loves chocolate, hence the dish is frequented. When I got there my squares were gone! I really don’t like peanut butter cups and that seems to be the preference of others in my firm. Yet all that was left in the dish was peanut butter cups. I was disappointed, and managed to let everyone know. They looked baffled as to what I was talking about! To some people, chocolate is chocolate. NOT…
The candy dish was our assistant’s idea- a good way to boost morale. And it was easy to make happen. When she orders office supplies, the candy is a line item and she simply adds it to the order. She never said, “OK, Everyone, here’s a candy dish and it’s going to be filled with different kinds of chocolate. I want to let you know that the dark chocolate squares are only for the boss and she expects them to be there for when she hits the dish. You can eat whatever other kind of chocolate you want, but not these dark chocolate squares.”
Oh by the way, I never mentioned that to her either.
Chocolate conversations have three ingredients: worldviews, standards, and concerns. A Worldview is a set of beliefs we hold about ourselves and about the world, based on our experiences. These perceptions shape the picture we carry around in our minds. Standards are rules, codes, and guidelines that inform how we act in different situations. Like our worldview, our standards are developed through our experiences and interactions with others over a lifetime. Concerns arise from information filtered through our worldviews and our standards. Our standards become our expectations. Where are my chocolate squares? When expectations are not met, we’re disappointed. When we’re disappointed we complain. A complaint is an expressed concern. Underneath every complaint is an unmet need.
In my office, at the worldview level, we all like Chocolate. Our standards, however, are different. Dark chocolate squares for me; peanut butter cups for others. By not clarifying how I felt about my stash in the candy dish, I set up a standard no was aware of and expressed an unmet need that caught everyone off guard.
Now, substitute the word “chocolate” for “Leadership.” How many different interpretations would people have about the definition of leadership or what constitutes a good leader? If you share a complex strategy or a new change initiative or a new healthcare plan, like Obamacare; how many different standards would surface? When people’s standards aren’t met, concerns bubble up. Customers express their concerns, as do employees, constituents and shareholders. All of those concerns are declaring an unmet need.
Leaders can’t afford to ignore chocolate conversations. Speaking only at the worldview level will guarantee them. For example, a healthcare plan that will be affordable, inclusive, and available to all citizens sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? But when you get down to how that plan will impact certain age groups, company benefit plans, and individuals who are obligated to participate, people’s standards kick in and pretty good doesn’t seem so good anymore.
Unwrapping chocolate conversations is essential – you need to get to how a particular worldview will play out. Laying out the standards and addressing the concerns that surface is equally critical. Taking the time to have a complete conversation – and make sure your message is heard as you intended it — will actually move things along faster and get you closer to your intended outcome.
You will never completely avoid chocolate conversations. Being aware of what causes them and how to unwrap them, will help you have fewer of them. Your leadership — and the change you are driving in your company — depends on it!
You can follow her on twitter @rosefass.