The Unhurried Conversation: Role of a Manager in Education (Part 13)

The Unhurried Conversation

This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute

What are unhurried conversations, and why should managers prioritize them? In this episode, David Langford and host Andrew Stotz talk about the kinds of conversations managers should be having with their team members.


0:00:02.5 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I’ll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W Edwards Deming. Today, I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education, and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today, we continue our discussion of Dr. Deming’s 14 items that he discusses in The New Economics about the role of a manager of people after transformation. In the third edition, that’s page 86. And in the second edition, that’s page 125. So we are talking about item number 13, and in that point, I wanna read it to you. It says, “Number 13, he will hold an informal unhurried conversation with every one of his people at least once a year, not for judgment, merely to listen. The purpose would be development of understanding of his people, their aims, hopes and fears. The meeting will be spontaneous, not planned ahead.” We’re calling today’s conversation the unhurried conversation. David, take it away.

0:01:17.5 David Langford: Thank you, Andrew. It’s good to be back again. So always fun to discuss these points and talk about the depth of what it means and how to work through that. So once again, this all sounds really simple. You know, hey, just have this unhurried conversation with people at least once a year. When I talked to Dr. Deming about this years ago, he was recommending more like once a quarter, if you can do that, to work that through. But what are we really talking about? So in this world of managing with data and KPIs, key performance indicators and, you know, holding people’s feet to the fire and really making them toe the line and all that kinda stuff, Deming is sort of just pretty much kind of the opposite. Those things all have their place and time, but that’s not the kind of conversation that he’s hinting at here or he’s talking about here.

0:02:24.4 DL: I find it really interesting that he says, you know, it shouldn’t be… The meeting will be spontaneous and not planned ahead. And so what he’s getting at is that you’re not, you’re now coming in with an agenda for what you wanna hear from somebody. And on the opposite side, as an employee or somebody that you’re working with, they’re not prepared with some kind of an agenda where they’re telling you what they think they… Where they’re telling you what they think you want to hear, kind of thing. And I think that’s what he is talking about why it needs to be spontaneous. He also goes deeper and he talks about, you know, find out people’s aims and hopes and their fears and what’s happening. And I was just thinking about that movie The Intern where the guy is hired in the company and he is 80 years old, and so they’re doing the interview with him. And this young kid asked him the question, where do you see yourself in five years? I think, he looks at it and says, “You mean when I’m 85?” So, different…

0:03:47.4 AS: Dead.

0:03:48.1 DL: Yeah. Different points of life, different ways to think about it. So yeah. But he’s just talking about, hey, just set up a time, be spontaneous, come in, sit down with somebody, and just not necessarily talking about business. Right? What are your hopes and fears and where do you see us going? And do you think we’re on the right track? And…

0:04:13.2 AS: I’m curious, why do you think that… I mean, in some ways it seems like such an obvious thing. Why do you think he even needed to say this?

0:04:18.7 DL: Because it’s not happening and it’s even even worse today, I think, than in Deming’s time in the 1990s when all this, all the computer technology, KPIs, all that stuff was just coming into being. Well, nowadays, it’s sort of just a way of life to have all that kind of stuff. And I, I hate the phrase about being data managed or managing with data or data-driven. That’s what it is. Well, we’re a data-driven school district, and we make all of our decisions. Well, there’s a lot of problems with that, just the word “driven” kind of drives people a little bit crazy about stuff. And really, the data is just there just to be informed. So you could still make informed good decisions, but I think Deming even talked about if you just make decisions just based on the data, you’re probably gonna go out of business because you’re not really paying attention to the people and what’s really going on in the organization, what’s happening and that type of thing.

0:05:34.4 DL: So it can also be really intimidating if you’re the boss, and you’re just popping in and saying, hey, you got a few minutes, you wanna sit and talk for a while? Because especially if you’re in an organization where you’ve always… Or your predecessor, or you’ve always had an agenda for that meeting, it can be somewhat threatening for people. I know when I was a superintendent and I tried to do this with the principals that I was working with and stuff, and one of them, I’ll never forget, she was just, she was just shaking the whole time. And I just had to say just, let’s just sit here a minute and just calm down and what are you so nervous about? And just get to know her and everything else. Well, always before, the person before that had been the boss had come in and only time you had a meeting was when something was wrong.

0:06:42.7 DL: And she was gonna get ripped into. And so her fear was super great like that. Also found teachers just the same way that when as a new superintendent, I’d walk into their classroom just… I just wanted to sit and watch what’s going on and maybe help out or participate or do whatever. And they’d just be almost shaking in their boots that the boss came in today. And what I found out is that it wasn’t until at least six or seven months of doing that just spontaneously popping in, observing, watching what’s happening, et cetera. Maybe chatting with them a little bit afterwards or doing something like that, that pretty soon that started to go away and people started to sort of function on a normal level. So one of Deming’s 14 points in Out of the Crisis was pretty simple, drive out fear.

0:07:42.8 DL: And I think that’s also what he’s alluding to here is, here’s a way that you can drive out fear, you know? And at the same time, just really get to know people. I’ve done a lot of study with neuroscience and the science of how do we actually think and et cetera. And there’s a lot of that in neuroscience as well, that if you have a very fearful situation, you actually downshift and your brain actually shuts down. It goes into the survival mode of… And you’re not gonna think creatively about a different option. You’re simply trying to find out, what do I have to do to get out of this situation? And I think that’s a lot of what Deming’s talking about here is, hey, you gotta have these meetings and spontaneous and make it a joyful experience and just talk to people about what they wanted to have happen.

0:08:41.3 DL: Other thing I’ll never forget in his seminars, he used to talk about this point or these points and stuff, and he said the purpose of the conversation is not for me to find out how you’re doing. He said, I wanna know how I’m doing. And I remember the first time as a superintendent, sitting down with people and say, tell me about how I’m doing. They would look at me just kind of blankly like, what? Yeah. Well, how do you think I am doing with this job? And what do you think I need to be doing differently? And I always found those conversations really interesting, and again, it wasn’t until like the second or third time having conversations with people that they actually started to tell you stuff that was useful. Because they don’t wanna tell you something and then you end up firing them. So they have to have trust that you really do wanna find out how to improve, how to get better, so.

0:09:48.8 AS: Yeah, it’s interesting. When I worked for Pepsi, when I first got out of university, it was three years I worked at Pepsi, and I would say we probably never had one company outing that I could remember. And in Thailand, I remember when I worked at one of my first jobs as a broker, and I was an analyst, and there was a questionnaire passed around, this was 25 years ago, that was questionnaire passed around, “Would you like to wear a company uniform to work?” And I said, well, obviously no. I was like, yeah, no.

0:10:27.9 AS: And then, I was stunned to see the results that majority of people said yes. And that’s when I realized like, what Thais value in work is the comradery and the connection and the closeness. And they appreciate the relationship. And so therefore, you also have outings and things that we do and parties and go bowling or go hiking. And those things are where some of these unhurried conversations happen. Oh, well, yeah, this is what’s going on at my home and with my family, and this is why I’m struggling and all that. And so what I realized in American culture, it’s just not that common. You go into work, work’s work.

0:11:14.4 DL: Yeah. So I’d say my last comment on this is that it’s really not so much about work. I mean, it is work related, and obviously, there’s an employee employer relationship going on, et cetera, but it’s more about what you just talked about, really getting to know somebody, really getting to understand them. And again, back to neuroscience, I used to advise teachers all the time to try to do the same thing or at least do an exercise with kids. What’s your aim? And have kids actually set aims and hopes and fears? And if you can do that very same thing. Where do you aim to be? And et cetera. Because if you have a second grader who wants to be an astronaut, and soon as you find that out, well, there’s all kinds of ways you can tie everything that they’re learning to eventually becoming an astronaut. And suddenly, everything that they’re learning becomes relevant, and relevance is the key.

0:12:20.3 AS: Yeah. And the next year, they may say they want to become such and such, and then take that and run with it. You know? One of the last thing I would say about this that I always say when my students are giving their final presentations in my Valuation Masterclass Bootcamp, is I say, okay, now the last thing I want to tell you before you present is we’re on the same team. Which I’m trying to convey to them that although I’m gonna critique you and I’m gonna challenge you and all that, we’re here together for the same purpose.

0:12:54.6 DL: Yeah. I’m gonna give you feedback, but yeah, we’re both here to accomplish the same aim, so.

0:13:01.4 AS: Yeah. So I love the unhurried conversation. So any last thing you wanna add to this before we wrap up?

0:13:08.9 DL: No, that’s pretty much it. So I think we don’t wanna make it too much out of it. I mean, it is on face value, it is pretty much what it says, have these conversations and understand who people are. And you’ll find out that pays off in multiple ways down the road.

0:13:29.7 AS: So I’ll wrap up by just saying to the listeners and the viewers out there, start today. Start today to have an unhurried conversation that’s not connected to performance, compensation, company goals. It’s an unhurried conversation to have two human beings sit down and take an interest in each other. And that’s really the challenge I think that we got from this discussion. David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. Listeners can learn more about David at This is your host, Andrew Stotz, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming. People are entitled to joy in work.

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