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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

When It Comes to Leadership, All Conversations Are Crucial

Leaders spend a significant portion of their time engaged in interactions. The quality of those interactions can have a significant impact.
When It Comes to Leadership, All Conversations Are Crucial

In the four decades leading up to 2010, perhaps the most significant change in the corporate landscape was the transition from an economic society based on physical and tangible assets, such as plants and equipment, to one based on intangible assets, including customer relationships, brand, ideas, and innovation. It is now estimated that intangible assets account for more than 80 percent of an organization’s value, and knowledge workers more than 40 percent of the workforce.

In recent years, McKinsey and Co. has explored the relationship between workplace interactions and the productivity of knowledge workers, believing that the key to improving knowledge-worker productivity lies in organizations’ ability to identify and address the barriers workers face in their daily interactions. This research, for which McKinsey examined several knowledge-based organizations, focused on the broader barriers (physical/technical, social/cultural, contextual, and time) that inhibit effective workplace interactions.

While these barriers matter, this view overlooks an important reality: Leaders spend a significant portion of their time engaged in interactions, and the quality of these interactions, including informal discussions, has a significant impact on the performance and productivity of both the individuals and the organization.

Consider for a moment the amount of time wasted in poorly managed meetings. Or worse, the lost productivity when somebody leaves a discussion frustrated and disengaged. If organizations were able to quantify the financial impact of poor conversations, they would quickly conclude that improving the quality of workplace interactions must be a priority for both the organization and individual leaders. Indeed, one might conclude that the ability to manage interactions effectively is at the heart of successful leadership.

The common interaction traps

Through our research and our work with thousands of leaders around the world and across all levels of the leadership pipeline, we at DDI have identified seven common interaction traps that inhibit leader, team, and organizational effectiveness.

1. Going straight to fixing the problem. Leaders, who have often been rewarded and promoted for getting things done and fixing problems, can jump too quickly to presenting the solution. In doing so, they fail to understand the context of a situation and miss opportunities to include all parties.

2. (Mistakenly) believing one size fits all. Over time, people develop a preferred style and/or approach to interactions. In their comfort level with how they prefer to do things, they can be oblivious to the impact their approach has in certain situations and on certain individuals. They may also struggle to accommodate different perspectives.

3. Avoiding the tough issues. Many leaders struggle to address the tough issues; in particular, performance issues. They lack the skills and insight to diffuse uncomfortable situations and/or tackle sensitive topics. As a result, issues can go unresolved, leading to even greater tension and more serious problems.

4. Inconsistently applying skills. Leaders often adopt a different approach when confronted with different situations and contexts. As a result, they may readily apply skills to some interactions while not applying them to others—an inconsistency that can breed confusion and feed a perception that the leader is ineffective.

5. Influencing through the facts only. As leaders move through the ranks, they increasingly need to influence through personal rather than position power. Too often, leaders rely on logic and rationale to position an argument or point of view when they would be better served by a “softer” approach that will allow them to build strong networks, and appeal to the unique needs and circumstances of individual stakeholders.

6. Spotting opportunities for change but forgetting to engage others. Leaders often recognize opportunities for improvement in areas such as products and processes but struggle to include and engage others in the change process. They don’t proactively encourage their team members and peers to develop ideas; they oversimplify the issues surrounding change and show little appreciation for the impact that change can have on people.

7. Coaching in the moment. When they need to coach direct reports, leaders often struggle to provide coaching in a timely fashion—when it’s needed most. Furthermore, the conclusions leaders reach about their team members’ development needs can often be superficial, causing them to miss opportunities to investigate fully and understand the underlying performance gaps.

Improving leadership interactions

In the field of electronics, a circuit breaker is an automatic electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by an overload or short circuit. Its core function is to interrupt an otherwise-damaging electrical flow.

When leaders have and apply the skills they need for effective conversations with their team members, peers, and other key stakeholders, the skills act as a sort of circuit breaker to prevent damage to critical relationships. At DDI, we refer to these critical skills as the Interaction EssentialsSM because they are the foundational behaviors that make leaders effective. They include:

  • Maintain or enhance self-esteem.
  • Listen and respond with empathy.
  • Ask for help and encourage involvement.
  • Share thoughts, feelings, and rationale (to build trust).
  • Provide support without removing responsibility (to build ownership).

The Interaction EssentialsSM also include interaction guidelines that form a five-stage process (Open, Clarify, Develop, Agree, and Close) leaders follow to ensure that interactions achieve their intended outcomes.

These skills may sound like common sense, but our research has shown that leaders often lack them. The good news is that these skills can be developed. With the right training, practice, and continual application, any leader can acquire these skills and become adept at conducting effective and successful conversations that serve to strengthen relationships, and drive engagement and results.


In many organizations, people typically are moved into leadership positions based on their strong technical knowledge and skills. In fact, the promotion into a leadership role is often a “reward” for having demonstrated technical excellence. However, the assumption that people with strong technical skills make good leaders is simply not true. The functions and skills of leadership are quite different and require a fundamental shift in the way one thinks and operates.

The transition to a leadership role is difficult. It’s challenging but also achievable. Acquiring core skills, such as interaction skills, is possible for anyone willing to try new behaviors and new ways of viewing themselves and their work.

Mark Busine is general manager, DDI Australia.


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