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


The Thought Leader Interview: David Kantor

The second dimension is called the communication domain; I also sometimes refer to it as the language people speak. Each domain is oriented toward a purpose, and you can see that purpose in the content of the speech act. Some acts of speech are in the affect domain; they involve words of feeling, seeking an increase in connection and intimacy. “This decision seems pretty heartless. I wonder how people will feel about it.”

Other speech acts are in the power domain, using words about getting things done, and their purpose is increasing competence and efficacy. “Who’s going to make sure that there’s follow-through here?”

Finally, there is the meaning domain: words about truth and reasoning, and content involving analytics and philosophy, with the goal of a higher understanding. “It is critical that the results reflect our standards for accuracy.”

S+B: And when one person talks in power while the other one speaks in affect, they can misread each other’s intentions.
That’s one of the most common reasons for breakdowns in communication. People also have preferences for specific communication domains; they do not honor ways of speaking other than their own, and this increases the likelihood that they’re going to speak at cross-purposes.

A third dimension is the paradigm about the rule of order: People have different views of the best way for human conduct to be regulated. All the governance structures in the world can be boiled down to three types. The open system is consensual and unregulated until it hits a point of action, and then an authority, chosen by the group, decides. A representative democracy is an open system. In the closed system, authority rests with position—the closer you are to the top of the hierarchy, the more authority you have. This system is highly regulated; a military regiment, for example, is a closed system. In a random system, authority remains with those who take and use it; the group continues to expand, experiment, and move.

Jazz bands are random systems, and so are most teams of innovators in an R&D department.

For most people, one of these three systems feels intuitively right. When a conversation doesn’t flow in the way they favor, they feel uncomfortable. I first saw that in my work with families—people intuitively sought out an open, closed, or random family—but I didn’t really grasp the difference until I learned about feedback mechanisms in systems theory. Closed systems rely on negative, or balancing, feedback; when something new happens, they instinctively move to regulate it and tamp it down. Random systems work through positive feedback; they reinforce novelty and make it stronger. Open systems combine the two forms of feedback; they are positive until they reach some point of dysfunction. Then the leader steps in….

S+B: “Let’s take a vote.”
Or, “We have to reach consensus.” Everybody must have a voice in the open system, even if it’s disruptive, but then it comes to a decision, a vote, a consensus. It shifts from a positive to a negative feedback loop.

S+B: How would I, as a leader, use all this to design a speech act?
Everything you say can be framed as a combination of these elements. Suppose you’re in a cold room. You could say, “Close that window now.” That’s a closed-system move in power. You could change it to an open-system statement by saying, “It occurs to me that people are wrapping their scarves around their necks. Will somebody near the window step over there and close it?” This speech act is still a move in power, but now you’re open. You’re giving people a choice; you’re looking for a volunteer. You could also switch it into affect, by saying, “It would be so much nicer if the room were warmer, and people felt more comfortable.” And you could move that into bystanding by saying, “I notice that people feel uncomfortable, but nobody seems to feel like closing the window.”

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