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.

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.

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.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Teams and group dynamics

Five Reasons to Value Conflict

It goes without saying that conflict often comes at a terrible price: War is the obvious, extreme case where the human and economic toll is immeasurable. But on a more mundane level, the costs of conflict to a business, production crew or orchestra can include chronic absenteeism, stress-related health issues, withholding of creative and innovative ideas, role confusion, reduced productivity, loss of skilled team members, inferior decisions, damaged relationships and tarnished reputations, among other things. These costs can be equally immeasurable, if only because so much of the damage is disguised or otherwise difficult to capitalize. So it’s natural to assume that conflict of any kind is bad and should be avoided.

I propose, instead, that conflict can be a boon to any group or organisation – provided it’s managed well, of course. When mishandled (and even when ostensibly avoided) conflict can easily and rapidly spiral out of control and wreak havoc. More insidiously, it can simmer quietly below the surface and undermine that same group or organisation. Here, then, are five reasons to embrace it:

  1. Conflict is a sign of caring. The first and perhaps most important reason conflict isn’t inherently bad is this: it only begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. If we didn’t care about an issue we would simply shrug it off because we would have no real personal, emotional or financial investment. Having a stake in a project, decision or process necessarily means we have an interest in a good outcome. The challenge is that “best outcome” may be defined differently for each stakeholder. The good news is that the interests of those concerned can be powerful motivators inspiring the co-creation of an effective and lasting win-win solution. But if your team or organisation doesn’t suffer from conflict at least occasionally, it’s a danger sign. It means you’re overlooking something potentially disastrous or else your people just aren’t sufficiently engaged.
  2. Conflict can improve creative output (and other products). Conflict is an essential ingredient of all literature and film. Without conflict there is no plot, and plot (action) defines character. So on one level the quality, intensity or believability of the conflict depicted probably bears some relationship to the overall strength of a book, movie or graphic novel. Behind the scenes, real-life conflict can also inform and infuse creative output. For example, the well-documented (if extreme) differences between writer-director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett may well have contributed to the success of more than a dozen films they created together including Ninotchka and the Oscar-winning classics Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend.Perhaps a more obvious example of a successful and productive conflict is the Beatles’ catalogue of Lennon & McCartney songs. Whether their songwriting styles clashed or complemented each other may be a question of opinion but it’s safe to say that the blend of their distinctive influences and approaches resulted in an artistically and commercially significant body of work. Whether it was the contrast between tracks on the same album or even the constituent parts of the same song, the interplay between Lennon’s and McCartney’s respective contributions remains as aesthetically appealing as it is financially rewarding. So creative tension can be a positive factor, just as healthy competition can be a strong motivator when band members try to outdo each other in the writing department.
  3. Conflict can help generate buy-in. “Buy-in” is wholehearted acceptance and endorsement, which is far more powerful than mere agreement. And in order for people to buy into a proposed change, idea or decision they need to feel it’s been truly battle-tested. If there is a pervasive sense that input has been stifled or withheld for any reason, or that a proposal hasn’t been sufficiently analyzed, debated and evaluated from every angle, the decision will not stick; individuals and teams will be unwilling to fully commit to a course of action. Movement will be begrudging; lip service will be paid. Support will wane and factions may form outside the meeting or rehearsal room, sniping and complaining. Absent buy-in, any support for a chosen direction, decision or plan of action will be lukewarm at best. So well-managed conflict (or at least open and vigorous disagreement) can be productive instead of destructive because transparency, rigorous peer review and (partial) ownership of the outcome breed confidence.
  4. Conflict can provide a healthy outlet. Avoiding conflict may feel good in the short term because it means not having to experience the anxiety or fear that normally accompany it. It also means that at least one party will pay a heavier individual price over the longer term. Whoever goes out of their way (literally and figuratively) to avoid dealing with another with whom they have an ongoing, unmanaged conflict will eventually suffer in some other way. Avoidance saps vital energy. It requires continually finding new ways to escape the person or situation. It involves bottling up any ill feelings. The avoider will either refrain from speaking up, experience physical manifestations of their “dis-ease,” quit in frustration, or all of the above. Inevitably these personal impacts start to affect the rest of the group or organisation, and there is an opportunity cost to learning and growth for all parties directly or indirectly involved. Engaging in conflict – and managing it effectively – can allow all parties to assert their needs while minimizing or eliminating any negative fallout. Differences can be channeled into more productive outputs (see reason #2).
  5. Conflict can increase trust. A paradox of conflict is that if it’s managed well – if process needs and personal needs can be met – it can actually enhance trust and create a safer work atmosphere. Bringing it into the open and dealing with it head-on rather than letting it fester eases lingering fears and anxieties. Groups, teams and organisations that can weather a storm together invariably grow more close-knit as a result of their joint trials. Conflict offers a common bonding experience; the key is to ensure they are not united against each other internally.

How to keep conflict productive, not destructive

Clearly, then, there are advantages to be gained from taking a proactive approach to managing conflict. There are many relatively simple things that can be done to ensure that conflict is productive, positive force and not a destructive one.

The best brainstorming protocols, for example, involve a multi-step process beginning with a “no bad ideas” approach, leaving judgment and debate aside until input from all quarters is on the table. (Remember, too, that not every personality type thrives in the sturm-und-drang of a whiteboard session.) Conflict norming means determining how we handle conflict collectively – what’s OK and what’s not OK – if and when we find ourselves in conflict. These conflict norms and boundaries should be established early and explicitly, with the standards developed, agreed and upheld by all parties. There should also be clear, consistent policies and procedures for dealing with conflict more formally should it become necessary, including pre-emptive training programs, conflict coaching, mediation, or making some other form(s) of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available.

Too often conflict in the arts and entertainment industry is dismissed as the product of ego or some stereotypical image of the creative genius. It’s not that simple. We forgive the eccentricities of the combative colleague – the “difficult” artist, manager/agent, or star employee – because of the overall value their work brings. But left unchecked, this indulgence can erode co-workers’ self-esteem, trust, or sense of safety and security necessary to a healthy working environment. This is as true in the rehearsal studio as it is in the corporate boardroom.

This is not to say that creative types should have all their rough edges removed. On the contrary, they should be nurtured, celebrated, and have their needs respected – while respecting the needs of others. Ignoring or otherwise tacitly permitting destructive, personalized conflict can soon be fatal to your group, team or organisation. Productive, well-managed conflict can be far more profitable.

– kda

Emotional intelligence (EQ)

The leadership lesson in “Inside Out”

About a year ago when I saw the first teasers for Pixar’s Inside Out I rather impulsively declared it the film of the year for 2015. My faith and optimism was not misplaced: in its opening week it has already earned tremendous box office and critical acclaim, and deservedly so. What excited me so much about the film was not so much its artistic or commercial appeal as its potential to open up a public dialogue about our emotions and how they serve us (and often don’t). I’m pleased to see that some of the media coverage has indeed begun to do just that, such as this succinct piece on NPR.

Sure, we could quibble with the number of emotions depicted in the emotional command center, or which feelings are represented (the research isn’t entirely unanimous on these important questions). And as some coverage has indicated, the film’s treatment of the role of memory may not be entirely accurate, at least not according to the current psychological literature. Of course Inside Out is not a documentary. Its creators may not have set out to provide a lesson in leadership, but it does give us valuable insight into the interior life of its 11-year-old protagonist and, by extension, all of us. It reminds us that our feelings — including fear, sadness, anger and disgust — are really just protective mechanisms to help guide our decisions and actions. In a visually stunning, engaging (and occasionally tear-inducing) way, the movie illustrates how our emotions let us know when basic needs for things like safety, security, affection, etc., are being threatened in some way. And depending on to what extent we let which emotion rule our actions, the response may or may not be appropriate.

This is something we would do well to remember in our daily work lives. Our feelings are just a barometer of whether any given situation we face is good or bad for us — nothing more and nothing less. Feelings of joy or happiness mean everything feels OK; situation normal. Anything other than that indicates that a need isn’t being met, whether it’s a desire for connection, understanding, recognition or something else. And whether or not a threat is real (i.e., potentially harmful to our mental or physical health), our feelings should not be feared and certainly not ignored. They present vital information, just as your smoke detector warns you when something is smoldering or when your gas gauge signals you’re about to run out of fuel. So when we experience frustration, anger, disgust, or any other uncomfortable feeling, instead of numbing it with our many addictions or lashing out and looking for someone to blame, we should instead ask ourselves what need isn’t being met in that moment. When we forget this we soon find ourselves in conflict.

Even so, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing either; it too serves a vital purpose. Conflict is just a signal that something needs to change. It simply lets us know that we need to do something to restore our physical or emotional well-being. Whether we’re in need of validation, compassion, or a sense of stability, identifying the unmet need allows us to ask for what we need to rectify the situation. If we feel overburdened, we can ask for support. If we feel ignored, we can ask for a fair hearing. If we feel left out, we can ask to be included. Whether it’s a hug or to be copied on a memo, small remedies can often avert bigger disasters by meeting individual needs in a timely way. Simply figure out what needs to change in order to prevent or further escalate the conflict, and ask for it. (I know, easier said than done, right?)

I usually dread sequels but in the case of Inside Out I would be genuinely curious about a potential follow-up. As an 11-year-old, the character of Riley hasn’t yet learned to drink, take drugs, smoke, overeat, or indulge in any of the other unhealthy strategies that teens and adults employ in order to mask or avoid their feelings. It would be interesting to see how Pixar, in its abundant creativity, might deal with such scenarios although I admit it doesn’t sound like the most light and entertaining of possible directions for an animated feature. In the meantime I’m grateful for Inside Out and what it shows us about our amazing internal operating system.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) Self management

Your strategies are working… against you

A strategy is, in its most basic form, an approach to a problem or opportunity. There are corporate strategies, military strategies, financial strategies, and so on. Entire academic disciplines have grown up around strategy and countless volumes have been written on the subject. Strategy development is a particularly hot topic in business circles. But what most of us fail to realize – including those charged with formulating and implementing business strategy – is that we all have strategies we apply every day, unconsciously. More importantly, these strategies are most likely working against you, robbing you or your team, group or business of creative vitality, energy, and opportunity.

These same strategies may have worked in the past, perhaps very recently. But there’s a point at which they inevitably stop serving you and start undermining you. These are the strategies we employ to serve our individual needs in dealing with other people.

To give a personal example, I’ve noticed that my strategy for avoiding the discomfort of asking others for help (and the possible disappointment of getting a “no” for my efforts) is to try to do everything by myself. I justify it by telling myself, “It will take much longer to explain what I want done anyway.” Clearly at some point this rugged individualism must have worked for me; it may have strengthened my self-esteem, proving (to myself if no one else) that I could Do It, whatever “It” is. And so I continued to apply it, long past the point where the DIY mindset was helpful. I still find myself falling back on it again and again even though it comes at a tremendous cost in terms of my energy levels, focus, and ultimately my ability to generate results. I’m pulled in too many directions, and it’s unsustainable.

The good news and the bad news is that I’m not alone in this.

That directive, command-and-control leadership style you’ve mastered may have worked well in some instances; it can be efficient and effective in times of crisis when quick, decisive action is required. (A fire is no time for long, drawn-out consensus-building meetings.) But over time your employees have probably come to resent it, and you may never know it because they’ll never tell you. That same approach deprives your staff of their autonomy, a sense of achievement and satisfaction they might otherwise experience identifying opportunities or solving problems on their own initiative. Their all-important sense of purpose and mission is greatly diminished when they need to do things just because the boss says to do it.

Similarly, your hard-driving, competitive negotiation skills have probably won you many a contract (and perhaps some praise from your superiors), but you may have also noticed that those contracts are seldom renewed. That’s because over time, the unyielding toughness has extracted a heavy price from the other party and weakened the relationship. Your counterparts get tired of being doormats, so they look elsewhere to do business. You can see how the very strategies that serve us well in some situations can be highly counterproductive, or even destructive, in others.

Strategies come in many forms

Self-defeating strategies aren’t just the province of Type A bosses. The quiet, self-effacing avoidance behaviour of the team player that means you never have to step into the discomfort of potential conflict also means being unable to express your feelings and needs to the people who most need to hear it, whether it’s your boss, significant other, or collaborator. Internalizing it eventually takes a heavy toll in the form of stress, illness, absenteeism, or other physical manifestation.

Strategies are developed or adopted subconsciously, so they come in so many different forms. Chronic lateness, for example, may give some people a critical sense of control over their lives – a covert way of saying, “I’ll show up when I damn well want to”. For others, habitually showing up late for meetings or rehearsals may be a mechanism for getting attention, because even negative attention is better than being completely ignored. It’s no wonder strategies are hard to recognize for what they really are.

Chances are the strategy is intended to meet a need from Maslow’s classic hierarchy (e.g. safety/security, love/belonging/acceptance, status, self-actualization, etc.). It’s hard to identify the underlying need when the outward behaviour (i.e., the strategy) is so confounding. We often incorrectly attribute it to something else. For example, we may ascribe a team member’s chronic lateness to laziness or disorganization. But beware of labels. Mostly these are really symptoms masking a bigger issue.

Strategies meet needs

Regardless of their particular form, each of these strategies manifests as a series of behaviours and is designed to get us something we want or need. And these strategies have a way of alienating the very people we need to work with on a regular basis.

So why do we continue to use them? Think of an infant who, unable to use language, cries when in need of food, burping or a diaper change. When it works, the infant begins to rely on the behaviour to meet its other needs, too. But like the man who, armed only with a hammer, begins to see every problem as a nail, a baby will continue to respond to every situation by crying because they simply haven’t developed a more sophisticated approach. Adults aren’t much better at developing new, more appropriate strategies, especially when the tried and true keep working — however dysfunctionally and fraught with unintended side-effects. We develop ruts in our neural problem-solving pathways.

In our book (which, as many readers have told us, is written for a specific audience but is much more broadly applicable) we discuss strategies and how they serve needs in the context of conflict between creative people. These needs often boil down to a variation on one of a few basic ones: the need to be heard, feel validated, acknowledged, appreciated, to win, etc. The conclusion is very much the same: the behaviours we adopt in conflict situations are designed to meet certain needs and, to the extent they might achieve this goal, they’re successful. But they eventually derail even the best and brightest of individuals and teams. If not already in conflict, eventually these strategies will bring them into conflict with others, and that’s when things really get messy.

Our job, then, is to learn to decode these strategies, and to discover and satisfy the unmet needs, whether our own or the other person’s (if not both). This is not easy and requires skill-building. And it’s as critical to your own long-term career success – and that of your group, team or business – as any other strategic issue.