deconstructive enquiry card

Deconstructive Enquiry

A way for you and your colleagues to have a different kind of conversation about performance.

Adapted from the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey

We can't tell you how many management/ leadership articles we have read over the years about “how to” give constructive criticism or feedback to lift performance of people within organisations, but it’s a lot. Most of them have focused on techniques for giving feedback such as:

  • 'Sandwich a negative piece of feedback between two positives', or
  • 'Be specific and direct about how a direct report’s performance has not been up to scratch'.
While these techniques hold some merit, they are really about power, politics, and position; they are designed to get those less powerful than you to do what you want them to do. Because these approaches to 'performance' are foundational on fear and thinly veiled threats, they do not engender empowerment, engagement, responsibility, or accountability in people or the organisational culture. Increasing engagement especially has been the strategic focus of organisations since the 1990s; it is remarkable that conventional performance management/ appraisal, such a universally acknowledged demotivating and alienating set of practices, has been held onto for so long, unquestioned, and unchallenged.

Leaders have little hope of creating a responsible and high-performance-oriented culture without directly and transparently addressing the power and political systems at play.

Conventional performance conversations often include giving someone ‘constructive criticism’ or ‘feedback’. However, this kind of communication is generally a power-laden and political action, the subtext of which is about establishing or reinforcing differential positional-power relationships. Rarely is it about the supposed content of the discussion, i.e., the ‘performance’. The interchange is usually about the one with the power-position making a judgement that the other needs to change. The underlying and usually unconscious stance of constructive criticism is ‘I’m right. You’re wrong. Now, how do I get you to change?’ It’s all about ‘teaching’ the other person about the 'right' direction to follow.

This approach to shifting behaviour within organisations is ineffective and often decreases performance rather than the desired outcomes of learning and performance improvement.

Kegan and Lahey in their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, outline an alternative way of creating organisational learning that cleans up the power and political dynamic that is at play with 'constructive criticism' and creates a dialogue that is respectful of both parties' viewpoints.

It also creates the best environment for learning to take place and for sustainable, self-responsible change in behaviour to occur.

Deconstructive enquiry is an alternative to constructive criticism and can be used in situations where something is going wrong and needs to be sorted out.
It is not about pretending everything is fine. It is about holding your conviction and judgement that something is not going well, but it is also about exploring with the other person what their assumptions were that led them to the course of action that you think did not result in a good outcome.

It is a genuine stance by you of curiosity and puzzlement, attempting to understand and make meaning of the other person's decisions, judgement, and behaviour.

There are a number of deconstructive propositions required to support this type of conversation:

  1. There is probable merit to my perspective (i.e. my judgement of your behaviour as not being what is/ was required)
  2. My perspective may not be accurate (i.e. I have lenses through which I view the world and they may not be the only ones through witch to see a situation)
  3. There is some coherence, if not merit, to your perspective. (i.e. I am willing to inquire and understand your point of view and experience)
  4. There may be more than one legitimate interpretation (i.e. there is no one "Truth", only created reality)
  5. Your view of my perspective is important information for me to assess whether I am right, and to help me identify what merit there is to my own view. (i.e. it is in the dialogue between you and me that meaning can be made)
  6. Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us holds, including commitments we are not always aware we hold (i.e. our beliefs and internal assumptions are often unconscious and through this type of approach I get to understand what they are and if they support our performance or not; see Immunity to Change)
  7. Both of us have something to learn from the conversation (i.e. it is a learning opportunity for both of us, not just for the less powerful one)
  8. We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other
  9. If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradiction (i.e. ‘conflict’) as well
  10. The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and each other (i.e. so that the performance and the outcome will be different/ better next time)
deconstructive enquiry table

A conventional approach has the manager in a power-position of superior knowledge/ wisdom and s/he sets out to teach or coach the subordinate; deconstructive enquiry starts with explicit respect for and trust in the subordinate  - something like "you are also a whole person with your own understanding"

A conventional stance is also for the manager to 'set the report straight' and tell them how things should be; deconstructive enquiry encourages the manager to have an active uncertainty (enquiry) - to hold their view that things are not going well, for instance, but to do so tentatively and seek clarity - such as "given how I see things I'm puzzled... Can you tell me if I've got this wrong? Can you tell me what you were thinking when you made those decisions? what were your assumptions, and are those assumptions proving true?..."

If we are ever to solve the increasingly complex problems we face, then supporting others to bring to consciousness what is often hidden and out of awareness, so they can choose another way of operating, is a great step in that direction. Staying stuck in socialised, fear-based patterns of relating to each other will deliver acceptable performance only if everything else does not change. And that is extremely unlikely.

Being open to and entering into deconstructive enquiry gives us the best chance of changing what and how we think. This increases our capacity for greater complexity of thinking and more effective problem solving.