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 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: David Kantor

An eminent systems therapist says that learning to recognize the hidden patterns in conversation is the first step toward more effective executive leadership.

Every once in a while, you meet someone who really knows how to “read a room.” This is the individual, often a seasoned executive leader, who can walk into a tense meeting and sense why two would-be collaborators are butting heads, why a third manager hardly speaks, and why a fourth seems to be protecting some unspoken priority. Then, with a few words, the individual can defuse the problem, get people back on track, and move the team to a new level of productivity. When this type of work is done with an executive team, it can have invaluable impact, cascading out to the rest of the organization as people practice and share their newfound skills. At all levels, the ability to read a room is considered by many to be a rare and special gift, innate and not teachable. Many people who have this gift admit that they don’t know how to teach it to others.

Structural Dynamics: Using Conversational Cues to Lead More Effectively

David Kantor speaks with Booz & Company partner Rutger von Post about how leaders can tap into “structural dynamics” to create better-performing teams.

But one man has built his career around trying to help people track their conversational interactions, understand the hidden dynamics in them, and learn how to intervene effectively. By codifying these patterns, he has shown that the skills of insight can be taught. David Kantor was a family therapist based in Cambridge, Mass., when, in the 1980s, he began meeting regularly with a group of noted organizational thinkers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Kantor had the idea that the patterns he had seen in families—the recurring ways that people became stuck in groups, or fell into particular types of emotional turbulence when faced with a grave or urgent problem—might also apply to executive teams in businesses and other organizations.

Kantor began explicitly studying and coaching senior leaders. He took extensive notes on every interaction, trying to discover the combination of factors, as varied as an individual’s emotional and family history and the dynamics in the organization around him or her, that would lead some people to crack under pressure and others to thrive. Over the years, in part through working with such organizational learning experts as Peter Senge, Edgar Schein, and Chris Argyris, he’s become an influential theoretician of individual and group behavior.

His book Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 2012) assembles 40-plus years of organizational research and practice into a guide to conversational cues and meanings, with particular relevance for management interactions and executive teams. Kantor makes the case that being attuned to the signals of a conversational system—an approach he calls “structural dynamics”—is the first step toward becoming a far more prescient and effective leader. (He is currently launching a series of empirical studies on measuring and changing leadership behavior with the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.) He met with strategy+business at his Cambridge office to explain the way it works.

S+B: You suggest in your book that most leaders need a better model of human systems. Why is that?
In any situation, unseen, unspoken connections among people influence everything that happens. Leaders are typically not aware of these connections, and they can’t be, unless the right conceptual lens is available. The model I’ve developed over the years is a schema for understanding how people talk while they are making decisions together. It’s actually two models—one describing everyday situations, and one for high-stakes situations like crises and conflicts.

People behave differently under extreme conditions; there are breakdowns in communications, and things can move forward only if people can overcome those breakdowns. The decisions you make under that pressure are what define you as a leader.

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