Developing team alignment in our fast-moving, network-based organizations, with many virtual colleagues, takes special efforts by leaders and followers alike. The key is to create time for deep dialogues when needed while respecting cultural and professional differences.

People from highly diverse backgrounds instinctively recognize the difference between deep dialogue and casual conversation. We all know that satisfying feeling of having really connected with someone. There are important cultural differences, however, in how this is achieved since it cannot just be ordered when needed.  It takes investment in relationships.

When defining deep dialogue, people in the West focus more on having a "good exchange of views" or "a meeting of the minds," whereas Asians are more likely to emphasize "warm feelings "and a "conversation of the heart." Both groups agree, however, on several features that are essential for genuine deep dialogue:  information exchange, mutual trust and respect, and shared interests.

My former colleague and friend Professor Howard Perlmutter conducted studies with global executives at Wharton and elsewhere that revealed five common types of dialogue deficits.  They apply to relationships inside organizations as well as to those in one's personal life.  Here is the assessment scale Perlmutter used to help assess where you currently stand with people you have to interact with or would like to.

Types of Dialogue Deficit

Fallow:  No recent conversation or positive encounters took place and there actually may be a degree of avoidance. Such moribund relationships suggest there is little knowledge or interest in the other and/or it may reflect underlying anxieties about establishing contact.

Failed: There were past interactions but at present there are no attempts at communicating. Bad memories, unhealed wounds, or unsettled scores conspire to resist efforts to renew attempts at dialogue and mutual understanding.

Failing: The levels of existing trust and respect are decreasing, and efforts to bridge differences are failing. There is also a marked reduction in bonding and a greater focus on differences than similarities, and the multiple gaps seem harder to bridge by each side.

Frozen: There is an emotional or cognitive stalemate in an ongoing but polarized debate, with participants being stuck in fixed positions or rigid viewpoints. No bridging appears possible. Intermediation has failed in what is seen by many as a chronic stalemate.

Feeble: There is minimal information exchange and people fail to share tacit or important information. Low openness, inattentive listening, defensive routines, and infrequent meetings mark these relationships. There is a narrowing domain of information sharing.

Developing Deep Dialogue

Being a humanist at heart, Howard Perlmutter also was very interested in developing constructive approaches to improving the quality of dialogue if and when needed.  Building on best organizational practices as well as social psychology and clinical counseling, he advocated the following seven strategies.

1. Bridging: Deal constructively with differences among people, which means respecting, celebrating, and transcending differences. It takes patience to bridge temporal, linguistic, cultural, and geographical differences but once achieved, information and new ideas will flow more freely. The greater the capacity to transcend differences, the greater the depth and quality of information that will be exchanged.

2. Bonding: Engage in activities that encourage mutual trust and respect. Good personal chemistry, feelings of friendship, and heart-to-heart conversations are key here.  Bonding is closely associated with degrees of mutual trust and respect, as well as relating the other as a unique human, not as an abstract stereotype.

3. Banding: Emphasize "we" as part of a developing a collective mindset as opposed to "I" versus "you" thinking.  A sense of harmony and unity is felt when engaged in dialog and collaborative interactions. There is a mutual desire to have fertile dialogues and to create interdependence or even a shared identity.

4. Blending: Combine ideas for innovations in a spirit of co-creation, building on distinctive strengths and constructive collaboration. Enhancing each other's ideas by saying "and" rather than "but" leads to new synergies with persons from different backgrounds and cultures.

5. Bounding: Focus collective energies on a meaningful task, a purposeful project, so as to find fertile domains for sharing.  Also, set boundaries for collaboration such that valuable resources can be made available without fear of misuse or wasted effort.

6. Binding: Make a commitment to work on a shared project, with joint stakes in the outcomes, to foster mutual trust with an orientation toward the future. The key here is to make mutual commitments to carry out projects for joined gain.

7. Building: Take actions to help a joint project succeed, after having made a commitment to do so. Develop a clear architecture, with a shared vision and joint governance. The key is to leverage diverse skills and cultures in the service of a joint objective.

The above strategies work better in combination than alone, and can be customized to achieve closer alignment among people when implementing a strategy or developing a strategic alliance.  Especially in virtual teams, it is important to create face-to-face encounters so that bridges can be built and deep dialogue takes place. Leaders must complement the task-oriented and often virtual nature of business with people-oriented activities aimed at creating a deeper sense of trust, belonging and shared stakes in the future of the enterprise.


This post draws on joint work I conducted with Howard Perlmutter at Wharton and beyond; for more detail, go to Decision Strategies International.