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The Four Horsemen: contempt and stonewalling in the workplace

Healthy and respectful working relationships are a must if you want an effective and enjoyable workplace.  In the first post of this series, I introduced John Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the second post, we looked at what you can do to tackle the toxic behaviours of criticizing & blaming and defensiveness. This blog post will dive deeper into the last 2 toxic behaviours – and possibly the most damaging of the 4: stonewalling & contempt. We’ll explore why they happen, their impact and how both parties can change things for the better.  We’ll end with what a manger can do when they see these behaviours within their teams.

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Contempt

Contempt is when somebody makes it clear that they feel somebody has no value and deserves no respect. As it has been built brick-by-brick over time, it is tough to dismantle, and is probably the most destructive behaviour amongst Gottman’s “Four Horsemen”.

Contempt can manifest itself as ongoing sarcasm, cynicism, insults and aggressive, belittling or mocking humour. It can be seen in small gestures (eye-rolling when a colleague starts talking in a meeting, snorting at the mention of a project, a smirk or a single “hah” when a  colleagues name is mentioned) to full on mocking and cruel statements e.g. “Wow, you’ve done better than I ever expected – even by your standards that’s truly great work Susanne. You must be exhausted after having made so many mistakes”.

When somebody shows contempt, they are actually communicating that they see themselves as better and worth more.

Why do we do show contempt?

Feelings of contempt are typically built up over time – negative experiences create their own story and, too often, nobody has tackled the situation effectively. This can leave a person feeling frustrated and angry and looking to establish some sort of “superiority”.  Contempt can also come from a sense of moral superiority based on class, cultural or religious differences. Peers can feed into it or enable it.

What happens when we show contempt?

Contempt destroys teams and relationships. It prevents trust and respect and makes it hard for any real human warmth. It is tangibly damaging, causes stress and can harm people emotionally, mentally and ultimately physically.

So, what can the person showing contempt do differently?

Truth be told, if you are showing contempt for others there is a good chance you no longer care about turning things around. However, if you have a high level of self-awareness and realise that you have become somebody you don’t want to be then this is already a great step. Going forward you can focus on redefining your relationship with your colleague through …

  • seeing the other person as a human being with equal value.
  • seeking a positive trait in them and acknowledge it first to yourself and then to the other.
  • finding something they do that you value – then tell them.
  • communicating your needs with “I” statements and not “you” statements e.g. “I feel…”, “I want…”
  • actively looking to find opportunities to make deposits in their “emotional bank account”.

And what can the person receiving contempt do to limit the toxic impact and turn things around?

  • Look after yourself and work to stay balanced and neutral when interacting with this person. Shut out the unhelpful “whatever I do will be seen as wrong” self- talk. Reward yourself for not feeding into a situation.
  • People don’t always realize that they are being offensive… or how offensive they are being. Raise awareness of behaviours in a neutral / inquiring tone e.g. “What would you like to achieve by saying that?”, “Why are you rolling your eyes?”
  • Ask questions about the other’s intent – especially if they are not communicating in their first language. e.g. “Are you aware that, when I hear you say … I feel …?” “
  • Reflect how the contemptuous behaviour is impacting you e.g. “I feel belittled when you roll your eyes when I talk. Is this intended?”
  • Say how you feel about what is going on and show your desire to make things right, e.g. “Can we take a step back and slow things down?” “Insulting me isn’t helping us to move forward and find a solution”, “ What is the best way to tackle this issue for both of us?”
  • Indicate that you are willing to move beyond the present and press the reset button e.g. “I feel we are struggling. How about we try and start again from the beginning and build a new working relationship?”
  • And when things get too much, don’t be afraid to seek support within your organization. When you do this focus on you and your feelings… and not what they said/did.
  • And finally, know where your limits are and seek support from your manager or HR if you feel these are being crossed.

Stonewalling                     

When somebody feels they are frequently and undeservedly being blamed or treated with contempt, they may choose to withdraw into themselves and give one-word answers or even refuse to participate at all. Discussion, healthy questioning and positive conflict are key elements of any successful team.  Stonewalling stops this from happening, and feeds contempt, defensiveness and blaming.

Why do we do stonewall?

By refusing to cooperate, engage, react or communicate we look to protect ourselves and ride it out. Beneath this we may be seeking to control or establish hierarchy e.g. “I don’t need to listen to you”.

What happens when we do this?

The impact is that communication stops. The other person may become increasingly frustrated, angry and then despondent. Communication collapses and relationships quickly collapse too. Other colleagues get pulled in to the toxic situation as they become impacted, and everything gets slower and tougher … meaning ultimately performance and results suffer.

So, what can the “stonewaller” do differently?

If you recognize this behaviour in yourself and want to change you can…

  • focus on who you choose to be – who am I really? How do I want to behave?  How do I behave when I am at my best?
  • ask for space if you need it, and commit to resume once things have calmed down.
  • find a way to calm your emotions. Is there a third party you can express your feelings to? Alternatively, verbalize them out loud to yourself (or write them down if you prefer).
  • work out why you have reached this point. Why are you so angry and reluctant to contribute? Answering these questions may help you to understand your feelings better and enable you to continue.
  • avoid righteous indignation e.g. “ I don’t have to take this anymore” or seeing yourself as an innocent victim

And what can the “stonewalled” do to limit the toxic impact?

  • Ask yourself why are they stonewalling? What are you doing/have you done that is making the other person not feel safe in expressing themselves?
  • Focus on building safety. Agree a fixed time, neutral and private location, confidentiality and help them come back into the conversation with simple exploratory open questions.
  • Accept that a break might be needed and press the “pause” button while communicating that you are committed to continuing the conversation later.
  • Really listen to what the other person is saying.

What can a manager do when they see contempt and stonewalling within their team?

The hard truth is that as a manager you probably won’t be able to do as much as you might like to.  Whereas a skilled manager can actively help team members get past criticizing, blaming and being defensive, contempt and stonewalling are far more difficult to deal with. In fact, any blog would struggle to explore the variables and options.  Here are some questions to ask yourself…

  • What is the impact of the behaviour on the team and our results?
  • What can I accept? What can’t I accept? Where is my line in the sand?
  • Where is the contempt or stonewalling coming from? e.g. why this person? this situation? this environment?
  • How willing am I to reflect back what I am seeing? The impact it is having? And the impact it may have later?
  • Am I prepared and committed to consistently confront contemptuous or stonewalling behaviors over the long-term?
  • To what extent can I ring-fence a person without impacting the team or passing more work and responsibility on to others?
  • Am I choosing to do nothing? Or am I afraid to do something?
  • Who else can help me in this situation?
  • To what extent has HR been involved so far? What can they do?
  • Under what circumstances am I prepared to let this person go?

Whether you are just moving into a management position, managing a conflict in your virtual team, or just want to get the very best from your staff and the teams you manage, being aware of Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is incredibly useful and practical. At the end of the day, results are delivered through people and people are complex. None of us are always at our best and we can all struggle in relationships.  Awareness of the 4 Horsemen is a start, followed by self-reflection and support.  An effective manager is neither a counsellor nor a buddy – but they do need to manage people as individuals – and this means managing knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours.

The Four Horsemen: criticism, blame and defensiveness in the workplace

Healthy working relationships are a must if you want an effective, efficient and enjoyable workplace. In our last blog post I introduced John Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse ; criticizing & blaming, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. We explored why tackling these 4 toxic behaviours is essential if you want to drive performance and deliver results. This blog post will dive deeper into the first 2 toxic behaviours. We’ll look at criticising & blame AND the defensiveness it creates. We’ll then explore why they happen, their impact and how both parties can change things for the better. Finally, we’ll look at what you as a manager can do when you run into these behaviours between team members.

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How to detoxify criticism & blaming in the workplace

As every manager knows, when things go seriously wrong it is important to discuss “What happened?” and to ask “How can thing be done differently next time?”. Being able to do this in a transparent, open and constructive manner is hugely powerful.  Jim Collins explores this with the “autopsy without blame” behaviour in his excellent bestseller Good to Great. For “autopsy without blame” to work, you need people to feel safe – you need to detoxify criticism & blaming in the workplace.

First of all, it is important to understand the difference between complaining and criticizing. A complaint addresses a specific failed action. A criticism includes a negative judgement about the other’s personality or character. Blaming is when you are abdicating responsibility and laying all fault and consequences at the other person’s feet. For example …

  • Complaint“Thierry, we are now behind schedule with the FAT.  I’m in a really difficult position with the client.”
  • Criticism“We are behind schedule with the FAT because you forgot again to update Max. You’re so disorganized.  Now I’m in a really difficult position with the client, Thierry.”
  • Blaming“This is all your fault … and now yet again we are behind schedule with the FAT. You didn’t update Max like you should have, and now I have to solve things and deal with the client … what do you think about that? This is all on you Thierry.”

Clearly criticizing and blaming aren’t helpful or productive behaviours – but if we are honest with ourselves we have all displayed them at some point.

Why do we do blame and/or criticize others?

We have made up our mind about what happened and want to either hold somebody responsible or change somebody else’s behaviour. We tell ourselves we are just “giving feedback”, “holding others accountable” or “saying it how it is”.

What happens when we do this?

The typical (and often unintended) impact is that the receiver becomes defensive (the second of the 4 Horsemen) and constructive communication stops. The receiver will probably be less open about what actually happened as they don’t feel safe – and possibly even become dishonest, holding information back or reframing things. Alternatively, the receiver feels threatened and fights back with criticism or blame. None of this is very productive or beneficial for a healthy professional relationship.

So, what can the “blamer” do differently?

To best avoid the above, you as the potential “blamer” need to…

  • take responsibility for your own feelings – and don’t lay them on the “receiver”.
  • be open and curious about what happened. Look to understand first.
  • turn your “complaint” into a request. Concentrate on finding solutions to the problem and how you can avoid it in the future rather than focusing on the past e.g. Instead of saying “You didn’t tell me about the review meeting”, say “I really don’t want to miss another one of those review meetings, could you send me the dates for the rest of the year?”
  • use “I” language and not “you” language e.g. “I have the impression that… / To me this comes across as…”.
  • examine how you can actively contribute to a solution – it is unlikely you are completely powerless, and you will feel better if you are aware of what you can change and control regardless of what the other does.
  • be future-oriented. Again, look to understand so things can be better in the future. Mapping out on a piece of paper what happened and contributing factors can be a powerful and safe tool.
  • apologize when appropriate – did you intend to “attack”? It could be you do not feel you were being critical or had a different intent, but what matters is how the other experienced it.
  • and at all costs avoid trying to hurt the other with sweeping personal attacks such as “What is wrong with you?” or “What exactly is your problem?”

What can the “blamed” do to limit the toxic impact?

And if you find yourself being criticized or blamed try to…

  • assume their intentions are good. They are not intentionally trying to hurt you, nor do they want you to “feel useless”. They just aren’t doing a very good job of communicating.
  • listen and try to find a reasonable request embedded in their “complaint”.
  • focus on your relationship. If they are “blaming”, what are their needs?
  • resist the urge to fight back – don’t get stuck in a “who is doing what to who” spiral.
  • stay calm, assertive and openly empathic.
  • try to refocus the discussion on the future. As above, mapping out what happened and contributing factors helps.
  • help them to refocus on your relationship.

How to detoxify defensiveness in the workplace

The toxic behaviour of “defensiveness” often follows feeling criticized or blamed. It is a natural fight/flight response and, just like criticism & blaming, defending is very much about the past rather than the future.  Defending can look like excuses, denying responsibility, or even blaming the other (“I’m not the problem here – you’re the problem!”). Defensiveness rarely helps move things forward.

Why do we do defend ourselves?

We defend to preserve our own sense of self.  We want to preserve our self-identity, our sense of integrity and of being right/fair/committed/competent etc.  We are protecting our ego from criticism and can swiftly start to behave like the “victim”.

What happens when we do this?

The unintended impact is that conflict either festers or escalates.  Either way, the relationship suffers. Being defensive also prevents the autopsy and understanding of the problem, which in turn prevents finding sustainable and realistic solutions.

So, what can the “defender” do differently?

  • Really listen …. really, really listen. Shut out unhelpful self-talk and use active listening skills.
  • Connected to the above, look to clarify what you think you are hearing.
  • Now look for the “10%” of truth. It is incredibly unlikely that the other person is making everything up. Ignore the criticism and focus on the issue that is being raised. Even if you disagree with what they are saying and how they are saying it, there is probably some truth in there somewhere which connects to you and your part in the situation.
  • And once you have considered your contribution to the problem, accept and embrace your personal responsibility for the problem. Everybody is wrong sometimes.
  • Acknowledge the impact that you contributed to. Apologize when appropriate. And to quote an overused cliché, own your mistake. You’ll be surprised how powerful and effective saying “I’ve listened to what you said and after thinking it over … you are right. This is my mistake.” can be. Sometimes tackling a situation head on can also quickly change the dynamics e.g. “I’ve listened to what you are saying [criticizer braces them self for denial and prepares to continue attack] and I completely agree with you.  I didn’t do this in the right or best way [criticizer surprised and silent]. Let’s talk and see what you and I need me to do differently next time [criticizer pulled into future orientated discussion].”

 And what can the “attacker” do to limit the toxic impact of defensiveness?

  • Explicitly and authentically clarify your intention. Work to help them understand that your intention is not to hurt them. You just want to have a tough conversation because this is important to you.
  • Make them feel safe if you can.
  • Again, really listen … talk less and listen more.
  • Clarify what is being heard by the other person.
  • Use “I” language and not “you” language.
  • Show respect.
  • And reassure them that their image or reputation is not at stake. You are focusing on this situation and not everything in the past, present and future.
  • Reconnect to trust (past and future).

What can a manager do when they see criticism, blame and defensiveness within their team?

To criticize and blame is human. We have all done it.  All of us have also been unhelpfully defensive. Differentiate between a team member who displays this behaviour now an again (which is human) and one who displays a pattern on an ongoing basis

  1. Create a safe environment and build trust by sharing personal experiences of being on both ends – focus on the immediate and longer-term impact of the behaviour on individuals, team and results. Be careful not to lecture, and instead share your perceptions and experiences.
  2. Refocus the team on what happens next time (and reinforce this future-orientation when somebody starts using past tenses).
  3. When you run into a pattern where an individual is regularly criticizing and blaming others, don’t be afraid to assert your power as a manager and deliver feedback on the destructive behaviour you are seeing. Then, keep an eye out for this behaviour continuing under the surface or transforming into contempt.

In the 3rd and final part of this series we’ll look at how you can tackle and overcome the remaining 2 “horsemen” – stonewalling and contempt.

Meet the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – and why they matter in your workplace

Since 2015 we’ve been heavily involved in a Management Development program for one of the big 4 accounting firms in Luxembourg. One of the many rewarding aspects of being involved in such large flagship projects, is the chance to co-train with other management trainers and learn from each other. In 2017, thanks to Alexandra D, I discovered John Gottman’s work and since then I’ve seen it help people in and out of work with the relationships that most matter to them. If (like me) you haven’t heard of him, John Gottman is a highly respected psychologist and relationship expert, who with his wife, Julie, leads The Gottman Institute [ https://www.gottman.com/]. Gottman studied relationships between spouses and couples for over two decades and discovered patterns of behaviour that he could use to predict which relationships would not survive with over 90% accuracy.  Although his research and calling focuses exclusively on couples, his thoughts and methods easily transfer to our professional lives and our workplace relationships too!

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Meet the 4 Horsemen (or the 4 team toxins)

Gottman believes that there are 4 negative kinds of behaviour that can destroy relationships. This 2-minute video introduces them nicely.

The four destructive behaviours are:

  • blaming and criticism – attacking your partner’s character, behaviour or personality.
  • defensiveness – seeing yourself as the victim to pre-empt or ward off attacks and blaming others for your failures.
  • contempt – attacking your partner’s sense of self with sarcasm or cynicism to insult or abuse them.
  • stonewalling – withdrawing from the relationship and any meaningful connection.

Gottman calls these 4 destructive behaviours “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. I’ve also heard coaches and trainers rename them “The Four Team Toxins” in an effort to make them sound more business-relevant.

Why the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse matter in the workplace

And let us be honest – we have all probably displayed these 4 toxic behaviours and acted in a toxic way at one time or another. We are human. And whether you want to call them “the 4 horsemen” or “the 4 team toxins”, these behaviours matter in the workplace – and in a very tangible way.

These behaviours are toxic to an effective, respectful and rewarding workplace. If interpersonal relationships are breaking down, you can expect to see the quality of communication deteriorating.  Tasks and projects will take longer, work will be incomplete or below expected standards and, as the behaviours impact productivity, you can expect to see poor results.  Motivation, commitment and team spirit will all suffer, and destructive conflicts will increase. And at its worst you’ll see stress, illness and good people leaving because “They’ve just had enough”. If you want to drive performance, you need to tackle them head on.

So, what can managers do about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

“Ok, some people aren’t as nice as others, that’s life … but as an Audit manager what should I do? I’m a manager not a counsellor.”

 – Marcel, Manager in Audit & Assurance

Every professional who cares about their relationships with others will benefit from exploring the 4 Horsemen by …

  • being able to recognize when you are behaving negatively.
  • learning to consciously shift your mindset when necessary.

Whether toxic behaviour is a common occurrence or a thankfully rare phenomenon, great managers need to …

  • be able to recognize when others are behaving negatively.
  • learn to help others understand their behaviours and the impact it may have.
  • be able to tackle difficult conversations with both individuals and teams.
  • learn to help others stop negative spirals and have a fighting chance of turning toxic relationships around.

In parts 2 and 3 of this blog we will explore how this can be achieved but to close, here are 5 practical tips to get you started…

  1. Take responsibility for your own feelings. This starts with you consistently building self-awareness and reflection into your actions. Focus on who you want to be and how you want to be … regardless of what the other person does or says. This is tough but immensely powerful.
  2. Practice curiosity – ask yourself “What is actually happening here?”, “What am I missing?”, “How have I contributed to this situation?” and “What will help us through this?”
  3. Do not make assumptions and openly check your findings. This will help increase others’ willingness to listen and engage in healthy conflict.
  4. Deposit into other people’s emotional bank accounts and feed positivity into your relationships: regularly have appreciative conversations and look to show recognition.
  5. And when you do see toxic behaviours between team members, tackle them.

Linking and building to successfully influence others

In today’s business world of cross-functional initiatives, matrix structures and virtual teams, the ability to influence others is becoming even more essential if you want to succeed. And no matter what your influencing style is, to effectively influence somebody you need to connect with them. If you’re trying to influence somebody it means that you have differing opinions and ideas. One of the simplest ways to influence somebody is by “linking and building”: Find and focus on the agreement … and then build on this. Most people are open to sharing and discussing their opinions and ideas – and most of us are aware that our ideas are not the only ones valid. What we want is to be taken seriously and feel listened to.  This is where “linking” comes in – if you link your ideas to their ideas it clearly shows you have listened to and understood their thoughts and feelings.  And when you build on somebody’s ideas it means you are validating their contributions.  This builds rapport and relationships WHICH then makes the process of influencing so much easier...
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 5 things to keep in mind

1. Is the link already there?

Do you just need to draw their attention to it? Or will you need to build the link step by step? If so you need to find some common ground – this could be a shared goal, a previous experience or perhaps the two of you are seeing the same current challenges?  Open questions like “Where do you think we need to go?” or “What are your thoughts?” work well here …

2. When you find your “link”, be explicit about what you like / share about their views, opinion, drives etc.

For example. “It’s clear to me that we both want to make sure any changes we make don’t cost people more time” or “What I really like about your approach is that you’re considering the end-user first. I feel the same way”

3. Focus on positives and use positive language.

Most people are very rarely completely wrong, just as you are very rarely completely right.  Understanding this means that it is always possible to approach something by looking for the “right” ideas e.g. “What I like about your suggestion is …” thereby creating a positive spiral and rapport – as opposed to focusing on what you don’t like e.g. “ I can’t imagine this working” thereby creating a downwards negative spiral (source – George Prince – The Practice of Creativity).

4. There are going to be differences.

If there weren’t you wouldn’t be trying to influence each other! But make an effort to delay focusing on differences until some bridges have been built. When you turn to them, link back to the shared elements you’ve found and be explicit about your reasons. “It seems that we agree on the causes of the problem and we have different ideas about what needs doing. Why do you think this is?” Don’t assume the everything is obvious!

5. As you progress do continually clarify.

Use language like “So what you’re saying is …” and “Let me just check I’m understanding you … “. This shows your understanding of their views, ideas and thoughts AND actually ensures you do actually understand. Build your bridge on concrete foundations.

Linking and building is just one of many practical techniques from our influencing seminars that can help you successfully influence others. And it starts with getting all parties to face in the same direction. Please contact if you’d like to know more.

 

What is active listening, how do I develop it and should I be making little noises?

Listening skills are an integral part of many of our training solutions, e.g.  Influencing, Managing Conflict and Facilitating meetings all include practical components on listening skills. However, we had a rare request from a pharmaceutical client seeking training focusing solely on active listening for their senior managers.  The new board member strongly believed that improving her manager’s listening skills would have a major impact on the quality of relationships and the effectiveness of her team. And she was right … the seminar started and almost immediately, one manager asked me, “Active listening – that’s just when you make little noises, right?”

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What is active listening?

Our tactful answer was “not quite”.  Active listening (as the name suggests) is when you actively and fully concentrate on what is being said, rather than just passively hearing the words.  Communication theory breaks what is being said into two elements – the content and the context. Content is the what – the data, the facts, the information etc. Context refers to everything else that is going on when somebody speaks with you – the relationship, the background, the situation, the emotions etc.  Active listening involves paying close attention to the content being shared AND the contextual components between the listener (the receiver) and the speaker (the sender). Skilled active listeners can hear the what PLUS interest, emotion, concern, energy and other contextual factors from the speaker’s perspective. And they can hear what isn’t being said.

Why invest energy and effort in building your active listening skills?

The benefits of active listening are many.  To start with you’ll hear more … much more. You can enrich your understanding through gathering information and understanding the emotions. You will ask better questions through noticing the speaker’s possible intent, and not only their words. It helps you avoid or diffuse conflicts. Better listening means that solutions and discussion are stronger. Active listening is a building block for open, trusting and accountable relationships.

7 practical tips for active listening

Pay attention

I mean REALLY pay attention to what is being said. Put aside distracting thoughts, try to block out environmental factors (side conversations, people watching etc) and listen holistically.

Know your obstacles to listening

Everyone is guilty of having “inner conversations” when listening – and whether it be judging, dreaming, solving or rehearsing what you want to say these common obstacles get in the way of active listening. Check out this blog post for more information or download the .pdf version here.

Develop countermeasures for your obstacles

Self talk to interrupt your distraction and refocus and internal paraphrasing can help. Basically, this sounds like you telling yourself “Stop it and focus on them not you

Listen for context

Approach a meeting with listening tasks such as learning the interests of others in the room and listening for the valued being created in the conversation.

Dialogue approach

Listen with a mind to understand what is being said and not judge what is being said.

Listen with your eyes

Listen to what they are saying, how they are saying it, “listen” to their body language and “listen” to their eyes.

Provide feedback

It is incredibly difficult not to filter, assume or judge when we listen. As an active listener your role is just to listen. Reflecting, restating and asking questions are essential – just make sure you are doing this to check you are understanding the content and context and not to discuss, negotiate, argue, influence, correct etc.

So should I be making little noises when I actively listen, or not ?

Of course we also send messages when we listen IF we listen actively and affectively. In western cultures we expect some feedback from our listeners that indicates interest, from non-verbal messages such as nodding, smiles, eye contact and posture to small verbal comments like “uh huh” or “ “I see”. Do keep in mind thought that not every culture listens in the same way – and likewise not every individual listens in the same way.  A lack of “ums” and “aahs” doesn’t always mean somebody is not listening.

To wrap up

Active listening helps you to create an environment that supports deeper, more honest and authentic communication. Whether you are managing people, negotiating, discussing, influencing, problem solving, why wouldn’t you invest the energy and effort in becoming a better listener?

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DEEP accountability conversations – How to hold your colleagues accountable

According to Shelly Setzer of the Table Group, peer-to-peer accountability is “probably the toughest behavior to master on a team”. And as cross functional, matrix and virtual teams are becoming the norm, holding each other accountable to team goals and commitments is becoming even more challenging.. As a team member, you aren’t “the boss”, which means you don’t have the levers of reward and coercion and in some cases, your team may just be one among many for your team members. So how exactly do you approach conversations with colleagues who aren’t doing what they said they would do, without the benefit of formal power ? This is where the DEEP model comes in. The DEEP model is designed to help you have a clear approach to tough accountability conversations. It helps you and your team focus on solutions when accountability problems arise. These kinds of conversations are rarely easy, but with DEEP you can approach them with confidence.


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Requirements for the DEEP approach

You need clear commitments with the team (not tacit, unconfirmed agreements). Your colleagues need to trust your intentions and believe you have their and the projects interest at heart.  You need to foster a climate of creative conflict so everyone can be heard and see themselves reflected in team decisions. AND most of all, you need the courage to have what is often a tough conversation. Tough conversations are … tough. There are no tricks or techniques that make them less so, but here are 3 fundamentals to consider:

  • Turn up – Be present in the conversation, shut out unhelpful self-talk, keep control of yourself and focus on the conversation and the outcome.
  • Stay there – Show you are committed to the conversation. Don’t cut it short when things get awkward.
  • Speak out – say what you think and feel and take responsibility for your words.

The DEEP model, step by step

Step 1 – Describe the situation – What happened as I see it

This is a review of the commitment and shortfall without judgment.  Stick with “I” statements rather than “you” statements and try to describe the process that led to the commitment. If you can’t bring up the shortfall without becoming too emotional and judging your conversation partner, then ask yourself 2 questions:

  • Is the timing right?
  • Am I the right person to have this accountability conversation?

Step 2 – Explain the consequences – The result of what happened

The consequences of the shortfall you mention here should be concrete and observable. What actually happened because they didn’t meet their commitment is far more important than what could happen. Finding consequences your partner already cares about adds impact.

Step 3 -Explore options – What we can do about it

Generate at least three options when considering what to do. The “at least three” is very important – is helps you to avoid binary thinking and unnecessarily taking a position.  Brainstorming options together is critical.  The together points you both in the same direction, reaffirms the “team” and ensures you are on the same page before assessing your options, Make it a distinct step with a marker e.g. “Ok, together let’s now brainstorm what we can do” – this moves your conversation forward.

Step 4 – Problem solve together – What we will do about it

Decide and commit to new behaviors. It can be important to find ways you too can commit to the correction of the shortfall and the development of your relationship. Accountability for behaviors is tough so why should only one person carry the weight? Finding ways to help each other will not only help you to implement a solution, it will also help you to increase your level of trust.

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Apologizing via email – phrases

Being wrong doesn’t feel like anything, and there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. It happens to everybody. Realizing you’ve made a mistake can be difficult and perhaps embarrassing – I’ve been there – but letting others know that you got it wrong is important to healthy relationships. You can do this in person, on the phone, by email, WhatsApp, a personal note or a post-it. Every medium has a different impact, every person has different preferences on how they want to receive/give an apology. In the end, just remember, apologizing is going to make you seem human, regardless of the outcome.


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When is an apology via email appropriate?

It’s not always possible or practical to meet someone in person. Apologizing on the phone can be difficult if you don’t know the other person, or if you’re just not very good at apologizing over the phone.

But, when: …

  • Time is of the essence
  • You want everyone to get the same apology at the same time
  • You have a lot to say
  • Your apology is formal
  • You want or expect very little to nothing in return

…then an email might be appropriate.

The perfect apology

I found this via Google. If your apology contains the following…:

  • give a detailed account of the situation
  • acknowledge the hurt or damage done
  • take responsibility
  • recognize your/the company’s role in the situation
  • include a statement of regret
  • ask for forgiveness
  • promise that it won’t happen again
  • provide a form of restitution (if possible)

… it’s pretty much a perfect business apology. Here are a few phrases to get you started, related to some of the above categories:

Apologize

  1. Please accept my apologies.
  2. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to..
  3. (I’m) sorry. I didn’t realize the impact of…
  4. Please accept our deepest apologies for…
  5. Please accept my sincere apologies for…
  6. Please accept this as my formal apology for…
  7. Please allow me to apologize for…
  8. I would like to express my deep regrets for…
  9. I would like to apologize on behalf of our company.
  10. Please accept my apology for…
  11. I apologize for my failure to…
  12. I’m particularly sorry for…

Acknowledge/recognize

  1. We appreciate that this caused you inconvenience…
  2. I understand that our actions meant…
  3. I can imagine that you felt like…
  4. We see that our actions impacted you unnecessarily…
  5. As a result of our decision, our relationship was affected…

Explain

  1. In our efforts to optimize our distribution process, we overlooked…
  2. The defect/problem was caused by…
  3. The error was due to…
  4. Our internal communication failed. As a result…

Promise

  1. We’re convinced that the changes we’ve implemented will prevent this from happening again.
  2. In the future, our focus will be on…, so that this situation won’t repeat itself.
  3. We’ll be increasing our efforts when it comes to…, so that in the future…
  4. We’ve increased our efforts to ensure that…
  5. I can promise you that the highest quality standards will be met going forward.

The SPASS model

When it comes to writing the email, structuring your email can be difficult. The SPASS model is perfect for email apologies. It’s simple and easy to remember. SPASS = Situation – Problem – Action – Say Sorry. That’s it. Finally, I apologize for keeping you from what you were doing, with another very long post.

Be great!

 

Don’t sweat it – everybody’s wrong sometimes, even your boss

In this video, Kathryn Schultz tells us that by the time we’re nine years old, we have already learned that the best way to succeed in life is to never be wrong. You should watch the video if you want to know how she came to that conclusion and a few others – when you have ten minutes.

Everybody’s wrong sometimes

Some of Kathryn’s words (if you don’t have time to watch it right now), and main points are:

  • Realizing you’re wrong can make you feel embarrassed or stupid, but being wrong itself doesn’t feel like anything.
  • The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant.
  • The second is that they’re idiots.
  • Then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong

Assuming that Kathryn’s assumptions are correct, you can see why telling someone that they’re wrong could prove to be the biggest mistake you’ve ever made – all depending on who is on the receiving end of course. Now, let’s say that person is your boss, your teamleader, or anyone in your company with more authority. Speaking for myself and my conflict avoiding personality – Difficult conversations always have a moment or two where I say completely the wrong thing. To others, determining to even speak to the boss about being wrong is enough to bring on sleepless nights.

Before you do decide to confront the person who was wrong, consider this:

Don’t pick the wrong battles

To speak up or not to speak up about it? I don’t know, is it worth it and/or important?

Don’t talk about the wrong thing at the wrong time

Stick to the topic, make the time to have a proper conversation (in private) and give your boss time to prepare.

Don’t say the wrong things

It’s just not the right time to say things like “I told you so” or “I knew this would happen” and to place blame. It’s already done, who cares? How can we fix it?

The DESC model

Once you’re ready to have the conversation, you can use the DESC model to structure your message – positively. This assertiveness model is perfect for giving negative feedback or criticism. It’s simple and it works. It’s for this reason that participants in our “Practical Toolbox for Managers” seminars often highlight DESC as one of the most valuable tools they take away.

Description – In a private setting, start by describing what you have observed. It’s important to be objective and concrete at this stage. Take responsibility for the feedback by using “I” statements.

Effect / emotion – Once you have described what you observed, move on to the effect or impact this has had. If the effect was an emotion, share this openly. Feedback is always personal in the sense that it is between people about people. Emotions play a part in interpersonal relationships and by naming them and getting them out into the open, you can deal with them in an professional manner.

Solution – Now move on to what you like to see happen. This could be directive e.g. “What I would like you to do next time is …”. Even better, build the solution together using a participative approach e.g. “What do you think we can do to avoid this next time?”.

Conclusion (commitments and contract) – End your feedback conversation by building a “contract of commitment”. Check you have a mutually common understanding of what has been agreed, and get commitment for the future. Then conclude looking forward.

The 6 most horrific bosses of all time

I did some Googling on this topic. With any luck, your boss is nothing like these bosses were...so go ahead and have your conversation – you have nothing to loose. And finally, here are 10 things a good boss would never say. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

Practical questions for analysing and resolving conflict at work

A study in Europe, the US and Brazil revealed that 67% of employees avoided colleagues due to bad feelings lingering from conflicts and that 27% of employees have witnessed workplace conflicts turning into personal attacks.

Over the years working with project managers on resolving conflicts, I’ve developed simple and practical approach to handling conflicts at work. The dictionary defines conflict as ‘a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one’. A conflict at work is more than just a difference of opinion with a colleague. There is an emotional component and you feel a tightness in your guts, a knot in your stomach.

The 4 main causes of conflict

“What triggered the conflict?” is the most important place to start. Here are the 4 largest causes of conflicts in the workplace.

  • Goals The cause of the conflict is mainly about goals. Imagine a strategy discussion where one manager wants to focus on client relationships, the other on improving on the website.
  • Resources Here we are talking about resources, often people and budget. Manager “A” wants people for a project team, Manager “B” does not want to release anyone. Or this budget increases, whilst another is cut.
  • Processes It’s not unusual the managers will often disagree on methods and procedures. One manager wants to run the project on Prince2 principles, the other on the principle of whatever works, works.
  • People This is about people and relationships. If you have a good working relationship with the other party, you probably do not have a conflict. If you disrespect or dislike the other party, you will have conflict. And this problem isn’t necessarily resolved – even when agreement on goals, resources and processes is possible.

Using a practical format for analysing conflicts

Here’s a simple preparation format for analysing a conflict and preparing for the discussion. In other words, you buy time before addressing the issue and “the other party”.

Consider the following questions:

  1. What’s it all about and how did it happen? (History)
  2. Who is involved and affected, apart from you and the other party? (Stakeholders)
  3. How far has the conflict gone? (Escalation)
  4. What triggered the conflict? (Causes)
  5. Has anything been done to settle the issue? (Potential solutions)
  6. What do you (and the other party) want to achieve? (Goals)
  7. Do you have any ideas for approaching the other party? (Strategy)

Solving conflicts starts with reflecting and analysing…

Solving conflicts is tough and draining for everyone. Managing conflicts is a concrete and valuable skill – and one which you can develop. Analysing a conflict may help you see that it is more a difference of opinion and judgement, not necessarily a conflict. But it can also make you see discussing resources and procedures is a smoke screen and a diversion from the root conflict, your relationship to the other party.

…and it finishes with engaging, listening and resolving

Practical issues are more easily addressed; relationship issues are trickier to talk about. The above analysis questions will always clarify where the conflict is coming from and therefore make it easier to generate solutions. It will often indicate that the root cause is personal, i.e. resentment, envy, or even chemistry. So can you put your emotions on the back burner and seek a common solution that benefits your organisation? Are you prepared to talk frankly with the other party and clear the air?

 

Tips and tricks for delivering bad news from a famous baseball coach

Is it ever possible to give bad news in a good way?

Some would argue not. Having started my working life around three months before the Global Economic Crisis hit, and watching colleague after colleague being made redundant throughout the media industry, I certainly would never have wanted to swap places with the people who had to give the bad news to their employees over and over during that time.

But while over time, some colleagues remembered the action of being made redundant, for others the way they were told stuck in their minds longer than the pain of having to pack up their things and reconsider their lives at a moments’ notice. If you have to deliver bad news, it will always be tough, but the aim is to do it in a way which leaves the bad memory without you in it.

Some of my participants are controllers. Delivering bad news is one of the challenges they find extremely difficult to overcome in English. While one popular theory is that giving negative feedback to English speakers might follow a hamburger approach – i.e., give some positive feedback (the top bun), followed by the negative (the meat), and finished with a positive plan for the future (the bottom bun), in my experience most employees value honesty far more than any trick designed to make them feel better. There is a need to be respectful, but a positive bun full of too much sugar won’t cut it when the negative meat needs to be delivered hard and fast.

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“Would you rather get a bullet in the head or five to the chest and bleed to death?”

Billy Beane summed it up well in the movie Moneyball, when he taught his intern Peter Brand how to cut players from their team. “Would you rather get a bullet in the head or five to the chest and bleed to death?”, he asks when discussing the prospect of firing someone. There are a number of things to be learned from the tactic Billy uses throughout the movie, who in real life was lauded for his business sense within the sport of baseball. They would include the following:

1. Understand who you’re talking to

When giving negative news to a baseball player, you might need to sweeten it less than when giving it to a secretary renowned for being slightly sensitive to change. What are the main personality traits of the person you are talking to from your experience? Are they culturally inclined to handle the truth quickly? Do your research first on who they are are you will get a better idea how to handle the situation.

2. Sugar coating the truth doesn’t make it better

Saying nice things around the bad news won’t make the person feel better. Some cultures don’t use imperatives nearly as often as others (i.e. I hear German clients saying ‘do this please” while British clients might say “could you do this please?’), but all cultures value honesty. Keep your wording polite but also keep the sentences short and to the point.

3. Don’t mislead in the hopes of saving someone from bad news

At all times, the aim should be to give all the information you have and in the simplest way to understand. Like ripping off a bandaid, it will hurt less in the long run. People always find out the truth one way or another if you try to embellish the reasons behind the bad news. If you don’t know the answer to something, say so!

4. Keep it short

People don’t appreciate receiving emails with three paragraphs giving them the important news right in the last paragraph. They don’t appreciate the meetings that go for what feels like an eternity before having bad news dropped right at the end like a bomb. Give the bad news quickly and succinctly and then allow time afterwards for explanations and questions. In my first job, when we found out 30% of our department had been made redundant – explaining why they weren’t in the meeting – I certainly appreciated getting the news first up without a long winded explanation first.

5. Be confident

Billy oozes confidence throughout Moneyball and it’s one of the reasons he was so successful at his craft; and he shows in this clip that the second you are on the back foot after giving negative information, you will fall into a hole that is difficult to get out of. Be confident in what you are delivering and why you have to say it, even if you are faking it. Practice beforehand if you find it difficult.

How do you deliver bad news?

An exercise I often do with my clients is to watch the video and discuss whether they think it’s a good way to deliver bad news to their English speaking co-workers and how they think this method is effective or ineffective. While it is certainly an extreme way to deliver such news; direct, honest and without any flowery language around the sides as Peter quickly learns and applies; it is a good example of showing that cultural stereotypes don’t always apply when you need to tell someone something they don’t want to hear.

What tactics have you found to be helpful when delivering bad news? Would you give it like Billy does in Moneyball? Comment below with your feedback.

Change Management: 3 Tips on Dealing with Resistance

Change management is something we all have to deal with on a daily basis.  It would be nice if all of our ideas were easily put into action without any people resisting the change.  These “resisters” can fight change for many reasons: they are comfortable with how things are, they have different ideas, they don’t see your issue as a priority at this point, etc.  No matter the reason, we have to find ways to get the resisters on our side in order to implement the change we feel will benefit our department, or company as a whole.  You may think it is easier to ignore these people, but that may lead to problems in the future.

3 problems that can arise if you don’t deal with resisters

  1. The transition is slowed down.  When you are looking to implement a new process, the speed of transition is important.  The longer it takes to implement the new process and get people trained on how to use it, the more expensive it is.  The sooner everyone is on board, the better.
  2. People working against you and your change.  If you don’t get buy-in early from people, some may make it a point to make the change difficult to carry out and work with the new process.  This will cause the change to be seen as something that made things more difficult, instead of bringing about positive results as planned.
  3. Future buy-in issues.  If someone resists change on one project, they are likely to do the same for future initiatives you may introduce.  Things may become personal and what may seem to be small issues, can turn into regular resistance in the future.

So, not addressing those who are resisting change early enough can lead to a number of negative outcomes.  How do we deal with resisters, then?

3 solutions to deal with resisters

  1. Use another tactic.  Take the time to listen to the “resisters” and find out what is important to them.  Take this information and shift the focus of your change a bit to take their preferences into account.  If you make an effort to show them you are working together, they will be more likely to buy in and support your efforts.
  2. Start low.  If upper management is resisting your change, then start from the bottom and move your way up.  Building support at levels below you, as well as at your level, may allow you to gain strengths in numbers.  Then you can go to management and restate your case.
  3. Make friends with those closest to your resisters.  By befriending administrative assistants, co-workers, and people who report directly to those who are resisting your change, you can share your ideas and increase the chances of getting your message across.  People listen to and trust ideas coming from close colleagues or friends.

Once you try one, or more, of the possible solutions, you will start to see some positive results.

3 possible outcomes from dealing effectively with resisters 

  1. You will turn adversaries into allies.  The more people that are working with you, as opposed to against you, at work will allow you to get more things done.  Plus it provides for a more comfortable working environment.
  2. You will be seen as more credible and competent.  If you can implement change quickly and effectively, you will be seen as a good leader and someone who can get things done.  This can lead to a number of great career opportunities in the future.
  3. Your company culture will be more open to change.  People naturally resist change, but once they embrace some change, it is then easier to embrace more and more.  A company culture that is open to change is open to progress which can lead to better business results.

Change management will always include dealing with those who resist change.  Try a few of the solutions above and let us know what worked for you in the comments area below.  Also, click here for more information on Target Training’s seminars designed to help you handle conflict within your organization.