Category Archives: Communication
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.
This article talks about the impact of employees chatting, gossiping and asking questions about work stuff “around the water cooler.” The grapevine, or call it what you will, is a natural human communication system that occurs whether you like it, want it or not. Trying to tame it is tough and, unless there are legal, morale or safety reasons, maybe you shouldn’t. Trying to leverage it or manipulate it for your own ends? Good luck. Laws of unintended consequences come into play there.
But you should always be aware and have an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse (and a nose to the wheel and a shoulder top the grindstone… Just one shoulder though or you’ll stuff your back.) If issues crop up, you can nip them in the bud. Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano, I always say.
The article rightly reckons that by delving into water-cooler chat, you can pick up the consistently asked questions and that’d be good to know. Questions indicate uncertainty and I believe a critical role of workplace leadership is to minimise uncertainty. The article cites some examples:
1. Are the top leaders at my organisation are committed to making it a great place to work.
2. Is there is trust in the leadership of the company where I work.
3. Can I believe this company will be successful in the future.
4. Do the top leaders at the company where I work really value people.
5. Do I know how I fit into the organisation’s future plans.
6. Are career development and growth opportunities are available to me at this organisation.
And of course, the most pressing question of all – who is going to swap out the empty water cooler!?
I performed some comedy shows in Singapore a few days back. Such a diverse crowd and real fans of comedy. It really reinforced to me the power of, and need for, humour as a means for humans to express and provoke. Express thoughts. Express opposition. Express alternatives. So, to me, offending through humour is less about topics such as race etc as much as context, purpose, timing and style. And it better be funny. And, if the joke has a ‘victim’, that victim should be an idea. Never “punch down”.
No one’s ever complained to my face that I’ve been offensive. I’m not trying to offend and I’m not trying to not offend. I do try to challenge and provoke. I’m never going to mock someone directly for being overweight or what I might consider to be overweight. I’m not going to mock a group that I might label the ‘overweight’. But I do think society generally need to be healthier and eat smarter. My only platforms to express my views are my presentations, my writing, my comedy and my social media. That’s how I try to tell the emperor he has no clothes. I’ll direct the joke at a behaviour not a person or group. I did do a few race-based jokes in Singapore, a highly multicultural society. I wasn’t going to initially but it became clear that not only was it OK, it was expected and demanded. It was almost an act of inclusion. But, again, it wasn’t attacking people or groups, it was drawing attention to behaviour and ideas. Why did the racist chicken cross the road? Out of ignorance and fear.
That said, I’m a professional, so if you book me to entertain at an event, you’re not looking to change the world. You’re looking to fill a gap before dessert. I get that and don’t fret. That said, maybe your company should tell your emperor a few things and maybe humour is a means. Several native American tribes such as the Navajo and the Lakota have a great system of ‘Sacred Clowns‘ to drive improvement and often survival through humour. Pointing out flaws with purpose – kind of a useful application of humour and one that a few corporations and Governments could benefit from. Although Mr Trump seems oblivious and impervious to it.
This is getting way too deep for me. I’m clearly putting off shifting that half tonne of lime metal into the boggy patches by the barn. Barn owners – you know what I’m talking about right?! Barn owners, make some noise.
I’m working with an Australian company and have only communicated electronically. My primary contact is originally from Eastern Europe. Apparently I talk funny (see above photo)… Delightful! I intend to pepper my emails with a lot more of these and start making some up. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it change its spots.
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
I found a short and snappy graph today about where workplace leaders are supposedly falling short. This is from the US, is a survey of a thousand workers and I haven’t delved into its methodology at all but it might be a conversation starter. It asked employees but it was clearly offering a pre determined list of options – I’m pretty sure someone isn’t going to refer to themselves as a “subordinate.” Myself, most days, I feel at least ordinate.
I’ll probably trial this in the communication workshops I run. I might give my participants that list (without the results) and ask them where they think most managers fall short, or where their own manager falls short, or where they feel they themselves fall short, or all those things. Then reveal the results. To start a conversation.
Pretty shocking that 36% result for bosses not knowing their own employees’ names! (Employees now, not subordinates. Consistency please.) I’m self-employed and I manage to remember my employee’s name.
I blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.
The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.
I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)
The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.
It really worked.
Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?