Dialogical Leadership and Power

For several decades the term “dialogue” has been used broadly, but also ambiguously, in discussions about good leadership. Dialogue is often understood as interaction where participants listen to each other and respect each other’s views. This sort of general description does not however differentiate dialogue from a polite discussion. A more precise definition of dialogue can clearly distinguish it from regular discussion. It is also crucial to understand how ideas that arise from dialogue are transferred through experiment to action. Only with such a notion of dialogue can we begin to examine what dialogical leadership and use of power mean in practice.[1]


The most important task of a leader is to direct her community to achieve its goals. This always requires use of power. It is the right and the obligation to use power that sets the leader apart from those she is leading. However, the basic features of power use are still poorly known and understood. There are also a lot of conflicting beliefs and feelings concerning power, which are easily overlooked. On the one hand power is idealised and pursued, on the other hand it is despised and evaded.

Situations around power relations may cause strain in communities where people are considered equals and where equality is a shared ideal. Because of this, questions concerning the goals and practices of power have been some of the most difficult challenges in democratic communities. Who has the right to use power? How should power be used? How can abuse of power be avoided? Can people act together entirely without power relations?

In work, power structures are transforming as well. An increasing amount of work tasks are being done in groups and teams where professionals from different fields collaborate, without there being anyone to claim superiority over the others because of their expertise. Leaders must often exert their power over employees whose expertise is very different from their own. Leaders cannot manage the assignments of these kinds of workers in traditional ways, which would be based on the fact that the leader would know the contents and methods of the employee’s work. Also results cannot be achieved by simply ordering the employees without motivating or encouraging them.

“A leader must aim to help her employees with both aspects: being independent enough, but also being sufficiently committed to the work community.”

Many employees are required to be highly self-sufficient, yet strongly committed to cooperation with other people. Because of this, they must constantly face the contrasting demands of having to be independent, but also devoted and thus dependent. If these discrepancies are not addressed, they may result in conflict between both leaders and employees, as well as between employees themselves. An expert – for instance an engineer, a teacher, or a scientist – wants to protect the autonomy required by her expertise, while simultaneously adapting her work to fit the shared goals and practices of a broader work community. A leader must aim to help her employees with both aspects: being independent enough, but also being sufficiently committed to the work community.

The contradiction described above leads to two main questions about leadership in expert work:

  • How can a leader help employees maximise their expertise?
  • How can it be ensured that all employees comprehensively understand the work situation at hand and can work together supporting each other?

With such challenges, it is understandable that leadership has become more difficult and questions about power have become more complicated. One significant solution to problems of power in organisations that aim for equality, high-quality learning, and flexible collaboration is dialogical leadership. This solution is based on two principles: firstly, on pursuing mutual understanding through discussing meanings and secondly, on experiment-based learning. These two cornerstones of dialogical leadership both require and support each other: dialogical discussions on meanings generate ideas for experimentation, while experiments bring new content to dialogues concerning meanings.

If power is considered domination and oppression, then dialogue is often believed to eliminate all power relations, and that complicates embracing and developing dialogical leadership. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that should be corrected, because it prevents dialogical cooperation as well as developing dynamic and open leadership. Instead of the faulty opposition between dialogue and power, we should develop forms of power and leadership compatible with dialogue


Critical reflection of leadership and power is at least as old as our tradition of political philosophy originating from Ancient Greece and Rome. This tradition examines how people can best live together as a community. It also aims to answer questions about what the aims of power should be for the leaders of communities, who has the right to exert power, and in what ways power should be used.

Our current societal situation – including our work culture – is connected to this tradition in an interesting way. Many of our notions of power and leadership originate from this tradition. For instance, believing that rulers and leaders should obtain the right to use their power from their followers, that the use of power should have clearly defined boundaries, and that power should be used to protect the freedoms of individuals all originate from Western political tradition. Though these are fundamentals of modern democracies, they are not widely accepted in all parts of the world and are not certainties even in all communities that are called democratic.

Old doctrines do not always feel sufficient to address current challenges of democratic societies. Notions of individuals’ equality are relatively new to the over 2000-year-old tradition, as is the effort to respect individual differences in almost all aspects of modern society and workplaces. At work, the situation is more complex than in many other areas. A monarchical, authoritarian leadership led from above prevailed at work long after the shift in politics to democracy, which emphasises the equality of people. Managers were expected to represent and advance the goals of the work community, similarly to how kings stood for the aims of a state.

When authoritarian leadership was gradually renounced, no one seemed to know what democratic leadership at work could mean. Without a proper notion of leadership, a diverse set of leadership doctrines arose, where leaders were presented as efficiency-boosting engineers, silent servants of the community, charismatic inspirers, strategic visionaries or cheering coaches. When these doctrines are examined from a power relations perspective, it is soon evident that they avoid the question of power in one of the following ways: some doctrines hide power beneath purely rational efficiency measures, some conceal power behind manipulative guidance, and others present unrealistic utopias free of power relations, where everyone ultimately leads only themselves. Thus, it is not surprising that many leaders feel lost with their demanding and responsible task.

“To be able to develop a new type of leadership which fits into a democratic society – and its diverse work culture – we must explore the core aspects of power and think about what it means to lead people that are equal but different.”

To be able to develop a new type of leadership, which fits into a democratic society – and its diverse work cultures – we must explore the core aspects of power and think about what it means to lead people that are equal but different. A profound understanding of power and what it means to respect and utilise people’s different experiences is needed. In this we can partially depend on the best concepts of our political philosophical heritage, but they must be renewed with a relatively recent understanding concerning learning in cooperation. Combining different knowledge and skills in society’s changing situations is a continuous learning process for both the leaders and the led.


One of the most important premises for dialogical leadership is that using power should be seen as fundamentally neutral. Power in itself is not good or bad; it is an inherent part of human coexistence. People are constantly trying to affect each other’s actions – and thus use power. Putting your children to bed at night, work meetings, coaching athletes and leading an orchestra are all examples of using power. The aims, means and consequences of using power are what invite values and give the grounds to assess the justification, meaning and benefits of power. The assumption that power corrupts and is detrimental to humans has possibly harmed the understanding of leadership as much as the uncritical admiration of many strong and ruthless rulers.

At work, use of power can be seen as directing forces. Individuals and groups have many kinds of skills and abilities in, for instance, thinking, feeling, imagining, and physical strength. Even simple forms of collaboration – such as eating together or waiting in line in a shop – require the mutual coordination of individuals’ different forces. Different people’s movements, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and imaginations must be made to work together well enough to reach the shared goal. Use of power can thus be defined as the direction of these kinds of forces – human abilities and skills. A leader can be defined as a person who is in charge of this guidance.

A leader’s role as a user of power is challenging in situations where the managed individuals use very different kind of forces with different strengths that should be matched. Significant differences may come from age, gender, professional background, or different cultural backgrounds.

“Use of power can thus be defined as the direction of these kinds of forces – human skills and abilities. A leader can be defined as a person who is in charge of this guidance.”

A leader should combine these forces together without destructive conflicts and without any of the workers becoming discouraged or withdrawing from the collaboration. Building spaceships and completing heart transplants are great accomplishments in combining human skills, but so are, in their own way, building a house, football games, theatrical musicals, learning to read in a classroom, and helping families suffering from long-term unemployment. None of these are possible without fitting different skills together to serve common goals. And none of these actions can be successful without systematic use of power, which in the best case leaves space for listening to people and improvising when needed.

Managing tasks requiring complex cooperation never only depends on the actions of the leader. Every person working on the task must agree to and participate in the organisation of skills. A sports team cannot compete, houses cannot be built, and orchestras cannot play together, if the members of these groups do not support the leader’s use of power with their own actions. Power is thus never fully in the hands of the leader, but is in a way shared between all members of the group, and as collaboration continues, it goes from one person to another. In the operation room of a hospital each worker must manage her own task for the operation to be a success. Doctors, nurses, and hospital cleaners must work at the proper time and in the correct way and support the others’ tasks with their own actions. The combination of forces can only occur when each member of the group agrees to work as a subject of the leader’s power and in an agreed upon or otherwise understood manner supports, completes, and balances others’ work. Use of power is thus always collaboration between the leader and the led.


The most important asset of specialist work is the workers’ expertise and the possibility for them to use their skills creatively in different tasks. In this type of work, the crucial role of the manager is to maximise and coordinate the workers’ skills and strengths. This requires dialogue.

What makes dialogical discussions exceptional is that at its foundation is an interest in the differences between people. The basis of dialogue is that each person’s own point of view of the topic is as valuable as the others’. This is how dialogue is directly connected to the core of democracy: it is a radically equal mode of discussion. This does not mean that everyone is expected to know or understand as much about the topic, but that each person’s experiences may be valuable to the reflection and promotion of common matters in an unexpected way.

“What makes dialogical discussions exceptional is that at its foundation is an interest in the differences between people. The basis of dialogue is that each person’s own point of view of the topic is as valuable as the others’.”

In this sense, dialogue is not a method, but rather a whole “way of life”, which is founded on the notion of each person’s uniqueness and the aspiration to respect this uniqueness. Dialogical collaboration is based on the belief that the examination of the differences in people’s viewpoints promotes mutual understanding and through that improves cooperation and nourishes creativity. In this, dialogue fundamentally differs from debates, in which the intention is to disprove the different views of others. But it also differs from compromise, which strives for alternating concessions, and from striving for consensus, where the goal is complete agreement.

It is important to understand that dialogue is not the only form of communication needed in a democracy and it does not fit all situations. So debate, compromise, and consensus all have their own place. Also, in many work situations, managers must act based solely on their own judgement and lead their workers in the way they consider best. A manager must also sometimes intervene in workers’ misconduct and limit their actions. However, even in these situations, the interaction between the manager and the workers is greatly affected by the work community’s dialogical leadership in other situations and the workers experiences of being heard and having the possibility to influence their work and matters in the work place.

Because dialogue is based on people’s openness and mutual trust, it cannot be forced and brought from the outside as an approach for the work community. Dialogue can only be promoted dialogically. This means that a leader must from the start invite her workers to consider with her what dialogue could mean in their work community and with what kinds of practices it could be promoted. The leader’s use of power must also be a topic of dialogue.

At work, dialogue is primarily needed for helping people collaborate: to understand each other and to properly fit their actions together. This means that a manager should use dialogue with her workers to create a big picture of the situation. This can ensure that each person understands the work situations in a similar enough way and can act in cooperation according to the requirements of the situation. Dialogue often also reveals shortcomings in the overall view – individual and common “blind spots”. Different work tasks and situations require different levels of understanding. It is clear that people working in crisis situations – such as police, peacekeepers, or first aid workers – must have an as clear as possible shared view of the situation to support their collaboration. Then again, with for instance teachers, it is not necessary for everyone to have a completely similar views, but there is a need for some level of common notions and understanding of how different individuals view the primary ends and means of teaching.

“Dialogue can only be promoted dialogically.”

Dialogue can be described as shared reflection of the meaning of things. Generally put, meanings are people’s notions of “what is what”. Different individuals usually attach both similar and dissimilar meanings to things and phenomena. Two people can for instance have an only partially common meaning for “field” if one of them has lived her whole life in a city and the other in the countryside. For someone from the countryside, a field means much more than just a cultivated spot of land. Its meaning is intertwined with many kinds of experiences: labour, other people, animals, the changing of seasons, odours, noises, and sweat. A city-dweller may easily be as unaware of these connotations as someone from the countryside can be unaware of the meanings a city-dweller immediately attributes to a “metro” or “traffic”. These differences in meaning are often further complicated when dealing with abstract notions, where even such common concepts such as “efficiency”, “responsibility” or “justice” almost always mean in some way different things to different people. These differences are usually greater when people come from different cultural backgrounds.

Meanings play a key role in leading collaboration and combining individuals’ forces, because they summarise interpretations of the world, according to which people act and use their skills. Meanings are like maps that they use to guide their way in the world. They define what each individual finds essential in her surroundings and how she uses her skills. For this reason, a leader must be constantly interested in the meanings her workers have assumed and how different individuals’ meanings relate to one another. The same is required of all workers in relation to each other and their manager. Efficient collaboration calls for multifaceted understanding of the meanings that direct the shared activities, and a leader’s task is to create the conditions for forming this kind of understanding.

People are not usually aware of how unique their own meanings are before they encounter different ways of viewing things. Dialogue offers everyone the possibility to inquire, enhance, and enrich their own meanings. It does not set out to debate the different meanings of different outlooks or to seek meagre compromises between them. People undertake the discussion in a completely different manner: they express and shed light on their experiences behind the different meanings, that make them see, understand and examine things in different ways.

“A deep understanding of people’s different ways of perceiving world events and phenomena can only be attained by comprehending what sort of experiences their meanings have formed with.”

This crucial matter – discussion of experiences behind the meanings – cannot be emphasised enough. A deep understanding of people’s different ways of perceiving events and phenomena of the world can only be attained by comprehending what sort of experiences their meanings have formed with. Human experience is immensely rich and contains a considerable amount of life events, perceptions, memories, thoughts, emotions, and imaginations. When people communicate not only meanings, but also experiences, they can on the one hand find new points of contact from the differences’ backgrounds, and on the other hand notice differences in matters they imagined they agreed on. Though two people may have very differing notions on, for instance, what just treatment of workers means, they usually start to understand each other better when they hear what kinds of experiences lie behind their perceptions of justice. The spectrum of various experiences in dialogue is what breeds new insights and ideas to be developed together.

Discussions in workplaces do not usually develop into dialogues without a shared decision and practice, and this usually requires a person who takes care of maintaining and enhancing dialogue. It is these matters that require use of power from the leader. A leader must make sure that the workers direct their forces towards striving for better mutual understanding instead of debate and compromise. This is often difficult, because most people do not have proper experiences with dialogical discussions. Even though from birth children are orients towards open communication with other people, as adults many people lose their connection to the dialogical basis of life. At home and school people often learn about compromise, consensus, and debate, but rarely about dialogue.

In dialogue people ask each other – and at the same time themselves – what kinds of experiences have led them to give things certain and specific meanings. For instance, a community of teachers engaging in a dialogue starts to examine what sort of experiences, both from professional training as well as private life, affect their views of education. Engineers share, in addition to their knowledge, experiences about what sorts of motivations and passions have affected them in choosing their speciality and what things have become meaningful through this. Scientists examine how the traditions and language of different disciplines shape their understanding of certain researched phenomena, without forgetting the effect of their own emotions and values of their worldview. This is how everyone can truly find out how different members of the community understand their shared work environment and the world where they act. Misunderstandings are reduced, a foundation for new ideas is built, and many opportunities to direct individuals’ different forces towards a shared goal are created.

“Misunderstandings are reduced, a foundation for new ideas is built, and many opportunities to direct individuals’ different forces towards a shared goal are created.”

It is important to acknowledge that the pursued goal of dialogue is not that each member of the community would think about the discussed issues in the same way. The proper goal is to help everyone to understand better other people’s unique ways of giving meaning to the objects of shared action – be they technical equipments, psychological phenomena, scientific facts, or pursued values. This makes it easier to accept that others also have partially differing views of the same things, and that one can enrich her own meanings with others’ experiences. The mutual understanding born from the weavings of differences opens a passage to meaningful, flexible, and efficient cooperation.


The core of dialogical leadership is in directing the joint discussions of employees. When experts gather together to examine their work and the meanings that structure it, they need someone to use power to ensure the safety and unhurried nature of the dialogue situations, but also maintain the adequate appeal and challenge of the situations. Dialogue will not arise if the discussions are unsafe but will also not flourish if they do not contain challenges, which excite the participants. The generation of dialogue is enhanced by:

  1. Unhurried listening to others. The leader’s task is to ensure that everyone has space to talk about their own views and experiences.
  2. Participating in the content of others’ speech and building a common language. The leader can promote this by directing the employees to pay attention to the connections between different statements. She can ask them to actively connect what they say to what others have said before and encourage avoiding unnecessary technical vocabulary, which may increase misunderstandings.
  3. Direct speech about one’s own experience. Dialogue is significantly deepened when people begin to discuss what they think and feel during the conversation “here and now”. The leader can lead by example and tell about her own thoughts during the dialogue. She can also articulate her own shortages in knowledge and encourage others to do so as well.
  4. Clarifying the articulated experiences of others with questions. When it seems that the employees participating in the discussion do not fully understanding each other, they must be asked to explain more clearly and diversely about the experiences that have affected them.
  5. Examining tensions. When conflicting and tense views arise, the leader should help the participants pause at these and examine more closely the experiences connected to them. It is not necessary to eradicate tensions. It is often sufficient that they are articulated and that their backgrounds and impacts are understood.
  6. Looking for hidden points of view. Often discussions are narrowed down to some points of view and options. In such situations, the leader can direct the employees to examine what has not been said or what the matters look like to other people or organisations.
  7. Exploring the relations between different points of view. It is good for the leader to direct the participants to examine how the various views brought up differ or are connected to each other and what sort of bigger picture of the discussed topic is formed.

The description given here gives an ideal picture of dialogue. In very few discussions are all of these features realised, and workplace discussions do not nearly always develop into dialogues. The ideal of dialogue is still worth pursuing, because even small steps towards it usually improve the quality of communication. It is obvious that listening to others more attentively will improve the discussion, even if it did not develop into a vivid dialogue giving birth to new ideas.

The task of a dialogical leader is to act as a transparent and fair user of power in discussions. She must arrange space and time for dialogues and ensure that the employees hold on to the above described ways of promoting dialogue. The leader is often also needed to bring topics to the dialogue, which have emerged at work and to encourage others to do the same. In the course of the discussion, it is the leader’s responsibility that the participants do not interrupt each other and that everyone has their turn. At the same time, she must strive to deepen the dialogue. This often means challenging the participants to explain in more detail and more deeply about the experiences that affect their understanding. Depth can also be increased by addressing similarities, differences, and tensions between the views of the participants. It is the leader’s responsibility to display the big picture formed in the dialogue and to outline its main points together with the employees.

“The task of a dialogical leader is to act as an open and fair power user in conversation situations.”

Above all, the leader sets an example with her own actions for how all those taking part in dialogue can promote and deepen the dialogue. A leader must listen closely to others, react in a kind, curious way to different views, and speak directly from her own experiences. This is how a leader can invite others to take part in the shared use of power and without this, true dialogue cannot emerge in a work community.


It is important to separate dialogue from decision-making, and it is good for the leader to understand that not all work meetings and not all issues are suitable to be processed through dialogue. Dialogue requires well-developed mutual equality and a momentary suspension from driving one’s own interests. These factors are different in decision-making. The leader’s inequality as a user of power is emphasised and employees strive to achieve of their own interests.

Though dialogical leadership does not mean “dialogical decision-making”, dialogues in the work community have a profound effect on decision-making. In a dialogically led community, the leader has “the experiences of her troops” as a guide while making decisions. Thus, making successful decisions is largely promoted and supported by dialogical discussions held before making the decision, in which the members of the community have been heard. Through dialogue the leader can ensure that the decisions she makes are based on a comprehensive understanding of what she are dealing with and what sort of views different employees have of the issues. This is how she can consider a wide array of different points while making her decisions. For example, the manager of a company striving to produce more sustainable furniture can, through dialogue, benefit in her decision making from different employees’ views on materials, aesthetics, and production, and their inherent possibilities for improvement.

It is often wise for a leader to have dialogues with employees after making decisions as well. This allows the leader to find out how the employees understand the significance of the decision and what they think it means for their own work tasks. In situations where the leader has decided to do something against the wishes of some of her employees, understanding the employees’ points of view helps her to both justify the decision better, and to predict reactions caused by the decision. At its best, the leader can describe how different views have helped her deliberate the decision more carefully. Describing the thought process behind one’s own decisions adds to the transparency of using power and encourages employees to bring forth differing views in the future as well. At the same time, it allows the employees to feel like meaningful members of the community even when their suggestions do not lead to the decisions they hoped for.

When large organisations move towards to dialogical leadership, they must develop practices through which the experiences of workers in different levels and different areas are carried to the top management of the organisation, both before making decisions and after. The leaders of organisations with hundreds or thousands of workers are not able to, and it is not even necessary for them to, have a personal dialogue with all their employees. Instead they must together build “steps”, “chains”, and “networks” through which the experiences brought up by the employees in dialogue are carried through the organisation.

When beginning to build a dialogical organisation, the first thing to consider is what sort of understanding should be aimed for in different levels of the organisation. Questions to be answered include: What sort of big picture is necessary in different levels of the organisation? Whose experiences are needed for this big picture to be sufficiently comprehensive, nuanced, and clear? In addition to this, it must be ensured that the workers’ views are passed on without distorting them.

One of the best solutions to this is one of the basic practices of modern democratic communities: representation. In dialogically led organisations, representation must be understood in a way that differs from the traditional mode of thinking. In this context, representation does not mean that people are chosen neither to represent the interests of certain employees nor to act completely independently according to their own thoughts. Instead representatives are needed to summarise and pass on experiences of the employees concerning work and cooperation in the organisation.

“Instead representatives are needed to summarise and pass on experiences of the employees concerning work and cooperation in the organisation.”

Representative groups working as a support for dialogical leadership are not structures for decision-making but places of discussion, which feed understanding that is crucial for the operations of the organisation. Representatives of the workers are not mouthpieces, but mediators and interpreters. They must therefore also be able to pass on to the workers they represent how their views were received on the management level and how they were carried on to the decision making of the organisation. Representation thus strives to ensure the flow of experiences significant to work between different areas and levels.


Many problems in modern and current work culture are extremely complex and difficult to solve. Because of this, different perspectives from different individuals and their creativity arising from dialogical encounters are needed. Dialogue shows that employees have unique experience-based abilities and skills, which both the work community and employers can benefit from in both handling the basic task of the work as in creating new ideas.

A dialogical leader must help the employees to transfer the ideas raised in dialogue to practice. This is challenging especially for two reasons. First of all, successful dialogues are often emotionally powerful and uniquely sensitive moments, and the experiences from these become diluted and forgotten surprisingly quickly. What was clear and evident for a moment in dialogue becomes a vague and even unreliable memory amid everyday haste.

Secondly, applying ideas developed together and a new kind of mutual understanding in practice demands new skills, which people have usually not learnt before. What is primarily needed is the skill to combine experiences from different situations, trying new ways of thinking and acting, and learning from the consequences of one’s own actions. The current education system directs people to divide their experiences strictly into different units of meaning (work and leisure, theory and practice, facts and values etc.) and to form mechanic routines to perform tasks. We keep many areas of life and even different work tasks separate from each other and do not consciously transfer our experiences from one situation to another. These sorts of habits, which rigidly guide our actions, fragment the continuity of our experiences and make the transfer of the results of dialogue to other collaborative situations difficult.

To build the relation between dialogue and practice, the leader must direct the work community towards shared experimental action, where dialogues and experiments weave together integrally. Both are a matter of collaboration, which is based on constant learning from experiences. We have seen that the bases for dialogues are the examination of experiences that lay behind the meanings adopted by the individuals and learning about the differences included in them. On the other hand, experiments connected to dialogue are based on testing ideas emerged in dialogue. Each insight gained in dialogue can contain the possibility to experiment with new ways of acting and these experiments in turn create new experiences, which can be discussed in future dialogues. In this way the work community examines and tests the mutual understanding they have achieved: Do we truly understand each other? Do our mutual decisions and our actions based on those generate the results we aim for? What do we learn about the world and ourselves as our work develops?

“To build the relation between dialogue and practice, the leader must direct the work community towards commonly practiced experimental action, where dialogues and trials belong together integrally.”

Experimentation and guiding it should be clarified concretely, because it is a very different way of doing expert work compared to the dominant way of current work culture. The experimentation, which is included in dialogical leadership, is not “development work”, which is separate from everyday work. Instead, it should be seen as experimentation that applies to all work and different work tasks. Above all, it is an attitude adopted by the worker – and of course the leader herself – with which she sees each situation that arises at work as a potential learning opportunity, which can benefit the whole work community. Learning from experiments is only possible when people consciously choose what sort of consequences they want to examine. The experimenter must focus her curious gaze to a specific part of her action and examine the consequence result from it.

“The experimentation, which is included with dialogical leadership, is not ‘development work’, which is separate from basic work. Instead, it should be seen as experimentation that applies to all work and different work tasks.”

A leader striving for dialogue must help her employees build and uphold this kind of orientation towards their work. A leader must also make sure that the workers experiment together and learn from each other’s experiences. Thus, here there are two different tasks: (1) forming an experimental attitude and (2) experimenting together.

Forming an experimental attitude

The leader must help her employees examine the consequences of their actions. This can be done by directing the employees’ attention towards how their community reacts to their actions and what sort of feedback they receive from others. Reactions are not always evident and feedback from others is not often said out loud, so the employees must pause to actively consider actions. They must sometimes also ask for feedback and intellectually reflect the situations they encounter. Only so can they gain a proper view of what their actions actually cause in the community.

Forming an experimental attitude often demands questioning the thinking and habits of the employees in a very concrete way. Because no person can continuously question her actions, and nobody can question all of her actions in one sitting, the leader must often help and support the employees to focus on the most significant experiments concerning work. The leader can help the employee see the opportunities to experiment and evoke dormant curiosity and a want for excitement, which are hidden in all people. When the employee understands her actions as an experiment, which promotes learning instead of as performing routines, she can examine if her actions produce what she thinks she is striving for. For example, a doctor striving for efficiency and speed at her reception may notice that her actions prevent patients from describing their symptoms openly and comprehensively, which leads her making continuous misdiagnoses. Becoming aware of such consequences may be a starting point for obtaining an experimental attitude and to extending it to other work situations as well.

“The leader can help the employee to see opportunities to experiment and evoke dormant curiosity and a want for excitement, which are hidden in all people.”

Questioning is deeper when workers encounter to the strange and unknown phenomena. They learn most when they are at the boundaries of their abilities – and when they have to cross them. Most typically the thresholds of learning and renewal appear when experts of different fields encounter each other with a concrete work task. Boundaries do not only exist in their know-how but also in different ways of acting and communicating and in the practices of their organisations.

This is evident, for examples, in a situation where police, doctors, psychologists, and social workers come together to consider what should be done in domestic violence cases, which require the flexible cooperation of all. Each expert looks at the situation from their own point of view as well as their own training, work practices and life experiences, and because of this pays attention to different things. Police focus on safety, doctors on wounds, psychologists on behaviour and the traumatic effects of violence, social workers on the family’s children’s conditions. Each one brings their own terms and their own professional conversational culture to the situation, and these can differ greatly from each other. The encounter often causes confusion, but the boundaries that come into view also clarify one’s own structure of meanings, which may otherwise be difficult to notice. An employee with an experimental attitude can use these sorts of situations to notice things they consider routines and self-evident in their own actions. Collisions on the boundaries become opportunities to change and learn new things for both individuals and communities.

Experimenting together

It is the leader’s responsibility to guide the whole work community in their shared learning process. At best this process leads to learning new things both about the work’s ends and the means to achieve these. A dialogically acting work community invests in considering the work’s aims, striving for real mutual understanding. With a community of teachers this could mean that teachers repeatedly have dialogues about what sort of learning is pursued in school. What should be taught? How? Why? With these sorts of dialogues, the community can form a shared understanding of the objectives of cooperation. For instance, they can try to gain a deeper comprehension of some central aim of learning in the curriculum, such as “learning to learn”.

For experimental action it is crucial that the commonly set goals are at first understood as sketches, which are tested in practical action, not to be set in stone at once. The leader must make sure that the members of the work community take part in testing the goals within their everyday work. She must direct the different forces of the individuals to the development process of the common end. With a community of teachers this could mean that each teacher tries developing “learning to learn” in their own classes and in their own ways. Through these experiments the teachers obtain new experiences and the significance of these can be examined in shared dialogues. These experiences help to clarify and form the community’s goals. At the same time, a better understanding of the means that should be used to strive for these goals is obtained. A community of teachers can through experiments and a series of dialogues understand how “learning to learn” can be promoted in different subjects – such as history, literature, art or mathematics – and what sort of pedagogical methods should be used with students of different ages.


Experimental action reveals the radically democratic nature of dialogical leadership. At its extreme, it means that a leader does not set the ends for the communities she leads, but that ends are formed within the common learning process of all members of the community. It is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that the learning process is ongoing and is progressing in the way that was commonly agreed upon. It is clear that not all communities can independently work in this most radical self-determining way, because work communities can be tied to the set goals of some outside agents – such as public rule, private owners, or decrees stated in the organisation’s establishment. If the work community reaches a new understanding of their own ends in their work, then in the spirit of democracy they should communicate this view to those agents that are ultimately responsible for the ends of their work. This is how working life becomes an integral part to the development of democratic society.


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Isaacs, William (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Currency.

Seikkula, Jaakko & Arnkil, Tom (2006) Dialogical Meetings in Social Networks. London: Karnac.

Senge, Peter (2006) The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of Learning Organization. New York. Currency Doubleday.


[1] The writers would like to thank the following people for their valuable comments to the original Finnish version: Olli-Pekka Ahtiainen, Tom Arnkil, Sara Heinämaa, Marja-Liisa Kakkuri-Knuuttila, Anne Kansanaho, Katriina Lehti, Pirkko Pohjoisaho-Aarti and Jarkko Soininen. English translation of this text is made by Helena Lehti.

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