When Conversations Get Crucial

When Conversations Get Crucial

What is a crucial conversation? One description, the one used in this article, is that it is “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong”.

It is this combination of high stakes, differing opinions and strong emotions which makes handling crucial conversations so difficult, because these are all factors likely to cause us to feel threatened, and which can therefore engage our ego:

  • Another very visible trait of the ego is the desire to be right. The more opinions differ, the greater the challenge of ‘winning’ the argument will seem – another ego loss. As a result, just when the best strategy would be to listen more, we are much more likely to listen less, expending our effort instead on an internal dialogue where we try to figure out how to defeat the arguments of (what feel like) the “opposition”.
  • As emotions get cranked up, key brain functions – those linked to our ability to think rationally, behave amenably and connect with others emotionally – start to shut down. Whenever this occurs, egoic behaviours become stronger and our desire to ‘win’ gets ramped up even further.
  • The ego gains a great deal of significance from the things that we have. Therefore, when threatened with the perceived loss of things of importance to us, the ego will be quick to flare up.

This article offers four strategies to help you to improve your ability to handle crucial conversations through a combination of understanding and managing yourself better and learning to deal with others in a more productive manner.

Read the Article: Mastering Crucial Conversations

My Advice

It is a neurological reality, that when the threat centre of our brain is activated it suppresses the ‘executive centre’, which is based in our pre-frontal cortex. This part is responsible for all of the higher capabilities that enable us to function in the modern world, such as our ability to focus attention, to recognise and manage our own emotions, to feel empathy for others, to be creative and to analyse problems and make rational decisions. Since all of these factors described in the bullets above promote fight/flight reactivity, literally narrowing our peripheral vision and triggering the dumb, automatic, part of our brain to take over, it is inevitable that our capacity for powerful dialogue becomes limited just when we need it the most.

To address this problem, one of the easiest things we can do to is to focus on our very natural tendency to plan what to say next while others are still talking. This kind of internal focus will tend to put us in opposition to others, producing a negative impact on them because it threatens their own desire to be right. Even the word “oppose” implicitly introduces the sense that the other person wants to challenge us or to win over us. A simple technique, therefore, which can help in reducing feelings of opposition is to change the focus of your listening:

Instead of listening with the intention of producing a killer reply, focus on listening to understand.

By changing our own intention in this way, we can reduce the feeling of conflict that is at the heart of many breakdowns. The more we focus on understanding how other people’s ideas might add to the collective awareness of the situation, the more they are likely to feel valued and respected. This in turn helps to create feelings of safety for them, turning what was a vicious cycle into a virtuous and supportive one.

The Viral Impact of Emotions

The Viral Impact of Emotions

Emotions can be infectious……

24th November 2017 was Black Friday, and hundreds of thousands of people were in London’s Oxford Street for the sales. It was not long after the multiple terror attacks across London but life had moved on and all was calm. That calm, it turned out, was quite superficial…

At 4.37pm, thousands of shoppers started to stampede, certain they were under attack. The Met Police mobilised its anti-terrorism emergency response, crowds were evacuated, and social media became filled with reports of gunshots, people claiming to have seen someone carrying a gun, and videos of people screaming as they ran. People posted photos of loved ones they couldn’t contact, worrying that they had been harmed. People’s worst fears, it seemed, had been confirmed.

The perplexing thing is, no real threat existed… No terrorists, no shots, no bomb, no danger. Nothing!

Within 1.5 hours, it was all over. Sixteen people were injured, yet it had all been a false alarm. The inquest into the incident discovered that the trigger for the mass panic was a minor scuffle on one of the underground station platforms. All it took was for the people nearby to assume the worst, then the fear and misinformation to became real and took over. Both passed quickly through the masses, as each person instinctively picked up on the emotion of those around them, so that what started as confusion on the platform had become terror by the time it was unleashed on the crowded streets.

This incident shows how quickly and unconsciously emotions can spread. We are hardwired to pick up on the emotions of others in between 8 and 40 thousandths of a second, so our brains automatically detect things like micro-changes in others’ facial expressions, tone of voice or physiology, and then, to save energy, draw inferences, take shortcuts or make snap judgments based on these tiny snippets of information. It is a capability that psychologists and philosophers call thin slicing.

The natural purpose of this capability is thought to be to enable smooth interactions and to facilitate mutual involvement and understanding. The problem is, very few of us realise how susceptible we are to it, or know how to inoculate ourselves.

As a leader, because your position of influence or power will tend to make you more infectious, you can afford to display emotions that could negatively impact others. Nor can you allow your own emotions to be dictated in this way.

I’ve long defined the ability to make appropriate choices as one of the hallmarks of emotionally intelligent leaders. This starts with the ability to manage emotions. Imagine a military leader who panicked under the slightest sign of threat, as the shoppers did that day – there would be no chance they could function effectively. Great leadership means being able to respond in appropriate and adaptive ways to whatever conditions or circumstances we face, and especially, to be able to do so under pressure.

This article demonstrates how important it is that leaders are aware of, and manage, the effects of emotional contagion in the workplace, which can otherwise be hugely detrimental to the productivity of their teams.

Read the Article: Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team

My Advice

It is unavoidable that emotion can have a powerful effect on any interaction, as though a second discussion was also taking place in parallel with the main conversation. Our brains are literally wired to sense other people’s feelings and react to them, making us all capable of catching and spreading emotions, both positive and negative, to the people around us – and this is especially so for leaders. Because of the knock-on impact to the performance of the people around you, I believe that managing emotions is at least as important as the technical skills you bring to work.

The route to improvement starts, as so often, with awareness. We must learn to increase our present-moment awareness so that we can become more intentional about our mood, as well as our actions. This enables us to interrupt our autopilot and notice more of the emotions that we exude towards others as well as those that we may be picking up from them. I recommend that, at the first sign of a negative emotion (your own or someone else’s), you momentarily pause and focus your attention at the emotional level. By consciously shifting awareness in this way, you should find that you can increase your control of the situation to stop negative emotions from gaining a hold.

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

Home Working Lessons from Cockroaches

After weeks of lockdown, science suggests that significant numbers of those being forced to work in isolation could be finding it progressively harder to maintain their motivation. Part of the problem is the double-edged sword of a human trait described by a psychological theory called Social Facilitation Theory, which explains the well-known tendency for people’s performance to change when being watched by others.

One of my all-time favourite studies examined this phenomenon with cockroaches as the test subjects. It was led by professor Zajonc of Stanford University, and it demonstrated that behaviour modification in social settings is not a uniquely human occurrence. First, he created two different tunnels – one easy and the other much more difficult – for the cockroaches to run through. He then timed how long it took the cockroaches to get from start to finish under two conditions: 1) while being observed by other cockroaches, and 2) when on their own (I’d give him an award just for the creativity of it!).

Amazingly, the results showed that being observed affects cockroaches in the same way as it does human beings! Compared to their performance when on their own, the presence of observers caused them to do better at the easy task (running more quickly through the easy tunnel), but worse when challenged with the task of navigating the difficult tunnel. Similar studies have now found this trait in many other animals as well.

This illustrates the basis of social facilitation theory, which is that our natural dominant response is amplified in the presence of an audience. This term – natural dominant response – refers to anything that we do automatically as a result of instinctive human reactions or practiced behaviours and actions. For example, in the presence of observers or competitors, people are likely to:

  • Perform better if they are doing something that they are already good at. For example, athletes put in more effort and are much more likely to achieve a personal best in front of a crowd. Similarly, cyclists are faster riding against each other than against the clock.
  • Make errors when undertaking tasks they are not familiar with. For example, individuals taking their driving test are often much more prone to errors in front of the examiner.

The explanation for this change in behaviour is that the presence of others heightens arousal and thus increases our ability to perform habitual or well-learned tasks. However, the same arousal leads to stress and produces social inhibition, reducing performance in areas where we are not confident/competent.

Studies have found that people in groups tend to perform better than those who are alone, and that has significant implications in the current era where huge numbers of people are required to work from home. Quite simply, in areas of competence, we are motivated to work harder when people are watching us. This article explains this phenomenon in greater detail and provides some ideas about how its effect may be reduced.

Read the Article: We Work Harder When We Know Someone’s Watching

 My Advice

The essence of the recommendations in the article is that accountability needs to be maximised. An extremely powerful way of achieving this is to create a forum within which tasks and deliverables can be shared, which leverages a powerful psychological driver: that commitments made public become central motivators of behaviour.

More generally, maintaining an awareness of social facilitation theory can convey benefits at any time, not only during this pandemic. Whenever people are outside their comfort zone, I’d suggest making additional efforts to ensure they feel supported, which can do much to calm their evaluation anxiety.

The Need for Psychological Safety

The Need for Psychological Safety

Understanding the dynamics of effective teamwork is becoming ever more important, as businesses face relentless pressure to increase their profitability. Studies, however, consistently and convincingly demonstrate that structuring people into teams may be counterproductive to decision-making since, unless the culture is right, individuals outperform teams much of the time.

In Project Aristotle, Google researchers sought to understand how team composition and dynamics impact team effectiveness. They analysed 180 teams, including a mix of high and low performers, and conducted hundreds of interviews. What they found was that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

At the top of Google’s list of the things that matter when it comes to team performance is psychological safety – a concept originating from the work of Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. What she showed is that people will not give their fullest contribution to their team unless they feel safe. For teams to do well, the people in them MUST be:

  • Unafraid to share their ideas.
  • Willing to challenge and be challenged.
  • Prepared to risk failure.

Only by solving the safety problem can teams maintain the creativity and openness needed to make complex decisions and function effectively today. This article summarises some of the steps Google took in order to do so.

Read the Article: High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It

My Advice

We now live in a world were old styles of leadership are unlikely to achieve better than basic levels of productivity. To be successful, leaders now need to create a team culture within which employees will commit their discretionary effort and bring their full creativity to work. For you to be successful in this area, it is essential that you do everything you can to remove any obstacles that block your team from feeling safe.