July 20, 2015

If the number and content of comments generated are any indication, my previous post clearly struck a chord with some readers. One flat-out said that it was wrong to suggest that there could be hidden value in conflict. Others challenged my definition of conflict, presumably because the word carries so many (well-deserved) negative connotations that it cannot possibly be beneficial. All in all it was healthy, invigorating discussion, and one that shows the importance of defining terms carefully. At the risk of reopening debate I'd like to clarify and expand my previous definition of conflict slightly, and parse a few other related terms in order to provide fuller context.

In the original article I defined conflict as something that begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. To take a rather mundane example, let's say you and I are discussing where to meet for lunch. If neither of us has any strong taste preferences, food allergies or other needs that might conceivably be challenged by the lunch decision, then all we have is disagreement. Our relationship can remain whole, untouched, and fully functional. According to our definition there is no conflict because neither of us particularly cares one way or the other; there is no emotional "heat" in the situation. If, on the other hand, we both have more strongly-held beliefs, attitudes or opinions about where to dine then we are potentially headed for conflict. In this case something that one or or both of us care about -- namely, our choice of lunch location -- is or could be impacted by the other's.

Conflict continuumTo that let me now add another definition of conflict that I have used in previous posts: it's simply a signal that something needs to change. By this I mean something about the relationship, or how we are handling a given situation, needs to shift in order for us to return to a healthier, conflict-free state, or else experience continued discomfort and risk potential escalation. Thus if we merely disagree about lunch venue options then nothing needs to change; obviously we need to somehow render a decision before we both starve, but otherwise the situation and relationship remain normal, cordial, and healthy. If we're in genuine conflict over restaurant options then we probably need to change how we're making the decision or managing our relationship. For example, each may need to stop insisting on getting his or her way; we may need to consult a third party to help us settle the matter; or I may need to stop constantly deferring to you so I don't start resenting you for picking the restaurant every time we lunch.

To get a better idea of the distinction between the two, it may help to think of disagreement and conflict as being two places on a continuum of emotional distress and discomfort, as shown in the accompanying illustration:

On the left is a normal state: things are fine between us and our relationship is not suffering. There is no emotional pain for either of us. On the contrary, we enjoy mutual respect, admiration, perhaps even affection. If we shift slightly to the right on the continuum into disagreement, it may cause a little stress (especially if it's a minor issue such as the one in our example above) but it's not damaging or fatal to the relationship and it certainly doesn't cause either of us to feel threatened in any way, emotionally or physically. We just disagree. We still feel positive about each other and the relationship.

Further on is conflict. This is where one or both of us feels significant discomfort or emotional distress as a result of a real or perceived threat to something important, whether it's our identity or self-concept, our physical well-being, or an infinite array of things both concrete and abstract that may be affected. Needs like self-esteem, a sense of belonging, or acknowledgement are common trigger points in conflict. These are important to us. We care deeply about them and when sense they're about to be infringed or transgressed, we react. We feel pain. Imagine the case of two co-writers working on a new song or screenplay, each feeling very attached to their own creative "children," i.e., their respective contributions to the collaborative work: each feels very strongly about the value or importance of their input and may push hard to ensure it survives the editing process. In such a conflict the working relationship itself may also now be in jeopardy, but it doesn't automatically mean it's over or that the co-authors can't still create together. Something needs to change in order for the situation and/or our relationship to go back to the way it was before the issue(s) arose, i.e., a healthy, calm, pleasant state free of distress or discomfort.

Note that even within the one state we call conflict there can be a range of intensity in the pain and discomfort. On one hand we might experience productive conflict, such as one might experience in a passion-filled brainstorming session: team members may want or need to feel their ideas are valued, valid, and heard, even though they realize that not all ideas emerging from the brainstorm can be implemented. On the other hand is destructive, personalized conflict where the participants are actively interrupting each other, dismissing or judging each other's ideas, or belittling the people putting forth the same ideas. In both cases, according to our comprehensive conflict definition, something we care about is being impacted or threatened, and something needs to change in order to reduce the pain and discomfort of the situation or relationship. Some sort of healing or repair needs to take place if the creative brainstormers are to return to a normal, pain-free state.

Next on our continuum of pain is harassment (and its equally ugly variants including bullying, intimidation and discrimination). The consequences of harassment, bullying and their ilk can be severe; in extreme cases it can result in criminal charges or human rights violations, not to mention considerable psychological or bodily harm caused to the victim. Note that harassment doesn't necessarily arise out of a pre-existing disagreement or even conflict.

It's important, therefore, to avoid interpreting this continuum as a time line. A normal or OK state does not naturally or inevitably devolve into disagreement simply through the passage of time. Disagreements don't turn into conflict, eventually, all the time -- they can end as quickly as they start -- and conflicts don't necessarily escalate into harassment.  However, a disagreement or conflict probably will escalate into something more personalized and destructive if it isn't resolved or at least managed well.

(Here it's important to make a further distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. The former may be the goal, but not all conflicts can be resolved. They can, however, be managed so they don't spiral out of control, which is a topic for a future post.)

To many people the difference in meaning between these states is a question of mere degrees. But there is significant difference in how to deal with each situation in order to get the best, most sustainable outcomes. A normal situation or relationship may not require much beyond maintenance and common sense to prevent it from disintegrating, but it takes special skills to prevent, manage or resolve cases of conflict and harassment. While these skills are seldom innate they can be acquired, and much of the work we do at Fifth House Group is in skills development and training. (Better prevention than some other intervention.)

In summary, conflict is a signal that something needs to change, and it begins when something we care about is about to be affected or threatened in some way. A useful analogy is physical pain, which is the body/brain's mechanism for signalling that something physiological needs care and attention. Chronic symptoms are obviously not desirable, should never be ignored, and left untreated can be fatal. Still, feeling the initial pain or discomfort is a necessary first step to healing because it warns you to investigate and seek treatment. It begins when accident or illness affects the body, threatening physiological health -- and it can be a signal that growth is occurring (as they say at the gym, "no pain, no gain!"). Thus I stand by my previous contention that conflict can be valuable: just as pain leads improved health when managed promptly and well (sometimes even more robust than prior to the injury), conflict can also ultimately result in a stronger, more fully functional creative team, group or organisation.

- kda


August 31, 2015

Accountability – or the lack thereof – is the Achilles Heel of many a potentially great team, group or organisation. Part of the problem is that accountability has become just another buzzword. (It’s like the weather: we love to talk about it but we seldom do anything about it.) It’s also an uncomfortable subject, being frequently confused with blamestorming. When the going gets tough it’s easy to forget that accountability is simply the ability to account for one’s actions.  It's holding others able to describe a chain of events, for better or worse.

Like accounting, real accountability is concerned with (literally) summing up positives and negatives to determine a net result. Accounting is emphatically not about finger-pointing, judgment or shaming, and neither is accountability. Balance sheets and P&Ls are just tools for analysis, a means of figuring out how to make a business more profitable. Similarly, accountability can and should be an instrument for making teamwork more effective and productive. You wouldn’t shout at the numbers and call them names, but that’s the kind of pointless exercise that is sometimes passed off as accountability in many a meeting. Judgment and blame do absolutely nothing to rectify the issue or prevent a recurrence. We need to take the heat out of accountability and approach it more like accountants approach their numbers: respectfully and free from emotional baggage.


Of course this is easier said than done. We’re all human and we have feelings; no one likes to be the bearer of bad news that might let the team down, never mind admit to personal failure. For those on the receiving end, frustration and anger are equally enervating. As Dr. Brené Brown notes in her must-see TED Talk about vulnerability, “The psychological literature describes blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” No wonder we so often wind up playing the blame game.

How many meetings or rehearsals have you attended where precious time and energy were wasted defending actions or deflecting feelings of guilt or shame by making someone wrong – preferably someone else? When our identity or self-concept is threatened, it’s easy to double down on our righteousness. It’s much harder to admit fault and learn from the situation. The latter demands humility and vulnerability; the former just requires ego. Guess which is typically in greater supply?

Accountability as learning

This is why leaders need to model accountability. Learning is critical, not just for the individual but for the entire team or organisation, and it’s hard to learn if you’re busy justifying, defending or deflecting. By admitting to your own mistakes you make it OK for others to do so. This is the paradox of trust: only when we allow others to see our weaknesses do they reciprocate and trust us in kind. (Consider the origins of the handshake, a symbolic show of unilateral disarmament and vulnerability.) Disclosure also creates empathy and allows others to close ranks around the vulnerable party. If this sound counter-intuitive, consider the following: Who is more trustworthy, the person who proactively calls for help when a project is in danger of going sideways, or the one who tries to cover up until the problem spirals out of control? The sooner a issue is identified, the sooner it can be fixed. In the short term it’s aggravating when a team member screws up, but in the longer term being accountable leads to greater learning, group cohesion and trust. The flip side – denial – risks collective failure by maintaining the illusion of individual infallibility.

Accountability is a team sport

Leaders are not solely responsible for maintaining accountability, however. It must be a team sport. Having only one or two team members repeatedly play the “bad cop” sets up a straw man scenario, particularly on a team of equals where there isn't a clear supervisory or managerial relationship; instead of being seen as allies, team mates become the enemy. If everyone holds each other accountable then no one can get away with thinking, “Oh, it’s only John – he just doesn’t like me,” or “There goes Jane again, she thinks she runs the place.”

Here are a seven additional principles to help build a culture of accountability in your creative team or organisation:

  1. Stay out of judgment. As indicated above, judgment doesn’t accomplish anything – but offering assistance, feedback, and support does. Flag judgmental language if and when it happens in team meetings and elsewhere.
  2. Equate accountability with learning opportunities. This is sound advice in most situations but it’s particularly true where personal and team accountability are an issue. The question is not, “Who screwed up?” but, “How can we fix it and move forward?” Discuss it openly to improve communication and strengthen the team bond. When things go right, acknowledge the win and build on team strengths.
    Ensure role and task clarity. Too often team members simply aren’t clear on their job or role boundaries, expectations, and desired outcomes. Meetings often end with only tacit understanding of what these are, but they must be made explicit.
  3. Adopt an “accountabili-buddy.” Having a partner to help keep you on track and offer support in between meetings or formal reports increases the likelihood of attaining individual objectives. While the psychosocial risk of admitting failure in front of the larger group can be a motivator for some, for many it’s a terrifying prospect that can lead to avoidance of accountability.
  4. Consistency is key. Inconsistently applied, accountability devolves into blamestorming. You can’t selectively apply a rule and expect everyone to follow it uniformly. Similarly, the least acceptable standard for one person sets the bar for everyone on the team. Either rehearsals always start on time or they don’t; it shouldn’t matter which orchestra member is late – including the conductor.
  5. Ownership & input correlate with accountability. Given the opportunity to set their own milestones, deadlines, performance criteria, etc., team members tend to rise to the occasion more often than those whose every move and progress report is micromanaged. Our own personal standards are often higher than others’ anyway, and self-evaluation can be a powerful tool (especially when combined with #4 above). The difference between having someone check up on you and voluntarily checking in with that person is empowering and lead to improved accountability.
  6. Be response-able as well as accountable. By this I mean that everyone should be held able to consciously choose an appropriate (i.e., solution-focused) response to every situation. Emotional reaction is not the same as a considered response; anger and frustration are understandable but not productive.
  7. Establishing explicit ground rules for having difficult conversations, including conflict norming (a topic for a future post), is highly recommended. Teams should check in regularly to ensure they are mutually upholding those standards. 

Accountability is an opportunity to celebrate successes and recognize strengths. It’s also a way to minimize the likelihood of mistakes and to reduce damage to team trust and cohesion when they happen. As with accounting, the pluses and minuses inevitably impact the bottom line.


September 18, 2015

Have you ever stared in disbelief at someone's completely incomprehensible actions? Been bewildered by another's disproportionate reaction to events? Or felt like your head was going to explode because a colleague kept making the same mistake over and over again? Every now and then we all experience the frustration of behaviour that seems utterly irrational or bizarre, whether it's misplaced anger, resistance to ideas or change, sabotage, or any other form it may take. If this sounds familiar, keep reading -- this post is for you. I'll consider it a public service if I can prevent at least one more exploding head and, I hope, generate a little more empathy and understanding.

The solution is in these four words: All behaviour makes sense.

Angry people
Image copyright Fifth House Group. All rights reserved.

Repeating this short phrase to myself like a mantra has helped me through many a difficult encounter. It reminds me that no matter now challenging another person's demeanour, words or deeds, there is some underlying cause that I simply don't yet know -- and it often has nothing to do with me. This simple statement of fact always piques my curiosity, opening my mind (and heart) to whatever might be going on for him or her beneath the surface.

This is important because as long as my curiosity is actively engaged I stay out of judgment. Otherwise it's far too easy for me to label the other person, objectifying them as a "jerk," "lazy-ass," or "crybaby," and seeing them as the problem instead of attacking their behaviour which is invariably the real issue. I also sometimes make it about myself, when in many cases -- if not most -- the behaviour really has little to do with me, at least not directly. Or I make (incorrect) assumptions about what's causing the other person to act out. My false attributions might be based on how I would act (or react) in a similar situation, but of course we all have different perspectives, cultures, family histories, and other baggage that shape our responses. Any such assumptions are bound to increase the mutual misunderstanding and frustration in an already fraught encounter. Curiosity is a powerful antidote.

Even if it doesn't make sense to me immediately, any questionable behaviour still has its own logic. Considering all possibilities keeps me from rushing to an unhelpful, counterproductive conclusion. The only thing I need to do to avoid getting sucked into an emotional vortex is to stay curious about that driving force.  It sounds hard, especially when feeling triggered by the behaviour, but even the most outrageously incomprehensible behaviour is essentially the outward manifestation of an inner need: We satisfy thirst by drinking. When tired, we sleep. Picking up the phone to order a pizza is just one of myriad behaviours that can address a hunger, and so on. The same is true for whatever is bothering you about the other person's behaviour: there's a motivation, it's just hidden from you. "All behaviour makes sense" is an effective reminder that he or she is just trying to tell you they need something, albeit in an awkward and uncomfortable way. The trick is to figure out what the unmet need is or, where necessary, help them do it.

At the basic biological/physiolgical level the causal connection can be relatively plain to see. (That said, it took me years to finally join the dots linking my cranky mood swings with low blood sugar. Who knew "hangry" was an actual thing?) Where the need-behaviour connection becomes more opaque is in the higher reaches of Maslow's hierarchy: abstractions such as self-esteem, belonging, or self-actualization are more difficult to surmise from a person's outward behaviour, even to the well-trained eye. We can appreciate another's anger and defensiveness when their physical safety or security is threatened, but it's  tougher to comprehend when it's their identity, self-concept or some other  invisible, interior thing that's at risk. All it may take is the slightest suggestion that he or she may be wrong, for example, and the self-preservation instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Even though it's just a cognitive threat, the primal brain still delivers a burst of adrenaline and the injured party can react as if life itself were on the line. When that happens we can only be certain of the visible, external signals: we can generally interpret the tense facial expressions, harsh language, sour tone, and other cues. What we can't know for sure is the underlying cause.

Diagnosing the root problem is a challenge because the presenting symptoms can have a number of possible motivations. The aggressive bully might crave a winning feeling, or he might be seeking respect; the chronic latecomer may be exerting a semblance of control otherwise lacking in his harried life, or he may secretly like the attention that follows his habitual tardiness; the apparently shy introvert who seldom contributes to meetings may be retreating into safety and security amid the noise and chaos of brainstorming sessions, or may simply want time to collect and process more data. Depending on the people and situational specifics, the unmet needs could be more process-oriented (ex. the need to ensure equal input in a creative decision) or people-oriented (ex. the need to be right, to save face, to preserve a relationship, etc.).

Caution is key because asking direct questions to surface the unmet need(s) risks unintentional provocation and can result in defensiveness; gentle, appropriate questioning  is both an art and a learned skill. Further complicating matters, the person exhibiting the difficult behaviour may not be consciously in touch with their own underlying needs. They're frequently unaware of the problem behaviour in the first place. That's the bad news.

The good news is that in typical creative collaborations, team or organisational situations the list of most commonly frustrated needs is relatively short. It includes the need for validation or recognition; the desire to be heard and understood; the hunger for acceptance and belonging; and variations on these themes. With the right sensitivity and training you can learn to better identify the underlying needs and therefore satisfy them, reducing or eliminating the unwelcome behaviour. Getting to the precise root of the issue is easier, of course, if you have a trusting relationship and an environment that encourages open, honest dialogue.

Absent those, genuinely seeking to make sense of another's behaviour nonetheless forces us to shift into a different, more productive problem-solving mode. Rather than trying to change the person (which is never successful anyway) we can refocus on influencing the behaviour. The alternative is being triggered by the behaviour  and getting dragged into a downward spiral. So when you're struggling to understand someone's words, actions or inactions, remind yourself that  all behaviour makes sense (yes, even Twitter and Facebook trolling). Remaining curious makes room for empathy and reduces the likelihood  of conflict, blame, or other counter-productive, enervating attitudes -- including Exploding Head Syndrome.

- kda