Diversity, disagreement, courage

Margaret Heffernan, UK scientist and entrepreneur, Professor of Practice at the University of Bath School of Management, is the author of a string of books on effective leadership and the release of hidden or unused talent.

She is featured in this TED Talk about the importance of having diverse ways of thinking; how even freely available information will be of no use unless someone has the courage to fight for it.  And how we need to resist our neurological wiring, driving us to seek companionship with people sharing our world views, rather than actively seek diversity.

Global connectivity and sharing of information are only the beginning. We need the courage to start conflict and disagree, challenge conventional wisdom, and speak up for real change to happen. This is true in politics as well as in business.

A culture where opinions can be shared freely and conflicts addressed without fear of interpersonal retaliation, is a key precondition for psychological safety.

The talk is less than 13 minutes; and it’s great!

First: conflict habituation. Conflict management and resolution come later.

We have learned that unless we have something “nice” to say, we should stay silent. Unfortunately, this drives a conflict-avoidant behavior well into our adult lives.

Even well-supported and -founded conflict resolution models (such as the Thomas-Kilmann instrument) are based on the unstated assumption that we know what we want – based on insight into what our own best interests are – and can articulate it, compare it with alternatives, and argue our case.

This fairly analytical view of conflicts skips the “quenching” mechanism coming from not feeling free to speak our minds even when it’s a dumb question or slight critique. Many teams (in fact, most teams I have ever worked with) have a huge “conflict debt”.

Legitimately opposing interests (eg between sales and delivery – does that sound familiar to anyone?) are escalated rather than resolved at an appropriate level, frequently due to our lack of conflict habituation. We avoid tough conversations, rather send an email, right?

We must un-learn the habit of only speaking up when we have something nice to say. This is not about being obnoxiously aggressive. But about acknowledging that we are actually NOT all pulling in the same direction. We often have different, even opposing objectives, sometimes to a level of win/lose.

Before we can start working through our conflicts, we need to get used to their existence; expose ourselves to training in conflict habituation. This needs to be long-term; after all, we are dealing with deeply rooted behaviors.

As part of my work in team development, I offer a 9-step conflict habituation program. Each step is a small exercise, a tiny step towards being able to address conflicting interests without going full-throttle emotional about it.

Step 1 is: Explore facts (or, information presented to you as facts). Ask where they’re from or what they’re based on. Make everyone understand that you’re a team asking questions and not accepting everything as given. Do this for a week and notice how this becomes easier every time you try. Step 2-9 gently introduces increasing levels of pressure and interpersonal risk.

Only when we are relaxed about legitimate conflicts can we bring them to the surface and work on their constructive resolution. A prerequisite for teams looking to be innovative, creative, productive – and friends having fun.

New Year – setback and recovery

The New Year had a more somber tone than usual for me. Sure, I was happy to see 2020 go. But the start to 2021 was not the one I had hoped for: on the second morning of January, I lost my footing on black ice when walking the dog near the sea. Complicated bone fractures in both wrists and a twisted elbow were the unfortunate and painful results, leaving me with both arms in cast to the shoulders! Fortunately recovery is going well, and I will be resuming work and life (brushing my own teeth etc.) over the coming 2-3 weeks.

Setbacks can strike hard when you least expect it; they can also occur as the culmination of a long struggle. In any case, how you recover is largely dependent on your mindset. The most successful (ie non-traumatic) dealings with setbacks acknowledge the hardships as well as the silver linings. There is even a line of study investigating Post Traumatic Growth. This is not to be confused with false optimism, ignoring the pain; I’m skeptical of any approach distorting the truth.

Setbacks are a part of life, and the frequency will logically increase with your courage and exposure to new things. Executing a sweeping digital transformation of uncharted legacy technology? Leading your team from the distance? Home-schooling your children? Setbacks are guaranteed to happen. In my case, balancing on the edge of an icy harbor-front to see the view under a bridge was clearly too much of a physical challenge.

The solution is not resigning from life or not accepting a challenge. Both are negative results of unhealthy perfectionism, hampering sense of adventure and willingness to learn.

To build strength and resilience to better deal with setbacks (and failure, and other stressors of life), the important research of Stanford professor @Carol Dweck recommends cultivating your growth mindset.

An actual exercise in “growth mindset-building” from my online micro-training “Upside-Down View of Stress” goes like below. Think through (write, draw, talk with a friend, whatever works for you) your setback in these four steps:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why was it important to overcome the setback?
  3. Which convictions, attitudes or personal strengths helped you pull through?
  4. Did you get any help from others?

This will activate your self-compassion and sense of connection. It’s not about analyzing deep emotions; there’s no mumbo-jumbo, it’s just looking at the truth, seeing yourself in the context of your own strengths and your important network of people. Not seeing yourself as a failure, or clumsy, or having to do everything yourself again.

The effect is remarkable.

As an example, regarding my own New Year setback, I’ve already mentioned what happened. The motivation for getting back to normal functioning should be obvious. I’m pulling through with my strong sense of personal responsibility for my health and well-being – doing all the ergo-therapy chores in spite of the pain, because I know it works. Did I get any help from others? You bet, for all kinds of things! I’m blessed with (and very grateful for) the dearest husband, family and friends, for the first weeks helping me with literally everything, and now keeping me company.

Can’t wait to be fully back!

How’s the team? Check in following 4 easy steps

We have been distancing for quite some time now, and one thing is for certain: we’re communicating less than we used to. These days, do you know how your team is really doing?

Maybe you just got back together. Maybe there are new members, or a new team lead? Surely there are new requirements. Maybe you just need inspiration to re-kindle the team spirit.

You can check in with your team following 4 easy steps.

**Videoen er på engelsk, men dansk tales også 😊**

Don’t ask Why!

Thinking about the future is good.

Planning and reflecting, setting goals and pondering about capabilities and strengths – also good. Playing to the deep trends of optimizing everyone’s achievements and inspired by bestseller books, many are developing their “Why”: the innermost motivation and most powerful drivers to leave a mark in the world.

In the context of business, any change or dynamic will also be driven by a “Why”, a goal substantiated by some form of business case driving financial benefits or other types of improvement.

When businesspeople are interacting with clients to develop new joint opportunities, understanding this particular type of “Why” is sought for like the Holy Grail. It bears different labels such as Burning Platform, Core Business Problem, etc. The understanding is preferably with rich and individually differentiated details, enabling solution development and sales messaging to fit the requirement.

No matter what type of product or service you are taking to market, there must be a problem to solve or a need to fill. The Burning Platform is helping you identify what that problem/need is. And the logical thing seems to be to approach the client and ask: “Why are you XXX?” replacing XXX with whatever corporate improvement program you can think of (reduce cost, grow revenue, reduce risk, etc).

However, posing this particular question: “Why are you …..?” is unlikely to give you a meaningful answer (and it might even be considered rude) for a number of reasons:

  • When we are asked Why we do things, we’ll examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The human mind is prone to look for the easiest, most plausible answer and once that is found: to stop looking.  The answer is therefore likely to be obvious tending towards the banal, eg: We are reducing costs to become more competitive. Doh!
  • Having to answer Why can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Responding to a Why-question can cause respondents (in this context: your clients!) to fixate on their problems and look for ways to place blame.
  • A person responding to a Why-question is likely to see situations from a victim’s point of view, rationalizing and justifying the addressed problem, explaining it away.

What, then, should we ask to explore the client’s thinking? Exactly that.

Ask “What” in stead of “Why” and you’ll see a different behavior and response quality. A “What” question (as in, eg: “What’s going on?”. “What’s the outcome you want to see?”, “What is the type of business you are now pursuing?”) will keep your client’s mind open to discover new information, even if this new information is negative or even in conflict with existing beliefs. What-questions are generating high-value discovery and potential solutions from the conversation.

“Why” questions stir negative emotions, draw focus to our limitations and puts the spotlight on the past; “What” questions keep us curious, help us see potential and look to the future.

Exceptions exist, of course: in some situations, you need to know every painful detail of the past (root cause analysis of operational failures, product launch failures etc). But for a business conversation trying to open up new opportunities based on insight into a Burning Platform, this is not what you need.