An interview with Jamie and Maren Showkeir, authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Berrett-Koehler, 2008, ISBN 978-1-57675-595-2)

Larry Spears: What prompted you to write your book?

Jamie Showkeir: Joel Henning and I had worked for seven years on many of the ideas that are in the book. After Joel died, I met Maren, a journalist by profession, and asked if she would like to write the book with me.

Maren Showkeir: I also saw the material as an articulation of the way in which people can communicate around the way those things get done with purpose and meaning at work.

Jamie Showkeir: Maren and I started to go through the material in 2005, and we fell in love and got married. In March of 2007 we went away and over the course of eight days we wrote the Introduction and 11 chapters of the book.

Maren Showkeir: It was almost a magical process.

LS: Would you talk about some of the important themes in your book?

MS: One has to do with Accountability. The idea of holding others accountable is a myth. People make choices about whether they will be accountable or not. Everyone chooses commitment, compliance or the appearance of compliance. This is inescapable. Trying to hold others accountable is a complete waste of time.

JS: Another theme has to do with Caretaking, which essentially involves trying to take responsibility for how others feel. Saying things like, “Don’t worry do your job, things will work out.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will be able to find another job soon.” Caretaking is one of the most potent ways that an organizational culture becomes stuck in a parent-child relationship. Another downside of Caretaking is it sends others the message that they are off the hook for resolving their part in the difficulties.

JS: Dealing with disappointment is another theme in the book. The question of what choices people make in an organization when things aren’t going well is important. Sometimes we choose to feel hopeless in the face of disappointment. Or we may decide to act like a bystander and to watch what happens without trying to help. While we struggle with the difficulty of this choice too, it is always possible and helpful in all ways. We believe it is better to choose hope, optimism, and commitment.

LS: Why do you think we often have difficulty having authentic conversations?

MS: Two reasons come to mind: One is compassion—not wanting to hurt someone. A second reason involves the seeking of power and the fear of losing power. Giving away information is giving away power (or it can be seen that way). Part of the purpose of the book is to make visible the things that go on in ordinary conversations that collude with our compassion and power issues in an unhelpful way.

JS: I agree with that, and I would add, a lot of life can be spent thinking about gaining advantage. This comes from s scarcity vs. abundance problem and it leads to all kinds of inauthentic conversations. It leads to manipulation.

LS: Robert Greenleaf talked about the differences between persuasion, manipulation, and coercion. What are your thoughts about Greenleaf?

JS: Authentic conversation is certainly linked to Greenleaf’s ideas on persuasion. Authenticity is embedded throughout his writings.

MS: It is impossible to be a servant-leader without being authentic with others. It is all about serving and helping people to grow. It is about the best test of servant-leadership.

LS: What can individuals do to engage in authentic conversations?

MS: It starts with intention. Organizations need to see as valuable the importance of spending time to reflect upon who we want to be as a company and as individuals. That is a really intentional journey.

JS: There is a list of commitments and skills in the books that we believe are helpful. Commitments are intentions. Committing to recognizing other people as free and accountable challenges the underlying thinking in organizations, which changes what we say and do. We can also ask ourselves whether we want to create internal competition or collaboration. Changing practices like current performance appraisals that create competition and breed a lack of willingness to share, to reach out to others.

LS: How do you make it safer to have authentic conversations?

JS: First we each make decisions about what we view as “safe”. I can’t make things safe for you, though I can make things unsafe. The best an individual can do is engage with goodwill and authenticity and acknowledge my contribution to the situation at hand. Freire’s, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed speaks to how individuals and groups collude with a system that is designed to make things unsafe.

LS: Do you think we are making progress in creating healthier workplaces?

JS: Frederick Winslow Taylor and scientific management created today’s challenging workplace. Study after study shows that the vast majority of the people want to make an contribution in the workplace, but Taylor didn’t believe this and the vestiges of that system are alive and well.

MS: Some have taken Taylor’s models and made them kinder and gentler, but they are still using it. However, there are others who are using servant-leadership and other sorts of things, and I am optimistic about this.

JS: I’m optimistic and hopeful that we are moving in the right direction, but the pace frustrates me. I continue to see the same issues I’ve been working on for the last 20+ years. In some places teams work together, but evaluations are still done individually. Or look at the banks that were bailed out and are giving huge bonuses today and it is clear that Taylorism is alive and well.

LS: Is there anything else that you would like to share in closing?

MS: Recently a client thanked us for not making it sound like this work is easy to do. We say forthrightly that we struggle everyday. It’s hard, but we keep trying. Every inch forward is important. It’s a journey, and we don’t get to cross the finish line.

JS: There is no magic dust or silver bullet out there. Commitment makes a difference.

--Larry Spears [Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010]