August 2018
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TD Magazine

Consequential Conversations

Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Consequential Conversations

Four ways socially intelligent leaders can engage others, drive decision making, and achieve results.

As executive coaches, one of the biggest challenges we find that leaders at all levels face is how to exert effective influence and presence in team situations. Certainly, a leader may have formal positional power over team members and exert authority through directive, force of personality, charm, or intimidation. But how can leaders exert more subtle, indirect kinds of influence (for example, advocacy, persuasiveness, empowerment of others, and followership) when interacting with their employees or a wider universe of stakeholders within an organization?


Today, the ability of leaders to effectively work through others and drive team decision making has never been more essential to business success. It's critical in addressing everyday business problems that are best tackled through technical problem solving. However, it's also critical in confronting adaptive leadership challenges—those that entail engagement of team members around issues and priorities that haven't been encountered before, that defy easy definition (much less resolution), and that require new expertise, frameworks, and perspectives to address.

Given these realities, how does a leader optimize team performance to address both kinds of decision-making challenges?

To be effective, leaders must create the circumstances—the ecosystem, if you will—that elicits optimal engagement from others, supports vigorous exploration and debate of ideas and options, and ultimately aligns team members behind well-considered courses of action. This requires self-aware, socially intelligent leaders who can employ powerful process tools with which to build stronger team member engagement and enhance team performance.

Introducing the Four-Player model for decision making

A powerful tool leaders can employ to spark consequential conversations with teams is the Four-Player model. David Kantor developed the model years ago based on conversation patterns he observed in couples as a family therapist. The Four-Player model is predicated on the idea that, in the context of any interaction between two or more people, an individual can take one of four conversational "stances" to advance group dialogue. The individual can act as a:

  • mover—convening a group for discussion and actively driving the conversational agenda
  • follower—listening to others and aligning himself with what others say
  • opposer—asking questions, challenging assumptions, and vetting ideas under discussion
  • bystander—acting as an observer of a group's conversational process and progress and sharing those observations with others.

Movers initiate action in group settings by offering ideas or suggesting courses of action to take. They may say, "Here's what I think we need to do in this instance." They typically provide direction for a group's work and drive the conversational agenda, at least at the beginning. Movers are great catalysts of action in group settings, and the mover stance is the one people traditionally associate with the role of a leader.

Followers support the stances (opinions, perspectives) that others offer. They're not passive or compliant. Instead, they support and align themselves with what others say, sometimes adding their own opinions. They may say, "I generally agree with what you're saying. Tell me more." Their support can be conditional or full-throated, depending on where a group is in conversation about a topic.

Followers play a vital role in group process by helping to drive a group's decision making toward closure and completion. Their voice gives credence and legitimacy to what others say, while their degree of followership illuminates for others what further work may need to be done to move an entire group toward consensus about a topic.

Opposers help take group discussions to deeper levels. They aren't naysayers or road blockers; rather, by speaking up and asking clarifying questions of others, they endeavor to stress-test ideas under discussion. In response to what a mover suggests, for example, an opposer may say, "I hear what you're saying, but what about X?" or "I don't disagree with what you're saying, but we need to examine alternative viewpoints as well." Opposers help to vet ideas using inquiry to sharpen the focus of a group's conversations. They also counter-propose ideas in response to what movers suggest. Opposers ensure that group decision making is thoughtful and robust and that decisions are based on a thorough examination and exploration of the ideas and opinions their teammates offer.

Bystanders play a critical role in the iterative process of group decision making by providing perspective on a group's discussions, process, and conversational progress. For example, the bystander may say, "I think we're getting off topic here. I suggest we get back to discussing the item we began with." Bystanders sometimes function as the conscience of a group, saying, "I'm watching what's happening here. I think we're getting bogged down and aren't moving toward clarity and resolution on what we're talking about." Bystanders also reflect on the actions and statements of others, sometimes piggybacking on what others say to offer their own perspective on topics under discussion.

A road map for conversation

Is there a definitive road map that leaders can use when applying the Four-Player model to situations that require strong collective decision making?

In our view, leaders exert optimal influence in groups by developing situational awareness of the specific kind of leadership required of them in a given moment and the social agility to toggle and pivot in their use of different conversational stances as discussions proceed. The precise sequence or pattern of stances a leader takes in conversation depends on many factors—for example, the purpose of team discussion (such as technical problem solving, strategic planning, and brainstorming), the group's history, and the individual personalities and social styles of those involved.

Let's consider how a leader may shift among various conversational stances in different team settings.

Assume a leader convenes a meeting to communicate new goals and priorities to her team. In such cases, she is likely to act primarily as a mover, at least initially, to convey work expectations to others and to clarify goals to be accomplished. By taking this stance, the leader communicates direction and priorities to others.

After doing so, however, and to encourage participation from others, the socially intelligent leader may then adopt a bystander stance, giving others a chance to speak, enabling group discussion to proceed and for consensus and alignment around goals to emerge. At the appropriate time, the leader may then shift back into a mover stance to facilitate closure to the conversation, summarize and frame what others have shared, and move the group toward making a decision or taking action.

Developing conversational nimbleness

In cases that require free-form brainstorming or the vigorous vetting and exploration of new ideas, the sequence of conversational stances a leader takes in facilitating discussions will be more complex.

For example, a leader may begin a strategic planning or brainstorming session by first assuming a mover stance, acting as a host and stage-setter for a group's work together. After outlining the group's agenda (purpose or focus of the meeting, desired outcomes, etc.), he may then shift into the bystander stance. In doing so, the leader sets the stage for others to speak, conversation to proceed, opinions and ideas to be raised, and engagement by other team participants to occur.

By assuming a bystander stance at this time, the leader also positions himself to observe others' participation (for example, energy level, body language, motivations). Doing so enables the leader to be on the lookout for tensions that potentially exist among parties in the room, notice who's speaking and who's holding back, and determine how effectively (or ineffectively) his team manages collective decision making.

At some point in such free-form discussions, the leader's stance may shift yet again; this time to strike an opposer stance and to ask critical questions: "Team, I'm hearing a lot of discussion about topic A, but what about topic B?" or "Folks, there's a lot of good energy in the room right now around what we're discussing, but no one has brought up the topic of X. It's important we speak to that matter as well. What do others think?"

As conversations continue and the group moves closer to consensus, the leader may, at some point, assume a follower stance to signal agreement with what others have said, contribute to conversational momentum, and help coalesce a group's discussion and thinking around one or more critical ideas or priorities that have surfaced during the group's collective work.

When the conversation has run its course, the leader then likely will revert to a bystander stance to make general process comments about how the team has operated and to poll people as to whether more discussion is needed. Finally, the leader will likely return to a mover stance to summarize the work the group has done and to suggest consensus on a topic has been reached and the group is ready to make a decision or take action.


The dynamics of conversation and interaction

The different stance sequences a leader can take in guiding group discussions, exerting influence, and driving team or collective decision making are virtually limitless. The point is that the Four-Player model provides a conversational guidance system that a leader can use to convene, facilitate, and manage effective team decision making. It also enables a leader to influence the direction of a group's work in both direct and indirect ways (see sidebar).

Clearly, it benefits a leader to develop nimbleness and social agility in applying the model in team situations. But what can be done when a leader lacks social dexterity or tends to default to use of a single conversational stance with others?

Leaders (and team members) can easily get stuck when an individual relies too much on the use of any one stance in group conversation. For example, leaders who act habitually as movers can shut down group discussion and inadvertently discourage others' active engagement if they're too directive or don't encourage expression of different points of view.

Leaders (and team members) who routinely take opposer stances during team discussions risk alienating others by appearing overly critical or risk-averse. Consequently, they must be sure to create a safe space for others to express their opinions. In addition, they must find the right time to be supportive of what others say and to add their own proactive ideas to discussions.

Followers who don't speak up during team discussions to offer opinions of their own can deprive a group of good ideas and necessary perspective. And bystanders can be rendered ineffective by other group members if their perspectives aren't acknowledged and embraced as key to the group's work and the quality of its decision making.

A far-reaching strategy

Leaders can use this group facilitation approach to convene and moderate business discussions of any kind, whether they are concerned with developing systematic solutions to everyday business and technical problems or successfully addressing adaptive leadership challenges that require new modes of thinking and problem solving.

However, effectively employing the model requires more than a mechanistic appreciation of the conversational stances and how to employ them in team contexts. A leader must also bring keen emotional intelligence, conversational grace, and servant leadership to a group's work to engage all team participants, foster vigorous discussion of ideas, build group commitment to courses of action, and drive effective and sustainable team decision making.

Using the Four-Player Model to Improve Team Leadership

In 2016, Richard Koonce began work with a product development manager for a major manufacturing company who had been tasked with setting up a new product development function within the organization. By experience, "Paula" was a technical specialist with deep knowledge of her company's products and service offerings. Like many such specialists promoted into management positions, she was unprepared for the challenges of building a team and delegating roles and responsibilities to others.

Though not intentionally an autocrat with employees, she dominated team meetings (as a mover), speaking at length about her vision for the team, failing to fully engage others in discussion of goals and objectives, and appearing more interested in pushing her ideas on others than on facilitating group conversations and forging consensus among all team members. Consequently, team morale was low, and some team members were looking for jobs elsewhere in the organization.

Koonce coached Paula for eight months, during which time they focused on helping her strengthen her group process skills, specifically her ability to toggle between various conversational stances when facilitating critical team discussions. Paula learned how to set the stage for discussions (as a mover) but then how to step back (bystander) and let others speak. She also learned to follow at times (when she agreed with the views others expressed). Further, she became skilled at using the opposer stance, when appropriate, to help vet and stress-test ideas under discussion. Paula soon realized that use of different stances at opportune times could facilitate and accelerate consensus-building and decision making within the team.

About the Author

David Kantor is an executive coach, former professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders.

About the Author

Richard Koonce is a consulting executive coach to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Growing Leaders (ATD Press).

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