Communication Conflict resolution Self management

The (Difficult) Conversation: What’s your contribution?

How often have you heard the following complaint: “I’m not the one with the problem, S/HE’S the one with the problem!” If you had a nickel for every time, I bet you’d be retired by now. But we all contribute to a conflict in some way, even when we don’t think we do. Moreover, there’s a good chance that we are fuelling a dispute especially when we don’t think we are. (Think of it as the conflict resolution equivalent of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) No one is completely faultless in any given conflict situation – otherwise, there likely wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Although each is 100% responsible for their 50% of any interaction, few are eager to fully own their half.

Even when someone genuinely believes they’re trying to defuse a situation, there’s a good chance they’re stoking it. Telling someone to “Calm down!” or minimizing the issue usually has the opposite effect. And aside from obvious button-pushers like interruptions, sarcasm, or insults, there’s paraverbal communication: tone, volume, and body language. Subtle and mostly unconscious, these signals can trigger a negative reaction as easily as a hasty choice of words. Seemingly small things can make a big difference, shutting down receptiveness as effectively as accusations or judgments. (For examples, see my previous posts on “I” language and “Kick ‘But’.”) Every claim of “You’re not listening to me!” can be countered with, “The message wasn’t delivered in a way that I could hear it!”

Because factors like language and paraverbals are external, it’s relatively easy to monitor and manage them, with the help of some corrective feedback and focused attention. But there are more insidious, internal things people may unwittingly contribute to conflict, including their beliefs, values, assumptions, expectations, and subjective notions of “truth.” Too often perceptual filters screen out inconvenient information when it might help solve the problem.

This is beautifully illustrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation. In it, surveillance expert Harry Caul (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) develops a theory about his current case. He’s committed to his interpretation of past events to the point where it prevents him from discovering the real meaning of a particular phrase that he has caught on tape. Even though he listens to the eight simple words over and over again, he fails to really hear them. He’s so convinced of his rightness, in fact, that it deafens him to what’s actually happening until it’s too late.

Art imitates life, and this same dynamic is played and replayed offscreen in homes and workplaces around the world. It’s hard to shift out of our own perspectives and see things from another angle, especially when emotions run high; blaming is easier. So the next time you’re embroiled in a conflict and you find yourself instinctively blaming the other person, take a few moments to consider your own role. Ask yourself the following questions as part of an essential reality check, to help you assess your contribution to the problem:

• What have I said, done, or not said, not done? (For example, as long as you avoid a difficult conversation with someone about their problematic behaviour, the issue may be more yours than theirs.)

• What might my perspective prevent me from seeing or hearing, and thus create a barrier to understanding? (Think Harry Caul’s obsessive take on his overheard conversation.)

• What awareness would be useful for me about my tone, body language, or other signals I may be sending consciously or unconsciously?

• What feelings, prejudices, stereotypes, prior experiences, or other obstacles might be preventing me from assessing the situation differently?

• What might I need to give up or let go of if we are to achieve any sort of agreement?

• How is my pride, identity/self-concept, shame, embarrassment, etc., influencing my thinking or fueling my reactions?

• What assumptions am I making, or expectations that I have, that aren’t necessarily shared by the other party?

• How well can I truly distinguish objectively observable and independently verifiable facts and events from my interpretations of them?

• How deeply am I entrenched in my position? To what extent am I genuinely willing to collaborate on a mutually satisfactory solution?

• Is being right about something that happened in the past more important to me than a more friction-free relationship in the future?

• What am I prepared to contribute toward the resolution? (Be honest.)

There are other internal and external mechanisms that can stoke a conflict, not least of which are individuals’ conflict response roles, but there’s little point in cataloguing them all here if they’re just used to find fault in others. First, we should be willing to admit that some of the responsibility for a conflict might be ours. When we are finally able to examine and adjust for our contribution to the problem, we get that much closer to achieving real understanding. Unfortunately for him (and some innocent victims), that’s a lesson the renowned Harry Caul didn’t learn soon enough.

Leadership Organizational culture

Leadership and organizational culture: Are you headed for a #MeToo reckoning?

As Edgar Schein (1990) notes, “Failing to understand how culture works is just as dangerous in the organizational world as failing to understand gravity and the atmosphere is in the physical/biological world.” Nearly 30 years later, in the wake of sexual harassment scandals that rocked Fox News, then Hollywood, and are (finally) being acknowledged by the music industry, we’re learning just how costly such ignorance can be. It’s hard to grasp the full scale and scope of the financial, legal, reputational, and relationship damage, in addition to the pain and humiliation inflicted on the victims. But the price will be even higher if we stop at naming the perpetrators and fail to fix the culture that enabled them.

Just as nations have cultures, so do organizations, individual departments, teams, or entire industries. They have tangible aspects — those we can see, hear, feel, or otherwise experience directly (such as jargon, workflows, preferred tools, etc.) — and intangible ones (including attitudes, ideals, and mythologies). As Schein notes, culture is basically “the way we do things around here,” based on a set of shared assumptions that ultimately drive the organization. It permeates everything the entity is and does. A culture is what makes it possible for people to work together and to compete more effectively in the outside world, by providing informal rules, boundaries, and expectations. It’s so pervasive that we become inured to it; David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address offers a useful aquatic parable.

Cultures can also be healthy and productive, or unhealthy and dysfunctional. An organization’s culture can make change and innovation easier, or much harder. It can determine whether strategy thrives or dies. It cuts both ways.

Some of the norms and beliefs underpinning the pervasive sexual harassment in media and entertainment appear to include: Bad behaviour is excused, if the perpetrator produces hits. The “casting couch” is real. In a talent buyer’s market, whistleblowers have short careers. And so on. You don’t have to be an industry insider to know this.

That this culture is and was an open secret does not excuse the perpetrators. Indeed, they need to be held fully accountable — and so does the leadership where the sick culture was allowed to fester. That’s because, as Schein argues, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” They foster and shape it through their actions, or inaction. They set the tone, pace, and the example. They promote the development of culture according to their preferred systems of reward and penalties (or lack thereof); and by their choices in allocating resources such as time, money, and effort, whether their own or the organization’s. If a culture is the water in which we all swim, it’s the leader’s job to monitor its quality – and not just for the sharks.

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” – Edgar Schein

So it’s encouraging to see the Producers Guild of America establish Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines; it may be overdue, but it’s a step in the right direction. Meanwhile in the music sector, Neil Portnow’s ill-considered comments indicate just how deeply embedded and pernicious culture can be. Of course, the entertainment and media industry isn’t the only one subject to sick cultures and failures of leadership: Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Kobe Steel are some of the more recent and high-profile examples. Their specific manifestations may be different, but one conclusion is the same: the culture starts at the top. It should be no point of pride that in each case, the rank-and-file adapted to the environment; to borrow from Krishnamurti, it’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick culture. The key is course-correction before the whole ocean is polluted beyond recovery.

Let’s face it, diagnosing a culture is hard. If it were easy, things might be different and we might not need #MeToo movements. But industry veterans can be inoculated against a particular culture. For transplants from other industries, the relatively small number of surface cues and symptoms don’t tell the full story, and may belie the vast, unseen system of beliefs, attitudes, rationales, etc., lurking below. It requires courage to leave the CEO fishbowl long enough to get an accurate picture, and an hard-nosed objectivity, especially when you depend on that culture for a paycheck. Then, if you can figure out what the culture really is, you have to actively manage it. Again, no easy feat.

It’s still leadership’s responsibility. No strategy session can be complete without an honest, thorough assessment and analysis of the company culture. It should be an urgent concern for every leader, because it’s 2018… and #Time’sUp.


Your sustainable career advantage isn’t what you think

We hear much in the news these days about the increasing need for coding skills, data analysis, and similar qualifications considered career success building blocks for the twenty-first century. But evidence is mounting that the only real sustainable competitive advantage in an age of increasing automation is, paradoxically, not the ability to work with computers, technology and information, but interpersonal skills and competencies.

As Michael Bloomberg recently noted, “The part that’s most important in an education is how to deal with people. There’s no job I know that you do by yourself.” This sentiment is echoed by fellow billionaire and Virgin empire founder Richard Branson, who cites emotional intelligence, relationships, and leadership (among others) as some of the critical skills for success that aren’t currently high on the educational agendaThe Economist, in recent articles and podcasts, also makes a persuasive case for acquiring and improving the human skills that have been overshadowed by all the tech talk, and a Workopolis survey of Canadian employers identified leadership and teamwork as among the top 10 most desirable skills for employees. Meanwhile the CBC’s The Current reports that the Business Higher Education Round Table believes that “too many students are entering the workforce without the practical skills that employers want,” including teamwork. Perhaps there’s an assumption that these should be innate qualities rather than learned skills, but that’s not the case.

Focus on the creative industries

In the arts, entertainment, and cultural industries, the need for interpersonal skills is arguably even greater, since it’s a sector where the quality of one’s relationships has a disproportionate effect on repeat employability. Ours is, after all, a network-oriented business, one in which shows are necessarily contract-based jobs. They are as essential to the studio floor as they are to the C-suite. As Harold Vogel writes in Entertainment Industry Economics (a staple text for entertainment business management programs), “the care and feeding of many large (if not often irrationally inflated) creative egos is in and of itself a decisive management skill” (p. 141). “People skills,” as they’re sometimes loosely called, are as critical to getting the job as they are to doing the job.

I conducted my own analysis of 20 common occupations in the arts, entertainment, and culture sector in Canada using data gathered by the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC), a national, non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening Canada’s cultural workforce and improving the HR environment within the sector. I examined the competency charts and occupational profiles for Recorded Music Production; Booking Agent; Development, Marketing and Distribution in the music industry (A&R, marketing, promotion, etc.); Music Artist Manager; Music Publisher; Presenter (Promoter); Cultural Manager; Cultural Mentor; Interactive Media Producer; Film and TV Director; Director and Producer of Documentary Films; Location Manager; Film and TV Producer; Production Manager; Showrunner; Automation Technician; Entertainment Rigger; General Stage Technicians (Stage Hands); Book Publishers; and Magazine Publisher. Based on this disparate but reasonably representative cross-section of roles and responsibilities in the creative industries surveyed by the CHRC, I note the following observations (among others):

• 85% demand the ability to “practice active listening” (also described as “ability to listen,” applying “listening techniques,” and “demonstrate[ing] listening skills”);

• An equal amount (85%) require the ability to negotiate;

• 70% require the ability to “exercise leadership” (and/or “demonstrate leadership” or “lead a team”);

• 35% cite the ability to give (and receive) feedback and/or constructive criticism;

• 25% demand the skills necessary to resolve, manage, or mediate conflicts and handle grievances;

• 30% specifically identify the ability to “collaborate,” and a further 50% specify the ability to “demonstrate teamwork skills,” “function as part of a team,” “work as a team member,” and in one case (that of film & TV producer), “assemble a production team.” (In comparison, 30% of jobs in my sample required the ability to “exercise” or “demonstrate,” creativity, or “establish/maintain a (safe) creative environment.”) And,

• 30% explicitly require the ability to “empathize” or “demonstrate empathy.”

Here I’ve focused on a handful of skills specifically relevant to working effectively with others, but of course there are other mission-critical personal competencies identified by the CHRC as being common to many of the jobs, such as adaptability/flexibility, decision-making, the ability “manage stress,” “work under pressure,” “motivate,” “facilitate group interactions,” “build consensus,” “set an example (role model),” “demonstrate accountability,” and so forth. In short, there are just as many (if not more) of what I would characterize as emotional intelligence skills as there are technical skills vital to each job studied.

Like the technical skills, these intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies are seldom innate but can be developed. The problem right now, as noted in the Globe and Mail, is that there aren’t enough training programs “to build skills — and confidence — for Canadian mid- to senior-level cultural leaders so they can ‘step up and take on these big jobs across the country.'” The good news is that there are resources already available, with more on the way. Let’s hope that as awareness of the need grows, the training opportunities increase commensurately. It may not be as sexy a topic as artificial intelligence or machine learning, but a misunderstanding with Siri or Echo is nowhere near as harmful to your career as the inability to deal with bosses or co-workers effectively.

Communication Emotional intelligence (EQ) Teams and group dynamics

A Time for… Po?

“The significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein (attrib.)

We don’t live in a black-and-white world. We have unprecedented globalization but increasing protectionism; technological breakthroughs but major disruption; and increasing wealth but greater inequality. In an era of astounding complexity and paradox, we thirst for simple answers. Retreating into our social media bubbles, we separate ourselves along partisan lines. Clinging to familiar ideas provides comfort when it feels like the very ground under our feet is shifting. The problem is, reality seldom conforms so neatly and cleanly to our need to label things and put them in handy conceptual boxes, but we behave as if it does. The time is ripe for a better, more creative way to navigate the challenges that confront us individually and as a species.

In 1972 Edward de Bono published Po: Beyond Yes and No (NY: Simon & Schuster), proposing a method to check our perspectives and improve our problem-solving abilities. Po, as he called it, is a framework for thinking in a more open and flexible manner, a “de-patterning device” and a “counterbalance to the yes/no system.” Po is deliberately non-binary: generative rather than discerning, it invites possibility and eschews predetermined categories. This is critical because the wondrous human brain, wired for pattern recognition, bumps hard up against its limitations when faced with nuance and newness, which is to say constantly. If you’ve ever used a digital user interface, you know the frustration when even a broad menu of choices doesn’t address your specific situation.

Po book cover
Now imagine that anguish, amplified on a global scale. We need another adaptive strategy if we are to survive the next century. Or at least survive the difficult conversations necessary to get us there.

It was de Bono who also gave the world Six Thinking Hats, another deceptively simple approach. The technique was designed to focus the collective brainstorming genius of any team and to streamline analysis of the results. It’s very effective for maximizing full team input while minimizing potential for conflict, and we continue to use it in our work with clients today. Po, too, might withstand the test of time for similar reasons. It mitigates the all-too-human need to be right and, more generally, to assume that there can only be one “right” solution. Citing the “arrogance of logic,” de Bono offers Po as a “tool for change,” and an antidote to confrontation and clash, thesis and antithesis, argument and counterargument. As the default modus operandi of academia and science, the dialectic has worked well enough. Unfortunately, it fails is pretty much everywhere else; in many other domains (including our legal system, for example), a win-lose mentality can be as counterproductive as it is pervasive. (For an aptly titled and thought-provoking critique, read Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture.)

Po is the difference between the normal, vertically constrained way of thinking (i.e., bounded rationality) and lateral, imaginative thinking. It embodies four attitudes: exploration, stimulation, liberation, and anti-rigidity/anti-dogmatism. Among other applications, de Bono proposes several ways to implement it using language, such as inserting the word Po before another word or phrase, to signal that what follows is simply a possibility. It identifies any assertion as merely one way of looking at a problem or issue, without proclaiming it “truth.” Another use of Po is to introduce an “intermediate impossible,” i.e., an unlikely idea that can be used as a springboard to challenge the status quo and inspire innovative options. These verbal signposts could be helpful in our daily interactions with those who don’t inhabit our bubbles or otherwise share our viewpoints.

Po is analogous to the power of open-ended questions. These typically begin with words like “How,” “Why,” “What,” etc., inviting dialogue and curiosity. In contrast, closed questions – those beginning with “Do/did,” “Is/are,” or “Are/were,” etc. – can only be answered with “Yes” or “No,” and are intended to produce a definitive conclusion. Because they limit and control the flow of discussion, closed questions are to be avoided during contentious negotiations or difficult conversations, or else risk escalating tensions. Po is an effective way to initiate discussion, and not shut it down.

De Bono offers Po as a way to shift perception which, he notes, is really a type of thinking that we don’t generally consider as such. Instead, he says, our yes/no system of categorization essentially bypasses perception, thus committing a fundamental error: we ought to examine how we actually see and experience information before we can even begin to process it, never mind correctly discern between boxes and labels. Po creates a space to question our preconceptions.

This is important because we may be witnessing the widening of a dangerous, us-versus-them divide. It’s most obvious in political systems, including those theoretically designed for pluralities. We also see it in the broader public discourse, which appears to be driven less by a genuine desire for mutual understanding than by a growing desire to score points over the “other” side. But “being right is not enough,” de Bono warns. “Any idea, no matter how right, should be re-examined from time to time,” because circumstances change, and may demand it.

Indeed, given the current state of things it might be time to reexamine how we perceive the world, and overhaul the ways we think and talk about it. The challenges that lie ahead require a higher level of insight and problem-solving, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may not achieve it fast enough. Until then, Po may be more relevant than ever.

Conflict resolution

What is conflict costing you?

There is always a price to be paid when conflict goes unresolved, or is poorly handled. The key question is, how much is it costing you and your creative team or organization?

In war, its most extreme form, the value of buildings, businesses, and infrastructure destroyed, never mind lives lost, quickly reaches billions of dollars. Even low-level, interpersonal conflict in the creative industries can exact a shockingly high toll on those afflicted. Unlike war, however, much of the expense is hidden, manifesting as other issues or symptoms. The “collateral damage” is still significant, and it’s tragic because it’s arguably the single most preventable expense in the workplace.

It’s hard to cite accurate figures precisely because the costs are disguised, but in 2005, Section 207 of the Canadian Public Service Labour Relations Act mandated that all federal government departments and agencies install mechanisms for employees to access alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Why? Because costs of harassment and grievance complaints for Canada’s single largest employer (i.e., the public service) were found to be dramatically reduced when effective conflict resolution processes were made available.

Conflict in the arts & entertainment business produces all kinds of expensive, unwanted drama that can play out behind the scenes (and sometimes, in the media). When it comes to the creative industries, the costs of conflict are alarming. A selective list includes the following:


Absences due to stress/health. Record companies, game developers, movie studios, and ad agencies — among other creative organizations — all suffer from absenteeism arising from one person’s unwillingness or inability to deal with another at work. An April 2016 story in Canadian Business noted that “according to a recent study from Willis Towers Watson, highly stressed Canadians take nearly 50% more sick days than their blissed-out peers.” Some absences result from genuine physical complaints related to stress, such as headaches, nausea, or other symptoms. Chronic lateness can stem from a subconscious desire to avoid conflict, or the need for restorative sleep after stress. Conflict can have knock-on impacts on those covering for absent coworkers and taking on extra responsibilities. This can result in even more stress and anxiety, perpetuating the cycle. Medical care, prescriptions, and physiotherapy all add up, whether the costs are covered by the individual or borne by an insurer.

Drug or alcohol abuse, another cause of absenteeism, could indicate a coping mechanism to deal with the stress and anxiety of conflict. Some creatives get high to escape, dull the pain, or avoid the harsh reality of interpersonal issues. The costs of treatment for addiction and the side effects of substance abuse must be factored into the equation.

Related mental health issues. The expense of counselling or therapy to help manage the fear and anxiety of a conflict can be as prohibitive as treating the physical symptoms.

Reduced productivity and production delays. Conflict drains energy and wastes valuable time. Output is diminished when individuals ruminate and fret over difficult conversations; teams waste precious resources bickering unproductively; and organizations face potential cost overruns. This is especially true in film and television, where every minute’s delay can cost thousands, or even millions when funding and delivery deadlines are at risk.

Role confusion or disruption. Conflict between formal or informal roles can inhibit productivity and cause other direct or indirect losses. Some duties or tasks might be abandoned if they lead to internal struggles. This may appear less of an issue on film sets where job functions are highly specialized, clearly defined, and critically interdependent, yet it’s surprisingly common. It’s arguably worse for indie productions where creatives wear multiple hats and the traditional hierarchy is less rigidly enforced.

Role conflict occurs frequently in larger organizations such as studios, agencies, labels, and so on. Conflict resulting in denial of individuals’ voting rights or other powers and privileges can have significant financial impact.

Sabotaged or destroyed work. Sometimes, frustrated artists erase recordings or destroy video footage. (Dexys Midnight Runners famously ransomed the master tapes for its debut album in a dispute with their label, EMI.) Code can be deleted and computers deliberately infected with malware. Gigs get cancelled when band members walk out. Sets can be smashed. The added security to prevent such things isn’t cheap. Every sector of the creative industries has its own legends, and the stories are both truer and more common than we think.

Loss of uniquely skilled team members. With rare exceptions, everyone suffers when a key creative leaves. The Velvet Underground kept going, but lost a vital ingredient to their signature sound when John Cale left; Roxy Music was never quite the same without Brian Eno, or The Clash without Mick Jones. From comedy troupes to screenwriting teams, the losses add up: dejected fans, reduced income, lost creativity.

Auditioning and orientation of new cast/crew/staff members. Hiring, “on-boarding,” and training staff is an expensive HR process for every business, especially when new recruits don’t survive the probationary period. Creative endeavours too: it takes time and effort to find and induct a new team member with just the right combination of skills, attitude, look, and chemistry.

Reduced innovation. Conflict can drain vital energy or rob teams of ideas and input. Contributions may be withheld in fear of judgment or strained relationships. Collaborators may begin stashing their best material for after the writers’ room, studio, or office.

Inferior decisions. Decisions taken just to “get it over with” (or made while creative input is being withheld) seldom last. Choices made once factions form are equally suspect. In either case, the results tend to be short-lived, and subject to much second-guessing; it’s hard to get wholehearted buy-in without proper consensus. (Conversely, conflict that is managed productively can ensure the best group output.)

Inefficient meetings and brainstorming. Most meetings are already ineffective enough. Why add destructive conflict into the mix?

Damaged relationships at home, in society, or the community. Conflict tends to spill over into other domains of life. We bring it home from the office; we enroll friends and colleagues in our drama; we suppress our emotions around it and bystanders suffer the unintended consequences. It’s hard to keep it from manifesting elsewhere, whether in your primary/romantic relationship, at home, or your social sphere, and while harder to quantify, these losses are just as devastating.

Reputation damage. Creative teams renowned for infighting are less attractive to recording, TV, or film deals, especially in a buyer’s market. A pattern of conflict is a warning sign to an agent or manager. Film sets plagued by feuds generate media coverage, but not always the good kind. Companies with “revolving door syndrome” find it very difficult to attract or retain new talent. In an industry based on relationships, few can afford a bad rep. Their marquee value may give some above-the-line talent a pass for bad behaviour, but it catches up with everyone eventually.

Limited (or failed) careers. Most of us can name at least one great act or production that imploded before (or at) its creative and commercial peak. Even the loss of a single member can permanently alter a team’s unique (and highly bankable) creative DNA. The Beatles’ solo career success, and the Rolling Stones’ ability to survive the death or departure of successive band members, are outliers: major exceptions to rule that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Disappointed fans and customers. A basic rule of any business is that customer acquisition is more expensive than retention, and there’s only so much discord, or creative inconsistency, that even the most rabid audience will tolerate. In this Peak Entertainment era, an organization’s customers and clients have plenty of choice, and audiences will also go elsewhere if conflict infects product quality.

Threats to safety or security. When conflict escalates and civility breaks down, so can personal safety and security. Violence is rare, but it can happen onstage as well as off. The costs include potential lawsuits, hospitalization, police interventions, and more.

Collateral economic damage. Labour relations are a whole different dimension. The recent threat of another writer’s strike recalled the longest walkout ever by the film and TV unions & guilds, lasting nearly six months in 1988. By some estimates the U.S. entertainment industry paid the equivalent of half a billion dollars in opportunity costs. The city of Los Angeles alone lost around $1.5 billion in revenues, according to one National Public Radio (NPR) report.

Unmanaged (or mismanaged) conflict isn’t the only major, invisible drain on the creative industries. A dysfunctional (or toxic) organizational culture can also cost a business millions of dollars, as evidenced by the not-so-hidden Fox News harassment scandal. As I write, the story is still unfolding and the price tag keeps climbing; estimates in the tens of millions in settlements don’t even factor in the cost of replacing lost marquee talent.

But for every courtroom or on-set battle in the headlines, many more are being fought away from the spotlight. They may be hidden behind nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and out-of-court settlements; or they just aren’t as high-profile and newsworthy. Either way, it’s further indication that the true costs of conflict are vastly underestimated.

They’re also very real and significant. There is too much at stake, whether it’s profit, reputation, or career opportunities, to let a conflict simmer at any level. Preventive measures like workplace training or coaching greatly reduce the likelihood of escalations, and dramatically increase the chances of successful (and early) resolution. The personal, professional, and financial costs are simply not worth the risks.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Self management

Four Signs Your Working Relationship is Going Sideways

One of the challenges of conflict is that creative teams or workplaces are often fully engulfed long before they’re even aware something’s happening. Therefore, a crucial first step in dealing with conflict is to simply recognize the signs it may be occurring. This is easier than it sounds, but it’s critical because the earlier an emerging conflict can be detected, the sooner steps can be taken to resolve or manage the issue(s) effectively and prevent further harm.

There are four categories of warning signs: emotional, physical, behavioural, and relational. Think of these as concentric circles spiraling outwards from within and progressively manifesting externally if unnoticed or left unchecked. Each successive set of indicators, if ignored, inevitably leads to the next level, with ever-increasing consequences. Four warning signs of conflictIt’s like your cat trying to tell you it’s feeding time, going to greater lengths to get your attention, only it’s not funny (and hopefully will never wind up on YouTube).
Let’s examine what each of these sets of signals mean and why they happen. The analysis can provide useful insight into the individuals involved in a conflict at a personal level. In observing and interpreting the warnings we can apply the knowledge not only to ourselves but also to others (namely, our colleagues) and take appropriate, timely action.

Emotional signs

The first indications of a problem in a working relationship are internal: our emotions. Feelings are a reliable barometer that things aren’t OK. If my normal state is one of comfort, happiness, relaxation, engagement, calm, and/or contentment, then it’s easy to tell when I move away from that baseline. I can usually identify or describe any uncomfortable feelings I’m having. When trouble is brewing between myself and another person, this discomfort is going to be the first sign that all is not quite right. We may have a conflict, which itself is simply a signal that something needs to change, occurring when something we care about is about to be affected in some way. Time to pay attention!
Feelings will, of course, vary according to each individual involved and each situation. For example, a situation that might seem humorous when it happens to someone else is usually not so amusing when it happens to you. The intensity of the feeling might also vary from one instance to the next. You might feel confused by multiple feelings occurring simultaneously. The range of possible emotional reactions is virtually limitless; there is no definitive feeling or combination of feelings. The bottom line is that any emotions at all outside the normal comfort range are probably a warning.

As such these feelings should not be ignored or repressed. Some find it easy to overlook them because society prefers that we avoid expressing unpleasant feelings. We may downplay what’s going on inside when we experience them; we put on a brave face and say everything is “fine” when we know it’s not. Whether or not you choose to divulge them, it’s important to recognize that these feelings are a kind of internal gauge of whether or not the person you are dealing with, or the situation you are in, is psychologically healthy and safe. They’re like the VU (volume unit) meters on a mixing board: when they’re pushing into the red zone, you know the signal is “clipping” and you need to do something because unwanted noise and distortion are being introduced into the signal. If your emotional VU meter is tipping into the red when you are with a particular person or in an uncomfortable situation, that’s your signal to act.

Sometimes this means temporarily stepping away from the person or situation causing the discomfort, taking a time-out, and putting some physical or emotional distance between you. That may be all you need for your feelings barometer to return to its baseline and to once again feel calm, relaxed, engaged, happy, or whatever your normal state happens to be. If that’s genuinely the case — after a good night’s sleep the discomfort is truly gone and not merely repressed— then you may not actually have conflict. But if the feelings persist, it could mean there is a problem between you and that other person. Avoidance or masking feelings with food, distractions or addictions won’t help. Trying to “rise above” or “be professional” about the uncomfortable situation are among the countless ways to cope with unpleasant feelings. But when there is a genuine conflict between two or more people—one in which the relationship is being challenged (if not damaged) in some way—then the feelings are not going to go away on their own.

Physical signs

If the emotional warning signs continue unheeded, another natural protective mechanism kicks in. The manifestation of physical symptoms is your mind and body’s way of issuing a more urgent set of signals that are more difficult to ignore.

Again, everyone will experience physical warning signs of conflict differently, but some are quite common. There are those that seem trivial, such as nervousness or sweaty palms. Others are more noticeable and worrisome, for example, difficulty in sleeping. Depending on the individual, the opposite may also be true: you may find that you begin to sleep more than usual, either as a way of avoiding the conflict or recovering from the stress and anxiety it brings. These are two opposite but equally valid physical signs that are more evident than emotions, precisely because they affect not only your mind but your body. Frequent headaches can be among the common physical warning signs of conflict, as are subconscious activities like smoking, eating, or drinking more than usual. These strategies provide bodily sensations to mask the unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing, if only temporarily. (Here the standard disclaimers apply: always check with your doctor if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of any kind; there may be other physiological causes that should be ruled out.)

Not surprisingly, the physical indicators have their own knock-on effects, especially when piled on top of the emotional stuff. Consider the consequences of eating, drinking, or smoking to excess, for example. The short-term results may be stomach aches, hangovers, or smoker’s cough, and the longer-term impacts can be far more severe, even deadly. There are many possible causes of physical ailments, one of which is that the original problem hasn’t gone away of its own accord. The physical manifestations are harder to ignore so that you’ll finally be moved to do something about it before worse things happen. Even sleeping too little or too much can have consequences extending beyond personal health. In workplace scenarios, one typical result of unmanaged conflict is an increase in chronic lateness or absenteeism.

Behavioural signs

If the physical warning signs of conflict go unheeded and the core issue remains unaddressed long enough, the next set of signals kicks in. These behavioural indications are overt and more readily observed by others. The subtle logic of the psyche’s strategy is this: if you can’t (or won’t) take care of yourself, you will get someone else to do it for you.

How does your subconscious enlist others in your conflict caretaking? Here, too, the range of possibilities is wide, but examples of the more common tell-tale behaviours might include a normally calm and serene person appears agitated and on edge; a typically patient individual becomes short-tempered and easily triggered; someone who is otherwise engaged and outgoing begins withdrawing; and so on.

You might notice, for example, that a team member who usually goes out socially after work starts making excuses to go right home, or one who normally participates in team discussions and decision-making stops contributing. They may just shrug and say, “Whatever. I don’t care.” Conversations tend to become more difficult, more tense, more strained. Electronic communication may take much longer to get answered, if at all, or responses are more tersely worded than usual. Eye contact may be avoided. You don’t need to be an expert at conflict resolution to detect behavioural changes; the untrained eye can usually spot the signs. We just don’t always recognize them as indicators of conflict.

Abnormal behaviours could be symptoms of another issue or problem, but you won’t know for sure unless you ask. Even then, they may not respond (at least not immediately or candidly), but a change in communication style is sometimes a cry for help in disguise. Unusually difficult behaviours may be indirect and inarticulate invitations to assist, but nonetheless that’s what they are. Uncharacteristic conduct is a way to draw others in because it inevitably affects them one way or another.

Relational signs

If left too long, the logical consequence of behavioural issues are the relational warning signs that manifest. The relational signs are the most difficult of all to ignore because they’re the most public. Now it’s not just the individual who is affected but others in the relationship. Like the previous three categories they may also appear different for everybody, since no two individuals, conflicts, or situations are identical.

Still, you can spot some common relational warning signs. A person feeling uncomfortable or in conflict may begin avoiding specific people, primarily the person(s) with whom they are in conflict. In a work setting, this might mean he or she takes a different route to the cafeteria or the washroom in order to bypass the other party’s office. They might ask the boss to put them on a different team to reduce the likelihood of interaction with the other person. There are many variations on this avoidance behaviour that people typically employ when in conflict, but they might be hard to spot at first precisely because “out of sight is out of mind.”

Generally, the relational warning signs are easier to detect because they impact multiple individuals, entire teams or companies. As with the other three sets of warning signs they will vary greatly, from deliberate unresponsiveness to singling others out for criticism or verbal attacks, belittling others’ perspectives and contributions, or shooting down their ideas. There may be open disagreement, challenge, argument, or outright hostility. Other nonverbal cues may include eye-rolling, crossing arms or other defensive postures, and deliberate distractions. There may be rumour-mongering, idle gossip, or complaints to others in an effort to win sympathy and support. You can probably identify other examples from your own experience.

Clearly, the relational symptoms affect not only the person with the initial conflict symptoms, but they also impact the others in the group, team, or company. Innocent bystanders often become embroiled. Stakes are much higher by this stage, and if things don’t get resolved soon the whole workplace gets involved one way or another.

Pay attention now, or the pay consequences later

In the midst of a conflict, it’s hard to stop to take proper stock of the situation or retrace steps to figure out how things devolved to the present state. But in learning to recognize these early warning signs, you can remain alert to whatever may be happening right now that requires immediate attention. The internal warning signs tell you it’s time to take care of yourself in some way – often just by asserting your needs – and the longer you put off taking action, the more intense they become. Invariably they will become more outwardly noticeable, which can only cause further discomfort or damage.

It’s understandable that many are uncomfortable talking candidly about their feelings with colleagues or co-workers, because of the additional sense of vulnerability it can bring. Some are only comfortable discussing their feelings with therapists or other professionals, if not with life partners. (Some find even that hard to do). But feelings should be acknowledged and honoured, if not celebrated, because they play a vital role as part of an early warning system. The initial discomfort may be unpleasant but the alternative is greater pain and distress for everyone in the long run.

How-to Teams and group dynamics

4 quick & cost-effective tools to accelerate team development

In the creative industries, teams frequently need to get from zero to sixty almost instantly. This is typical in the film & TV business, where production crews are routinely shotgunned together and required to make audiovisual magic in as little as thirty days (sometimes less). These high expectations may be unrealistic but they aren’t impossible, usually because the more seasoned veterans can turn on a high level of professionalism like flicking a switch. The early break-in period can also be greatly reduced if some crew members have worked together on previous projects.

But not everyone has a shared history, pleasant or otherwise, and few crews exclusively comprise battle-hardened pros. Even when they are, there are still issues. Creative teams, no matter how short-lived, are still subject to the same process of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (or “mourning”) as any other team. So how do you accelerate them through Tuckman’s stages of development when you simply haven’t got the time or budget to send everyone on a team-building retreat? Today’s post looks at a number of surprisingly inexpensive but effective tools that can be used to help teams survive and even thrive through that first crucial phase.

In a nutshell, the Formation stage is characterized by (among other things) a general lack of prior history and unfamiliarity with other team members; concomitant low levels of trust; a steep learning curve with lots of checking each other out; and a lack of established norms for communication, handling conflict, and other behaviours. Therefore, the kind of tools that are appropriate at this stage are those that are not only cost-effective and quick but can also help the team get to know each other without being too in-your-face and personal. In addition, these tools would also help identify the most effective ways to manage essentials like communication and inevitable conflict. It’s a tall order, but there are a few:


Arguably the best-known of the personality inventories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) which, according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, aims to “make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives.” The MTBI assesses preferences along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, which is the extent to which individuals focus on their external or interior worlds; Sensing/Intuition, or how we relate to incoming information and the extent to which we interpret and add meaning; Thinking/Feeling, how we make decisions by focusing either on pure logic or whether we take emotions into account; and Judging/Perceiving, which is about how we structure our relationship with and make sense of the outside world. Knowing how we differ in the ways we relate to the world through our sensory, analytical, perceptual and emotional mechanisms can help us be more patient and tolerant – not just with others but with ourselves as well. It can, for example, be helpful in matching an individual’s natural gifts with appropriate career options, among other applications. That’s probably not relevant in the scenario described above, but it’s useful for helping team members get to know each other without having to reveal anything too personal in nature. It can also encourage bonding by identifying commonalities among team members and setting norms that respect individual differences.

Social Styles

Merrill & Reid’s social styles theory, as its name suggests, offers insight into our social interactions. It identifies four main archetypes (Analytic, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive) and their respective sub-types based on a two-dimensional matrix of social Assertiveness and Responsiveness. The Assertiveness continuum is the extent to which we are more comfortable asking or telling in a social context, mainly as it pertains to expressing individual needs. Responsiveness is the extent to which we react to others by empathizing or openly emoting, or whether we are more likely to rein in our feelings. Awareness of a person’s relative ease or discomfort with asserting their needs and desires, for example, can allow us to see past the stereotypes we might otherwise apply (“bully” vs. “wimp,” etc.) and communicate more sympathetically, allowing for differences in social style.

Both of these models have been in use for many years and provide valuable insights into how people behave, and why, under most normal circumstances. There are, however, a couple of tools that offer more specific, situational insights that I have found particularly useful in creative and/or business environments:

Team Roles

Based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, Team Role theory identifies nine basic roles that we all unconsciously adopt, to varying degrees, when operating in a team environment. Each of these natural roles – as opposed to any formally assigned team roles – makes a unique contribution to the team and comes with concomitant allowable weaknesses. Knowledge of team roles can allow for more strategic and effective team formation; conversely it can help avoid team dysfunction or outright conflict that is almost inevitable when roles are over- or underrepresented on a given team. This is no less true in the film & TV industry, where crew roles and workflows are very clearly defined.

Conflict Response Roles

The five Conflict Response Roles – Loner, Decision-maker, Moderator, Diplomat, and Friend – describe the clusters of behaviours we tend to adopt when in conflict. These roles vary according to the extent to which the individual naturally focuses on the self, the task, and/or the facts of the matter in a conflict situation; and the extent to which the focus is on the other, the relationship(s) involved, and the feelings of the people in the conflict. The Conflict Response Roles (CR²I)™ self-assessment instrument has been used successfully for over a decade to identify, among other things, common escalation triggers; needs that are being protected in a conflict; and conflict behavioural patterns, both helpful and potentially destructive. This increased self-knowledge can help individuals make the necessary adjustments so that conflict situations are prevented, or at least managed earlier and more skillfully, in a conflict situation.

Of course there are other tests and inventories that can be used to assess and analyze everything from decision-making preferences to leadership styles and other aspects of our personal and professional selves. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B) is also commonly used in organizational contexts. Remember that the purpose of these tools is not merely to categorize or classify people; it’s imperative to avoid lazy assumptions based on handy generalizations. Reducing individuals to labels and objectifying them makes it far too easy to demonize and see them as “other,” which defeats the whole team-building purpose. And while these tools offer a kind of shortcut through the team’s formative stage, they are by no means a panacea.

Still, when used wisely these mental models can help us appreciate what makes each other tick, and see how and why we behave the way we do in certain situations. They can be invaluable tools for establishing a solid foundation for more effective and lasting working relationships. We may not always achieve agreement, but we can always achieve greater understanding and empathy. And we even can do it more quickly and cheaply when time and money are in short supply.

Communication How-to Self management

How to Keep Your Head From Exploding

Have you ever stared in disbelief at someone’s completely incomprehensible actions? Been bewildered by another’s disproportionate reaction to events? Or felt like your head was going to explode because a colleague kept making the same mistake over and over again? Every now and then we all experience the frustration of behaviour that seems utterly irrational or bizarre, whether it’s misplaced anger, resistance to ideas or change, sabotage, or some other form. If this sounds familiar, keep reading — this post is for you. I’ll consider it a public service if I can prevent at least one more exploding head and, I hope, generate a little more empathy and understanding.

The solution is in these four words: All behaviour makes sense.

Repeating this short phrase to myself like a mantra has helped me through many a difficult encounter. It reminds me that no matter now challenging another person’s demeanour, words or deeds, there is some underlying cause that I simply don’t yet know — and it often has nothing to do with me. This simple statement of fact always piques my curiosity, opening my mind (and heart) to whatever might be going on for him or her beneath the surface.

This is important because as long as my curiosity is actively engaged I stay out of judgment. Otherwise it’s far too easy for me to label the other person, objectifying them as a “jerk,” “lazy-ass,” or “crybaby,” and seeing them as the problem instead of attacking their behaviour which is invariably the real issue. I also sometimes make it about myself, when in many cases — if not most — the behaviour really has little to do with me, at least not directly. Or I make (incorrect) assumptions about what’s causing the other person to act out. My false attributions might be based on how I would act (or react) in a similar situation, but of course we all have different perspectives, cultures, family histories, and other baggage that shape our responses. Any such assumptions are bound to increase the mutual misunderstanding and frustration in an already fraught encounter. Curiosity is a powerful antidote.

Even if it doesn’t make sense to me immediately, any questionable behaviour still has its own logic. Considering all possibilities keeps me from rushing to an unhelpful conclusion. The only thing I need to do to avoid getting sucked into an emotional vortex is to stay curious about that driving force. It sounds hard, especially when feeling triggered by the behaviour, but even the most outrageously incomprehensible behaviour is essentially the outward manifestation of an inner need: We satisfy thirst by drinking. When tired, we sleep. Picking up the phone to order a pizza is just one of myriad behaviours that can address a hunger, and so on. The same is true for whatever is bothering you about the other person’s behaviour: there’s a motivation, it’s just hidden from you. “All behaviour makes sense” is an effective reminder that he or she is just trying to tell you they need something, albeit in an awkward and uncomfortable way. The trick is to figure out what the unmet need is or, where necessary, help them do it.

At the basic biological/physiolgical level the causal connection can be relatively plain to see. (That said, it took me years to finally join the dots linking my cranky mood swings with low blood sugar. Who knew “hangry” was an actual thing?) Where the need-behaviour connection becomes more opaque is in the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy: abstractions such as self-esteem, belonging, or self-actualization are more difficult to surmise from a person’s outward behaviour, even to the well-trained eye. We can appreciate another’s anger and defensiveness when their physical safety or security is threatened, but it’s tougher to comprehend when it’s their identity, self-concept or some other invisible, interior thing that’s at risk. All it may take is the slightest suggestion that he or she may be wrong, for example, and the self-preservation instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Even though it’s just a cognitive threat, the primal brain still delivers a burst of adrenaline and the injured party can react as if life itself were on the line. When that happens we can only be certain of the visible, external signals: we can generally interpret the tense facial expressions, harsh language, sour tone, and other cues. What we can’t know for sure is the underlying cause.

Diagnosing the root problem is a challenge because the presenting symptoms can have a number of possible motivations. The aggressive bully might crave a winning feeling, or he might be seeking respect; the chronic latecomer may be exerting a semblance of control otherwise lacking in his harried life, or he may secretly like the attention that follows his habitual tardiness; the apparently shy introvert who seldom contributes to meetings may be retreating into safety and security amid the noise and chaos of brainstorming sessions, or may simply want time to collect and process more data. Depending on the people and situational specifics, the unmet needs could be more process-oriented (ex. the need to ensure equal input in a creative decision) or people-oriented (ex. the need to be right, to save face, to preserve a relationship, etc.).

Caution is key because asking direct questions to surface the unmet need(s) risks unintentional provocation and can result in defensiveness; gentle, appropriate questioning is both an art and a learned skill. Further complicating matters, the person exhibiting the difficult behaviour may not be consciously in touch with their own underlying needs. They’re frequently unaware of the problem behaviour in the first place. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in typical creative collaborations, team or organisational situations the list of most commonly frustrated needs is relatively short. It includes the need for validation or recognition; the desire to be heard and understood; the hunger for acceptance and belonging; and variations on these themes. With the right sensitivity and training you can learn to better identify the underlying needs and therefore satisfy them, reducing or eliminating the unwelcome behaviour. Getting to the precise root of the issue is easier, of course, if you have a trusting relationship and an environment that encourages open, honest dialogue.

Absent those, genuinely seeking to make sense of another’s behaviour nonetheless forces us to shift into a different, more productive problem-solving mode. Rather than trying to change the person (which is never successful anyway) we can refocus on influencing the behaviour. The alternative is being triggered by the behaviour and getting dragged into a downward spiral. So when you’re struggling to understand someone’s words, actions or inactions, remind yourself that all behaviour makes sense (yes, even Twitter and Facebook trolling). Remaining curious makes room for empathy and reduces the likelihood of conflict, blame, or other counter-productive, enervating attitudes — including Exploding Head Syndrome.

Accountability How-to Teams and group dynamics

Is accountability your team’s Achilles heel?

Accountability – or the lack thereof – is the Achilles Heel of many a potentially great team, group or organisation. Part of the problem is that accountability has become just another buzzword. (It’s like the weather: we love to talk about it but we seldom do anything about it.) It’s also an uncomfortable subject, being frequently confused with blamestorming. When the going gets tough it’s easy to forget that accountability is simply the ability to account for one’s actions. It’s holding others able to describe a chain of events, for better or worse.

Like accounting, accountability is concerned with (literally) summing up positives and negatives to determine a net result. Accounting is emphatically not about finger-pointing, judgment or shaming, and neither is accountability. Balance sheets and P&Ls are just tools for analysis, a means of figuring out how to make a business more profitable. Similarly, accountability can and should be an instrument for making teamwork more effective and productive. You wouldn’t shout at the numbers and call them names, but that’s the kind of pointless exercise that is sometimes passed off as accountability in many a meeting. Judgment and blame do absolutely nothing to rectify the issue or prevent a recurrence. We need to take the heat out of accountability and approach it more like accountants approach their numbers: respectfully and free from emotional baggage.

Of course this is easier said than done. We’re all human and we have feelings; no one likes to be the bearer of bad news that might let the team down, never mind admit to personal failure. For those on the receiving end, frustration and anger are equally enervating. As Dr. Brené Brown notes in her must-see TED Talk about vulnerability, “The psychological literature describes blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” No wonder we so often wind up playing the blame game.

How many meetings or rehearsals have you attended where precious time and energy were wasted defending actions or deflecting feelings of guilt or shame by making someone wrong – preferably someone else? When our identity or self-concept is threatened, it’s easy to double down on our righteousness. It’s much harder to admit fault and learn from the situation. The latter demands humility and vulnerability; the former just requires ego. Guess which is typically in greater supply?

Accountability as learning

This is why leaders need to model accountability. Learning is critical, not just for the individual but for the entire team or organisation, and it’s hard to learn if you’re busy justifying, defending or deflecting. By admitting to your own mistakes you make it OK for others to do so. This is the paradox of trust: only when we allow others to see our weaknesses do they reciprocate and trust us in kind. (Consider the origins of the handshake, a symbolic show of unilateral disarmament and vulnerability.)

Disclosure also creates empathy and allows others to close ranks around the vulnerable party. If this sound counter-intuitive, consider the following: Who is more trustworthy, the person who proactively calls for help when a project is in danger of going sideways, or the one who tries to cover up until the problem spirals out of control? The sooner a issue is identified, the sooner it can be fixed. In the short term it’s aggravating when a team member screws up, but in the longer term being accountable leads to greater learning, group cohesion and trust. The flip side – denial – risks collective failure by maintaining the illusion of individual infallibility.

Accountability is a team sport

Leaders are not solely responsible for maintaining accountability, however. It must be a team sport. Having only one or two team members repeatedly play the “bad cop” sets up a straw man scenario, particularly on a team of equals where there isn’t a clear supervisory or managerial relationship; instead of being seen as allies, team mates become the enemy. If everyone holds each other accountable then no one can get away with thinking, “Oh, it’s only John – he just doesn’t like me,” or “There goes Jane again, she thinks she runs the place.”

Here are a seven additional principles to help build a culture of accountability in your creative team or organisation:

  • Stay out of judgment. As indicated above, judgment doesn’t accomplish anything – but offering assistance, feedback, and support does. Flag judgmental language if and when it happens in team meetings and elsewhere.
  • Equate accountability with learning opportunities. This is sound advice in most situations but it’s particularly true where personal and team accountability are an issue. The question is not, “Who screwed up?” but, “How can we fix it and move forward?” Discuss it openly to improve communication and strengthen the team bond. When things go right, acknowledge the win and build on team strengths.
  • Ensure role and task clarity. Too often team members simply aren’t clear on their job or role boundaries, expectations, and desired outcomes. Meetings often end with only tacit understanding of what these are, but they must be made explicit.
  • Adopt an “accountabili-buddy.” Having a partner to help keep you on track and offer support in between meetings or formal reports increases the likelihood of attaining individual objectives. While the psychosocial risk of admitting failure in front of the larger group can be a motivator for some, for many it’s a terrifying prospect that can lead to avoidance of accountability.
  • Consistency is key. Inconsistently applied, accountability devolves into blamestorming. You can’t selectively apply a rule and expect everyone to follow it uniformly. Similarly, the least acceptable standard for one person sets the bar for everyone on the team. Either rehearsals always start on time or they don’t; it shouldn’t matter which orchestra member is late – including the conductor.
  • Ownership & input correlate with accountability. Given the opportunity to set their own milestones, deadlines, performance criteria, etc., team members tend to rise to the occasion more often than those whose every move and progress report is micromanaged. Our own personal standards are often higher than others’ anyway, and self-evaluation can be a powerful tool (especially when combined with #4 above). The difference between having someone check up on you and voluntarily checking in with that person is empowering and lead to improved accountability.
  • Be response-able as well as accountable. By this I mean that everyone should be held able to consciously choose an appropriate (i.e., solution-focused) response to every situation. Emotional reaction is nowhere near as effective as a considered response; anger and frustration are understandable but not productive. Establishing explicit ground rules for having difficult conversations, including conflict norming (a topic for a future post), is highly recommended. Teams should check in regularly to ensure they are mutually upholding those standards.

Accountability is an opportunity to celebrate successes and recognize strengths. It’s also a way to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and to reduce damage to team trust and cohesion when they happen. As with accounting, the pluses and minuses inevitably impact the bottom line.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) Self management

Small distinctions can make big differences

If the number and content of comments generated are any indication, my previous post clearly struck a chord with some readers. One flat-out said that it was wrong to suggest that there could be hidden value in conflict. Others challenged my definition of conflict, presumably because the word carries so many (well-deserved) negative connotations it cannot possibly be beneficial. All in all it was healthy, invigorating discussion, and one that shows the importance of defining terms carefully. At the risk of reopening debate I’d like to clarify and expand my previous definition of conflict slightly, and parse a few other related terms in order to provide fuller context.

In the original article I defined conflict as something that begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. To take a rather mundane example, let’s say you and I are discussing where to meet for lunch. If neither of us has any strong taste preferences, food allergies or other needs that might conceivably be challenged by the lunch decision, then all we have is disagreement. Our relationship can remain whole, untouched, and fully functional. According to our definition there is no conflict because neither of us particularly cares one way or the other; there is no emotional “heat” in the situation. If, on the other hand, we both have more strongly-held beliefs, attitudes or opinions about where to dine then we are potentially headed for conflict. In this case something that one or or both of us care about — namely, our choice of lunch location — is or could be impacted by the other’s.

To that let me now add another definition of conflict that I have used in previous posts: it’s simply a signal that something needs to change. By this I mean something about the relationship, or how we are handling a given situation, needs to shift in order for us to return to a healthier, conflict-free state, or else experience continued discomfort and risk potential escalation. Thus if we merely disagree about lunch venue options then nothing needs to change; obviously we need to somehow render a decision before we both starve, but otherwise the situation and relationship remain normal, cordial, and healthy. If we’re in genuine conflict over restaurant options then we probably need to change how we’re making the decision or managing our relationship. For example, each may need to stop insisting on getting his or her way; we may need to consult a third party to help us settle the matter; or I may need to stop constantly deferring to you so I don’t start resenting you for picking the restaurant every time we lunch.

To get a better idea of the distinction between the two, it may help to think of disagreement and conflict as being two places on a continuum of emotional distress and discomfort, as shown in the accompanying illustration: conflict continuum of emotional distress

On the left is a normal state: things are fine between us and our relationship is not suffering. There is no emotional pain for either of us. On the contrary, we enjoy mutual respect, admiration, perhaps even affection. If we shift slightly to the right on the continuum into disagreement, it may cause a little stress (especially if it’s a minor issue such as the one in our example above) but it’s not damaging or fatal to the relationship and it certainly doesn’t cause either of us to feel threatened in any way, emotionally or physically. We just disagree. We still feel positive about each other and the relationship.

Further on is conflict. This is where one or both of us feels significant discomfort or emotional distress as a result of a real or perceived threat to something important, whether it’s our identity or self-concept, our physical well-being, or an infinite array of things both concrete and abstract that may be affected. Needs like self-esteem, a sense of belonging, or acknowledgement are common trigger points in conflict. These are important to us. We care deeply about them and when sense they’re about to be infringed or transgressed, we react. We feel pain. Imagine the case of two co-writers working on a new song or screenplay, each feeling very attached to their own creative “children,” i.e., their respective contributions to the collaborative work: each feels very strongly about the value or importance of their input and may push hard to ensure it survives the editing process. In such a conflict the working relationship itself may also now be in jeopardy, but it doesn’t automatically mean it’s over or that the co-authors can’t still create together. Something needs to change in order for the situation and/or our relationship to go back to the way it was before the issue(s) arose, i.e., a healthy, calm, pleasant state free of distress or discomfort.

Note that even within the one state we call conflict there can be a range of intensity in the pain and discomfort. On one hand we might experience productive conflict, such as one might experience in a passion-filled brainstorming session: team members may want or need to feel their ideas are valued, valid, and heard, even though they realize that not all ideas emerging from the brainstorm can be implemented. On the other hand is destructive, personalized conflict where the participants are actively interrupting each other, dismissing or judging each other’s ideas, or belittling the people putting forth the same ideas. In both cases, according to our comprehensive conflict definition, something we care about is being impacted or threatened, and something needs to change in order to reduce the pain and discomfort of the situation or relationship. Some sort of healing or repair needs to take place if the creative brainstormers are to return to a normal, pain-free state.

To the furthest extreme on our continuum of pain is harassment (and its equally ugly variants including bullying, intimidation and discrimination). The consequences of harassment, bullying and their ilk can be severe; in extreme cases it can result in criminal charges or human rights violations, not to mention considerable psychological or bodily harm caused to the victim. Note that harassment doesn’t necessarily arise out of a pre-existing disagreement, or even conflict.

It’s important, therefore, to avoid interpreting this continuum as a time line. A normal or OK state does not naturally or inevitably devolve into disagreement simply through the passage of time. Disagreements don’t turn into conflict, eventually, all the time — they can end as quickly as they start — and conflicts don’t necessarily escalate into harassment. However, a disagreement or conflict probably will escalate into something more personalized and destructive if it isn’t resolved or at least managed well.

(Here it’s important to make a further distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. The former may be the goal, but not all conflicts can be resolved. They can, however, be managed so they don’t spiral out of control, which is a topic for a future post.)

To many people the difference in meaning between these states is a question of mere degrees. But there is significant difference in how to deal with each situation in order to get the best, most sustainable outcomes. A normal situation or relationship may not require much beyond maintenance and common sense to prevent it from disintegrating, but it takes special skills to prevent, manage or resolve cases of conflict and harassment. While these skills are seldom innate they can be acquired, and much of the work we do at Fifth House Group is in skills development and training. (Better prevention than some other intervention.)

In summary, conflict is a signal that something needs to change, and it begins when something we care about is about to be affected or threatened in some way. A useful analogy is physical pain, which is the body/brain’s mechanism for signalling that something physiological needs care and attention. Chronic symptoms are obviously not desirable, should never be ignored, and left untreated can be fatal. Still, feeling the initial pain or discomfort is a necessary first step to healing because it warns you to investigate and seek treatment. It begins when accident or illness affects the body, threatening physiological health — and it can be a signal that growth is occurring (as they say at the gym, “no pain, no gain!”). Thus I stand by my previous contention that conflict can be valuable: just as pain leads improved health when managed promptly and well (sometimes even more robust than prior to the injury), conflict can also ultimately result in a stronger, more fully functional creative team, group or organisation.