Category Archives: Behaviour

Decision-Making: Deliberation Without Attention

doors-1767562_960_720 decisions

“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” – Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book ‘Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes’ that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. It’s really long after the real decision was actually made.

This is an extract from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’.

Most days are made up of a series of decisions. Some are like which of three cereals should you have for breakfast or which task to start next. Some decisions might be about buying a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make, and sometimes you won’t. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.

Ap Dijksterhuis out of the University of Amsterdam conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read for this book, they used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions.” And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.

You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pro’s and cons of each decision you make, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis proved was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.

All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brains emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the decision choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.

His findings were that “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies.”

Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.

Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and, down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:

1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options

2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity.

3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.

4. Live with it.

So, what?

I had it drummed into me and I subsequently preached to those I trained about the commonsense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision. (ie Cover your butt.) I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.

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Give Work The Finger?

2d4d2

One of my earlier books ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’ was about adding ten years to your productive life. Expanding lifespans in developed countries are tarnished by the physical diseases and decay of affluence. Retirement for many is becoming a shifting goalpost, a political football or an unwelcome concept from last century. Now seems a great time to write about the topic of stretching out the good and productive years. We’re living longer so we may as well live better and make a few more bucks along the way. Or not – on the bucks front anyways. I’m already reading much about how money, above a certain level, doesn’t make that much difference in terms of quality of life. Though below that level, it will diminish the quantity of life you end up with.

A consistent theme throughout the book is overlapping and inter-connectedness – a systems approach. Certainly, when you get to the sections on our bodies and how our physical systems work (or don’t), this becomes incredibly evident.

This next bit might be more of a laugh than anything factually helpful but it is a conversation starter. I use it when MCing conferences to get a buzz going and the noise and enthusiasm levels up amongst the audience.

John Manning studied the relationship between our finger lengths and certain health outcomes. Look at the photo below of my hand and how I’ve marked the difference in length between my ring finger (4D) and my index finger (2D.) Check out your own 4D:2D ratio. They’ve been the same your whole life and they’re not going to change. It’s supposed that their relative lengths are a consequence of exposure to differing levels of testosterone in the womb as a foetus.

So what? Manning’s study of Liverpool heart attach victims’ fingers found a high ratio (like mine) has a correlation with lower heart attack risk. It’s good for sport. It’s bad for depression. It’s terrible for autism. Manning himself describes his findings as, “Persuasive but not yet definitive.” Why am I even bothering to finish this paragraph? You’re too busy trying to stretch your fingers or finding a friend to check out their fingers before you tell them why…

The point is that, even if this is true, there is nothing you can do about it. These are cards that have been dealt. But, on average, our genetics are only a third of our future. Two thirds are our choices, and we can al do something about that.

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How To Help Your People Deal With Difficult People

difficult people

1 out of 5 people are difficult. Look at the 4 people around you. If it’s not them – it’s YOU!

OK, the 1 out of 5 statistic above is a joke. It might be true but that can said of 57% of all statistics. Tony Schwartz in his HBR blog writes that the difficulty in the dealing does indeed actually lie with YOU.

He makes some good points. It’s bad enough for you if you have to deal with someone you find difficult at work and you’re stuck with having to deal with them every working day. Schwartz stresses how much worse it is when that person is your boss. Firstly, it’s a natural stressor when you choose to believe you’ve lost control and / or are powerless. Both these situations will add to that. And, of course, when it’s your boss, you’ve got a dollop of fear thrown in for good (bad) measure. Baseline security fear, the powerful kind. (Thanks Maslow.)

Schwartz uses a very helpful ‘lens’ metaphor as a possible solution. There’s the lens of ‘realistic optimism’, the ‘reverse lens’ and the ‘long lens.’ The stress, the feelings of control and power and the fear are largely driven by how you choose to react to situations. So, choose to stop and look at it from some different perspectives. What are the facts and what am I telling myself about those facts? What is this other person feeling that is driving their behaviour? To what extent can I influence that? Ask some other questions about how this might play out and what can be learned and how important it is in the scheme of things.

So far, I’ve written from the angle of you having to deal directly with a difficult person of your own. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an experienced grown-up. You’re probably able to take care of yourself instinctively. But how can you help your people who perhaps aren’t as instinctively clued up?

I like Schwartz’s approach of using questions, only instead of asking yourself, you engage your team member in a private conversation. They may come to you with a problem in dealing with someone else in the workplace. You cannot realistically give them some miraculous piece of advice that will work every time. You do not want to create a relationship of dependence with you having to always step in and solve others’ interpersonal problems. But in engaging them with these questions, it’ll drive them to think, not just with this person they’re having difficulty dealing with today but in the future as well.

I read of a social experiment. Individuals were told they’d be working with a partner in a another room. Each would do one of two tasks, one of which was unpleasant. You got to choose who did what & your partner would never know. (Of course, there was no partner in the other room.) The researcher left for a few minutes while the subject decided. They had a coin in a sealed plastic bag in case they wanted to “decide fairly.” 90% of non-coin tossers gave the crappy job to their partner. Of those who tossed a coin, the crappy job was given to their partner…

…90%!

The only variable that made the decider make fairer decisions = putting a mirror right in front of them.

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To what extent are you seeing what you want to see and disregarding the rest?

muscles skinny mirror

Meta-cognition is a fancy term for thinking about how we think. We don’t often do it because we’re all so caught up in actually thinking or, more probably, doing stuff with as little thought as possible. (I might be judging myself on that point). The mindset and beliefs we have got us to this point and if this point is OK or better, there are risks in changing and challenging. But things won’t get better if you don’t.

In short, one answer is to deliberately surround yourself and seek out and expose yourself to information sources that you know will challenge you. I’m not suggesting you live in a perpetual state of stressful heightened awareness and self doubt but at the very least you gotta have someone who’ll call you out. Diversity is the broadest sense is even better. Source from beyond your bubble.

You won’t have time to think about everything, after-all that’s why you revert to confirmation bias to begin with, but perhaps approach conversations with an open mind. Don’t be so quick to judge.

Surround yourself with different types of people. Don’t label yourself. Be well-rounded and willing to hear different types of opinions on politics, religion, and life in general. This is a sign of intelligence not passivity.

It takes incredible mental strength to challenge your own deep-seated beliefs. Stand by your convictions, of course, but just realize some of that just may be rooted in confirmation bias. Be open. After-all. life is full of the gray stuff. We wish it were simple. This is right. That is wrong. It doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s good to be aware. Self-aware.

This article explains confirmation bias and some more thinking around addressing it.

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Why do some people micro-manage?

time bunny

I ran a couple of workshops this week on effective delegation with a law firm. I’ve also run these many times with many non-law firms. There’s a point after we agree on a definition of what delegation is, then discuss the potential benefits and differing objectives delegating might purposefully achieve if conducted effectively in a structured and tailored way. Right after that we tackle the reasons, justifiable or otherwise, why some people might choose not to delegate, or to do so ineffectively (whether or not those people were even consciously aware of why they were doing so).

Earlier, I’d sought from participants real-life stories from their own experience or observations of instances they considered to be effective and ineffective delegation. This week, as always, the vast majority of ineffective and unfortunate examples involved actions that could be encapsulated as ‘micro managing’.

We’ve all been there.

My own story was being lectured and berated on my sweeping technique in a building supply warehouse in which I worked in the mid 80s. I’m certainly over it but even in the retelling, I still get a hackle-raising sense of frustration in my blood. Others shared similar tales from their own back-stories.

One of the major reasons the groups self-identified behind people choosing to either not delegate or to pretty quickly start sticking their oar in again was to do with time and perspective.

If all you’re focused on is today and the ticking clock of a deadline, it may well be true that you can do it better and quicker yourself rather than delegating it. But if you’re focused on the big picture and the long game, you’re more open to realising and accepting that the point of delegating isn’t just about getting this piece of work done as soon as possible. It’s about getting many more pieces of work done again and again constantly. It’s a false economy to try and fool yourself that hanging onto tasks that could be done by others is effective leadership, simply because this one time you beat the buzzer. There are many more pieces of work than you are physically and mentally incapable of doing. It’s a simple capacity issue – if you’re focused beyond today. Delegating isn’t about flicking a task or two to the lowest-cost grunt able to competently do it, it’s about building capacity in your team in a planned, measured and deliberate way. Quite apart from getting stuff done, it exposes different people to your clients, builds trust, identified problems and mistakes early enough to rectify them, creates skills for succession planning and developing cover. If only one person can do a particular task and they get hit by a bus, or leave, or set up in competition, that’s a poorly managed risk.

Some people naturally have a time focus on the immediate short-term; others naturally look down the line a bit. The group had some ideas about how to not rely on nature, logical argument and luck to nudge the mindsets of those those now-fixated folk into the future a bit. One was around stories – not dissimilar to Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past and present. If micro-managing leaders can be exposed to leaders who used to be like them but saw the light, or that light they saw was the fire that burned them, them some lessons can be passed along forming organisational learning and memory. And everyone benefits, maybe not today but soon enough. And the sooner they start, the sooner it’ll happen.

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How Open-Minded Are You?

Minds are like parachutes

This blogpost might be challenging for some. It was for me. I like to think of myself as open-minded. (Actually, I just like to think of myself generally. But that’s something else I need to work on). But am I really that open-minded? How would I know? Is there a scale of 1 to 10 upon which I’m a 7?

Psychologist Carol Dweck led the way with research on fixed versus growth mindsets. Crudely and sweepingly summarised, there are two types of default thinking positions and if you don’t effortfully choose one, you likely have a default. The post explains more. I especially like point 2 – when you meet an idea, do you start in response with statements or questions? That was something of a relief to me as three of my five sentences in paragraph one were questions.

There’s a quote that the ability to change your mind is a superpower and another that the true test of intelligence is the ability to have two opposed ideas in your mind and retain the ability to function. If I’m having a good day after a good sleep and have eaten wisely without deadlines yelling at me, then I’m in a resourceful state and I’m certain I could manage that. Other days not so much. It’s the other days that can cause us and our people some problems. It’s for those other days that wee need to prep and practice so when it gets tough, our open-mindedness keeps goings.

Do read the article but if you’re having a low resourcefulness day, here’s 7 quick questions to assess yourself against:

  1. How do you respond when your ideas are challenged? (My new thing is ABC – always be curious – WHY are they challenging them?)
  2. Are your first responses statements or questions?
  3. Do you seek first to be understood or to understand?
  4. Do you use the phrase, “I might be wrong but…”
  5. How often do you interrupt?
  6. Can you simultaneously hold opposed ideas?
  7. How much effort do you put into testing your own views? Do you deliberately seek evidence to the contrary?

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Coaching: Sack The Coach

coach

 

My understanding of coaching is that it is a bit like art – you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. Or was that pornography? Some people try and narrow down its definition by specifying what coaching is not. Coaching is not training, leading, managing, facilitating or mentoring. Training implies that the trainer knows something that the trainee doesn’t know but needs to know and it’s up to the trainer to fix that. Managing is about tasks and things and almost certainly has an actual or implied hierarchy and power imbalance. Leading is about hearts and minds, providing inspiration and motivation to someone, who in the leader’s opinion, requires more motivation but seems to be unable to generate it themselves. Facilitation involves directing or controlling an individual or group. Mentoring demands a relationship between an experienced expert and someone inexperienced and / or inexpert who wants to do or be what the mentor does / is.

A common metaphor for coaching in business is coaching in sport; it’s easy to say that. People get it quickly but it’s not a fitting comparison. Sports coaches are the boss. They’re in charge. They’ve got extensive expertise and experience. More likely than not, they’ve been in the team being coached and after their playing career, they’ve logically moved into coaching. Though not every player has been able to make that transition.

Business coaching or professional development coaching are different. There’s no power imbalance (or there shouldn’t be.) There’s no expertise imbalance. A coach is an independent force there to observe, listen, reflect, probe, prompt. A coach probably doesn’t know the answers or have the direct experience of the issues and opportunities of the person being coached. You need permission to coach. The coach is not in control. The coach need not have all the answers and better not pretend that they do. The coach does need to keep the person being coached honest, focused and aiming at development that is genuinely necessary and attainable.

Most employees, most of the time, will do what they are directly told to do. That’s management and if that is all there was, then managers would have to be omnipresent because that’s the limitation of the command-and-control hierarchical power-based model. The reality is that managers have lots to do and places to be. Tom Peters wasn’t wrong when he said that the true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around. (Unless it wasn’t Tom Peters who said that? In which case, it’s me who’s wrong. Leave Tom Peters alone.) The baseline assumption behind coaching is that it’s ongoing, progress is expected, that progress is the responsibility of the person being coached, and the coach is responsible for the coaching process. Ongoing professional development can genuinely benefit from an effective and frequent coaching programme. A Bersin study found that companies with an effective and frequent coaching programme improve their business results by 21 percent as compared to those who never coach.

Can a manager also be an effective coach in an employment context? Sure, why not? They’re doing everything else. Bosses can wear rotating hats with labels like ‘coach’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or whatever and that’s probably pragmatic. But, there’s a value especially for coaching in a real and / or [perceived independence, coupled with a perspective and helpful naiveté born of being an outsider. Sometimes, it’s worth hiring someone to do the coaching. (I don’t do much coaching myself. It’s hard work. Genuinely that’ll put me off most things. But I do some coaching. Client companies sometimes ask me to coach after I’ve spoken, facilitated or trained. They like the other things I do, the results I get and just plain like me. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word. Both the client company and the individuals being coached have to trust and respect the external coach. There have definitely been times where whatever emotion was being directed at me, it wasn’t ‘liking.’)

Coaches are about ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. A coach’s focus is the employee not a task. Coaching is not fixing anyone. Coaching has clear accountability. Coaching can be scheduled but it’s more an ‘as need when needed’ thing. Coaching is about a set of processes, more than it is about a coach. That said, a coaching toolbox is useless, and sometimes dangerous, if operated by someone calling themselves a coach who lacks the wisdom to know when to use which tool. In that regard, coaching is like every single DIY activity I’ve ever done that resulted in a heated towel rail power switch being installed upside down, a door handle going in inside out or a chainsaw that’s now more functional as a doorstop.

Coaching is a journey, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’ was a journey. And like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, not everyone finishes the journey. And if you’ve got giant eagles available for your coaching process, use them right away, not at the end when otherwise all else seems lost. Duh.

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Workplace Conflict: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.

Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.

The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.

The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.

Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.

My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.

I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.

There’s the old joke that goes like this:

During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”

 

When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.

 

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Conflict – What is it good for? – Absolutely nothing (except when it is).

conflict

Conflict is inherent in human interaction so people must love it, right? Xbox is hugely popular but there is no game called ‘Gears Of War: Conflict Resolution.’

Solomon Asch is a great name for an Xbox villain but it’s also the name of a psychologist who ran a now-famous 1951 study on social conformity. (If you’re visualising this as you read, do so in the grainy black and white newsreel style of the day.) Groups of participants were seated at a table while a moustached man in a lab coat with a clipboard told them they were part of a programme of assessing visual judgements.  All but one of the participants were in on the scam and it was that one person per session who was the actual subject of the experiment.

Each group was shown two large cards at once. On one card was a single vertical line. On the other card were three different vertical lines labelled a, b and c. Each person was asked to say out loud which of a, b or c was the same length as the first line on the other card. The process was repeated again and again. For the first two rounds, the researcher’s confederates gave the right, and obviously right, answers and so too did the subject. From the third round onwards, the confederates gave the same wrong, and obviously wrong, answer. The subject, who was in the middle of the group, got to hear the incorrect answers being spoken before and after it was his turn.

Initially, most subjects stuck to their guns but it didn’t take more than a couple of rounds for most people to scrunch up their faces, weave their eyes back and forth and go with the group. There were eighteen sessions and three quarters of people conformed at least once. One third went along every time.

I don’t know if would’ve influenced the science but all the participants were men. They were student volunteers and maybe there weren’t many women at university in 1951 or maybe women had better things to do with their time? (Insert your own joke here about women lying about the length of things.)

The thing about experiments like this is that, if they prove anything at all, they prove it about most people and I’m sure you are not most people. However most people are most people and they’re the ones you’re employing, leading, developing and depending on for your success. Thinking about your workplace, how conformist are your people? What innovations aren’t happening? What sacred cows aren’t being challenged? What problems aren’t being solved? All because of too much of what seems to be an overly human trait of conflict avoidance.

One of the themes of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. Some people, perhaps even most people, see conflict as a problem that needs to be prevented, avoided or minimised. I see it as a tool to be managed. By definition, ‘resolution’ does not mean prevention, avoidance, minimising or even ending. It means the act of resolving or determining upon a course of action. We need to acknowledge the conflict and choose to deliberately do something about it. I call this, “Going ugly early.”

A lack of conflict may seem like a great idea but it’s more likely a symptom of organisational avoidance problems. It’s an unrealistic fantasy to have a conflict-free workplace.

Often though, the conflict on balance becomes destructive or unsustainable. Then someone needs to intervene.

One of the critical ingredients in anyone’s skill acquisition, personal development and long-term success is heightened self awareness – metacognition or our ability to think about the way we think. Nowhere is this more evident than how different people view and handle workplace conflict and conflict resolution. There are a number of different models simplifying conflict styles. “I’m an avoider. You’re a competitor. She’s an accommodator.” The key first step is to realise that, whatever the label de jour, when it comes to conflict you have a default preference style and others may differ. Become self aware, then look for clues in others. Only then can you tweak, test, evaluate and re-tweak an approach. Modelling and teaching this behaviour flows through into non-conflict communication, accelerating understanding of, and effective interaction with, others. It allows innovations, third ways and the emperor with new clothes finding out he’s naked.

When it comes to conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right (in the same way that two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.)

 

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Terry’s Trainers’ Spadework

Terry Williams Trainers Spadework

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