Anti-Bullying Policies – Fit for Purpose?

Anti-Bullying Policies. Almost two years ago Maria, a member of a team of ten, was finding it difficult to deal with one of her colleagues Andrea. Maria said she thought Andrea appeared to not value her or take her seriously as a colleague. They had had a number of meetings with their manager, who tried to help them sort it out but to no avail. Following a routine meeting re work issues between Andrea, Maria and another colleague Margaret, Maria felt that both Andrea and Margaret were ganging up against her and felt she had to make a complaint about this.

Maria reached for the only policy document that governs how people interact and get along in the organisation – the ‘anti-bullying’ or euphemistically entitled ‘Dignity at Work’ policy. She made an official complaint about Andrea and Margaret. It took about fourteen months to run the bullying investigation, which also involved evidence-taking from other colleagues as ‘witnesses’. The complaint was not upheld although the investigator did comment at the level of antipathy between Maria and her colleague Andrea. One of the investigation recommendations was ‘mediation’ between the parties. However, when I met with them recently, both Andrea and Margaret are too angry, frustrated as well as very hurt about what they view as a spurious allegation of ‘bullying’ against them to participate meaningfully in a mediation process. So all three continue to work in the same team, barely greeting each other and tension which could be cut with a knife.

Damage to Rebuilding Working Relationship

This is a typical example of many scenarios in which I have been asked to intervene to ‘rebuild relationships’. It is a task that I always liken to closing the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. Key challenges in these situations include the amount of time it has taken to investigate as well as the adversarial nature of investigation, both of which polarise the parties’ relationship.

There is however another significant barrier to rebuilding any kind of meaningful working relationships between the parties: Having to overcome the damage done by framing of the situation as an allegation of ‘bullying’ One cannot blame this on an individual who is feeling distressed about a working relationship. After all, the only ‘vehicle’ to deal with workplace conflict of all shapes and sizes in the workplace is a policy that is focused on prevention of this phenomenon known as ‘bullying’.

Language Shapes Reality

While the Health and Safety Authority’s definition of ‘bullying’ makes reference to ‘repeated inappropriate behaviour…undermining…dignity at work’, the commonplace understanding of this term holds much harsher connotations. A typical dictionary definition is ‘…the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others’. Even onomatopoetically, the term is suggestive of behaviour that is quite malevolent and vicious, and not accurate in addressing many of the typical conflict behaviours that can occur where people are in conflict in all workplaces.

How About an Anti-‘Dossing’ Policy?

As an analogy, imagine if there was an ‘Anti-Dossing’ policy and the moment anyone’s workplace performance seemed to fall below expectations, a complaint was launched about them and they then had to prove that they weren’t ‘Dossers’. Of course we wouldn’t countenance such an approach, as well as being unconstructive and contrary to all sorts of positive approaches to people management that current best practice, it is also bordering on derogatory and discriminatory. Yet we tolerate the use of the term ‘bullying’ in a policy that’s used to deal with everything from the relatively rare instances of deliberate and predatory behaviour to all sorts of reactive and ‘normal’ (albeit unwelcome) conflict responses.

Little Benefit to Either Complainant or Accused

Yet in respect to workplace behaviours, the only policy guidance is around ‘anti-bullying’. Forcing the complainant to frame their issues in this way fosters a victim/perpetrator paradigm. In this, the innocent and defenceless complainant is the butt of powerful, targeted, dignity-stripping behaviours ‘perpetrated’ by a nasty and malicious person in the workplace. This seductive narrative reinforces a disempowering identity for the complainant as well as enabling them to avoid taking responsibility for any of their own contribution to the dynamic. Undoubtedly, there are situations where there is a genuine victim and perpetrator but both anecdotal and research evidence indicate that this pertains in the minority of complaints.

Neither is it useful for the person who gets accused of ‘bullying’. A complaint about someone under ‘Dignity at Work’ will be perceived by them as an accusation of ‘being a bully’. This provokes defensiveness and rather than prompting them to perhaps reflect on how they might have contributed, they are more consumed with proving ‘they’re not a bully’. They will also feel unjustly judged and branded which similarly invites a sense of victimhood. In the case cited above, both of those complained about were angry not only at Andrea but also at the ‘system’ because they believe it has facilitated the wrongdoing and doesn’t offer them any way of really clearing their ‘good name’.

While the suggestion of mediation to help them problem-solve and bring a future focus to their difficulties is well-meaning, the bullying–focused complaints policy has greatly limited its prospects of success.


What Could Be Changed?

There is no doubt, there are instances of ‘bullying’ behaviour in the workplace and guidelines to recognise and deal with these need to be in place. However, the overall policy framework needs to be more positively framed. Despite some softer-sounding titles (‘Dignity at Work, ‘Positive Working Environment’) most policies emphasise the negative with long detailed examples of ‘bullying behaviours’ and the impact of ‘bullying’. A more constructive approach would be to build in detailed examples of behaviours that would be desirable as well as information on conflict responses, the dynamics of conflict and tools and tips to help people recognise and deal with such situations.

Policies should focus on supporting people to raise concerns and normalise the fact that working relationships may not always run smoothly. It should also be clear that the term ‘bullying’ refers to behaviours at the high end of the spectrum of ‘unwelcome’.
The term ‘grievance’ and ‘Grievance Policy’ is now frequently used to deal with complaints about terms and conditions as opposed to workplace behaviours. Yet as a relatively neutral and non-threatening term it might better serve as a basis for a complaints framework to address workplace behaviours also.

There is no doubt that people do engage at times in highly inappropriate and bullying behaviours towards one another and workplaces need to guard against this. However blanket application of the ‘bullying’ term to every ‘conflict’ at work is a surefire way to escalate rather than improve working relationships.

Do I have to say ‘NO’?

When invited to outline their key challenges in ‘Difficult Conversations’ / ‘Managing Conflict’ courses, being able to say ‘no’ effectively to a request or a demand is high on most participants wish lists.

Delving a little deeper, concerns that emerge around turning someone down or setting a boundary on an aspect of their behaviour or actions include concerns about

  • the relationship being damaged
  • the other person getting angry and the situation becoming confrontational
  • they not accepting the ‘No’ and trying to challenge our power or authority
  • having to ‘waste’ time explaining over and over again that the answer is ‘no’
  • guilt about not granting the request

A ‘Positive No’

William Ury identifies the core challenge of saying ‘no’ is that it seems to force us to have to make a decision between exercising power and maintaining the relationship. We get caught in an either/or dilemma when what we should be aiming for instead is how we can hold our boundary AND maintain the relationship. Ury advocates we strive towards what he terms ‘a positive No’.

A first rule of thumb is to ensure you are respectful. This doesn’t just mean saying ‘No’ in a calm and sensitive tone. A respectful ‘no’ means taking the time to engage with the other person, listening to their concerns, acknowledging their needs and valuing them and their needs even though on this occasion you may not be able to satisfy the substantive request they are making.
Harvard Negotiation experts Fisher and Shapiro (2005) identify what they term core baseline needs common to most people. Addressing these core concerns (appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role) leads to more successful negotiation as well as minimising the level of conflict generated. Interestingly many of these can be easily addressed at little or no tangible cost. They do however require a shift in mindset – from seeing this person and their demands as something to be swatted away like a buzzing fly to having positive regard for them at a basic human level.

For example, regardless of what level of difference might lie between us and another person, all of us are capable of ‘appreciation’ – simply acknowledging to the other person that we listen to and appreciate the merits and difficulties of how they think and feel and that we endeavour to put our key message across to them in a way that they will understand.

Think laterally about their needs and interests

Consider taking a broader view of what people might need and your ability to fulfil some of these needs. At a superficial level it might seem like you cannot grant their request. The substantive and overt issue might seem incompatible with what you can provide.
A classic example is where someone has to be turned down for a job they’ve applied for. It would seem time-wasting to engage in anything other than a ‘dear John’ letter or email to break the bad news. However, if we take a more considered approach at what that person’s needs might be in that situation, we see that they have other needs that we might be able to satisfy. For example they might have a need for acknowledgement and recognition of what they did do well. They might need to hear specifically what they can improve on the next time and perhaps most importantly, they probably will benefit from some reassurance and encouragement to keep on trying.
So while you didn’t meet their apparent need to get the job, you did meet other important and less obvious needs they had. While we are communicating a negative message at one level, we are at another level trying to communicate that we have positive intentions towards the other person. It’s not that we are trying to soften the reality of the ‘No’ but what we are saying is ‘I cannot grant your request, yet I understand and respect it and wish you as a person no ill will’

Avoid a confrontational push-back

A common trap we fall into is that in striving to be what we believe to be assertive and strong in holding a particular line, we deliver our message in an overly forceful manner. Anticipating resistance, we mistakenly think a vigorous tone will deter them from pushing back against us. In reality what this often does is to provoke the person and invite further argument. What can also contribute to an unhelpful tone is that we ourselves aren’t in a completely calm and unruffled state of mind. We might be feeling frustrated about the substantive issues, we might be feeling nervous about their possible reactions. Or we might be feeling guilty about what we have to communicate. All of these will impact on our own emotional state and that in turn makes us more vulnerable to communicating in a less than optimal way. This calls for us therefore to spend time in advance not only considering what needs to be said but more importantly, taking whatever steps we need to take to develop a calm and centred state of mind or at least, to effectively manage our anxiety or irritation.

Does it have to be an absolute ‘No’ ?

It’s always worth considering whether our ‘No’ needs to be so absolute. What is our motive for the refusal of what’s being requested? Are our emotions driving it rather than our thinking, e.g. fear of setting precedents, fear of losing control or just lack of time to think things through properly? For example, let’s suppose someone is asking for time off during a very busy period. They knock on your door and before they have uttered half a sentence our instinctive response is to refuse. However, you take the time and hear them out and realise that their request for time off is to attend to a family matter which while not life threatening, is of significance to this person. Equally, you present to them your concerns about this and the possible impact on the work being done. Then you both spend some time brainstorming about ways to meet both your need for the work to continue and the other person’s family needs to be addressed.

Owning our ‘No’

Finally, yes sometimes we have, as my father used to say, reached the station called ‘STOP’. Yet we are feeling uncomfortable about delivering this message – perhaps it’s guilt at upsetting someone or perhaps it’s just sheer frustration because we know they will get into an argument about it. We also waver because we might have to enforce negative consequences for the other person. Preparation for such interactions require that not only are we clear about the content of our message but more importantly, that it is fully aligned with our own values and/or organisational values and that we are acting with integrity. Preparing in this way allows us to be in a more centred state of mind and also ensures that we will be more likely to remain calmly resolute if the other person is challenging our position. It will also facilitate us to

  • dispel our doubt or guilt about the action we are taking
  • be more patient with the other person’s resistance and attempts to challenge us
  • explain in an authentic and clear way what our rationale is for the actions we feel we have to take
  • be able to calmly educate them about (as opposed to threaten them with) the consequences of not complying
  • feel empowered to respectfully, yet steadfastly, enforce any consequences.

So remember ‘no’ comes in many shapes and sizes – make sure your one is the right fit for the situation!

Bringing Out the Best in People: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (Part 2)

Did you ever play team sports as a child? If you were anything like me (two left feet!), you were the last one picked for the basketball team. Not only that, but you spent most of the game desperately hoping someone would take pity on you and you’d get thrown the ball just once in the game. All in all not a happy experience, but come on get over it, it’s only a game of basketball.

Or maybe not… Naomi Eisenberger a leading social neuroscientist at University of California designed an experiment in 2003. Volunteers were invited to play a virtual ball game of catch ostensibly with two other people, all of whom were represented by avatars on the screen. Halfway through, their avatar stopped receiving the ball and they observed the other two avatars appearing to throw only to each other. Afterwards, the game players self-reported being quite bothered about being excluded (‘I felt rejected, I felt meaningless’). Furthermore, the brains of the volunteers (they had been lying in an MRI scanner for the duration) showed activity during the time they were ignored in the same parts of the brain (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as is associated with the distress of physical pain.

Since then many experiments have replicated these findings and scientists are unequivocal about the influence of social interactions on many physiological and neurological reactions. As outlined in the last newsletter, our brains are constantly evaluating events for the level of reward or threat that they might present. Evian Gordon refers to this adaptive motivation as “minimize danger and maximize reward” , a fundamental organising principle of the brain. Our experiences are also mediated by another filter system in the brain which means that threatening or negative stimuli are processed more quickly, more intensely and last longer than reward-offering stimuli. This means that if we are presented simultaneously with a reward and threat-activating behaviours, our attention and energy gets invested in the latter. The profusion of bad versus good news stories in our media is testament to this; how many of us would buy a newspaper full only of happy stories and good news?

Brain-friendly Work Environment: The SCARF Model

The key to creating a ‘brain-friendly’ work environment requires a focus first of all on reducing the potential for the stress-inducing threat response and at the same time, striving to find ways to increase brain rewarding experiences. Leadership expert David Rock has developed a simple model that summarises some of the neuroscience research in this area. Known as the ‘SCARF’ model, it identifies five critical domains of social experience that have the potential to tip us into either threat or reward state of mind.

Status:
This refers to how we see ourselves in relation to others. For example, when we feel ‘better’ than another person, our sense of status increases and simultaneously, the primary reward circuitry in the brain is activated. It’s why we enjoy winning at games. Conversely, the prospect of a performance review or negative feedback will cause the threat response to kick in. No surprises, there, few people enjoy hearing negative points about themselves. Yet there is still a strong discourse around the role of ‘feedback’ to help improve people’s performance. The ‘praise sandwich’ version of this attempts to give a nod to the need for positive endorsement but as pointed out above, the negative piece will have a much stronger impact. So being aware of how brain unfriendly they can be is the first step. Rock also advocates ensuring that performance feedback is participative and developmental and that managers strive to acknowledge and appreciate people as much as possible.

Certainty:
Our brains like patterns and predictability. Uncertainty causes the brain to immediately divert valuable thinking resources and attention towards trying to fill these gaps. This is why so many of us find change difficult. Maximising certainty is about giving people road maps – explaining context and background to what’s happening, setting clear objectives, being explicit about expectations. Even where there is ‘bad news’, our brain prefers the certainty of hearing the worst to what might seem like a more supportive approach of only drip feeding the negative in stages to try and lessen the impact.

Autonomy:
This refers to the sense of control or choice we feel we have over aspects of our environment or our lives. Every parent knows how much more effective it is to present tasks as choices (‘do you want to read your bedtime story or brush your teeth first’ versus ‘go to bed now or else’). As adults, we are no different, for example micro-managing is a key trigger for most employees. In the workplace, autonomy will always have limitations but there are many ways to facilitate a sense of choice. Daniel Pink, who highlights autonomy as one of three critical motivators, cites a study of workers in an investment bank where managers who offered ‘autonomy support’ to staff reported higher job satisfaction and better performance.

Relatedness:
Our brains are wired to categorise people as being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group and is closely linked to how we decide whom we can trust. We trust those who seem to be ‘in our group’ or like us but equally, we withdraw and detach when they do something to breach this trust. It also explains why a dispute or an issue between two people on a team can end up fracturing the whole team. So having an eye to team dynamics and fostering collaboration is essential. Rock cites a Gallup report from 2008 which showed that encouraging ‘water cooler’ conversations increased productivity!

Fairness:
A sense of fair play is a primary need and we react very strongly to being treated unfairly, activating the part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust. Rock also cites research that demonstrates when we feel unfairly treated, we feel rewarded when our superiors are punished. Our fairness triggers are so strong that given a choice between someone winning at our expense or both of us losing; we will more frequently select the latter. In terms of workplace conflict, feeling ‘unfairly treated’ is probably one of the most frequent reasons cited in grievances and complaints against managers. So striving to demonstrate openness and transparency around how decisions are made and be pro-active in this will help to maximise a sense of fairness.

Much of the above is essentially common sense i.e. that people need to be treated fairly or the importance of trust in the workplace. What is less obvious however is that the social needs identified above aren’t simply a set of values that would be nice to aspire to in the modern workplace. Rather, the science is telling us that we are biologically hard-wired to react as strongly to having our social needs disrespected or unmet as to our basic physical and safety needs!

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Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Pink, Daniel (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

 

Got an issue you are grappling with…?

Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
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Bringing Out the Best in People: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (Part 1)

In a research experiment in 2001, two groups of people completed a paper maze that featured a mouse in the middle trying to reach a picture on the outside. One group had a picture of cheese on the outside, the other a predator – an owl. After completing the maze both groups were given creativity tests. Which group do you think performed best, in other words were able to demonstrate the greatest level of creativity?

The group which worked with the mouse heading towards the cheese solved significantly more creative problems than those heading to the owl.

So what’s the big deal? This study by Friedman and Foerster, (2001) replicates to an extent what happens in the workplace so the question is, are your employees perceiving an owl or a piece of cheese as they metaphorically help their mouse through his maze?

The Approach-Avoid Response

It demonstrates one of the key mechanisms in the brain by which we process information in our world: the approach-avoid response. This response tells us that for every stimulus we encounter, our brain either perceives it as being ‘good’ and want to engage with it or ‘bad’ and want to avoid it. So all stimuli associated with positive emotions or rewards will likely lead to an ‘approach’ response, whereas those associated with negative emotions or pain will prompt an ‘avoid’ response. The purpose of this is to ensure that the brain learns efficiently what it needs to ensure survival. The limbic system in the centre of our brain has a key function in central role in detecting, processing and storing in memory whether something should be approached or avoided.

The Impact of Social Threat

We have long been aware of our primal instinct to survive, that we are motivated to run from tigers – avoid potential threats- and be attracted towards potential pleasures or rewards such as food and shelter. However, recent neuroscientific research is pointing to a similar mechanism in operation in our brains in response to social cues or how other people engage and interact with us. So in our workplace, even though there are no tigers to run from and we have basic needs such as shelter and hopefully some food, our brains are trying to survive socially. We are constantly assessing the way others interact with us for its threat or reward potential.

Not only this, but a wide body of research also demonstrates we are pre-disposed to detect threats more easily than rewards. Unfortunately, the avoid response generates far more arousal of the limbic system more quickly and with longer lasting effects than the approach response.

The impact on the brain of a social threat is significant. For example, the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain connected to higher order and rational thinking (prefrontal cortex) undergoes a decrease in the amount of oxygen and glucose available. This inhibits vital brain function such as conscious processing, decision-making, planning and working memory. Our ability to think in a complex, insightful way is diminished and replaced by generalised and pessimistic thinking. Furthermore, we experience social pain such as rejection in the same part of the brain as physical pain.

Clearly, when the brain perceives a social threat, it’s counterproductive to the positive state of mind that fosters engaged and motivated thinking. On the other hand, an approach response fosters positive emotions such as joy, happiness and desire. Dopamine levels are increased which enhance learning. An approach state of mind signals engagement and research demonstrates that this positive mindset will improve problem-solving, collaboration and generally enhance performance overall.

Brain-based Leadership

In the working environment, there are significant implications of this for leaders and managers who have the potential to evoke either approach or avoid responses in their staff. Emerging neuroscience research strongly supports the importance of proficiency in people- management skills such as self-awareness and an ability to tune into and promote a positive emotional and mental state in others.

Co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute David Rock points out that the brain perceives the workplace first and foremost as a social system. He posits that leaders who understand this dynamic will be more effective in creating an environment that brings out the best in their staff because they have the ability to “intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance”.

 

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Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2001) The Effects Of Promotion and Prevention Cues On Creativity: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (6), 1001–1013

Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

 

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
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How High is Your EQ?

Emotions and ConflictHow High is Your EQ? Internationally renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells the story of one patient known as Elliot. He was a successful manager in a large corporation, married with a family. He was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor which was successfully removed with surgery. However, afterwards he was a completely changed man. His ability to make decisions was so dramatically impacted that he lost both his job and his wife, suffering financial ruin.

Yet his IQ, which was prior to the operation well above average, remained the same. Similarly, no pathology could be found on standard neurophysiological tests, to the extent that he was refused disability because he couldn’t prove his brain was not normal.

Damasio conducted a series of further tests on Elliot which seemed to demonstrate that while his cognition and intelligence was completely intact, his ability to feel and respond emotionally had become severely stunted.
The impact of this was that he became unable to make even the simplest of decisions and manage himself and his relationships with others.

Damasio’s research demonstrates the central role emotions play in learning, memory, decision-making and social cognition. In the past thirty years, a substantial body of research attests to the significance of emotions and the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ at work.

What is Emotional Intelligence EQ

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is about how people and relationships function. Experts identify four key domains of EQ: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationships management. In particular for leaders and managers, fostering well-developed skills and abilities in these four key areas is crucial.

Self-awareness:
This is the ability to be able to tune into, identify and hold in your awareness your own emotions as they arise. It also implies having a positive regard for oneself tempered by an accurate and realistic inner picture of your own strengths and limitations.

  • Develop a conscious awareness when something triggers you that you are now annoyed, upset or frustrated.
  • Practice tuning into your own physical and emotional reaction as it is happening in the moment.
  • Explore to what extent this negative event causes a greater earthquake in your self-confidence and self-belief. (‘I realise that what John said about my report is making me question my report-writing skills in general’)

Self-Management:
This is the next stage in effective emotional processing – what actions or behaviours you now reach for, on foot of having had some sort of internal emotional reactivity to an event or person. At a neurological level, we are hardwired to react defensively rather logically to events that trigger negative emotions.

For some people, their reaction is ‘hot’ – they engage in actively destructive behaviours such as displaying anger or anxiety, which can appear aggressive or overwhelming to people around them. Others stress reaction is to reach for ‘cold’ or passive destructive behaviours like disengaging or removing themselves either emotionally or physically and present as cold or aloof to observers.

  • A key skill is to be able to slow down and not react to the fight or flight urge when you feel angry or upset.
  • Effective self-management means being able to ‘talk yourself down’ or self-soothe, when something isn’t going your way.
  • Rather than trying to suppress or ignore emotions, think instead about having a dialogue with them. They are important and relevant signals that something is not in order for you. Acknowledge and accept them as messengers and then take the time think clearly about what’s most important so you make conscious choices about how to respond to the event.

Social Awareness:
This refers to your ability to tune into others and to have an interest and concern for what might be prompting their behaviour or actions.

  • We are all programmed to focus on observable behaviours in the workplace. We also need to learn to focus on discerning the often unspoken needs and resulting emotions that might underpin these behaviours.
  • Develop your empathy skills, being able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of other people, particularly, if they have done something to annoy or upset you.
  • Rather than automatically making negative assumptions about people’s intent or motives when they do something you don’t like, practice giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Relationship Management:
This encompasses skills in collaboration, co-operation and influencing others with integrity. When powerful emotions overtake us in interpersonal reactions, it refers to our ability to keep focused on the bigger picture of the long-term relationship.

  • When you are triggered by someone else’s behaviour, as well as considering what you want from them, reflect also on what you want for your long-term relationship with that person.
  • Consciously devote time and energy to nurturing trusting and collaborative relationships with others. Foster your interest in sensing the needs of others and your motivation to help and support them.
  • When you are communicating with others, take time to shape your message in a way will be clearly and constructively understood by the other.

Contrary to the mindset that emotions have no place in the workplace, an ability to negotiate both one’s own and others emotional troughs and peaks in the workplace is a must.

Jumping to Conclusions – Look before you Leap

Jumping to Conclusions. Imagine this situation: you are walking down the corridor at work and a colleague is coming the other way. You say ‘hi’ in a bright and friendly tone and this person barely looks at you, has a cross look on their face and hardly greets you. What assumptions would you make about why the person acts like this? Would you immediately think ‘what a rude and unfriendly person who is very arrogant’? If so, you have just made what is known as a Fundamental Attribution Error, one of the psychological theories that might explain how a conflict situation might get started or escalates.

Attribution theory tells us that people make inferences about others behaviours based on 2 different factors: situational and dispositional. In other words, we explain the actions of others sometimes based on ‘characteristics’ that we attribute to them or their ‘disposition’ and sometimes we explain things based on the context of the behaviour i.e. the ‘situation’.

However, being human, theorists have discovered that we sometimes make mistakes in how we attribute behaviours to other people and indeed to ourselves. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error and it tells us that we have a tendency to attribute negative behaviours of others to dispositional factors whereas our own negative behaviours we rationalise away as ‘situational’. To put it simply, if someone is racing down the road breaking the speed limit perhaps, we tend to think they are ‘macho drivers’ who don’t care about other people’s lives. If we ourselves however put the accelerator down, we explain it as ‘just this one time I have to go a bit faster as it’s an important meeting and I don’t want to be late’.

So how does this relate to how we manage conflict?

It means that in many of the situations where two people are disagreeing or in dispute over something, frequently they are making the fundamental attribution error and attributing negative assumptions as to why someone has done something. This attribution in turn is further fuelling their negative reactions to what the person has done. In other words, if someone fails to send the email on time or gives some negative feedback, not only is the person upset about the missed email deadline or hearing criticism but they are also further triggered by making a negative attribution as to why someone might have done this in the first place.

When these problems occur, often it is difficult to get over them. We see and deal with the same person day after day, and our negative feelings just intensify; it can be very difficult to ground them. The only realistic way to overcome this is to change the way we think and ask the right questions rather than assuming answers to the wrong ones; this was we can begin to handle the situation more appropriately.

If we fail to question our assumptions then we are likely to feel resentful, angry and frustrated. Work relationships get progressively strained and we feel the need to get rid of our own bad feelings about the other person possibly by bad mouthing them or persuading other colleagues to go against them and side with us.

So what can we do to lessen the effects of Fundamental Attribution Error?

Fundamental Attribution Error is in many respects a result of our lack of knowledge. We make unfavourable assumptions because we are unaware of the real motivations behind their behaviour. It is important to step back and consider other possibilities; for instance try to imagine alternative scenarios that could explain the behaviour.

Doing this isn’t always easy. Anger and frustration are powerful emotions, and overcoming these feelings doesn’t come easily to most of us. Often some kind of third party mediation is necessary, but there are several ways in which we can move forward. Some examples of these are given below:

  • Build trust – trust is one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining a harmonious workplace and where there is trust between people fundamental attribution error is less likely to occur. Trust is a workplace ethos that involves the whole workplace culture and there are many ways in which it can be encouraged. For instance there should be opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other and build trust. As individuals there is also much that we can do to engender trust; this involves ensuring that we are always trustworthy, and that we default to the trusting rather than distrusting others. The more we know and trust each other the less likely we are to make erroneous negative assumptions about each other.
  • Be objective – rather than taking to heart the reasons why a colleague has acted in such a way, it can help if we are able to be objective about it. If you feel angry, then consider that it wasn’t their intent to make you angry.
  • It isn’t about you – realise that ‘it’s not all about me’ …while me might like to think that other people’s behaviour is ‘to get at me’, it’s much more likely that you are the last person they have in mind when they do this. Try not to take it personally, even if it does cause you pain, and never try to ‘get your own back’.
  • Consider their circumstances – as we said above, we need to step back and consider other possibilities. If somebody is performing poorly, then it might not be their fault; their poor performance could be a result of their environment. Consider what external factors might be at play and make allowances for them.
  • Talk about it – if you find that you are having problems with a colleague then the best way of handling them is to talk about it. This requires a level of trust and maturity, but simply sitting down together and going through the issues informally can reap huge rewards.

Conclusion

Fundamental attribution error is a common workplace phenomenon. People come to erroneous conclusions about the capabilities, characters and motivations of others. Simply being aware that we tend to do this can improve the situation considerably.

When you find yourself feeling negative about a work colleague ask yourself if there are other factors that are in play. If you can imagine how external factors might be affecting them, then attempt to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you might react.

Following some of the suggestions listed above really can help, so give them a go. Remember, just as we make fundamental attribution errors over others, others may well make fundamental attribution errors over us.

Which Wolf Will You Feed?

A few weeks ago, I became embroiled in an interpersonal conflict situation. The details of who said what and when, are incidental. The key point is that I was annoyed, angry, upset etcetera by actions of the other person. Equally, they had similar reactions to actions that I took. What’s been interesting since then is to observe how my mind has processed these events.

There is a well known Cherokee legend about a grandfather who is talking to his grandson about handling negative emotions such as anger, hurt, upset. He talks about the internal conflict as being a fight between two wolves. One wolf represents negative emotions such as fear, anger, hurt, irritation. The other wolf symbolises peace, harmony, forgiveness, love. His grandson then asks which wolf will win to which his grandfather responds ‘the one you feed’.

So what I’m finding happening for me internally is exactly this struggle. It’s the struggle between the two ‘stories’ that I find cropping up for me about what happened.
On the one hand, I can tell a story of hurt, feeling let down, humiliated, frustrated, isolated. In telling my version of the story to my friend or partner, I can grasp for details of little things the other person said or did that support my ‘argument’ about my being wronged.
There is plenty of payback for me in doing this. My friend will respond with a dish of sympathy for me and indignation on my behalf at the behaviour of the other. These supportive and caring actions on her part also help to increase our connection and bond as friends.
I also get the pleasure of hanging out on a nice green patch of moral ground because I ascribe a certain rightness to my views on the issues in dispute. There’s quite a kick in running the movie in my mind of me barrister-like, rehearsing and reciting the case against the offenders, block by block building back my injured ego, in a vain attempt to squash any bad feelings that might be tempted to arise and upset me.
Holding a story of being a ‘victim’ in my mind has lots of benefits to it. I can build a monument in my mind to this story of injustice and have the further pleasure of taking it out and polishing it at regular intervals for the rest of my life.

But as legend tells us, there is another wolf that can be fed. I can tell myself another story: Here is a situation where both of us have been upset, hurt and triggered by actions that each of us took on foot of the circumstances we found ourselves in.
Yes, ‘they’ did some things that upset me but I too, took actions that were upsetting to them. Even though it was inadvertent on my part, the impact was still the same.
Honest appraisal also must lead me to conclude that I failed on one of the key aspects of good communication – to listen to what was not being said (but being thought and felt) by the other person(s) at crucial times in the events that happened.
I can remind myself of key values that I hold about how I engage and relate to other people and how they engage and relate to me. While these values have been challenged and undermined for both of us, I can persistently push myself to find a way to restore our working relationship to one that again upholds these values.
This ‘story’ is less seductive. It means having to let go of the anger which I then realise has been covering up more uncomfortable emotions: hurt about some things that were said, fear about taking the next step and unease about the unhelpful actions on my part in the situation.

So it’s a struggle – do I succumb to the almost delicious temptation of the victim story? Or do I resist that very hungry wolf and instead, take a few deep breaths and very gently lead my mind down the other track?

Which wolf do you feed?

 

 

Accountability Conversations

Effective Accountability Conversations.

Brian was hired 6 months ago as a new Manager of a small team of 7 staff in a branch of a country-wide service organisation. He’s committed and enthusiastic and has big plans to improve service delivery and productivity.

Alice has worked there for 15 years and Brian is finding her less amenable to taking on board some of the changes he’s trying to implement. Things like flexibility around the roster, putting the customer first and generally having a positive and upbeat attitude – these are a few of his wish-list for areas he’d like Alice to improve.

‘I suppose I’ll have to sit down with her and talk to her about her attitude’ he said during our last coaching session.

‘What have you been doing to build a relationship with her and give her a sense of being a valued member of the team’ I asked him.

He looked at me wryly ‘valued member of the team…hmm’

Not an uncommon reaction – Brian is so frustrated and feels he has to go in and ‘lay it on the line’. But getting someone to change their behaviour or ‘attitude’ is not a once-off event or conversation. You cannot expect to walk in one day, invite the person for a meeting, give them a shopping list of what they need to improve on and then hope for the best.

Here are some of the thoughts I shared with Brian around how he might work with Alice:

1. The ‘relationship’ bank account:

Think about your working relationship with everyone as a bank account. Actions that put money in the account are all of the interactions that you have with them that foster positive emotions. This starts with basic friendliness – the light-hearted small talk that builds connection over time. You are demonstrating an interest in them as a person and that you respect them. The next stage up from this is helping them feel valued for the work they are doing. Find opportunities to affirm and appreciate them.

Yes, you are probably sceptical about this (as Brian was!) but if you sit down and think about it, I’m sure you can come up with a few things that every team member does, that you are actually satisfied with. Even if it’s just a few things, try and identify these and then give them positive feedback – not gushing or inauthentic, just clear and supportive.

The thing about the relationship bank account is that it’s like a real bank account, things work much better when there is money in the account. So if you have built a relationship with Alice whereby there is credit in the account, then when you are sitting down with her to talk about something that might be challenging for her to hear she will be more open to this. If there’s no credit there, then you are in the red. Having an accountability conversation with someone with whom you haven’t already got some sort of positive relationship won’t work long term. While you might get short term compliance, the longer term consequences range from their behaviour worsening to them going on sick leave or even raising a complaint or bullying grievance against you.

2. What’s In It For Me:

We hear this all the time in sales – knowing your customer WIIFM. Well the same applies here. You have to try and figure out what’s important to Alice in this job. Yes, I know you’ll say it’s just the money but our motivations are never that simple and we all want our paycheck at the end of the week. All of us have values and identity issues at a deeper level that are important to us. In the workplace these might be things like being seen as competent or caring and wanting others to think the best of us. So you need to be trying to find what these are for Alice and reinforcing them where you can.

Knowing what’s important to someone also helps you when you come to have the accountability conversations. You can leverage this when you are talking to them about things that need to change – how that will benefit them in terms of their reputation or whatever it is that helps them feel valued. It will also assist you in helping them get clear on the consequences of not changing i.e. ‘I know you might find some of the clients difficult to deal with and don’t feel like being friendly. I worry that you won’t be able to continue to be in charge of the reception area though unless we can find ways to help you cope more effectively’.

3. Think ‘bigger picture’ but have a detailed plan:

Changing someone’s behaviour isn’t easy or quick. Think about yourself – how many times have you made a resolution on January 1st that you had forgotten by Jan 31st. This is because we take on too much, don’t provide regular habit-changing support activities and give up too easily. The same applies here. Alice has been in this job 15 years. She has built up a whole repertoire of behaviours and an approach to her job that works ok for her. So you can’t decide that you will shift all that in one conversation about her ‘attitude’. Consider the following:

  • You need to prioritise – what might be the two or three key behaviours you feel need to be changed?
  • Rather than thinking what you don’t want her to do, frame it as much as possible as what you do want to see happening.
  • Be really specific – ‘change your attitude’ – what does that mean? Is it that you want her to come in and be dancing every morning? Is it that you want her to be more welcoming and upbeat when clients come into the office
  • Link it to what it is you think is important to her. Maybe she’s a very caring kind of person (with her cat or her ill neighbour!). Help her see how the clients might benefit from her caring and warmth.
  • Explain your intentions in talking to her about this: ‘I’m looking at how we can make the customer’s experience more positive…I’m not in any way trying to undermine you or make you feel less valued’
  • Invite her thoughts on how she could be best helped to make any changes and get her input around how you will check in with her on it regularly and the timelines around this.

Accountability Conversations about performance are an essential aspect of management. But they can’t happen in a vacuum, rather they are just one piece of the jigsaw. They need to be part of a bigger context which has at its core a focus on bringing the best out of everyone on the team. Not a sprint, but a marathon.

 

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

Informal Mediation Preparation

A HR Manager contacted me about an issue between an employee and her Manager. The employee had approached her saying she was feeling disrespected and undermined by him. The HR Manager had a brief discussion about the situation with the Manager also to hear his point of view and then thought it would be best if she held a three-way / informal mediation meeting with both of them to try and help them sort it out. Her query to me was how best to prepare them for the three-way meeting/mediation session.
This blogpost outlines five key areas that are worth exploring in pre-mediation coaching on a one-to-one basis that will optimise the chances of a successful three-way problem-solving/conflict- resolving meeting.

Set the scene for a three-way meeting

  • This is about setting the context – what the purpose of such a meeting might be, what format it could take and what parameters would need to be in place to make it work for both of them.
  • You might frame the meeting as ‘an opportunity for both of you to have a constructive conversation about the issues with a view to finding a way forward’
  • You could also advise them that your role in this meeting would be to help facilitate the communication. You would not be getting involved in the content or telling either of them what to do or making decisions for them.
  • It’s important to explain to them that the meeting is not about investigating the facts of the matter and making judgements about the wrongs and rights of each person’s actions or behaviours. Rather the purpose is that each of them get a sense of the other’s perspectives, where they are coming from in relation to the issues. This will then enable them to figure out how best to jointly problem-solve and reach a mutually acceptable outcome.
  • Explain that in order to keep it constructive, you will agree simple guidelines at the outset e.g. that each of them talks in turn, that each of them speaks respectfully to the other and that they keep confidential the matters in discussion

‘Download’ – Give an opportunity to ‘vent’

  • You may already have heard some of the details of the difficulties they have been having, however, it is important to spend some time giving them an opportunity to air their ‘story’ about the situation.
  • Your role here is to be empathic and acknowledging any upset or frustration they might be experiencing. You don’t need to agree with their viewpoint, simply demonstrate that you have heard it and that it has a validity for them, for example: “It sounds like you are finding things difficult between you and XX in the working relationship and that you’re feeling very frustrated about some of the things he/she has said to you”.
  • As part of your listening role, use questions and reflective statements to help them move from the natural tendency to focus on the negative actions or behaviours of the other person to helping them focus on what is at stake for them in this situation. For example “What was it you needed in that meeting that you didn’t get from Tom?”, clarifying questions “So you are saying you find her attitude very difficult – is it her behaviours towards you or is it more how she approaches her work that gets to you?”.
  • Other ideas on helping people move from positional viewpoints to have a more interests/needs focus can be found here

Help them get clarity on the outcomes they might want or need

  • So you have given time and space to listening to their story of what they don’t want. Now you need to help them move forward and reframe: what is it they do need instead, in order to make the working relationship function adequately.
  • I would usually start by asking questions that help the person focus on potential outcomes. For example:
    • “If both of you were to feel that this meeting has gone well, what would have happened “
    • “What outcome would you like to have from this meeting today; what outcome do you think Mike would like?
    • “So I’m hearing you say that when Anne doesn’t respond to your email requests for meetings you find it very frustrating and that it causes a delay; what is it that Anne needs to be doing differently that would work better for you?”
    • Or: “You said you found it very difficult the way John gave you the feedback. How would you have found it easier to hear/preferred John to share this kind of feedback with you?”
  • As well as asking people about their ‘ideal’ outcome, it’s important also to help them temper their expectations by exploring what would be a second-best outcome for them. This gives them an opportunity to prepare themselves to deal with and accept a more realistic outcome and what it is they can ‘live with’ in terms of the other person’s actions/behaviours.

Prepare them for communicating during the meeting

  • Invite them to think about what the main points are that they would like to get across to the other person during the meeting. Conversely, have them also consider what the main points that the other person will want to convey to them.
  • Build their awareness of what might derail the meeting. This might be things that the other person could say that would upset them or throw them off balance. Help them figure out how they would respond to a negative comment or remark from the other person.
  • They should also consider what they might say that would throw the other person off balance during the meeting. Invite them to think about how best they could bring this point across so that it’s least likely to make the other person defensive

Coach them around the importance of their attitude and mindset to this ‘conflict’ situation

  • When difficulties, tension or ‘conflict’ arises in a working relationship, the reaction most people have is negative. They feel negative towards the other person, have a sense that they have in some way been wronged by them. They also feel annoyed and angry that this situation has come along and often see it as a blot on the landscape of their working life. It can be helpful to talk to people about this phenomenon and acknowledge that it is a normal and a part of our natural defense system.
  • Let them know, that the difficulty is, that this kind of mindset can lead them into feeling quite powerless and hopeless about the situation they are now in. When they feel disempowered by a situation that has come up in their lives, they are likely to deal with it much less effectively than when they feel empowered and strong.
  • Depending on the person and the situation, they may be open to talking about this and having you gently challenge them around it. In any case, I find it useful to pose some of these questions below to them as a ‘homework’ task that they would do for themselves, to help them feel more positive and empowered about the situation.
    • How can you see this situation in a positive light?
    • What might ‘life’ be trying to teach you in this situation?
    • How might this situation be presenting new opportunities and challenges for you?
    • What do you want in the long-term for yourself in this situation?
    • What new skills, behaviours, ways of interacting might you learn from this situation?
    • How can you make this working relationship work for you?
    • What actions can you take now to make the best of this situation?

    My experience is that informal, three-way meetings to problem solve about difficulties and tension in the workplace can work very well. However, thorough pre-mediation preparation and coaching will greatly enhance the chances of its success.

Making Feedback Work

‘Feedback’ is one of the top three issues that can cause conflict or sour working relationships.
The reasons for this are many. In some cases, the feedback ‘giver’ may be abrupt, overly negative or passive-aggressive (“yes, you did an ok job with that” through gritted teeth). But the receiver of feedback also plays a role – they can resist, defend, deny or go for broke and self-deprecate (“please hit me on the other cheek because I’m so bad at XXX”). For myself too, despite years of training experience, I must admit there’s still an anxious moment before I read the Course Evaluations sheets at the end of a training session… ‘how am I going to be judged now’.

For this reason, I was attracted to the recently published and quirkily entitled ‘Thanks for the Feedback. The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well: Even When it’s Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered and Frankly Your Not in the Mood’
Harvard Negotiation Project authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone have tackled this subject from a less frequently explored angle – what it is that clogs the airwaves in the ears and eyes of the receiver of feedback. There is learning in this text from both receiving and giving feedback and I’ve pulled together a few of the key points that I found most useful here:

Investigate the story behind the ‘label’:

More frequently than not, feedback comes in the form of simplistic labels. Most unhelpful examples of this might be ‘lacks motivation’, ‘poor attitude’ but it’s not just the negative characterization that’s the problem. Rather, it’s the fact that when we are communicating with one another our tendency is to share only the ‘headlines’ rather than the details of what exactly we mean and how we came to that conclusion.
Even if we do share what sounds like the ‘raw data’ in an attempt to be objective, (‘you missed two deadlines last month’) we seldom are enlightened enough to share the subjective filtering or background ‘story’ that we applied to this that made it a problem. In this example that might be things like ‘Those deadlines are with key customers’, ‘I’m really frustrated’ or ‘I am wondering if I didn’t emphasise the importance of this enough to her’.

To complicate things further, the person listening to the feedback will be applying their own particular filters and subjective ‘story’ to what they are hearing. So ‘you missed two deadlines’ can be heard as anything from ‘I made two small mistakes and that’s all this guy noticed’ to ‘I am the worst XXX that worked in this job’.

Remedy:
As a feedback receiver, don’t fall into the trap of reacting to the label, instead ask questions to figure out how it was they reached that ‘conclusion’ about you. For feedback givers, take the time first of all to clarify your own thinking as to why a particular behaviour or action is a concern and then share as many details as possible that will help the listener understand this.

Be mindful of our ‘hard-wiring’

Whether we like it or not, our genes do influence our lives. Research would suggest that how we react to negative feedback is mediated by three factors:
Baseline: This refers to our temperament, are we generally ‘happy clappy’ types, content with most of what life throws at us or, at the other end of the spectrum is there a restless or even gloomy undertone going on for us a lot of the time.
Swing: Are we easily tossed around on the waves of life? Or are our emotional reactions more straight lines than peaks and troughs?
Sustain and Recovery: How long before we move on from the negative or positive feelings? Interestingly, research shows a 3000% difference across individuals in this.

Remedy:
For feedback givers, put this on the table as a discussion in contracting around giving feedback. For example, when contracting around performance appraisals, talk about how it is for that person to hear feedback and what works well for them. Normalise the fact that people have different’ hard-wiring’ and invite them to share their own experience. Share your own hardwiring around feedback with them also.

For feedback receivers, while we have limited control over how others will view and respond to us, we have 100% control over how we react and let this affect us. So if you have a tendency to ruminate on negative feedback shift your attention instead to ‘how well can I bounce back from this negative message about myself.

Don’t have conversations where you talk past one another:

Here’s an example:Manager: ‘I just want to give you a bit of feedback about the Project with Grate Widgets Ltd. that you have been working on…you are doing a good job but they raised a couple of issues in a meeting a couple of weeks ago that they aren’t happy about’It would seem like the topic the Manager wants to talk about is ‘issues client isn’t happy about’. But the Team Member responds ‘Why didn’t they come to me directly if there was a problem?’ so in effect they are changing the topic of the conversation to ‘issues I’m not happy about’.

Both of these topics need ‘air time’ so the most skilful answer from the Manager would be to say ‘Ok, so I can see that you’re also not happy about some aspect of this…we need to talk through that also…which will we start with?’

Remedy: As a feedback giver, understand that if the listener feels triggered, they are likely to respond defensively. In effect, what they are saying is ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing’ and will need acknowledgement and to be listened to around this concern as well. As a feedback receiver, be mindful that your upset or annoyance at what you are hearing might cause you to focus exclusively on your own identity needs and miss out on hearing some valuable information about how you could improve.

Cultivate a ‘learning’ mindset:

This refers to our fundamental mindset about how we view people’s (and our own) abilities to grow and change. Yes, I know I’ve just referred to how fixed our hard-wiring is but that’s only part of the story of any person’s behaviours and actions. It’s easy to fall into black and white thinking – ‘he’s a good teacher’, ‘she’s very domineering’, ‘I’m no good with people/figures/computers’, ‘he’ll never make the grade’.

Remedy:
As a feedback giver, talk about this and promote this kind of culture in all your feedback conversations. Notice when people feel triggered and put this on the table as part of the discussion ‘Yes, I can see this is hard to hear but let’s focus on what you can learn and how I can best support you in this’.
As a feedback receiver, notice when your own thinking spirals into negativity and you have transformed ‘you could keep tighter deadlines’ into ‘I’m physically incapable of ever doing anything on time’.

Model the giving and/or receiving of feedback well:

In receiving feedback, to what extent do you model an open and curious attitude to being questioned or hearing someone else’s opinion. Are you a ‘Yes but’ or ‘Tell me more’ kind of person?

When we are really triggered by feedback, do we welcome this and say ‘hmm that’s interesting, I wonder why that bothers me so much and what can I learn about myself here?”

In giving feedback, to what extent to do you match the following criteria:

  • Clear, specific – refer to a particular issue or behaviour, not ‘awfulising’ everything the person does
  • Timely: not six months later
  • Constructive ‘It would work better if’ rather than ‘You are careless…’
  • Ensure you get your ratios right – unlike our diet, to grow and flourish as people we need more sweet than sour so focus on trying to catch people doing things right rather than wrong.