The Pizza Dialogues

March 5, 2003
For three years, Jennifer had been heading up the comp and benefits sectionof a large community college system in the Midwest. The job involved meetings,meetings, and more meetings--so many that she ruefully called herself themeeting queen. So when she received an e-mail message informing her of yetanother get-together, she didn’t make much of it. At the appointed time, sheinnocently walked into the conference room and took a seat--at what quicklyturned into the meeting from hell.

It started out so nicely. The VP of finance and administration, who hadcalled the meeting, welcomed Jennifer and the eight others in attendance: theassociate VPs of administration, facilities, and human resources management; thedirectors of accounting, purchasing, technology, and the budget office; and themanager of employee relations. Then he turned his attention to the focus of themeeting. "More than 90 percent of our workforce completed theemployee-satisfaction survey we conducted last month," he said. "I thoughtwe could go over the initial findings and decide on the best way to circulatethe results to employees."

The employee relations manager had prepared a one-pager showing the averages,ranges, and standard deviations for 20 survey items. She gave a handout to eachattendee, and the room grew quiet as people absorbed the data. To Jennifer, mostof the numbers looked good. Employees gave high marks to teamwork, work/lifebalance, personal development, respect, diversity, and other important factors.There were only two low ratings: employees felt little ownership of their work,and they felt unappreciated.

Suddenly, the VP cleared his throat. "I just don’t understand," hesaid. "How can employees not feel like owners after all the improvement teamswe’ve chartered? And what’s with this lack of appreciation? I go around allthe time praising and thanking them!"

He paused, apparently waiting for a reaction. Some brave soul filled thesilence by noting all the survey strengths. But the VP started up again, thistime dropping a bomb: "We can’t share all this data with everyone," hesaid. "It’ll only make people more negative. Let’s write a summary, put itin the newsletter, and leave it at that."

The employee relations manager, who rarely held back and always seemed tospeak for the silent majority, took a deep breath. "We can’t do that. Whenwe handed out the survey, we told everyone we’d share all the results. We haveto keep our word." The VP countered: "Did we tell them we’d share all theresults in raw-data form or in digest form?" The employee relations manager:"You’re splitting hairs. People will want to know. We set theexpectation--now we have to deliver."

While everyone else hunkered down in protective silence, the VP and managerlaunched into a raging debate. The meeting ended with raw nerves, bad feelings,and complete confusion over how to proceed. The group’s only decision was tomeet again in a week.

An unusual outcome? Hardly. Many top managers have earned their positions inpart because they’re so passionate about their ideas--and so good at sellingthem. Conversations easily turn into debates and discussions, with peopleeagerly (sometimes aggressively) making their points.

The word discussion has Latin roots--made up ofdis, which means "apart,"and a phonetic simplification of quatere, "to shake, to beat." How accurate!Most discussions amount to someone stating and repeating a position and tryingto break down the other person’s position.

Dialogue is something quite different. The word brings together the Greekterms dia (meaning "through") and logos ("word, thought"). Dialogue isabout achieving a deeper level of understanding through a process of collectivesharing and reflection. If three people come together and keep their ears andminds wide open, they can leave with a fourth perspective that’s different andricher than their original (and individual) perspectives.

A week after the meeting from hell, Jennifer and her colleagues went back forthe sequel. A note was posted on the conference-room door: "This room is toosmall! Let’s meet downstairs." They went downstairs, where the VP waswaiting.

"I was hoping we could get this meeting off to a better start," he said."It’s almost lunchtime. Let’s talk about this over lunch." They headedto a nearby pizza restaurant.

To start the conversation, the VP asked each person to weigh in with his orher thoughts on how to circulate the survey information. When it came time forhim to speak, he went right back to his previous concerns, focusing on the two"complaint areas" and wondering whether it made sense to broadcast theworkplace’s weaknesses.

That’s when the budget office director chimed in and changed the tenor ofthe conversation. "Those ratings on empowerment and acknowledgment are low,"she said. "And they’re disappointing, given how hard we’ve worked to buildteams and recognize people for their efforts and great results. We all take thispersonally because we put so much energy and commitment into our work."

Her empathy struck a positive chord. The VP responded, "You’ve put intowords exactly what I’ve been thinking."

Then he turned to the employee relations manager--the person who had lit thefireworks during the previous meeting. "I’ve got to confess, I sometimes getobsessed with how we package things, how we put on the PR glaze," he said.

The employee relations manager smiled. Well, here’s another statement ofthe obvious," she said. "Sometimes I barrel ahead without thinking about theconsequences."

Jennifer couldn’t believe it. People were talking, listening, laughing, andletting down their guard. The conversation continued, and after one moremeeting, the group unanimously decided to share all the data, with anaccompanying write-up, at a series of employee town-hall meetings. They alsodeveloped a plan to get employees involved in leveraging their workplacestrengths and addressing the improvement opportunities.

What brought about the transformation? In his book The Magic ofDialogue,Daniel Yankelovich cites three keys to these transforming exchanges: equality,empathy, and the surfacing of assumptions. That little move to the pizzarestaurant made a difference, putting everyone on a more equal footing. Theround-robin approach to providing input also helped. As for empathy, thosecomments from the budget office director were to the point and powerful. Andassumptions were brought to the surface in nonjudgmental form when the VP fessedup to being overly focused on the public-relations implications.

Jennifer says that debates and discussions still occur in her workplace. Butpeople know that dialogue is different, and they work hard to achieve it. Theyeven have a name for these sessions--they’re called "pizza parlor meetings."

Workforce, March 2003, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!

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