6 Simple Conversations That Will Create a Better Culture

In a post-COVID working world, it’s HR’s job to bring people together. Here’s how to start.

By: Peter Block, Beverly Crowell, and Jeff Evans

All the stories we used to tell each other about how we interacted with people at work were symbolized by one word: “office.” But COVID-19 changed that narrative. It lifted the veil on how isolated we were even before the pandemic began. It also raised questions like, “Is the office as we’ve known it useful?” and, “Did going to the office imply a certain social contract that we’re required to accept to get back to work?” 

While working from home, many people experienced the freedom of not going to the office every day. And once they got a taste of that freedom, they started leaving their jobs and avoiding the roles that require going into an office. today, the most available jobs are often the most unwanted. People no longer subscribe to a paternalistic social contract that says, “If you, the employee, come here and behave yourself, our managers will watch you work, manage you, and take care of you.” 

For many people and for many years, this promise was very appealing. We like to be taken care of. It was part of the social contract we had with work, the office, and the organization. And Human Resources has always been at the center of this parent-child contract—but now, HR’s role is rapidly evolving.

The New HR

The fact is we’re not all going back to the office. Some of us want to work from home. Some want to go to the office, and some want the “hybrid” option of doing both. This can be a nightmare for the organizations who want to watch and manage people. 

The language we’ve used to describe portions of the HR function is telling. One example is the function called “Talent Acquisition.” That label says the function is no longer about recruiting. It’s about acquiring human beings.  When you acquire something, it means you own it. Now, as a good company leader and HR person, you want to handle your property well. You care about training, benefits, and all those things that owners of the acquired human beings would do to protect and support their property. 

But post-pandemic, the whole tone of the work world has shifted, and so must the HR function. The changing role for HR is to help organizations rethink and transform their “culture,” a word that simply means the way we are together. One shift for the organization and for HR itself is to a culture where people show up as partners. Whether they show up virtually or in person, they show up as co-creators of the future. 

HR can no longer be just about the HR functions of the past. It must shift to a culture that creates an alternative to the parental world to which we grew accustomed, and in which we thrived. It must activate “One HR,” a philosophy of bringing all the different functions of HR into a well-functioning strategic/collaborative practice in support of the business.

A “One HR” community is symbolized by a circle. For so long, traditional HR was symbolized by a pyramid, where an HR person’s role was to implement the wishes of top management. But a circle means we co-create together at all levels and through all disciplines. HR’s cultural role now is to confront people with their choices. It’s not to give them what they want, because most people’s expectation of HR is just too low.  Leadership traditionally created HR because they wanted someone to take the burden of managing people off their shoulders: As a leader, when people get mad at me, I can send them to HR.

Now, one thing co-creation requires is convening. It’s only when we bring people together that transformation can happen. But the way we bring people together is even more important than the reason we’re bringing people together in the first place. 

How We Convene

There is a simple methodology for convening people to create a sense of belonging to a shift into a different culture. The problem with the methodology is that it’s too simple. It’s six conversations, organized around the basic notion that all change is just having a different conversation with people that you’re not used to talking to. That’s what sparks transformation; that’s what fuels real diversity. It says we’re going to show up together and have a different conversation than the one we’re used to having. 
It used to go like this: Somebody gets up to lead a town hall meeting. The leader stands up with a script written by someone else and they give their talk—they’re the “Sage on the Stage.” They follow Robert’s Rules of Order and use PowerPoint. Nobody’s more bored than the presenter during a PowerPoint presentation. The people who are second-most bored, of course, are the people watching: the PowerPoint has six points, and then you watch the presenter talk through six things you can read for yourself. That format also makes sure people turn in their questions ahead of time, because we want our leaders to never be surprised. To convene differently, we get away from the town hall meeting, Robert’s, the PowerPoint, and the leader having the answers to the prepared questions.

Convening in Six Conversations

The Six Conversations methodology is as simple as it gets. It comes from the notion that if you have certain conversations with other people, you get connected. These conversations start with asking good questions, which means the questions are by design ambiguous, personal, and anxiety-provoking. In other words, these are six conversations that matter. We share these conversations in a particular order here, but each of them can be a beginning, an end, or come anywhere in between. 

Conversation #1: Invitation

Most cultural change is attempted through a mandate from the top and is usually called change management, to imply that the top knows where we’re headed, the bottom needs to find out, and every supervisor gets a slide deck.  They say, “You come,” and you say, “Yes, ma’am.” The Invitation conversation focuses on choice. It asks, “Why did you choose to show up today?” Even if we were told to show up, we still had a choice. We could choose how we show up and even whether we show up at all.

Conversation #2: Possibility (Not Problem-Solving)

The primary reason we traditionally get together is for problem-solving. Working in a One HR community means we’re here to imagine and reimagine our future. One HR says we want people that work for this company to know part of the job is to imagine a possibility in the future that didn’t exist before. 

Conversation #3: Ownership 

It means, “This is my place to mess up and to create.” In most meetings we’ve all attended over the years, people want to blame each other. “Whose fault is it?” is the heart of the first 30 minutes of every meeting. Luckily, as third-party facilitators, we could make a living off that because the madder people were at “them,” the more they needed us. 

The alternative is to ask, “What are we doing to create this place?” Your job as HR is to say to line managers when they come to you with a problem, “Thank you, I get it, and I got it.” Then you ask, “What’s your role in creating that?” Their response may be, “What are you talking about? I didn’t bring you in for that.” Your response then is, “I know you didn’t. That’s why I showed up. I didn’t want to come for what you asked for. I’m not here to meet your expectations.” That confrontation exemplifies One HR in a nutshell and embodies the shift to a new culture. 

Conversation #4: Dissent

Dissent is the cousin of diversity; it’s respect for a wide range of beliefs that gives people space to say “no.” If you can’t say “no,” then your “yes” has no meaning. “No” is the beginning of the conversation for commitment. Doubt and dissent are symbolic expressions of people finding their space and their role in the future. The moment people experience the fact that they can share their doubts openly, they begin to feel a sense of belonging to the community. 

Traditional management practice is to squash doubts, or at least provide an answer to all the doubts. During the Dissent conversation, leaders don’t have to respond to each person’s doubts. They just need to get interested in them by listening. When we try to answer doubts and defend ourselves, we’re colluding with people’s reluctance to be accountable to own their future. 

Conversation #5: Commitment and Promise

Commitment is a promise you make to peers about your contribution to their success and the success of your work together, with no expectation of something in return. How do you make promises with no expectation of return? Toward the end of every gathering, ask people to answer the question, “What promise am I willing to make?” And then, to go deeper, you can ask, “What is the price I am willing to pay for the success of the whole effort?”

Conversation #6: Gifts

Most organizations are organized around deficiencies. In the first grade, we’re told, “Hi, hope you enjoyed your playing, because now it’s time to compete.” And our job—in elementary school, high school, the academic world, and in business—is to help people become better in confronting their deficiencies. That’s not powerful. We’ve been working on our deficiencies for a long time and not much has changed. 

The only cultural practices that focus on gifts are retirement parties and funerals. Why do we wait until the end of someone’s career or life to draw attention to the gifts they bring? The leadership task is to bring people and their gifts to the forefront in our gatherings, in the moment as we create together. You gain more respect and trust to influence change when you focus on gifts you and others bring together. You can capitalize on gifts. Complete your time together, in small and large groups, by talking about what others did that worked and had impact. Name names. Invite each to simply say, “Thank you. I like hearing that.” That’s a huge shift, because most of us are embarrassed by that. We aren’t comfortable hearing what gifts we bring to others.

The Ground Rules for Convening

All these conversations are designed for small groups. The ideal size is three, with five being the maximum. In addition to the size of the small group, there are some ground rules to consider. 

Ground Rule #1: Partner with the people you know the least.

Likemindedness divides us. It tells us that we can be ourselves only with a small little group of those we know. When you ask people to partner with others they know the least, they will resist and say, “You’re out of your mind! That’s not what we do here.” And the answer is, “Yes, I am out of my mind, and I’d like us to try this.”  Just learn not to take it personally. 

Ground Rule #2: Don’t be helpful to each other.

To be helpful to each other is to know what’s best for another, which is a colonial act. England knew what was best for India. America knew what was best for Native Americans. So don’t be helpful. Don’t ever say, “When I was in your situation, here’s what I did.” That pretends that you turned out well. (Spoiler: You didn’t. You just turned out to be human!) So, when somebody says something, listen and say, “Tell me more.” You can also get curious and ask, “Why does that matter to you?” This is convening. Someday we’ll have leaders as conveners, and they will run meetings with the primary intent of having peers connect more impactfully with each other.  

These ground rules are sub-structures to the conversations. They are the jazz we’re trying to create. When musicians get together, they have certain structures, like melody, chords, and rhythms. So, these are the kind of hidden structures of convening as a transformative act.

Our questions and structures are designed to help people have agency and say, “Well, maybe this place is mine to create. We don’t convene to meet each other’s expectations. We convene to create meaning and to do something together.” This is what creates chosen accountability.

So, let’s not “go back to the office.” Let’s redefine the roles of leadership and One HR to be ones that convene others in a way that creates a community of belonging and an organization of meaning.

Peter Block is a partner of Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops designed to build the skills outlined in his books. His books include Flawless Consulting, Empowered Manager, Stewardship, and Community: The Structure of Belonging. His work is in the restoration of the common good and creating a world that reclaims our humanity from the onslaught of modernism. 

Beverly Crowell is a managing partner of Designed Learning. She is also an experienced consultant, facilitator, and author contributing to The Talent Management Handbook and Coaching for Leadership. She has partnered with over 65 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies in the areas of career development, employee engagement, talent management and human resources.

Jeff Evans is an experienced Organizational Development practitioner and coach. He is a managing partner with Designed Learning. He spent over 25 years as an internal consultant for NASA, Chrysler and the Cleveland Clinic.  His passion is to bring humanity to organizations and communities around the world.