A better culture starts with better conversations.

Written by: Rebecca Davis is chief executive of West Midlands Employers.
Published on: 2 Mar 2023

The recruitment market is challenging. While some recruitment is positive for councils and an opportunity to bring new talent into an organisation, too much at once can overwhelm an organisation and leave significant skills gaps. Retention is a key lever in our resourcing toolkit and one that is often not given as much importance as recruitment.  Retention is more complex and is deep rooted in the culture of an organisation and the sub-cultures of teams. 

Having better, more courageous conversations can help to address issues and it involves intentionally having discussions and interactions around complex issues of organisational justice, race and privilege, with people at work. These conversations are courageous because they require being open to sharing your own experiences and to hearing the experience of others, it also means challenging views and confronting your own beliefs. Traditionally in organisations we have avoided these discussions. 

By creating a safe space and holding retention focused conversations around  difficult subjects organisations can look to make changes and evolve, before losing talent. Often honest conversations take place during an exit interview and that is too late to make those changes – the proverbial ‘horse has bolted’. By holding these interviews earlier, with those teams and individuals that contribute to your organisation and have valued skills and attributes, there is an opportunity to stem the flow of talent.

It is important to remember a brave or courageous conversation can be subjective to the individual and contextual to the situation.  What one person might find routine might cause another person sleepless nights. What makes an issue brave to someone else is their ‘lived experience’ and is at the very heart of inclusion.  Brave conversations are those initiated with the purpose of discussing issues that are difficult and uncomfortable, from a place of support, curiosity and wanting to do better.

It is important to understand people are not always equal in a difficult conversation about culture and experience – and those with power in either a situation or organisation must recognise that power and how it can play out in a difficult conversation, taking steps to minimise the impact and empowering both parties. Examples of this might be to ask someone to be accompanied to a meeting by a supportive colleague or choosing a location which is neutral to have the conversation. This is often why exit interviews are seen as ‘honest feedback’ because at the point an employee has decided to leave, the power dynamics have shifted.

The first step is to create an environment in an organisation where these are encouraged – a high support and high challenge culture. Too much support without building in challenge can result in a ‘low challenge/ high support’ culture that can lead to poor outcomes and delivery. Good conversations to improve culture need planning, sustainability and require development of employees and managers to raise their confidence in holding them, thus creating a ‘culture’ of feedback.

Some suggestions for ensuring you have a courageous conversations with a successful outcome:

Build trust. To create a culture and environment for brave conversations to take place we have to have an environment where there is a high level of trust.

Outcome focused. Have a clear focus and purpose. Know what you want to get out of the conversation and do what you can to get it.

Active listening. Avoid distractions and practice active listening. Care and value each individual by actively working to acknowledge differences and assume good intent, being open to what the other person is saying.

Stay curious. You don’t know what you don’t know. Be ready to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Understand power. Recognise brave conversations are at the heart of inclusion and are subjective and contextual to someone’s lived experience.

Develop managers.  Support employees to have the tools and techniques to have different types of conversations and be used to giving and receiving feedback in different scenarios.

By focusing on improving the outcome of the conversations taking place and holding regular ‘retention’ discussions (particularly with those in hard to fill areas) employers can understand where and how quickly they need to address issues and employees can feel listened  to. There is no magic formula to retention but using courageous conversations to create a better culture can foster an inclusive organisation, where we retain more of our key people.

These themes are a golden thread across the support we provide to managers and leaders. Our new Accelerating Inclusion Through Allyship programme dedicates an entire module to courageous conversations, providing people with frameworks for approaching difficult conversations, strategies to manage discomfort and importantly how to end a difficult conversation positively. 

Rebecca Davis is chief executive of West Midlands Employers.