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768: How to Embrace Generational Differences and Resolve Conflict with Chris De Santis

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Chris De Santis shares helpful insights about each generation and how to work more effectively across ages.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn generational friction into an opportunity 
  2. How to give feedback that works for every generation
  3. How to motivate people from every generation 

About Chris

Chris De Santis is a speaker, author, consultant, and most recently podcaster specializing in Management and Organizational Development issues and interventions. He specializes in assisting individuals or groups in identifying and overcoming obstacles to effectiveness. He brings with him thirty-eight years of experience in training and development. He has an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Notre Dame, a graduate degree in Organizational Development from Loyola University in Chicago, an MBA from the University of Denver, and previous work experience in manufacturing, professional services, and not-for-profit environments.  

His book, Why I Find you Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work, will be available in May 2022 but until then you can listen to his advice podcast, “Cubicle Confidential” along with his co-host, Mary Abbajay. He resides in a quiet corner of Lincoln Park in Chicago. 

Resources Mentioned

Chris De Santis Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Chris De Santis
Thanks, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, first, I think we need to understand you and your history with improv classes. What’s the story here?

Chris De Santis
Yes, yes, yes. I moved to Chicago probably…I live in Chicago, if anybody’s interested, and I moved into an area called Old Town about, oh, 30 some years ago, and I had some friends in the city. And Old Town is the heartland of Second City, and so I was told, actually, a good way to make friends was to take improv classes.

And the other reason was I’m a little bit of a…I have a bit of stage fright issue, and so I was told this might help me with that. I ended up taking improv classes from Paul Sills. And if anybody’s listening, Paul Sills is the son of Viola Spolin. And if anybody knows who that is, Viola Spolin wrote improv in the theater, and that’s sort of the basis for Second City.

So, I had access to one of the gurus of the time, although I never quite leveraged it to the degree he did, but I ended up teaching a while at a local theater here, too, so it was a very fun experience. I recommend it to anyone who’s introverted.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun. I did a Second City five-day intensive improv class once, and it was a lot of fun. And I remember saying, telling my friends, “Oh, it’s nice. I feel like it loosened me up.” And my friends said, “Did you need to be loosened?” Well, compared to my…

Chris De Santis
Did you do a show? Did you do a show afterwards?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, well, not like with a big old audience but it was just sort of I think, the dozen of us doing our thing.

Chris De Santis
The games.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris De Santis
I love the games. Really fun.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s fun. Well, now, I want to hear a bit about your book Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work. What’s the big idea here?

Chris De Santis
Well, the whole point of this book is really to understand the differences between us. And so, in that sense, in fact, the title’s curious because I had submitted 37 titles to the publisher.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow. I love it. That’s what we do.

Chris De Santis
And this is the one they liked.

Pete Mockaitis
We get tons of title options and they choose the best one every time. Thank you.

Chris De Santis
And so, they liked this because I think it really makes the point that we are, in some way, irritated with others across one difference that we recognize, this is one of those difference that we readily recognize, and we ascribe it to them as if they’re at fault and we, of course, are not, meaning that we’re the objective view of reality. And so, what my book goes on to talk about where this comes from and the repercussions of this, and then what to do about it in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. Well, so we’re talking about generational friction, and this is always a delicate matter because I think, Chris, there’s probably no way around it. We’re going to be making some generalizations here. Is that fair to say?

Chris De Santis
Yes. Well, that’s part of what I talk about in the book, but humans do that, humans generalize.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess, first of all, how do we define the generations? And are we coming at it from a US-centric base here or is it kind of global in applicability?

Chris De Santis
Now, you’re making some very good points because when I speak to this topic, I have to go through a whole series of caveats, to your point. The first one being you generalize or I generalize, and I’m not describing humanity. I’m describing some actions of a normative group in the middle class in the United States of America who conform to certain experiences at certain times that sort of shape a perception.

So, in that sense, it is a smaller subset. It is not global even though, it’s interesting, I’ve spoken around the world on this, oddly enough. I’m always amazed I’m invited anywhere but I had talked about it. And so, when you talk about it globally, you have to say some of these things but, still, even having done that, they still see differences that correspond to the American experience, which I think is interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Chris, so we’re going to do some generalizing. First, we need to define some terms. Generations, how do we name them these days and what is roughly the median age of a person representing each generation, say, in summer 2022 as we record this?

Chris De Santis
Yes. So, if we go with Boomers, you know where that came from “baby boom,” so everyone knows that one. There was a great number of us born in that window of time after the war, and that would be that 65 or 67-year-old today in the median group, and we’re retiring out, about half of us are retired. Gen X got its name from the book. There was simply just one book written about them. They fly below the radar quite a bit, and, of course, their median age, according to what we’re playing here, is around 45 to 47.

Then the next crowd, Millennials, had a different name. They were originally in the literature for a while. They were Gen Y because Gen X, Gen Y but that never caught on. And I think that they responded much better to, or it was foisted upon them, the idea of a Millennial simply because of the turning of the century, the millennium.

And now, we have Gen Z, which were called Zoomers or the Zoom generation, but I think that fizzled as well by virtue of the fact of Zoom. And so now they’ve gotten the Gen Z moniker, again, because they’re going in sequence. And the next generation, interestingly, these new kids, they’re calling Gen Alpha because they’re starting it again, but I don’t think they’ll have a name until they define who they are, and then we’ll lay a label on them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, Gen Z would be about 18-ish to 22.

Chris De Santis
18-ish, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Your fresh recruits.

Chris De Santis
Exactly right. They are in the workplace right now. They’ve just entered.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there we go, four generations. And so, you say…well, I guess, we’ll go into particulars in terms of frictions but maybe just to cue us up with some intrigue, is there a particularly surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made as you dug into all this stuff associated with generational friction?

Chris De Santis
Well, what I came to, not necessarily conclusion, but one of the things I did notice that I thought was really a shaping aspect of this is, it’s not just the flashbulb memories that you have that sort of shape you, it’s also the parenting model. It’s how you were parented affects how you interact with others. So, I’m a product, as a Boomer, I’m a product of sort of a permissive authoritarian parent so I sort of had to get in line with things.

And so, if we think about of a Gen Xer, these are those latchkey kids. And so, they had more of a permissive sort of a sensibility about how they interacted because they basically are far more independent on their own. Millennials are part of what would be concerted cultivation in terms of how they were raised, and I will call that an engaged-discuss model. They’re always engaged in discussions as to what they should or need to do.

Gen Z has a variation of that model called co-piloting. The point being here is that those needs or the expectation of dialogue is what they bring into the office. Yet, in the office, they are not necessarily expected to engage in dialogue but, rather, to be subject to the authority of the people that are in charge. And the people in charge often view this as a challenge when they say, “Well, what about this?” and you’re going, “Whoa, I just told you what to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, there we go, we’re getting into the meat of it – an expectation of dialogue. Sometimes the younger generations may expect some more and the older generations think that’s not necessary, “I’ve already told you that,” and so that can create some friction on both sides.

Chris De Santis
That’s exactly right because the other thing about the young is interesting, to a great degree, and if you’re around parents, and I try to observe parents sort of surreptitiously when I’m with people, is that they negotiate more with their children as opposed to demand they do something. So, there’s a discussion, of course, that’s inherent in the negotiation.

And I think the young now are excellent negotiators and they bring that to any conversation they have, and we, in management, or if you’re in a management position, you’re not open to a negotiation when you’re telling somebody to do something but it comes off very strangely in terms of my expectation. If I’m a young person, my expectation, “Why wouldn’t I have this dialogue?” Conversely, “Why are we having a dialogue?”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s so funny, I think, because I’ve got a three-year-old and a four-year-old right now…

Chris De Santis
You have young children, yes?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I really go…I guess I go both ways in terms of like I don’t like to yell.

Chris De Santis
No, and you won’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they get sensitive and really sad really fast, I was like, “Oh, I was just trying to make myself heard because you seem to be sort of in your own world over there. Now, I feel like I’ve overdone it because you’re getting all sniffly.” So, yeah, but at the time it’s sort of like, “There’s no need for us to be discussing. You do what I say.” And other times, at the same time, I want them to be kind of creative and free and expressive.

So, it’s funny, here I am, I guess a Millennial, in this schema, and I am in the midst of it right there in terms of when I say, “Get in the car right now, Johnny,” versus like, “Well, hey, it’s getting to be about that time, you know.”

Chris De Santis
Yes, you are biased towards suggestion than demand. And I’ll tell you another thing that you probably do quite a bit, Pete, that you may not notice that you do is you explain why you do what you do. You explain why you’re doing this. You don’t assume that they’re going to understand that this is a command but rather, “This is why I have to say this to you to do this.” And that’s part and parcel to the expectation that they have in the workplace, too, this whole idea of, what’s his name, Sinek’s book, Start with Why. That’s really what they’re asking, to a great degree, is why.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chris De Santis
You did this, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s one point of friction is expectation of dialogue. How about another one?

Chris De Santis
Well, again, a lot of this just depends on with whom we are talking about. For instance, this notion of loyalty, which is very interesting. The accusation that we, a Boomer, is far more loyal in our disposition than those who follow. That, of course, I outline in the book, is really about the movement from the company-man experience to a transactional workplace.

And the company-man experience was really one of the assumptions that, “You will work here for the duration. And as a consequence, I will reward you, deferred reward, and that will be rewarded as a pension to some degree.” So, the inference is, “You have this job for life if you do what I want and the way I need it.” Now, what we have done is we’ve moved transactionally, and now it’s a negotiation a minute.

For instance, one of the things that most annoys some Boomers is that when they interview, the young will ask, “Well, what are the benefits? What’s the vacation time here? So, what do I get for this?” And, in my day, that would’ve been seen as “What? Why? I’m offering you a job and you deign to ask me all of these things about the benefits? You’re getting a job.” But they’re saying, “This is a transaction. I’m going to be doing something for you. I expect something in return.” So, it becomes more marketplace-driven.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny because, in some ways, I resist being generalized.

Chris De Santis
No, no, I understand.

Pete Mockaitis
And yet I completely…I, 100%, am down with the transactional vibe. It’s just like, “No, the wealth structures and pensions do not exist, and it is a competitive marketplace, and it’s just economic fact that I have many opportunities available to me, and you have many opportunities of people you can hire. And so, we’re going to see if we have something that works for both of us in terms of this is a role that I think is swell and meaningful and a compensation package that works, and you think I’ve got the skills and knowledge, skills, abilities to deliver the value that you need delivered, and either one of us will walk.”

And so, it’s sort of like, “I don’t think you owe me anything and you don’t seem to…” you being the employer here in this dialogue. I think it’s just a reality we know that an employer will cut us loose at any moment that they feel that it would be more profitable for them to do so and, thusly, I have no…I’ve been self-employed for a long time but I guess that’s sort of…

Chris De Santis
By the way, that’s interesting. I can talk to that as well in a moment, but you’ve said the key here is that this is the new reality. It wasn’t the old reality.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Chris De Santis
Exactly right. So, the new reality has shifted in terms of what you expect in this transaction.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, so my thought is like, I don’t know, when people talk about what’s right or wrong, or sometimes they say, “Oh, we know nothing is right or wrong. It’s just different expectations and generations and how we were brought up.” And I’m thinking, “Well, no, it would be foolish, it would be unwise to operate in a false reality. It’s like one thing doesn’t exists to you so don’t make decisions as though it does or you may get the rug pulled out from under you.”

And I guess I’m a little paranoid about this, Chris, I don’t know. That’s why I went into strategy consulting, I was like, “Develop an amazing skillset so that you can do anything.” And then How to be Awesome at Your Job, it’s like, “Okay, all the listeners, develop an incredible universal skillset so that you’re fine. No matter what the robots do, no matter what your jerk boss does, you are bulletproof because you’re like Liam Neeson with a particular set of skills that make you extremely valuable in any work environment.” You got me on a hot soapbox, Chris.

Chris De Santis
Well, this is the point, one of the points you’re making, the new reality, to your point, Pete, supports this idea of employability, “Look, I have to be employable.” The key. And in defense of the notion of loyalty in the young, they are more likely to be loyal to you, “If you treat me in a way that recognizes how I make the contributions I make, and what I do on your behalf,” and they’re less loyal to the organization which is an abstraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay, cool. So, there’s expectation of dialogue, loyalty. Maybe give us one more thing where people differ significantly.

Chris De Santis
Another. Oh, well, I think, actually, as a consequence of the pandemic, one obvious thing where we are differing or we’re furthering apart is where senior management believes everyone should come back, and everyone else believes, “I think I like it at home,” and so we have a huge rift. It’s almost the opposites of each other. When you have senior management, 77% say, “We want them all back,” and the people, basically, young employees in particular who have now experienced this freedom, want to stay free relative to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Chris De Santis
You also had said something interesting, Pete, because it’s been bubbling up in each generation, it’s doing a little bit more of this, is that each one is more entrepreneurial than the generation that preceded it. You are creating in your own children the desire to have an independent life. And part of the messaging, you will never say that out loud, you don’t have to say that, but you behave in a way that says, “You can create your own destiny.” And we are really pushing the envelope on individualism and the creation of these independent people. I think we’ll, eventually, all be freelancers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so here we are, we’ve got some points of friction and that show up across generations. What do we do? What’s the best way to navigate them and work peacefully and effectively across generations then?

Chris De Santis
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, part of it has to do is be very clear on your expectations. I think that’s one of the things we don’t do. You see, I’m used to a world of ambiguity. I was raised with guessing right. And if you guess right, you move forward. Nobody actually told me the whys and the whats of things, but rather I’ll know it when I see it, which was a common refrain in management at one point in time.

And so, the young, to a great degree, want to know, really, what the rules are to achieve, “How do I navigate this environment?” I think I kind of use the analogy of video games. They want to know how to get to the next level, “How do you get to next level? How do you do this? How do you play the game?” So, I think it’s very important to share the expectations of how you operate with the people who are making you successful.

So, if I’m a manager, I should be telling you, “This is how I manage. This is what I would expect from you. What do you need from me to achieve here? How do we stay in touch?” those kinds of things. If I may give you a point of contention that’s very trivial but it’s one that comes up is that, “How do we stay in touch?”

I have a person I work with who I’ve used to make videos, and he will only contact me through a text. He will never pick up his phone, and I like it when people talk to me. In fact, I like it when they sort of see me. But, in this case, his mode of connection is a text. It’s not that he’s not willing to talk to me. It’s just how he’s more comfortable connecting with me. So, I think part of this is we have to get aligned who we are to each other, and how do we stay connected.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say we’ve got a younger person, say a Millennial, who is the manager of a Boomer. So, that happens. Any pro tips when it’s sort of moving in a direction which might be different than what we’re imagining?

Chris De Santis
I think one of the challenges with that is it’s not just the Millennial-Boomer difference, it’s a stage of life difference, meaning that, “Look, I have 35 years of experience under my belt,” let’s say. “You, young whipper-snapper, have only been doing this for three years, and you’re managing me.” I think there’s an ego that steps in here that says, “Oh, my gosh, is this affecting my ego?” through the lens of the Boomer.

I think it’s prudent for the Millennial to draw from the more experienced person’s experiences as much as they can to say, “Here’s what I’d like to do. What do you think on how to do that?” It doesn’t mean that they’re foregoing the decision that they own, but rather they’re drawing from the other person some level of commitment by allowing them to tell them what they do know about this area that could be useful, and then I will fold that in. You see, it’s almost being some kind of combination between deferential and respectful.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, gotcha. Okay. Well, bring it on some more, Chris. Any more tips and tricks, do’s and don’ts in this new generational world? Yeah, we’re collaborating, like watchouts and best practices, I dig it, being clear on expectations. What else?

Chris De Santis
Well, this idea of how we connect. Our methodology of connection, I think, is interesting. One of those is, I’m a Boomer so my methodology of connection is I like seeing you, I’d like to meet you, we’ll meet. This is our idea of networking. Let’s go meet people. Let’s join things. Now, we know that from bowling alone that people aren’t joining anymore. So, in that sense, the methodology of connection for a Gen Xer is not so much that I know you as the person, but I know that you are competent in what you do.

You see, when you’re dealing with somebody in that category, who is I will call a little more private in their revealing of who they are, they reveal more slowly over time. They’re sort of like unfold over time, and they will reveal themselves as the competency of the relationship becomes more solidified, meaning that, “You show me you’re good at something, I’ll show who I am.”

And so, as it relates to that, the young are more open again. The Millennial is, you’ve heard this expression, they share too much?

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-huh, I’ve heard this.

Chris De Santis
Well, I don’t know if they do share too much. I think what we often hear from them is that…or, actually, so there’s commenting about them, saying they share too much. When, in fact, they’re not oversharing; they’re just in the habit of sharing who they are with others, and their methodology of connection is to self-reveal. For instance, you talk to your kids on a daily basis, I would imagine, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, yeah.

Chris De Santis
Right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Chris De Santis
So, if you do, when you talk to your kids on a daily basis, you probably ask them each day, “What did you do today? What did you today?” Do they share that?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s hit or miss.

Chris De Santis
Well, that’s interesting because, normally, and a lot of times, because I overhear…again, remember I talked about I observe these parents, is that they’ll tell what they did today. And I think that gets in the habit of how they reveal who they are to others, and so they’re not necessarily oversharing. They’re finding a way to connect with another, and then their expectation is implicit reciprocity, “I’ve told you who I am. Tell me a little bit about more of you.” So, they’re open to the discourse between us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Cool. What else in terms of do’s and don’ts here?

Chris De Santis
Okay. I was thinking, “Should I go uphill or downhill with this?” It’s so interesting. I do think that, again, going back to some of this, how we are different, I think one of the things that’s going to be very important going forward is how we decide to mentor. The young want to be mentored in a more deliberate capacity where it used to be more of an organic experience, meaning that I just discover you, and I say, “Oh, you seem to be a young version of me.”

And if we’re going to live in a world that embraces greater diversity, we have to be more deliberate in how we mentor people. But my problem with that is, and here’s where the friction lies, when you use a term like, “I’m assigning you to be my mentee,” Pete, it infers intimacy that we don’t have. And so, in that sense, we should start more from the backend here, just have an advisor to each other that allows us to open up more slowly because I think intimacy is something that is earned as opposed to assumed.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. I hear you. That checks out, like, “This is your protégé, this is your mentor.” It’s like, “Oh, really?” They do tend to, in my experience….

Chris De Santis
And then, again, the other problem I have with that is that they tend to assume that, “Now that you’re my mentor, you are also my sponsor.” And, again, we don’t define these things very well. And a sponsor is different than a mentor. A sponsor, of course, is somebody who’s going to look out for you and get you promoted. A mentor is really someone who’s going to give you advice on what they’ve learned in certain areas where you might seem to have some issues that you want to share in terms of solving problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. And, tell me, if we do find ourselves in maybe a heated exchange, like we got some real tension, intergenerationally, do you have some tips on how we might navigate that smoothly or cool things down a bit?

Chris De Santis
Yeah, because I think a heated exchange is typically in the area, in my view, because one of the myths about the young is, in general, that they’re very sensitive to feedback. I think that people will say, “I’m not convinced that they are sensitive to feedback. I’m convinced that all people are sensitive to feedback.” And so, in that sense, I think sometimes we give feedback as a conclusion as opposed to the behaviors.

And so, I have no problem with somebody saying, “Okay, Pete, hey, you’re not really doing a great job being a team player.” That’s the headline but you can’t stop there. You can’t just expect the young person say, “Okay, I’ll be a better team player.” Well, what does that mean? So, I think what we have to do is we have to be more explanatory. We have to say what are the behaviors.

And then, because, again, these are children of dialogue, as it were, we should be willing to have a discussion about, “Well, what does that look like? And what are the ways to shape that behavior, or change that behavior? And how do I support that effort? And how do I know it happened?” So, again, we have to move away from just a pure tell model to more of a dialogue model because that’s an expectation, and, quite frankly, it has greater stickiness when you’re in dialogue with somebody.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’d also like to get your view when it comes to just sort of motivation, in terms of we hear listeners say, “Oh, you know what, my peers,” or direct reports, or others, “are just not motivated. They’re kind of phoning it in.” Do you have any pro tips, in terms of are there different carrots and/or sticks or drivers that tend to be more compelling for each of the generations?

Chris De Santis
Well, I think part of the key here is that this is where we’re moving beyond the generational differences into more the stage of life, “Where are you in your life? And what might you want then?” And so, for instance, the young are still probably, to some degree, deciding, “Who I will become?” And so, what motivates me is, “What do I want to develop in terms of my skillsets? So, where are my skills? And where do I want to hone those skills?”

So, part of the motivation is, again, this goes back to engaging people, is to find out, well, what they’re interested in doing better, or more of, and trying to find circumstances that you can supply that. That becomes the carrot, as it were. So, I think that works very well. Now, some people want promotions, which I am not convinced everyone wants promotions anymore.

I think, going to your point, Pete, they want to be employable, and they want to develop their skills. The only problem with that is, “When I make you more employable and develop your skills,” people fear that, “Oh, then I’ll lose them to the marketplace.” Well, wasn’t that Ford who said, “Well, the only thing worse than not training your people,” or, “training your people and they leave, is not training your people and they stay”? So, I think we have an obligation.

Now, the other thing interesting about in my generation, motivating us, is to say, to some degree, is, “What experiences do we want to have?” because I don’t know if promotions are part of the package anymore at this stage, but rather also I think we’re in a legacy phase, “What can we give back to others?” We should create circumstances where we can teach those who follow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Well, tell me, Chris, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Chris De Santis
At this point, no. I think we’ve covered this. I like what you’re asking about some of these, the differences between us, and I like your point earlier that, look, you cannot generalize about a whole group. You have to say what group we are alluding to. And this notion of, “What are the norms within that group?” What are the norms we observed?

I think part of the trouble with being young is that the headlines about Millennials are negative. They are the Florida Man of generations because anytime you see Florida Man in a headline, it’s some tragedy that, you know, “Florida Man found starving to death in his own refrigerator.” So, you have these tragedies, and then we start to see these Millennial headlines, and we start to associate that with them, and that becomes self-fulfilling in our perception of them, which is not an accurate reflection of who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that resonates in that, I guess, I don’t even like being called a Millennial.

Chris De Santis
No, it’s unfair.

Pete Mockaitis
Even though I guess, technically, that’s where I’d land, and that’s like I don’t care for that.

Chris De Santis
Well, because, again, how they have labeled you. This is interesting, too, because one of the things about each generation, we’re all a disappointment. We’re not just a disappointment at the same time. Gen Xers were slackers, we were hippies, so in that sense, everyone is a disappointment, and then we outgrow it. The only problem that Millennials have is Gen Z hasn’t stepped in to be a disappointment yet so that you can get some space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, got that to look forward to.

Chris De Santis
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chris De Santis
Yeah, one of my favorites is “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are,” and that’s why this is such a perceptual issue. This was, I think, I can’t think of…how do you pronounce her name? Anais Nin, she wrote the Delta of Venus. Lovely book, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Chris De Santis
My favorite bit of research is a book by a man named Hofstede, and he wrote Cultures and Organizations. And what he did, it was from an IBM study, I think, originally in the ‘70s, and he extrapolated that or expanded that into the different dimensions across national cultures. That was super enlightening because now I see why the French are the French, or Mexico is Mexico, and US is US. Very enlightening.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Chris De Santis
I like it when I get free notebooks, you know, those ones you can write in, like that swag. They give you a gift. Because I use those, sort of, to take notes and then I just have a stack of these things.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. And a favorite habit?

Chris De Santis
Habit is reading. I’m a reader. I would have to believe you are as well, to some degree, to do so many of these episodes, but I do try to read a book a week.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how do you manage that volume? Do you listen? Do you read while doing other things, like exercise? Or how do you…?

Chris De Santis
Well, exercising, actually, I do that while I’m on the bike, but, typically, though I dedicate at least two to three hours a day to read something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Chris De Santis
I’m okay with that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Chris De Santis
You have little kids. You can’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Chris De Santis
Yeah. When I talk about this, because you said it right at the beginning, is, look, when you generalize, the only real truth in what I say, and in my book, is that what is true about…you said it yourself. The thing that is true about you, personally, is what’s true. Everything else I say is really fodder for the conversation or the discussion or the discovery you can make in an exchange with another.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Chris De Santis
They can get in touch with me at my website at CPDeSantis.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Chris De Santis
Yeah, I think I would say this, that, look, next time you see somebody acting strangely, in a way that you will judge them, imagine for a moment that this person is as rational as you are, and what might they be doing that is rational to them. And so, I would just simply say give people the benefit of the doubt.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Chris, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and peace as you’re navigating generational frictions.

Chris De Santis
Thank you, Pete. And good luck with the kids there.

760: Taking the Fear out of Feedback with Joe Hirsch

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Joe Hirsch reveals why we all struggle with feedback and shares how we can get better at giving and receiving it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The small shift that improves our relationship with feedback
  2. Why to ditch the feedback sandwich and embrace the W.R.A.P.
  3. What to do when you’re not getting the feedback you need

About Joe

Dr. Joe Hirsch helps leaders apply behavioral science to improve the way they listen, lead and learn. He’s a TEDx and international keynote speaker and the author of The Feedback Fix, which has been praised by Fortune 500 executives, NFL coaches and educational reformers for its forward-looking view of human performance.  Joe’s work and research has been featured in Harvard Business ReviewCNBC, Forbes, Inc., The Wall Street Journal and other major outlets. He’s helped more than 10,000 people across three continents communicate with impact and hosts the popular podcast, I Wish They Knew.

Resources Mentioned

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Joe Hirsch Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joe, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Joe Hirsch
Hey, Pete. Good to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to dig into your wisdom about feedback. But, first, I want to hear about you and pushups. What’s the story here?

Joe Hirsch
You remind me, I have to go do some. Yes, so I enjoy pushups. I’ve been doing them for like 20 years straight, never missed a day, and I have found that to be a low-impact, high-value exercise. I used to use weights and I found that the weights were cumbersome. I couldn’t travel with them, they took up space in my basement, my kids were competing with me for them, and it never seemed to work.

So, I shifted a while ago, even before like this new phase of my life, and I shifted to pushups and I never looked back. And I feel like it’s a great metaphor for feedback, in general, because the things that we do, the small steps and small shifts that we make, sustained over time, they have such a huge impact. So, all about the pushups, it’s good for you, folks. Go out there and do five while you’re listening to this podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, how has it evolved in terms of where did it start and where is it now and what’s the pushup vibe, groove, goal?

Joe Hirsch
So, after about 20 years, I’m up to three pushups.

Pete Mockaitis
Progress.

Joe Hirsch
I’m getting better every day and, yeah, I think it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So, you set a goal for today, you say, “I’m going to 50 pushups today.” Maybe you can do them straight, maybe not, you break them up into short bursts but you start to realize that those small wins begin to happen and you start to incrementally build upon that progress. And I find that very rewarding.

Sometimes you finish a workout, you’re like, “Oh, what did I just do for the last 45 minutes?” or, “Man, I’m sore but I don’t feel like I did anything.” With pushups you really feel like you’re making gains and you can really track that progress. So, I like the workout.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, cool. Well, we’re going to talk about feedback and your book The Feedback Fix. I’d love it if you could just kick us off with kind of a Joe greatest hit. Is there a particularly surprising or fascinating or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about us humans and feedback over the course of your career?

Joe Hirsch
I think that if people start to think about feedback not in terms of fear but joy, they’ll be surprised by the resonance of their message and the impact of their words. I don’t care if you’re a manager, or you’re an individual contributor, or a parent, or a teacher, or a spouse, feedback is hard and it makes the conversations high stakes, and that’s exactly when we need to be high touch.

And by shifting our message and our mindset, and in the process of looking out towards the future that people can still change, rather than looking back at a past they can’t, we can absolutely make a difference in the tone and the trajectory of these super important conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You said joy. Intriguing. I guess we’re going to go into a lot of detail about some feedback things. But any quick perspective on how do we get more joy on the receiving end of feedback? Is there a mindset that is optimal for us?

Joe Hirsch
It’s to look at feedback not so much as a gift, which you hear a lot from people and it’s not wrong. It’s not bad advice but I tend to think of it more in terms of a deposit. Because a gift, you can return. The gift doesn’t have to be something you like. It’s more about what the other person thinks you might need. But when it’s a deposit, that’s when we can start to separate that truth signal from the noise and we can start to build interests on that deposit and take it somewhere if we make the right moves and have the right mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, it’s a deposit, sort of like, “Okay, I can do something with this. I can invest it. I can get rid of the illicit drug money component of the deposit.” Really stretching this metaphor, Joe.

Joe Hirsch
Yeah, it’s not a drug drop. It’s a deposit. And, ultimately, that’s the thing about feedback. We don’t choose the feedback we get but we absolutely choose where it goes. And I think that’s why deposits make so much sense to people because when they think about feedback as a fear-inducing experience, and I’ve literally asked this question, Pete, to thousands of people across the world, leaders at every level, across industries, “How do you feel when you get feedback?” These are the leaders, “How does it feel?”

And then I asked them a simple follow-up, “How did it feel the moment just before you got that feedback, when you knew it was coming?” And the answers are almost universally, “Well, I felt cautious. I felt uncertain. I felt uncomfortable. I felt in pain,” and that’s because, for a lot of people, we approach these conversations with a focus on deficits and not strengths, with a focus on the unchangeable past and not the unfolding future. And we, ultimately, look at feedback as a sledgehammer to hit people over the head with rather than a shoehorn to sort of open up possibilities and potential.

And when we start to make that small shift, whether that’s on the receiving end or as feedback-givers on the delivery side, that’s the moment when we can start to make a world of difference in the tone, in the trajectory, and, ultimately, in the impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Joe, you’re of master distinction. I love this already. A sledgehammer, no, no. A shoehorn, and the past versus the future. Like, these are the sorts of things that make people go, “Oh, okay.” Tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak. And when you add them up, it’s very actionable and doable and potent, so I dig it. So, tell us then, in your dreamworld, what’s really possible with feedback? Like, what should feedback accomplish and do for us as professionals in the world?

Joe Hirsch
So, in The Feedback Fix I explore feedback through the lens of something called feed forward, a term that was first introduced by Marshall Goldsmith. He gave it sort of common currency. It goes even further back before Marshall to some researchers back in the 1960s. But feed forward, a concept that was originally intended to help people elicit quick feedback in almost like a speed-dating format, that’s how Marshall uses it.

And I began to wonder, like, “Could this possibly have a strong research undercurrent to it? Is there something more to this than just a neat way to grab some quick insights on my current performance with total strangers?” And as I begin to unpack the research in preparation for writing The Feedback Fix, it became clear that, in fact, there was.

And when you start to peel this back a little bit, you begin to notice some trends, that when we start to make these small shifts in the way we look at ourselves as leaders and how we operate, that the moment we start to approach with more inquiry and more curiosity and act more like learn-it-alls than know-it-alls, that’s the moment when we give permission for others to do the same.

And we start to shift these dynamics from power to partnership. And, ultimately, that’s what feed forward is. It’s a strength-centered forward-looking view at who people are becoming, not just who they are. And it’s the moment when leaders start to operationalize this mindset of, “I’m going to be more of a listener and a learner, not a teller and a seller.”

That’s when they start to unlock these great insights that they don’t always have, and give permission to the person on the other side of that conversation to continue to be a partner in that process. In a perfect world, we would do a lot more listening and learning and a lot less telling and selling.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that really unlocks what we can become, and that’s beautiful. So, let’s get into it then. You say right now, in contrast, traditional feedback is, you say, broken. Could you give us the rundown on what’s not working when it comes to feedback in this day and age, 2022? I’m thinking United States-centric, although we have listeners around the world. Hello, guys and gals. What’s not working right now in professional settings feedback?

Joe Hirsch
So, you really have three problems with traditional feedback, which happens infrequently which focuses on a past that people can’t change, and, ultimately, it’s preoccupied with weaknesses rather than strengths. So, the first is bias. There’s some really interesting research out there that shows that when I give you feedback, let’s say you’re my employee, Pete, and I’m talking to you about something that just happened at work. The feedback that I give you is filtered through the important priorities and principles that I have and not focused on the things that matter to you.

So, when I give you feedback about your performance, I’m actually speaking more towards my priorities and principles. It says more about me than it does about you. It’s called the idiosyncratic rater effect. And there’s other cognitive mind traps that slip into this process, focusing on people’s past and holding them to it. Recency effect, the most recent thing that happens takes centerstage.

Or, sort of the opposite of that, spillover, where we chain people to their past performance. We don’t ever let them get out of their past mistakes or missteps. Or pillow or horns, looking at people as either all good or all bad, and filtering that way. So, you have big problems with bias, and that’s even before you get into other biases about people’s backgrounds and who they are and their life experiences they bring, and it’s a messy, messy picture.

The other problem is blindness. And, especially today, we’re talking now in March of 2022, today, work is more complex and less visible than ever before. And that’s one of the great upheavals of the pandemic is people started to leave their offices and go work from home. Work became less visible but it also became more interconnected.

And as work became harder to track, because more people, more hands touching projects, and at the same time became less visible because it’s happening away from the view of managers a lot of the time, so it’s very difficult for managers to have all the insights and all the answers that they might have once had.

It’s like if you go to your favorite pizza joint and you order a pineapple pepper pizza, don’t knock that until you take a try, by the way. It’s quite awesome. So, like, who’s responsible for that awesome pizza? Is it the chef who came up with the recipe? Is it the guy in the back cutting all the vegetables to perfection? Is it the farmer who sourced the vegetables or the pineapples? Is it the delivery man who brought it all together? So, who’s responsible for success?

And that’s the question that managers are really focusing on today, “Who’s responsible for success? I can’t see it, therefore, I can’t track it. And, as a result, I don’t know it.” So, blindness is a big problem for people. And then you have memory. Even if we had all the pieces in front of us, we can’t necessarily remember it. And memory researchers talk about this thing called the forgetting curve, and it sounds exactly as it described. There’s a sudden and steep loss of information just as soon as you begin to learn it. And researchers point that loss somewhere between 30% and 50%.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, minutes after you tell me something.

Joe Hirsch
It’s wild. It’s crazy. So, like, if you learn something on a Monday and then you try to implement it on a Tuesday, you’re already wondering, “Well, what was the password?” or, “What was the website I was supposed to go to?” or, “What was the new policy that my managers just told me about?” and we don’t remember it.

And that memory loss steadies and slows but becomes steeper over the course of a week so that by the time a week goes by, we have forgotten almost 90% of information, which is astounding. So, if you think about the fact that most companies are on a performance management cycle that is either annual, which is – oh, God – like why, or quarterly, which is still not great, the problem is one of memory.

The manager and the employee acting like forensic psychologists or archeologists trying to recreate a past that neither one can truly remember, so you’ve got bias, you’ve got blindness, you’ve got memory, and all these factors combine to produce a picture that isn’t pretty, so it’s no wonder that when you ask the question, “Can I give you some feedback?” We have a physiological response to that question. Our hands become clammy, our knees buckle, we feel like less of ourselves, and that’s why traditional feedback is failing and that’s why feed forward is succeeding.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that makes sense right then and there. Like, even before we talk about how you say it, like just the content in and of itself is going to be inaccurate and incomplete. So, it’s almost like roll the dice. It’s like, “Let’s just see what’s going to happen,” and that naturally makes us pretty uncomfortable, like a huge dose of uncertainty and it’s personal, “Joe, I’m going to tell you something about you. It’s going to have some implications about your future and your prospects. I don’t know what it is and it may or may not, but likely will not be accurate.”

Joe Hirsch
Right. And that’s why we have such an instinctual resistance to this. We look at feedback, as you said, as a judgment and it’s not just about our work, it’s about ourselves. We also don’t take it very seriously because we don’t think it’s accurate. And that’s why if managers were to approach the conversation with greater humility and greater curiosity to act, as I call them, as mirror holders instead of window gazers, as people whose job it is to simply enlarge and expand the view of another person rather than to tell and sell the other person on what they think has happened, then we’re going to have a different conversation.

So, it really starts with this mindset, as you said, even before you get to the message. The way we think about this has to really change.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then how does one be more of a mirror holder?

Joe Hirsch
So, it does start with that shift in thinking about, “What is my role here? If the manager says my job is to solve a problem, my job is to force a change,” then you’re going to be frustrated because, as we said, you don’t have all the answers, and even the data you have may not be good. So, instead of trying to tell and sell, ask the other person for their perspective, and this is where approaching with that learn-it-all mindset, a sense of curiosity and wonder can be super helpful. So, that’s the first step is to start to approach more as a partner and less as a power broker.

Once you do that, though, the message really has to shift from, “I’m trying to fix you” to “I’m trying to frame the problem or frame the issue.” And when we start to act as framers and not fixers, that’s a resonant message for people because rather than tell them what to do, we’re trying to unlock an insight that they already have and hold. And in The Feedback Fix and the work I do with organizations, it becomes very clear that you don’t need to overhaul your whole system. With small shifts and how we shape these conversations, we can actually have a dramatic impact.

And it really starts with operating with a simple belief that, “My job is not to force a change but rather to provoke an insight, and use the person on the other side of this conversation. You have answers that I may not have. You have insights that I may not possess. And if I can do a little more to engage you as a partner, to have more of a dialogue rather than a judgment, and to focus on the things that are really important to you and the moments when you were successful and to build on that, then we can start to have a conversation which is focused more on truth, it’s focused on clear goals, we talk to people as humans, we don’t focus on them as numbers, and, ultimately, we make them feel like more of themselves and not less.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Joe, this is beautiful. I think I’ve got a nice picture for the mindset, the vibe, the feel, the attitude to how we’re kind of centered and pointing at this thing. So, now, I’m curious, in practice, let’s say I love it, I want to feed forward, what are my action steps? What do I go do?

Joe Hirsch
So, one tool that I love sharing with clients is something called a feed forward wrap.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, like a hip. Are we literally talking about rhyming lyrics?

Joe Hirsch
No, this is not Tupac. This is all different. Did I just go to Tupac? Well, I really just dated myself.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s classic.

Joe Hirsch
It’s okay. If you watched the halftime show this year, everyone kind of traveled back in time a little bit at the Super Bowl. So, this is a wrap, as in like the sandwich, or more appropriately the opposite of that praise sandwich, which, oh, God, we have given so many times and probably we’d just like to do without a little bit more.

So, the big problem with the praise sandwich is that it tends to be very meandering, it doesn’t really address the issue, it kind of dodges and disguises information, and we hope that people can kind of decipher our intentions somehow by sandwiching what we want to say in between two pieces of praise to kind of trick them and distract them from what we’re actually trying to get across.

And, look, I have no problem with praise. The issue is the sandwich. Research shows that when you sandwich feedback like this, it ends up going nowhere because people can’t follow your message. They tend to think of the person giving it to them as less reliable or trustworthy because we begin to wonder, like, “Well, if there’s an issue, just tell me, man. What’s going on?” And, ultimately, we don’t know where to go with that feedback.

So, the wrap, as in, “Let’s go get a fajita wrap,” yeah. Anyone hungry? Actually, this reminds me, I need to go eat something. So, when we think about feedback wraps, we’re talking to people more candidly, more caringly, and more collaboratively. And wrap stands for what and where, reason, affect, and prompt. What and where, reason, affect, and prompt.

And when you start to break feedback down this way, then you start to give people more clarity and control over the process, you engage them more collaboratively, you yield higher levels of commitment, and, ultimately, you get impact because you’ve got clarity. So, it’s a super effective tool that anyone can do and it helps you shift the dynamics from the past to the future, and from power to partnership.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very clever, moving away from the sandwich and toward a wrap. It might be a lower carb as well.

Joe Hirsch
Lower carb and high protein. Yeah, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you give us some examples walking us through the what and where, the reason, the affect, and the prompt?

Joe Hirsch
Yeah. So, let’s say I have a tendency to talk over people in meetings and you, as my manager, Pete, have noticed this and you got to bring it to my attention right away because other people on the team, they’re commenting on you offline, and they’re saying, “Joe won’t shut up. I mean, literally, in every meeting, the guy is cutting me off and can’t get my ideas out there.”

So, you pull me aside, and you say, “Joe, could we talk? I want to talk to you about something that happened in the meeting yesterday. A couple people felt like you had cut in when they were sharing their idea for how to engage this client.” So, that’s the what and the where. Now, why is that important? Because if you just say to me, “Joe, can I give you some feedback?” in this vague amorphous way, then my mind starts racing and bracing.

And when you look at brain scans of people who are asked that question, “Can I give you some feedback?” It’s amazing what the brain shows. There’s a spike in cortisol, the stress-inducing hormone, that literally depletes us. We become less creative. We experience a reduction in our executive functioning. We feel like less of ourselves. So, that’s why feedback feels so crappy because we are operating in a suboptimal way.

And so, by giving it a destination, a zip code, I suppose, of what’s happening and where it’s happening, you don’t eliminate the fear factor but you mitigate the fear factor. And so now, I know, “Okay, you want to talk about the meeting. It was yesterday. Here’s what happened and it’s not about my numbers. It’s not about my breath. It’s not about the shirt that I’m wearing. And it’s not about my lack of Zoom etiquette. You just want to talk about something that happened in the meeting yesterday when I cut in. Great.”

You then say, “Okay. Joe, look, the reason I want to tell you about this is because Paige and Sam, they felt really bad when you kind of cut in. And I know that something that you would never intentionally try to do, and I know how important our team dynamics are. You’ve been there a while, you’ve obviously demonstrated commitment to our goals and our values as a company, and I just wanted to bring this to your attention because it hurt them.”

And so, there’s two reasons, Pete, why we want to give the reason. Even if we’re talking to adults who are fully formed and we assume are aware of everything. The first is that people aren’t as aware as we think they are. There’s some great research out there on self-awareness that 90% of us have only 10% self-awareness, which is an astounding gap in perception and reality, and that’s why we have to tell people about this because they might not even be aware of how they’re showing up in the moment.

The other reason you want to give the reason is because of our innate need for certainty. So, I was on a plane recently going to a client event. We’re back on planes now, post-COVID, that’s kind of cool, but everyone was still a little bit anxious. And so, we got on the plane and we did the pre-flight stuff and everyone’s buckled up ready to go, and then nothing.

Like, we were just on the tarmac. We weren’t moving and people were getting fidgety and nervous and they started to look at their watches, and they’re like, “What’s happening?” and there’s no announcement, and everyone was beginning to worry, “What’s happening? What’s going on?” until the pilot finally got on and said, “So, we’re actually just, you know, we experienced a small mechanical issue. One of the members of the crew are coming to check it out. It’s a small warning signal that went on. We’re just looking into that before we take off.”

And so, now I’m thinking, “Oh, a warning signal, a warning light. Great. That’s why we’re here. It’s not because there’s bad weather forecasted, or not because a member of the crew got sick, or someone’s experiencing a medical emergency. It’s just a warning light.” And then you’re like, “Oh, a warning light. Well, maybe that’s a bad thing, but at least I know. At least I know what it is.” And so, certainty and self-awareness, we got to give the reason.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I guess it’s sort of like in that situation, your fears about what could be were brought into a narrow scope in terms of, “The reason I share this, Joe, is because this is one of many signs that I need to fire you.” So, it’s just like, “Oh, okay.” It helps contextualize in terms of, “The reason I share this is because you care about our team and our values and people are feeling good and having a good vibe, and I want to help you accomplish that,” as opposed to, “And the reason I’m sharing this is because, as you know, layoffs are coming and this quadruples the odds that you’re going to be out of here.”

Joe Hirsch
I might not add that part but I love everything you said at first.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m saying is some people freak out, I think, because we talked about certainty and how spooky it is because it can be anything, “Can I give you some feedback?” It can be anything from “You’re fired” to “You’re the new CEO.” And so, when you give that reason, it situates us quite nicely in terms of, “Okay, this is really what’s at stake here.” It might be big, it might be small but at least I know.

Joe Hirsch
And I care enough about you to tell you what that is and I want you to understand where I’m coming from and I want to make my intentions clear. So, that’s good to start but a lot of feedback operates with those two assumptions in mind. Let’s give a location and let’s talk about the context. Where feed forward really starts to show its magic with this wrap approach is in the final two stages – the affect and the prompt.

So, here’s a universal human truth. People can argue with what we say but they’re less likely to challenge how we feel. And so, when I shift the dynamic of the conversation from blame to emotion, or from judgment to description, that is the moment when you feel a little less assaulted by my feedback.

And so, if I were to say, “Look, the reason why I want to have this conversation with you and the reason why it’s important is because I felt badly for Paige and Sam who, in that moment, kind of just…they looked a little defeated and a little frustrated because when you cut in like that, Joe, it was really hard for them to retrack and recoup, and they had a hard time resuming where they were. So, I felt bad in that moment because that’s where they kind of lost their train of thought and the meeting kind of took a dip.”

Now, that’s a different statement than, “You’re rude. You’re a jerk. And you’re insensitive to the needs and feelings of your colleagues.” So, by moving this away from judgment, you-statements, “You didn’t do this,” or, “You did this and you really shouldn’t have,” we move it into I-statements, “I felt bad. I noticed this and I felt bad for these people who were affected by this.” And, again, here’s where we’re really moving it out of the high-stakes context and we’re shifting ground to a place where people can approach more humanly, and they can say, “Oh, I wasn’t even necessarily aware of that. I’m really sorry. Like, that wasn’t my intention.”

And then, finally, you get to the prompt. After all this has happened, you’ve talked about what’s happening, where it’s happening, the reason, the affect and the impact that was brought about, the emotional toll, here’s where feed forward is so powerful, Pete, because this is where we operationalize that mirror-holding that we talked about before, that listening and learning, and we give the control of the conversation to the other person, and we say, “Okay. So, what are your thoughts on where we go from here? What do you think? What do you think we should do?”

And it’s in that moment when people feel like they have the agency and the opportunity to be a partner, that’s when they’re going to do one of two things. They’re either going to say, “I don’t know. I don’t know what you want me to do. I don’t know.” And that’s okay. Some people will say that, and that’s when you can say, “All right. Well, I want you to think about it. I realize right now, it’s maybe a lot, you’re processing, you’re taking it in. Let’s pick this up in a day, or in a few hours, or whatever your cadence is for this.”

But still with the assumption that, “I want to hear from you. I want to know what your thoughts are.” Or, the more likely scenario that I’ve observed and I’ve workshopped this in real time with teams, and I’ve seen this almost all the time, people will have an answer at the ready because we are closest to the problem which means we’re also closest to the solution. And that’s when we can come up with an idea.

And, by the way, the ideas that others will come up with are very close to, if not the same, as the ones we would’ve proposed ourselves, except now they belong to the person who suggested them, which means they own them, which means they’re going to act on them, which means they’re going to feel a greater sense of responsibility towards them. So, we’ve built commitment where there could’ve been concern. We’ve created partnership where there once was power. We’ve created agency where there might’ve just been accountability. And we’ve shifted the whole dynamic from “I know better than you” to “You can do better for yourself. Let me just try to help you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s some good powerful stuff. And so, I’m curious, with the prompt, you said, “What are your thoughts on where we should go from here?” Is the idea that the prompt should nudge in a future-oriented direction as opposed to, “So, what do you think?” or, “Do you think I’m full of malarkey?” Is it that the prompt is a prompt that is forward-pointing, future-pointing?

Joe Hirsch
I think it’s both. You’re making a great point. It’s very nuanced. When you ask that question, you’re really asking for two things, “Do you accept my premise?” and “Do you have ideas?” So, one really neat thing that has happened a lot is when managers ask this question, a lot of times they’ll skip step one, which is, “Does the person accept my premise?” Usually, the person will because it’s presented in a way that is non-judgmental and very descriptive and it’s focused.

But sometimes people do get stuck on that first point, they’re like, “Well, actually, I want to just push back a little on what you just said.” Or, worse, they get their hands crossed, the ears turn red, and the smokes starts to come out of the ears, and they’re like, “Hell, no, I don’t agree with what you just said,” but that’s useful data because, now, you know that there’s something else going on here. It’s not just, “Joe is talking over other people in the meeting,” there’s a fundamental problem that lies beneath the surface that you’ve now uncovered because you’ve given me the opportunity to weigh in.

So, that’s good data, but, yes, it is about looking towards a future action that, ultimately, that person can control and one that they’re going to set on their own terms and timetable, again, with some nudging from you. It doesn’t mean that you, as a manager, now abandon your responsibilities to help move this person or this project forward.

A lot of managers will ask me, “This is nice but aren’t you actually like taking away my power? Aren’t you actually making me weaker?” And I say, “No. No, no, no. If you do this right, you become more powerful because, ultimately, you’re activating the real job of management, of leadership, and that’s to empower other people.” We have the power, as leaders, every day to empower others to find and to feel their best selves.

And when we start to do that, Pete, with these small shifts and how we shape the conversation, how we allow it to be received more impactfully, we’re increasing our power because we’re sharing it. And that’s the fundamental assumption here that we become more powerful and more impactful, we have more influence as managers when we help others become better practitioners, better contributors, better members of our organization, and that’s the real secret. By giving that control to others, it’s not what we give up. It’s what we give that really matters.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking here, when it comes to the prompt, and they might say, “Oh, I think that’s ridiculous,” and then, you do, you learn some things, you’re like, “Well, Paige has been running her mouth about this ridiculous idea that derails us every meeting and it’s wasting our time,” blah, blah, blah. Okay. Well, now, you’re right. You’ve learned something that, “I didn’t know you felt that way about Paige.”

Well, then there’s something to respond to, it’s like, “Hey, you know what, and now that you mentioned it, Paige really does do that all the time.” It’s like maybe there’s another conversation that needs to be had, or it can be like, “Whoa, this person is so kind of, I don’t know, self-absorbed or focused on the wrong stuff to really…this how this person sees the world. Wow, we’re going to have to do some more work to,” I guess I don’t want to fix people, right? We talked about that earlier. But we have to do some more work to get an understanding of where we need to move forward optimally here given that’s where they’re coming from.

Joe Hirsch
And, really, the job of leaders is to unlock those insights for people. And feed forward is one tool in a leader’s toolkit that allows him or her to set those conditions for positive and lasting change. And one of the things that’s been gratifying to see is that this works regardless of one’s experience levels as a leader, background or training. It works in every industry, and I’ve spoken to, I think, just about every single one, that people can do this with just a few tweaks in how they approach these conversations.

It’s not an overhaul of the system. It’s about making small incrementally positive changes in the way we look at people and performance so that we’re, ultimately, doing the real work of leading others, and that’s to lead them closer to who they actually are and can still become.

Pete Mockaitis
And I suppose we can do this wrap thing not just when we’re “correcting” something but also when we notice something that was awesome, it’s like, “Hey, I noticed in this document, in the questions you prepared for Joe, my Joe interview, that it was very thorough in terms of sub-bullets there, and I bring this up because I love it so much I want to see that every time if possible because it’s filled me with delight knowing that I am not going to look like a fool in having this conversation. I was very well prepared.”

“And so, I’m just curious, what did you think about? Did you do anything different when you were preparing this? Or, is there any way we might be able to go forward so this happens every time?” In all that, we’re saying, “I like the thing you did. Let’s have more of that.” And you could use the same wrap format just fine.

Joe Hirsch
A hundred percent. In fact, there’s a variation of that that I’ve helped leaders use in these formal conversations they’re having around existing cadence of performance management on a quarterly or annual basis. And one of the things that they’ll do is they’ll open the conversation by saying, “Tell me about a time when you felt like you were just at your best, whether it’s over the last quarter or the last project, or even the last year, and you start with strengths.”

And, again, that’s what feed forward is about. It’s about activating people’s best selves, not dwelling on their worst selves, and people will say, “Well, actually, my numbers were great but you know what really was wonderful for me the last quarter? I felt like, as we shifted to a work-from-home environment, I was able to really be connected in a different and more substantial way to my colleagues. It was weird. We weren’t together but I felt more connected to them. I guess we just felt like we were in each other’s lives. And that sense of being right up close and personal to people just made me feel more close to them, and that was a big high for me over the last three months.”

Now, that’s not something you might have expected to hear as the leader but now it’s intel that you have. So, you start with that strength and say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that was so amazing for you. Like, what did you learn in that process?” You start to uncover the conditions or the factors that played a role in that. And as people start to lay the groundwork and talk about that trek towards the summit of their success, that’s the moment when it becomes clear to you but also to them who and what made this possible.

And that activates a sense of collective success, which researchers have shown is a much more powerful driver of scalable success than simply just focusing on individual achievement. So, that when I realize that I did something well or I achieved something great, and it’s with the support of Paige over there, and Sam over there, or Pete over here, and you as my leader, that’s the moment I become encouraged, empowered, and excited about doing this again because I’ve got the support of others, and that’s what leads to the scalable success.

I’ve done it before, I have people by my side who are ready to help me do it again, and now you’ve prompted me by talking about those conditions and then talking about the coordinates of where I can go from here, and you’ve said, “All right, where do you go from this? This is amazing. This is awesome. How can we build upon that? And tell me what your ideas for continuing this and scaling that.” And, again, you’re leaving it with me. You’re leaving the conversation with me for me to suggest the next move.

And rather than just dump and run, I sit and I strategize with you. We talk about it. It’s a dialogue. We’re having a person-to-person conversation. Feed forward is now a more human enterprise and it allows everyone to feel like they’re actually able to be actively involved in their own story of success. And that agency is what makes people feel so empowered, so committed, and so excited to make these positive changes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s beautiful. Well, tell us then, if we’re not the manager but the individual contributor, or even if you are leading people but you want your boss to share some of this good stuff that you’re not getting, how do you recommend we encourage and ask for useful feedback or feed forward so we continue learning, growing, and becoming all we could be?

Joe Hirsch
I think it starts with becoming a feedback magnet, making sure that you are asking for feedback, but more importantly…

Pete Mockaitis
And just like asking feedback, is there some magical way to do that or words or…?

Joe Hirsch
Yeah, I definitely think it starts with knowing what kind of feedback. So, it’s not just, “Can I have feedback?” but knowing the type of feedback that you want. Is it corrective? Do I need guidance from you on how to fix something? Am I doing this right? Is it coaching or developmental in its nature? “I’m having a problem with Paige. Can you give me some advice on how I can navigate that relationship?” Or, sometimes you’re just looking for an atta-boy, like, “Hey, look what I did and I want some praise. And even it is a sandwich, I don’t care.”

So, knowing what kind of feedback you’re after will help the person who’s giving you the feedback know what kind of feedback you want. So, be clear on your expectations and they’ll be clear on what they give you.

I think the other thing is to really be careful about separating the signal from the noise. So, you asked for feedback, and maybe you get the feedback you weren’t expecting. Maybe it’s a little more negative or corrective in nature, and you’re like, “Ooh, that’s a downer. I was coming to Pete for praise and, instead, I got a lecture.” So, what do you do then?

So, that’s the point where you want to put aside the emotion. It’s hard. So, if it can’t happen in the moment, you maybe schedule another time to talk it out, but you say, “Look, I’d like to learn more about this.” Start to ask what I call lightbulb questions, things that give you more insight into what the person was telling you or meaning to tell you when they said it.

So, a good example of a lightbulb question would be like, “How often are you seeing that?” “Have you noticed this before?” “Am I doing this a lot?” Just gather information about that so that the lightbulb starts to go off for you so that you know what’s going on. But then you want to funnel a little bit with these funnel questions. And I love funnel questions because it allows the person who’s giving you the feedback to be more specific about it.

The problem with traditional feedback, we talked about a bunch of issues, but a big issue for a lot of managers is that they either feel it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, “I either have to throw everything at you at once and unleash a torrent of feedback and information or I’m going to be very selective and even a little bit stingy with the feedback that I give you. I don’t want to give too much because I’m worried about rocking the boat or saying something that’s going to upset you.”

So, we have to try to help them size and shape the feedback just right, and that’s where the funnel questions come in. Asking, and this is my favorite one, “Okay, so you’ve kind of told me what’s going on. What’s one thing that I can do to change the situation or to improve, or to get better at this?” Now, by asking that question, “What’s the one thing…?” you’ve made it easier for them to tell you what to do. That takes the chances of them of dumping and running and really reduces that by a major order of magnitude. But, more importantly, it’s given you now just one thing to do.

And we can do one thing. We can act on one suggestion. We can make one shift in how we interact with our colleagues or how we think about our work. And so, asking that funnel question is critical because it allows us to become more aware of what’s happening and what to do with it next. And then, finally, widening that feedback loop, because even when we have clarity, it can still cause a lot of pain. We know what has to be done but we’re still nagged by the problem of, “I don’t like the person who gave me the feedback or trust that person,” and so immediately I’m discounting what that person said.

So, going outside that conversation to a trusted friend, a colleague, a spouse, your mom, whoever it is, is going to help you process this information with more objectivity and less emotion. That’s going to help you separate facts from feelings, tone from truth, and baggage from opportunities, and that’s really where we want to go with that. So, become a feedback magnet and do those things, and it will become a little bit easier to get the feedback you need at a time when you need it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like some of the wordings you’ve provided. I suppose what I think what I often wanted to know in terms of feedback, but I didn’t quite know how to say it without sounding off. I wanted to know, basically, what do I need to do differently to blow your mind and think I am an exceptionally awesome employee who absolutely deserves to be promoted soon? That’s what I wanted to know. But I didn’t know if I could ask it like that.

Okay, Joe, feedback master, how would you recommend I ask a question like that? Basically, I want to know, hey, this show is called How to be Awesome at Your Job. I want to know, from the manager’s perspective and for progression and promotion, how do I become more awesome?

Joe Hirsch
So, the first thing to do is to bring some good data with you to that conversation and to help your manager see from an objective point of view why you feel this conversation should happen in the first place. So, I’m a big fan of collecting small wins, and it’s not an act of self-congratulation. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s what we need to do to continue to grow and evolve in our work.

So, keep a little list of wins, maybe some email folder, maybe it’s an app you use, but just track your wins whether that’s a work win, or whether that’s relationship win, something you’ve done to contribute to the values of the organization. Keep those because you’ll want to bring that data.

And you’ll say to your manager, “Look, I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been able to work in this organization with the support of wonderful people who’ve allowed me to be successful but I’m really hungry to grow. I have goals for myself and I want to find ways that I can deepen my connections, and increase my contributions, and build on my competencies. And how can I do that? What are your ideas for me?”

And your manager will be like, “Wow. First of all, I agree with you, those are great wins,” because you’ve now reminded your manager about those things that he or she may have forgotten. Remember, forgetting curves, so it’s good to bring that back to the surface. So, now that you’ve kind of sort of warmed the conversation with that data, that’s when I think you’ll impress your manager by saying, “Look, I’m all about…I’m all in on the contribution. I’m all in on the development. I want more than anything for you to help me reach that next level of success so I can continue to feel like I’m deepening my contributions to our organization and to our team. So, what are your ideas for that?”

Again, you prompt. Don’t tell your manager, “I want a 5% raise.” Now that may be what you want but don’t tell that to your manager because, you want to know something crazy? What if you just bring this out into the open, leave it with your manager, and your manager is like, “You know, Joe actually did a great job this last quarter. Three other people of our team have recently left. I don’t want to lose him. I’m going to offer him 10%.” Why would you already limit yourself by telling your manager what you want when your manager may come back with an offer that exceeds your expectations?

So, start with the data, frame it in the context of collective success, let the manager know that you’re aligned, you’re all in, you’re committed, you want to grow. This is music to every manager’s ears. Like, what does a manager not want to do? Put out fires, worry about retaining high-performing employees, dealing with office drama. And here’s a person who has demonstrated a record of success, is all about the team, has demonstrated some very clear and measurable indicators of his value. So, now, what can we do as an organization?

Maybe it’s offering Joe opportunities for continuous education. Maybe it’s new project assignments. Maybe it’s leading up another project that we’re going to do soon. And, again, that may not be your 5% but over the long term, that could have a return of 20%, 30%, open up opportunities that advance things you wouldn’t even have foreseen.

So, if you’re the employee, don’t limit yourself with your first thought. Have that in the back of your mind and you can always come back to that as a point of negotiation. But as an anchoring principle, don’t limit your potential or your profitability by telling the manager what you want. Let the manager tell you what he or she is ready to give.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And, Joe, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Joe Hirsch
I think that every leader listening to this, or every employee, or every parent, every teacher, should realize that they have the power to empower other people. And feedback doesn’t have to be a cause for fear. It really can be a cause for joy when we change the mindset, when we shift the message, when we stop looking back on a past that people can’t change and out towards a future they can.

We deliver the promise of feedback which is to help people become the best versions of themselves, the people they could always become but maybe aren’t yet at. And with the small changes, we give them more power, more possibility, more potential. And we shouldn’t play small with people’s potential.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, Joe, could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Joe Hirsch
So, I should probably have this tattooed somewhere on my body. I quote it all the time. C.S. Lewis said, and it captures everything we talked about today, “You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Joe Hirsch
So, there’s a management professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern by the name of Loran Nordgren, who did some great work on what he calls the Perspective Gap. And what he uncovered with his colleagues is that we tend to underestimate the effect of something on others when we are not going through it ourselves.

So, he brought a bunch of people into a room and have them stick their arms in warm water, and said, “Imagine what it would be like to be in a freezing cold room for five hours. How would it feel?” And they would describe what they thought that intensity of pain might be like, and it was rather low. He brought another group of people in, this time arms soaking in cold water, and said, “What do you think it would be like to be in a freezing cold room?” as they soaked their arms in cold water, and the intensity was greater as you might expect.

But here is what was the surprising part. He then, third group, brought them into the room, had them soak their arms in warm water, take it out, and then describe what it was like. And the intensity of that pain was less than what it was before even for the cold group. Because once we experience something, and then we forget about what that experience is like, we then underestimate the impact of that experience on other people.

And that’s why, when I asked the question, “What’s it like to get feedback?” and they come back with words like caution and anxiety and worry and pain, I then say to them, “Okay. So, how do you think it feels to the other person who’s getting your feedback? Do you think they’re experiencing some of that?” And this Perspective Gap plays an important role in the conversation as we shift our mindset around feedback because it’s not just about approaching with inquiry and humility. It’s also about exercising greater empathy.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Joe Hirsch
I love Team Genius by two authors, Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone. And the book is great because it talks about the power of teams, and how we can’t really do as much on our own as we can with the support of other people. And I love the message they bring.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Joe Hirsch
Yeah, so this actually, somebody tweeted this out the other day, and they attended a talk that I gave. And I never quite know what’s going to land with people so I love Twitter for this. You can see what really resonates. And they said, and I guess I had said this, it makes sense, I say it a lot, “We can’t choose the feedback we get but we always get to choose where it goes.”

And it’s so true. When we give people the opportunity to become agents of change, when we give them the possibility and the power to shape that future that’s still unfolding rather than locking them to a past that they can’t change, that’s the moment when people feel energized, activated, and empowered by our feedback, and it’s more likely it’ll go somewhere, and, ultimately, lead to positive and lasting change.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Joe Hirsch
So, I would love to connect with folks on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, that’s kind of like where I live online. You can read more about my work and research at JoeHirsch.me. I’d love to catch you as part of our growing international audience of listeners on I Wish They Knew, Big Ideas, Small Conversations. Get that wherever your podcasts are played. And I look forward to helping you find a little more joy in your feedback because we can.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Joe, this has been a treat. I wish you all the joy in your feedback and elsewhere.

Joe Hirsch
Thanks, Pete. It’s been real.

753: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Resolving Conflict with Ralph Kilmann

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Ralph Kilmann, co-creator of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, reveals the surprising source of all conflict—and shares his best practices for expertly resolving them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising root of almost all conflict  
  2. Why collaboration isn’t your best and only option
  3. Two strategies to overcome the stress and discomfort of conflict

About Ralph

Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics (KD) in Newport Coast, California. In this position, he has created as well as produced all of KD’s online courses and assessment tools on conflict management, change management, and more. Ralph’s online products are used by such high-profile organizations as Amazon, Bank of America, Harvard University, NASA, and more.

Ralph is an internationally recognized authority on systems change. He has consulted for numerous corporations throughout the United States and Europe, including AT&T, General Electric, and the Office of the President of the United States.

Ralph has published more than twenty books and one hundred articles and is the co-author of more than ten assessment tools, including the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), the Kilmann-Saxton Culture-Gap(R) Survey, and the Kilmann Organizational Conflict Instrument (KOCI).

Resources Mentioned

Thank you Sponsors!

Ralph Kilmann Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ralph, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Ralph Kilmann
Thank you for having me, Pete. I’m delighted to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat with you. I have heard of the TKI many times, and you’re the K in the TKI.

Ralph Kilmann
Yes, I am.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty cool, and you’ve also got a book we’re talking about Creating a Quantum Organization. So, let’s dig into this fun. Maybe, to kick it off, could you share what’s one of the most surprising and fascinating and maybe counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about conflict over the many years you’ve spent researching, teaching, and exploring it?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, so often, we think about conflict as being out there, between a person and other people, whether in a family or in a work situation, so we’re trying to resolve those interpersonal differences of opinion, what to do, how to proceed, when I have discovered that you have to look inside because the conflicts begin internally.

We all grow up as human beings and we have some kind of trauma. It can’t be helped. It’s just part of being human. I don’t condone, I don’t want people to have trauma, but once they have it, and they will, what do you do with it? And if you just let it sit there and get stuck in your body, and then you become an adult, then you’re projecting all that trauma on everyone around you.

That’s the conflict you’re dealing with, and it’s not just between you and other people, it’s between you and your past. And until you learn to resolve those internal conflicts, you’re going to have a hard time improving how you manage external conflicts. Now, that may not seem too surprising but I have found people tend to stay away from what’s lurking on the inside.

It always seems to be more comfortable to talk about other people, conflicts out there, than, “What I’m struggling with as a person,” and that’s particularly the case when we move into organizations because people in their personal lives, with their friends, they often share traumas they’ve had or how they approach challenges in their emotional life, but in the organization, there are often norms, “Don’t talk about it. You’ll come across as weak. You won’t come across as confident. People don’t want to hear about it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-huh. Well, that’s juicy right off the bat there. And so, it feels like there’s a whole several episodes digging into that. But if you can give us the survey preview version, and how does one look inside and deal with their stuff. It’s so funny, what’s coming to mind right now is a line from the TV series “Succession,” and this character Roman Roy says, “This is what it looks like when you’ve dealt with all your issues. All your issues are resolved.”

And it’s sort of a joke because, hey, we all have some ongoing stuff. It’s never quite fully done. So, what is the process or practice or approach we engage in to deal with our internal conflicts and traumas?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, first, I think it’s useful to think about mind consciousness, body consciousness, and spirit consciousness. Those are three ways of looking at what’s going on inside. Now, first, with mind consciousness, it’s like, “How does our mind make sense of our life?” but it’s all mental, it’s all thoughts. And we can talk to people about it, whether it’s a therapist or reading a book, to uncover those mental assumptions we’ve made from past experiences, and we can clarify our thinking.

But then there’s also body consciousness because it turns out, what’s stuck in the mind is stuck in the body, into tension patterns, and you can talk all you want about these internal issues, in fact I call it talk therapy when you’re talking to a therapist, but it is just talk. It’s not getting into the body where it’s stored.

So, you can talk all you want, you can try to change your belief systems, you can reexamine your childhood, but you have to release it from your body, and that has to do with all kinds of things like yoga, and all kinds of massage methods, or kinds of exercise. You’ve got to move. And as you move, your body opens up and you dispel some of these old stories, but that’s mind and body.

And, finally, with spirit consciousness, and that’s the greatest challenge to the Western world, is to recognize that we are more than just our mind and our body. In fact, there’s this expression, “The skin-encapsulated ego,” as if within our skin, that’s who we are, and it’s all about ego and mind, whereas, we can be much more than that.

So, spirit is saying, “We are all connected.” There’s a human consciousness across the entire planet. People resonate with one another. People feel what’s going on. People can intuit what’s going on far beyond their mind and body. And when you can appreciate that, you say, “Hmm, what does it mean to have transcendent dialogue?” where you get a group of people together, either in a family setting or in a workplace, and they have dialogue that goes far beyond.

They come up with things that neither of them knew beforehand because they stimulate in one another to tap into this universal consciousness, or what C. G. Jung called the collective unconscious. It’s been called many names over the years, but there’s a consciousness that encircles the globe that we can tap into.

Now, what’s interesting, I’ll tell you a survey I took, Pete, is I’d be talking to like a few hundred people in an audience, and I’d ask, “Okay, please raise your hand if, in your personal life, you’ve done things like yoga, meditation, talk therapy, exercise,” and I go down a whole list, and 95% of the audience raises their hands, and says, “Yes, I’ve done that. I’ve done those things.”

And then you say, “Okay. Now, how many of you are willing to talk about this in the workplace?” The hands go down because, as I mentioned, the culture says, “We don’t talk about our personal lives. We keep it to ourselves.” In fact, in the old days, what we bring to the workplace is manual labor, hands for hire. Then, eventually, we developed additional skills we were willing to bring into the workplace. The last remaining area of human capability is bringing consciousness into the workplace, all of you – mind, body, and spirit. That’s where creativity and innovation reside.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, we are off to the races here. So, tell us, your latest book Creating a Quantum Organization, what’s the big idea or thesis here?

Ralph Kilmann
That book, I call my legacy book. I previously wrote about 20 books over a period of 50 years and maybe it was because of the pandemic and I’m trying to figure out what to do with all this downtime, and I said last year, this was about a year ago, I said, “Let me put together a book that integrates everything I’ve done in 50 years. Can I do that? What would that be like?” And that’s exactly what I focused on for the entire year.

So, in the Creating a Quantum Organization, I integrate conflict, change, consciousness, and transformation, everything I’ve done, and I’ve called it a legacy book because, quite honestly, Pete, I don’t know of another book I’m going to write. I think I look at that book and I say, “This is what I came here to do. This was why I did all my work. This is why I was born, to do this book.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, congratulations, that’s a spot many of us don’t feel like we reach, so kudos. That’s so awesome. Well, so we got four zones. I’d like to spend a disproportionate amount of our time talking conflicts just because, well, you’re so famous for it and this is our moment we have together, and then hit a little bit of a flavor for the others.

So, you mentioned in your conflict model five different conflict-handling modes. Can you give us a quick kind of field description for them, what they look like in action, and a sense for is there an ideal time and place for each of them?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, first, the basic TKI model is two dimensions – assertiveness, cooperativeness. Very simply put, assertiveness is the extent to which you try to get your needs met. Cooperativeness is the extent to which you try to get the other person’s needs met. And on that space of the extent to which you’re trying to get your needs and other people’s needs met, there are these five conflict modes.

So, competing is you’re only concerned about your needs. You’re not at all concerned about the other person. You want to win the argument. Period. Accommodating is just the opposite. You want to help the other person get their needs met, and, for the time being, you’re not at all concerned about your needs. Maybe that issue is more important to the other person than it is to you, maybe it’s his turn or her turn to get their needs met, whatever, but you give up your need satisfaction to help the other person.

Then there’s compromising, which is in the middle, we split the difference, we flip a coin. It’s somewhere in between competing and accommodating. So, you get something you want, I get something I want, but we’re both somewhat dissatisfied. It’s like 50% of our needs are met but there’s that other 50% that we haven’t addressed. In fact, compromising is going back and forth between competing and accommodating. The more you get, the less I get; the more I get, the less you get. It goes like a see-saw, and compromising is 50-50 in the middle.

Now, avoiding is no one gets their needs met. We leave the situation. Now, sometimes, there’s good reasons to leave the situation. People are not being nice to one another. People need time to think. People need to collect more information so they stay away from it until they’ve done that. That’s avoiding. But, meanwhile, no one’s getting their needs met because they’ve stayed away from coming up with a resolution.

But the fifth mode which often seems ideal at first is called collaborating, and that is you’re getting all your needs met and I’m getting all my needs met, so we completely satisfy our needs. Now, as it turns out, collaborating can only work under a very unique set of conditions. We have to trust one another. We have to really share what we need and want, and that it won’t be used against us when we share that. We have the time or we take the time to work on the issue. We communicate effectively so we can listen to one another without getting defensive.

In other words, collaborating sounds like the ideal but it’s not easy to bring about. Sometimes you have to change the situation first, like establishing trust, improving communication skills, setting the time aside to have the discussion. You need to establish the conditions first if you ever hope to collaborate. But for each of those modes, there’s a set of conditions where it works best.

Now, with the Thomas Kilmann Instrument, people find out which of those modes they might be using too much or too little. Maybe you approach every situation with competing, you always think you’re right, you always think you’re more important than the other person, and so you’re always trying to assert yourself without any concern of the other, and then you find out, “Huh, maybe there are times I have to let the other person get their needs met because, then, they’re going to be more favorable to me in the long term.”

So, you start thinking about, “How can I work with other people to bring out an effective resolution of the conflict?” And sometimes accommodating, as I mentioned, works best when the issue really isn’t that important to you, it’s more important to the other person, so why not let have the other person have their way. As I mentioned with avoiding, you don’t want to avoid conflicts that are really important to both people in terms of your need satisfaction, but there are times when you need more time to think about it, to talk to other people, to collect information.

So, what you have to understand with conflict management, there are these five approaches, five repertoire of skills you can use, but learning when to use them and how to use them effectively. For example, I can avoid a group meeting by saying, “I’ve had enough of this nonsense. I don’t want to hear this anymore. I’m getting out of here.” I stand up, leave the room, and slam the door. I’m avoiding.

Or, you can avoid by saying, “You know, I’m not ready to make a decision yet. Can I have a few more days to think about it and talk about this with my coworkers?” That’s avoiding too but it’s done in a much more respectful, dignified manner. So, what’s important besides knowing those five modes, when to use each of them in the correct situation, but then also how to enact each mode with care, sensitivity, dignity, and respect.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. Ralph, I have a feeling you’ve spoken about this before.

Ralph Kilmann
Well, for about 50 plus years. In fact, I just spoke with Ken Thomas, my co-author, yesterday and we kind of reflected that we’ve known each other for 50 years since our days at UCLA, and an amazing journey.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so then we figure out which one is the most appropriate, and then we use the elegant version of that, ideally, in terms of sort of being optimal with regard to your relationships and needs meeting. And so, I got a good sense, I think, in terms of collaboration seems ideal but a few things have to occur and we have to have that trust and communication and the time to go there. Accommodation is great when it’s really important to them and I don’t care so much. Can you give us a view for when the other approaches are just right?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, compromising would work best when there’s a fair amount of stress, you don’t have a lot of time to discuss the issue, it’s only of moderate importance to both of you, and coming up with an expedient solution allows you then to focus on other more important problems and conflicts. So, compromising is very expedient, it doesn’t take much time to flip a coin or split the difference.

So, you and I want to meet, I want to meet at 4:00 in the afternoon, you want to meet at 2:00, we say, “Why don’t we make it 3:00 o’clock? Instead of spending an hour discussing what time to meet, let’s just split the difference.” That’s compromising.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sure.

Ralph Kilmann
Now, both of us may only be partly satisfied by that because maybe there are reasons we wanted to meet at 2:00 or 4:00, but let’s talk about the main issues and not get bogged down with something less important, like a couple of minutes here or a couple of minutes there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so there’s compromise. And how about the others?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, as I mentioned with avoiding is when the issue is not important or you’re overwhelmed by stress and there’s not going to be a quality discussion if people are overwhelmed with stress. Save it for another day, save it for another meeting. Or, you need to collect more information, or you don’t want to be pushed to a decision, or a decision doesn’t have to be made till next week or next month, we don’t have to do it now, so let’s focus on things that have to be done this week that have a higher priority.

But, as I mentioned, if something is very important to you and someone else, and you avoid it because you don’t like conflict, you don’t like confrontation, then you’re walking around and your needs are not met, the other person’s needs are not met. And, long term, if you and other people’s needs are not met, your most important needs, you either disengage from the situation or you leave. Or you leave a relationship, a workplace, whatever. People have to get their needs met at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And I really liked how, with the avoiding, you gave us a fine way to avoid and a not-so fine way to avoid. Could you give us those illustrations for the others as well?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, the favorite one is competing, where picture a very autocratic manager slamming his fist on the table, saying, “We’re going to do this. I don’t want to hear any argument,” and he’s shouting, he’s screaming, he’s pounding his fists, and people are almost too afraid to speak or to do anything different.

Whereas, the healthy side of competing is I’m sitting very calmly, and I’m saying, “Let me share with you why this issue is so important to me, and I’m hoping you can see why I want this to come out in the way I’m suggesting. And if you allow me and you indulge me on this one, when something is that important to you, then I’ll concede to you, but please hear me out.”

That’s a completely different approach than putting my fists on the table and shouting at people and talking in people’s faces. Both are competing but they have a completely different impact on others.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Okay. And how about what’s a sloppy cooperation look like?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, a sloppy cooperation would be…it might be said that there is some stress in the situation but, basically, people don’t like conflict. Maybe that’s something we should talk about, why conflict is often viewed in such negative terms as if it’s bad and we simply want to get rid of it. The world would be a better place if there were no conflict. But, as it turns out, conflict is like death and taxes; it’s inevitable. You can’t get away from it. It’s the nature of the universe.

But, essentially, with compromising, it would be, “We don’t like conflict so we don’t want to talk about it. Let’s flip a coin even though these needs are important to us and we’re not getting them satisfied. But I’d rather flip a coin and split the difference than have this  discussion with you that makes me uncomfortable.”

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Ralph Kilmann
So, to move from compromising to collaborating, not only do you have to develop trust, effective communication skills, you have to be comfortable with differences, you have to be comfortable with confrontation, and saying, “I disagree with you. Please hear me out. This is how I view the situation. I know we can figure this out together.” But it’s knowing what to say and how to say it to engage other people in addressing the issue.

And I might say, Pete, if you look at the world today, I think you might well agree, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, there seems to be more conflict now across the globe than ever before in the history of this planet whether you’re talking what happened from the pandemic, from politics, divisiveness, systemic racism, climate change, fiscal issues, job issues, economy issues. We are embraced with conflict like never before.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I guess in terms of…well, I only have the years I’ve been alive on the planet to look at, but it sure feels more verbally divisive.

But, yeah, I hear you there. From some vantage points, it does seem like there’s more conflict than ever before. For no other reason, there’s more humans than ever before and who have more access to ideas and different opinions.

Ralph Kilmann
And the pandemic and the politics have put people globally under stress. And under stress, you’re less likely to use conflict modes effectively. You’re likely to go to the extreme. We’ve seen people have meltdowns when they’re asked to put on masks or to keep their social distance, bad meltdowns, because they’re on overwhelm, and it just takes a little bit to take someone over the edge. You can’t use an effective approach with conflict management with dignity and respect when you’re totally stressed out. In fact, let me suggest what the TKI conflict model looks like under high stress.

Competing becomes fight, avoiding becomes flight, and accommodating becomes freeze. Fight, flight, freeze, which are the three physiological responses to stress for the sympathetic nervous system. So, when we see the sabertoothed tiger, or when we see that we are under a threatening condition where we could lose our life, we go into overwhelm. We fight, flight, or freeze.

And so, the conflict model that is mindful with collaborating and avoiding and compromising, and choosing those behavioral approaches to best match the situation, all collapse into fight, flight, freeze under high stress. So, what we’ve seen in the US and in other countries is some of the conflicts we might’ve been better able to resolve without all that high stress, we see a lot of fight, flight, and freeze. Depression is freeze.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so then, let’s talk a bit about this emotional stuff. When it comes to saying, “You know, I just don’t like conflict,” or when we are feeling like, “I’m under a lot of stress,” how do we tackle some of that emotional stuff so that we’re saying, “Hey, you know what, conflict is alright. Maybe it’s not my favorite thing, but it’s okay. It’s like taxes is not my favorite thing but we get through it. It’s alright”? As well as the stress, like, “I’m freaking out about this thing and I’d be able to resolve it a lot better if I weren’t.” So, what do I do with this stuff?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, first, I have found it’s so important for the reasons I was giving to reduce the amount of stress. If people are under high stress, you cannot have a good conversation. They’re going to get one another defensive. They’re going to use the extreme forms of the conflict modes that get other people defensive, on and on. It’s not going to work. So, how do you remove the stress?

A simple method, and this is from mind, body, spirit modalities, is breathing. You breathe in like for seven seconds, you hold your breath for a certain amount of time, you exhale for seven, eight seconds, and then you take these long deep breaths, and that resets the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system so it relaxes you. It’s called the relaxed response.

So, again, you breathe in. I don’t remember if it’s four or five seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds. Breathe out for eight, then hold it a little bit more. You do that a few times, you will reset your nervous system. That’s so important.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, four, seven, eight sounds like Andrew Weil, like sleepy breath. Is that the same one?

Ralph Kilmann
Yeah, it’s something like that. Well, you’ll find different people, like they differ.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there are so many different counts, “Do box breathing. Four, four, four, four,” I mean, there are so many.

Ralph Kilmann
There’s conflict over how many seconds to inhale and then exhale and then hold your breath, but the point is, by slowing down the breathing, making it deeper, you reset your nervous system so you can use your cognitive mind as you’re intended to do. So, you got to remove the stress. And then what I found very useful is to get a group of people together who have respect for one another and they share how are they responding in today’s world, how are they dealing with these issues, how are they approaching it.

It’s like creating a conflict support group so we can all say, “Yes, we’re experiencing stress. Let’s try to keep that down at a level so we can use our minds as intended. And let’s discuss how we’re each approaching this so we can support one another. What did you find works when you tried this approach or that approach?” And then they can talk about it.

When this is done in a work setting, it’s a thing of beauty, Pete, because so often they’re talking about getting the work done as opposed to saying, “But how do we work together as a team? How do we resolve our differences? How can we do this more effectively?” There will always be conflict. You cannot get away from it, but the difference is how you manage it. That makes all the difference in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Well, so before we shift gears, anything else you want to say about conflict?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, we certainly should look at internal conflict because that’s where it all begins. So, if we have time, I’d like to…

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Ralph Kilmann
Okay. Well, in my book, I talk about these four foundational inner conflicts that drive all the outer conflicts. The first one, and this is so basic, are you an energy body or a physical body? Now, sometimes people in the Western world say, “Well, I’m a physical body. What are you talking about energy body?” Well, in the Eastern world, we’re more into energy that we radiate, for example, through the seven chakras in the body than we are in the Western world where it’s all about how we think about things.

So, the question becomes, “We’re not just physical, we’re not just energy. We’re both.” In fact, I asked the question, “Are you a physical body or an energy body?” which pits the conflict on that model to say, “Either this or that,” and you can go back and forth arguing which is which. Whereas, in fact, the collaborating approach says, “You’re not either. You’re both.”

And when you walk into a room and talk to people, it’s not just your words that impact people; it’s your energy, it’s your mood. If you are depressed or sad or angry, or you have a lot of pride and arrogance, whatever words you use are going to come out a certain way. As opposed to coming into a room with other people, and saying similar things but the energy is one of love, joy, peace, compassion.

How different does that sound from anger, fear, grief, pride, and arrogance, love, joy, peace, and compassion? That’s the emotional energies. And when people get in touch with their body and their feelings, and then they radiate that energy, they’re not just choosing words. They’re choosing, “What is the energy I use to present these words.” The energy I find, Pete, is more important than the words themselves.

And you can walk into a room and you can feel tension or you can feel joy. It’s not the words; it’s the energy. So, anyone who says, “Oh, we’re just physical bodies,” say, “Walk into a room and tell me what you feel.” You can feel it. And what’s interesting, you can learn to assess those energies. We don’t learn that in the US in our educational programs where everything is about the mind, the head, the intellect.

Physical education, we separate the body from the mind. You go to physical education where you do sports and fitness, but you don’t really get into your feelings and what sensations are in your body. So, we address it by separating it out into physical education, whereas, in reality, you can’t separate out the mind and the body, they’re together. And some day, educational programs will help children express what they’re feeling in their bodies so they’re more aware of what they’re feeling and what they’re all about and who they are.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say what they’re feeling in their bodies and the emotions and the energies, kind of like an integration might sound something like, “My neck feels like things are crawling over it. I’m very uncomfortable and worried about this situation we’re in right now.” Like that?

Ralph Kilmann
Exactly. In fact, I would say most of the researchers suggest if something comes to you, it first affects your body and then your mind picks up on it. So, if you can say, “Huh, why is my neck so stiff? Why have I had neck pain for the last two years? What’s going on in my life that gives me that kind of a tension? I have this anxiety in my solar plexus that doesn’t go away. I’ve taken things for it, what is that all about?” Well, that’s some tension.

But one of the modalities for body consciousness is called somatic experiencing. Somatic is of the body, and you actually pay attention to the tingling and the feelings in your solar plexus, and you pay attention to it, and you stay there, and you focus on it. And guess what? It dissipates. But if you think, “Well, it’s my body and that’s separate from my mind, and I can’t do anything about it, and I have to live with this,” you’re missing the opportunity to look at the signals and the messages that your body is giving you even before something gets to the mind where you, then, conceptualize and say, “Oh, I must have tension.” Well, your body already knows that. So, the sooner you pay attention to the body, the quicker you’ll get on top of what you’re experiencing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s energy and body. How about what are the other internal conflicts?

Ralph Kilmann
Well, they’re all fun. The second one is one of my favorites. Actually, they’re all my favorites, but the second one is “Are you governed by your ego or your soul?” Your ego and soul are two different kinds of inner voices you have that suggest how you should be living your life, how you should make decisions, what actions you should take. And ego, just to give you an idea, is focusing on things like self-image, safety, security, survival, success, immortality, fame, glory, being in control, being in power, being more important than anyone else. Those are ego things.

Now, the soul is “Why was I born? What am I here to do? What’s my special calling? What’s my piece in the universe? What will give me the most meaning and satisfaction in life? Why was I put on this planet and given the privilege of life? What does that mean? What am I to do?” Ego and soul, I don’t mean it to be religious, I don’t mean it to be Freudian, it’s simply saying the ego is of the mind, and the soul is of spirit. It’s a beyond the mind-body. And those are two different messages.

So, someone can say, “Well, my ego wants to live forever, and I want to be in control, and I want to have more money than anyone else.” Fine. Soul says, “But what do I want to contribute to society? How can I serve people?” And here’s what’s interesting, some of the Eastern traditions suggest we have to destroy the ego and feed the soul. I don’t believe that at all. Why would you want to destroy or discard any part of you?

The issue, again, think of the TKI conflict model. It’s first, either/or, I’m governed by ego or soul, but then if I create the right conditions, I can have both. When my ego and soul are on the same page, the ego gives me the energy to pursue my soul’s mission. When I’m fighting the two, then I’m at odds with myself. My ego doesn’t want to do this so, therefore, my soul is not going to be satisfied. Or, my soul will want to do this but the ego says, “I’m not participating. You go on your own.” If you can get ego and soul working in the same direction, on the same mission, then you are maximizing your life, your needs, your contribution to society.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful.

Ralph Kilmann
So, that’s the second one. The third one is also kind of fun. You’re ready for this?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Ralph Kilmann
Are your surrounding systems – and I’ll define what I mean by that – separate from you or an integral part of who you are? Notice how we say because we first set it up as that debate on the TKI conflict model, before we resolve it into a more integrated collaborative manner. So, essentially, it’s people generally think of the culture of the organization, the reward system, the strategy, the structure, other people as outside them, they’re outside my ego-encapsulated skin. And, therefore, since they’re outside of me, they’re someone else’s responsibility.

Now, what happens, Pete, if everyone believes that the systems of the organization are someone else’s responsibility? “It’s not me. I’m just what’s inside me, what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking.” But what’s fascinating is when you realize that we’re all in this together, we’re all connected, the systems we create are part of our psyche, we can’t really be separate from anything. And once people say, “You know, I am equally responsible to my surrounding systems, that’s a part of who I am, so I think I have to take some steps to improve those systems so that I can create the conditions that we can resolve our conflicts in the healthiest most successful manner.”

And, yet, what’s interesting with that inner conflict, that third one, of, “Are systems a part of you or outside of you?” is so fundamental because I always come across people who believe those systems are outside, “They’re not a part of me. That’s someone else’s responsibility.” And, yet, again I have to emphasize this, Pete, if everyone thinks the system is someone else’s responsibility, who’s taking care of it?

Pete Mockaitis
Nobody.

Ralph Kilmann
Nobody, yeah. Like all the discussion now about infrastructure, is that a part of who we are or is that a problem in other cities, other nations, other bridges, not my bridge, or do we realize that it’s all together? In fact, to show you the spiritual perspective, someone had asked me once, “Give me an example of that spiritual perspective when we really recognize we’re all in this together and we’re all one.”

And that’s the case when you discover that someone on the other side of the globe, say in Africa, is suffering. That suffering is as important and significant to you as if your own child is suffering. There’s no difference between a stranger in Africa and your own child. I’m not there yet, most people aren’t, maybe the Dalai Lama is, but, essentially, that is the ultimate where we say, “You know, we’re part of this human race, we have this consciousness that we all tap into, and if we can work together across the planet, we can all have a better life and get our most important needs met.”

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And the fourth?

Ralph Kilmann
The fourth is the hardest to resolve, and that’s why it’s listed as number four. And I suggest that if you make significant progress with the first three, you’re then ready to really deal with the fourth one. And the fourth one is “Have you resolved your primal relationships or is your life still being drained by traumas from the past?”

In some work situations, picture a group having a meeting, and those people are triggering one another from previous relationships 30, 40 years ago, when they were kids or teenagers where they got hurt, and these people remind them of those people. And so, they’re talking to one another as if they’re the ones that hurt them 30 years ago. That’s called projection.

Actually, the full psychological dynamic is splitting, “I don’t like this so I’m going to get it away from me”; projecting, “I’ll put it on the other person and then I’ll attack the other person.” So, basically, unless you’ve resolved your primal relationships, it’s hard for you to be present with the people that are right in front of you. You are projecting unresolved stuff from previous caregivers, from people who perpetrated you with one injury or another, a dog you lost, a brother, a friend, whatever, and that’s your life. You’re living that way. You can’t interact with the people in the present and resolve conflict if you’re reacting or the phrases you’re being triggered by unresolved problems in the past.

So, the more we can help people resolve the primal relationships, more of their consciousness will be present in the moment to address the really important issues and get people’s most important needs met. But it’s the hardest because who wants to go back and examine those demons? But if you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your life, perhaps, running from them. That’s the ultimate avoiding is to say, “I don’t have any issues. I’m done with the traumas. I’m over it,” and, meanwhile, they’re yelling at other people as if they’re yelling at the people who hurt them 30 years ago.

So, if in an organization, we had people who work through those four inner conflicts – energy, physical body, ego versus soul, separate systems versus integral part of me, primal relationships – if people have worked through that, then their consciousness, all their mind, body, spirit, is fully available to contribute to the organization today and tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful.

Ralph Kilmann
Now, whose responsibility is it? You can say, “Well, people should do their own therapy, their own meditation, their own exercises, their own massages, on and on,” or if the human resource objective is to get the most of the human resources talent in the organization working in the same direction, maybe organizations need to take responsibility to help people develop their mind, body, spirit consciousness, and then make sure that’s brought into the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I think that when there’s a great ROI to be had, organizations should just go for it. That’s my take. So, I love it when I hear things like, was it AETNA providing incentives for sleeping enough? It was like, “Right on. Go for it. That’s great. Sleep is important and it makes a huge difference.” So, if it’s a little bit of a nudge or an incentive can improve people’s sleep, which improves their thinking and their creativity, their stress, and collaboration, then I am all for it even if it feels a little weird or different. I think we’re on the same mind there.

Ralph Kilmann
Well, what’s interesting, Pete, is in today’s world, so many people have heard about and experienced meditation, yoga, physical exercise, talk therapy, self-help books, there’s so much out there, and they’re doing it. The problem is often the organizational cultures says, “It’s taboo to talk about that and bring it into the organization.”

And, yet, when I work with organizations and we begin that discussion, and people start sharing their personal journeys, again, they have to trust one another, the culture has to support it, so some preliminary work has to be done, but then, my goodness, does the conversation open up. So, we regularly have these meetings in the organization where we talk about this stuff, and you build bonds and connection and understanding. You develop relationships at a deeper level so that you can solve the most complex problems with your fellow colleagues. It makes a huge difference.

And then you go into an organization where no one’s allowed, based on the culture, to talk about those things. “It’s taboo. We don’t talk about it. The last time someone said they were visiting a therapist, they were laughed at and told that they were crazy. Look, don’t do that again. Take care of yourself. People will hurt you.” People are closed off. Then how can you work together to solve complex problems if you’re so guarded, so defensive, and you don’t know who you are and what brings you bliss?

Pete Mockaitis
Great perspectives, Ralph. Now, can we hear a few of your favorite things, starting with a favorite quote?

Ralph Kilmann
One is by Lao Tzu, and it says, “If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.” And I think it was Oprah who said, “Doing your very best in this moment is the best preparation for the next moment.” So, how do you get present instead of projecting all that junk and unresolved stuff from the past, or being engrossed with fear about what’s likely to happen in the future? Stay present, be conscious, work with people, I think that’s essential.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Ralph Kilmann
I guess recently I read a book that really impressed me. It’s a book by Colin Tipping called Radical Forgiveness. Absolutely brilliant. And it’s about the resolution of primal relationships and it’s really saying that even when something bad happens, the spiritual perspective is to look at it and say, “How is this really a gift? What is this showing me that I’ve been unresolved about? Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m frustrated. I want to hurt that other person for what he said. But, wait a minute. It’s a gift. What did that person trigger in me that I haven’t yet resolved?”

And then in terms of forgiveness, it’s not even saying, “I forgive you for doing that.” It’s like, “Thank you for doing that. You allowed me to look at something in myself I would’ve never looked at if you hadn’t triggered me. Thank you. It’s a blessing.” And when we can see events in life as spirit giving us an opportunity to further grow and examine, it’s not about being angry; it’s about finding out, “Why did I have that emotional response? It’s a signal that I haven’t developed or resolved something, so let me do that now and become a better person so I can serve others and society more effectively.” That’s radical forgiveness.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Ralph Kilmann
A tool? I think of tools in terms of assessment tools.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ralph Kilmann
And besides the TKI conflict model and the TKI instrument, which measures those five, I’ve developed at least 10 other assessment tools. And what’s fascinating, I find, when people say, “Why do you develop those instruments?” I said, I’ll give you a radical statement, even if they’re not entirely valid and no instrument can be entirely valid, when you give somebody a number and say, “This is how you resolve conflict,” or, “This is the cultural issues that concern you,” or, “Here are your beliefs,” you put a number on it and people say, “What does that mean? What number did you get?” they start talking about it.

The beauty of assessment is you personalize the topic whether it’s culture, or courage, or conflict, and then people start talking about it. They want to say, “How did I come out on this? Why did you get a higher score than I did? What does that mean?” It just opens up the dialogue. So, I find, for me, assessment tools that pinpoint something important about people’s lives, either at home or at work, is an opening to get concrete about a topic so we can learn more.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ralph Kilmann
Best would be my website, which is www.KilmannDiagnostics.com. And that has everything on it, and, of course, my recent legacy book Creating a Quantum Organization. There’s nothing else for me to write. It’s all in there. It’s weird for me to say that, Pete, but it’s like I have nothing else to do. I think I’ve completed it. Now, we’ll see what happens in six months, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ralph Kilmann
Yes. Recognize that even though it sounds difficult, can be a little fearful, is look in the mirror because that is the essence of who you are. Discover yourself, love yourself. If you love yourself, all good things will happen, but you can’t love yourself if you’re running away from yourself and everything that’s happened to you. So, while it’s difficult, the rewards are huge for you and everyone that works with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ralph, thank you. It’s been a real treat. I wish you much luck with your book, Creating a Quantum Organization, and the rest of your fun projects.

Ralph Kilmann
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s always a pleasure to talk about these issues because they drive everything else.

745: How to Handle Bad Bosses and Toxic Coworkers with Tessa West

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Tessa West addresses the seven common types of jerks at work–and how to deal with them effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to tell if someone is being an intentional jerk at work 
  2. How to identify your particular type of work jerk 
  3. How to tell if you’re the jerk at work

About Tessa

Tessa West is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University, where she is a leading expert on interpersonal interaction and communication. She has published over 60 articles in the field of psychology’s most prestigious journals, and has received multiple grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She writes regularly about her research in the Wall Street Journal. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you Sponsors!

  • University of California Irvine. Chart your course to career success at ce.uci.edu/learnnow 

Tessa West Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tessa, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Tessa West
Thanks for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom. It’s a frequently-requested topic, difficult bosses and jerks and, “What do we do with them?” So, maybe we can kick it off by you sharing one of the most ludicrous, hilarious, ridiculous examples you’ve encountered, either directly or through people who want to tell you their story, about a jerk at work?

Tessa West
Oh, yeah, I hear a lot of stories. I actually probably hear more, lately, stories of people who really humiliated themselves in an effort to confront a jerk, you know, crying publicly, that kind of thing. So, probably one of the craziest things I’ve encountered, I’ve encountered lots of jerks, and I’ll tell one of those stories in a moment.

But the craziest thing I’ve ever encountered was I was actually giving a talk, I was giving a keynote somewhere, and it was a whole bunch of powerful people in the room, C-suite for a huge Fortune 500 company, and we’re all going around the room and talking about our goals and listening and all this kind of stuff.

And, all of a sudden, one of the women at the table, one of the roundtables, just started bawling, and she stood up and she grabbed the mic, and she had this whole like speaker truth moment in front of all of her coworkers where she just lambasted them for ignoring her, disrespecting her, stealing credit, basically taking over her, talking over her in meetings, cutting her out of email chains, and stood up there like snot dripping down her face, tears coming out, holding the mic, and just went off on this crazy speech.

And, at some point, the president of the company just stood up and said, “For God’s sake, can someone grab her a box of Kleenex?” and it really destroyed the mood and made it really uncomfortable. And I thought to myself, “This is what happens when we let our jerks at work take over for so long and we don’t confront, and then we just explode on them in these really inopportune awkward situations.”

So, that was kind of one setting where I was just surprised at what happens when people feel like they’re targets of jerks and they don’t actually do anything about it. It just kind of happens like that. Terrible, terrible moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa. Well, did you ever get to find out how things unfolded in the weeks and months afterwards?

Tessa West
Well, I talked to her in the bathroom afterwards. It was very high school. It felt like high school. I went up to her, and I ran into her in the bathroom, and the problem was she couldn’t show her face like in the intermission. She felt so uncomfortable. But, yeah, I did follow up with her and she felt like it sort of helped break the ice to have these conversations.

But, at that point, things had gone so far that she didn’t feel like they could really be remedied. She felt like she had to leave her job, which was crazy because she held this really high-up position in the company, and she just felt like, at that point, no one respected her. Now, they thought she was super histrionic and dramatic so there’s no kind of saving the moment for her.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that is a dramatic story and I think it really is a nice cautionary tale in terms of, this is what can happen if you let things get out of control, even though you may very well, legitimately, be the victim and not at all to blame. If you sort of continue taking it long enough, this might be in your future or other negative outcomes.

Tessa West
Definitely, you don’t want this in your future but it’s possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. All right. Well, that’s a powerful story to tee this up. Thank you. So, yeah, we’re going to talk about jerks at work. Maybe, could you share perhaps one of the most surprising or most counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made when it comes to your research on the area?

Tessa West
Yeah, I think when most people think about jerks at work, the first question they have is, “How do I confront a jerk at work?” And I actually find in our research that, probably 50% of the time, confronting that person is not a good idea or at least it’s not a good first step, that you need to do lots of other things before you’re ready to confront someone, like collecting data, and finding how why it’s part of the problem, and whether you’re the only victim, and all these kinds of things.

But I also think people are always surprised when I tell them that when you confront someone, you have to think about it like you would confronting your spouse or your child about something they’re doing that they dislike, and kind of use those same strategies – backing into the problem, opening with a compliment or things you want to see them do more of, before you actually talk about the problem behavior.

And people are surprised at that because they think to themselves, “It doesn’t feel like my job to tell someone ‘You’re great’ when they’re terrible.” And I kind of have to remind them that it kind of de-fangs the conversation a little and reduces the threat. But, also, to remind them that no one likes having their flaws spelled out to them in detail. It’s an uncomfortable experience, even people who you think deserve it.

And so, I think we have this instinct to confront, to lay out people’s flaws, to tell them how they make us feel, and I actually don’t think any of those things are good ideas when it comes to confronting jerks at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s intriguing. So, you said half of the time, we shouldn’t do it at all. How do we make that determination and what should we do instead?

Tessa West
That’s a great question. I think it really depends on the kind of jerk you’re dealing with. But often, it’s the case that you might want to talk to someone about your jerk but it’s not the jerk themselves. So, one example of that would be dealing with a kiss-up-kick-downer. So, these are those people that if you work in a competitive workplace, they’re mean to everyone who works with them in the same level or beneath them, but the boss loves them because they bring some kind of talent to the team.

So, this kind of instinct to go and tell them, “Stop bullying me. I know what you’re doing,” kind of what we learned growing up in school to stand up to the bully, so to speak, often backfires because they just get more conniving and more clever in their strategies. And so, confronting them doesn’t really get you where you need to be. You need to talk to your boss about the person, and kind of there are some strategies behind that. But, actually, confronting an intentional jerk often backfires.

Another example of that is a gaslighter. So, if you’re being gaslit by a boss who’s cutting you off socially and building an alternative reality, and they’re doing it for some reason or something they’re trying to hide, going to them and saying, “I know what you’re up to. You’re gaslighting me,” is just going to make them more strategic as well, and so you really have to back out of that relationship, kind of build some protection, build a little bit of a barrier up, find allies and so forth, and get the help of other powerful people to exit that relationship but you never actually want to confront that person.

Of course, that’s not the case for all jerks. Lots of them, you actually do need to talk to. But the ones that are intentionally trying to sabotage you, confronting them and telling them that you know what they’re up to and they should stop bullying you, almost never works.

Pete Mockaitis
And then, yeah, how do we discern whether you’re dealing with an intentional jerk or an accidental jerk, like, “Oh, oops, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I did that, and I didn’t realize you hated that. Oh, geez. Excuse me. My apologies”?

Tessa West
Yeah, I think that there’s degrees of sensitivity that people have and what they express, but if you really try to understand why someone’s doing what they’re doing, that often kind of provides insight into whether they’re intentionally being a jerk. So, for example, if someone is stealing credit, you can tell if you work in a team or in an organization where everyone is just throwing ideas in the air, it’s really disorganized, and then in the end you try to grant credit.

Credit-granting and mis-granting kind of often happens in these teams. And, usually, when we’re the target of that, we feel like someone stole our credit but, often, that’s not really the case. It’s kind of part of the process of us being disorganized and people not keeping track of who said what. So, in situations where’s there’s ambiguity around behaviors, there’s lack of role clarity, we don’t really know who’s suppose to be doing what, who’s in charge of what, that’s where you often get things like free-riding and credit-stealing that might not be necessarily motivated to torture people or ruin people’s lives, but more kind of a product of the situation.

Kind of the most classic example of this is micromanagers. We often think they’re trying to torture us and they don’t trust us, but more often than not, they’re micromanaging because they’re not being managed properly because they were promoted, because they were good at your job not managing, and there’s a lack of clarity from above on what they should be doing.

So, if you kind of look at the origins of their behavior in combination with the context in which you’re working, you often get insight into just how intentional this behavior actually is and how much of it is just we work in a place where there’s such, this kind of lack of clarity about what’s going on that this kind of accidental jerkery can happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s handy. And I’m sure it varies so much but I’ll try to put you on the spot nonetheless. Do you have a sense of roughly what percentage of the time when we perceive jerkery? Is it intentional versus misunderstanding, disorganization, some other factor?

Tessa West
So, is your question, “How often do we think that someone is being a jerk because of intention?”

Pete Mockaitis
I guess when we perceive, when we suspect someone is a jerk, what proportion of the time is that actually the case versus “I’m misunderstanding”?

Tessa West
Yeah, I think I’m going to answer your question in two ways. First, almost no one admits to being a jerk so no one thinks they’re being a jerk. Second, almost everyone thinks if someone is being a jerk, they’re doing it on purpose. So, we have this bias to attribute people’s terrible behaviors to their individual personalities, so we almost always think that someone is doing it intentionally. I’d say probably 50% of the time they’re not.

And, in fact, I talk about some extreme cases in my book, like the gaslighter, but those are actually fairly rare. What we usually get is kind of low-level stuff that occurs under ambiguous situations where we actually don’t know the root cause of the behavior but we assume it’s because they’re a jerk, and they’re intentionally trying to be a jerk. So, I think most of us believe that but, probably half the time, there’s not really much intention behind it. If anything, people are just completely misguided in what they think is a good idea often at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, you mentioned a few of the types of jerks at work, and, in fact, you’ve got a listing of seven. So, maybe for completeness’ sake, could you give us the quick definition of each of the seven, like the name, the definition, and perhaps a quick do and don’t for each of them?

Tessa West
Sure. So, the first is the kiss-up-kick-downer, so I mentioned this one before. This person is horrible to everyone at the same level as them or beneath them but the boss loves them. And so, a do for dealing with these folks is do try to find an ally who’s a little bit outside of your immediate social network who can connect you to other victims so you can learn how widespread the problem is.

Then once you have that information, you can go to your boss to talk to them about it but we can much more convince them they should do something if they think there’s other victims. Don’t try to confront this person and tell them that you know what they’re up to and you’re going to tell on them. They know that they already have the approval of the boss and that they have the upper hand, so doing that is just going to make them even tricks-ier than they already are.

The next one is the credit stealer. So, these tend to be our friends, our confidants, sometimes even our bosses or managers, and what they do is steal credit for your ideas and for your hard work. And I think these folks are often really difficult to deal with because sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it’s not. So, do pre-processes to help make it really clear from the onset who’s done what work so that it really kind of nips credit-stealing in the bud. Credit-stealing is borne out of bad processes. It’s not usually the product of a person who’s trying to steal credit. These people have to thrive in these situations.

Don’t accuse a credit-stealer of stealing credit. So, this is one of those examples where the minute you accuse them of credit-stealing, probably 80% of the time, they’re going to come back and say that they did more work than you realize they did because we all have a bias to think we contributed more than we actually did, so you’re just kind of in a conflict with these people if you do that.

The next is the bulldozer. So, these people tend to hold power and status at work. They talk over everyone, they’re loud, in the age of Zoom, they’re the ones whose camera takes up the whole screen, the rest of us kind of zone out when they talk, but they also go behind the scenes to kind of pull levers of power. So, if they don’t like a decision the group is making, they’ll go to the boss or the boss’ boss and kind of talk them out of siding with the group.

So, one thing that you don’t want to do is just try to trample down or stomp down on a bulldozer. What you want to do instead is redirect them. So, use that attention that they have, that loud-mouthiness, to actually echo contributions of younger people. And when you do this, it actually makes them kind of feel a little bit more included. You also have to go behind the scenes a little bit and talk to that boss and talk to the boss’ boss as a group to kind of even out the different perspectives that they’re hearing.

The next one is the free-rider. So, this is the most common type of colleague that we have. These people have charisma for days, they tend to be really well-liked, they take advantage of their social skills to get away with doing nothing on teams. And so, our tendencies to want to confront them and accuse them of free-riding and doing nothing, but like some of the other jerks at work, when you do this, what ends up happening is they’re already disengaged, now they feel shamed so they’re going to disengage even more. They’re going to pull back even more.

And I could tell you an interesting story of a free-rider I know who did this exact same thing. What you want to do instead is to re-engage them, is remind them of why you wanted them on the team in the first place. What about them did you like? Were they creative? Did they help sort of provide socially groove, whatever it is? And then get on a really clear schedule of how you’re going to get them re-engaged back in the team. So, don’t listen to things like vague platitudes, “Oh, I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” You need like a week-by-week exact strategy of how they’re going to do it and what they’re going to do.

And then the next three chapters are about managers. So, micromanagers who are really common at work, these folks tend to have top-down control over everything you do no matter how small or big, and they do it equally to everybody. And so, our tendency with these people is to go to them and tell them how they make us feel, “You’re smothering me,” or that we don’t trust them. But the reality is, these usually aren’t the issues behind micromanagement.

So, instead of doing that, do have a conversation about higher-level goals, what are your goals and what are theirs, and you can kind of back into the micromanagement, but the problem is that you’re misaligned on what you should be doing at work. You want to come up with a plan of how to actually become aligned. The best way to do that is to have specific goals and then weekly check-in meetings or that 15 minutes to stay on task. A lot of us don’t want to engage more with a micromanager but that’s the best thing to do because it gives the relationship structure.

Then we have the neglectful boss. They’re kind of the opposite of the micromanagement coin. So, these folks tend to do this disappearing act for weeks, sometimes months at a time, but then they freak out and they panic that they’re out of the loop, so they show up at the last minute and then they micromanage you at the worst time. They create massive amounts of uncertainty because you don’t know when they’re going to show up.

So, our tendency for these folks is to tell them that they need to meet with us, that’s it’s an emergency, write these emails that say in all caps and bold, “URGENT. CALL. I NEED TO MEET NOW.” But, instead, what you need to do is two things. Offer to offload some of their work to kind of re-engage them. Some of the work that they’re doing you could do more efficiently. And then the other thing that you want to do with these guys is actually give them a longer period of time in which they can set up meetings with you. So, instead of 24 hours, give them two weeks because they’ll be less stressed out, they’ll be more likely to engage.

And then the gaslighter. So, these are the kind of really sinister sociopathic jerks at work who lure you in either with the promise of being a part of something special, a little bit like a cult leader, or the threat that if you don’t what they say, you’re going to get fired. And then they isolate you from everyone at work and they create an alternative reality.

So, what you don’t want to do is tell them you caught them lying, that you know what they’re up to, and what you do want to do is document everything they do, don’t have any meetings that don’t end with kind of minutes taken at the end that you send to them. You want to make sure you do those things. And then you need to build up your relationship brick by brick. The thing that they actually intentionally destroy, you have to recreate.

And then you’re going to go to your allies and actually get them to help you form connections with other people in power who can help you exit out of this relationship, but you can’t do this one alone. You absolutely have to rely on your social network at work to escape a relationship with a gaslighter.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say create an alternate reality, I imagine there’s many ways you could accomplish that. Could you give us a rich story that brings it all together?

Tessa West
Yes. So, a couple of the stories that I talk about in my book are related to idea theft. So, sometimes what happens at work is you have someone who used to be really special, who used to be kind of at the top of their game and really creative, and everything was going well for them, but then just one day, things dry up.

And so, I’ve heard this story, I’ve heard it in marketing, I’ve heard it in academia, I heard it in business, industries that require creativity, one day the boss just doesn’t have it anymore, and they panic and they don’t know what to do. And so, what they end up doing, or at least in the examples I talk about, is they start stealing ideas from other people.

They start downloading documents on shared Google Drives. The idea theft kind of starts out small with maybe a little suggestion of what to do that they haven’t thought of, and over time, they have completely built this reality of coming up with something new and novel that they really just stole from another person.

And, in the example I talk about in the book, the person who’s on the receiving end of this gaslighting believes that their manager or their boss has put together this new creative project, this kind of groundbreaking marketing plan and, in reality, it was all stolen. But the gaslighter had to create a whole bunch of lies so that person wouldn’t detect the stealing. They wouldn’t know that Google accounts were hacked and that kind of thing. And the way they do that is they make sure they don’t talk with these other people who are actually coming up with these ideas. They’re totally isolated from kind of the creative energy of the team and then they’re able to get away with it.

In academia, this has happened a bunch, and in science where people make up data. A couple professors have gone down pretty hard for not just making up data but making up staff that ran the data…

Pete Mockaitis
Like, whole persons. Like, inventing names and…

Tessa West
…fake people who collect these, all this crazy stuff. But you had to be gaslit to really even believe any of these crazy kinds of alternative lab world with fake employees and fake data, and the only way that they accomplish this, down to like fake names, fake interviews, fake pictures, is because they never actually interacted with anyone at work that would tell them, “That’s not a real person. No one has ever seen them around.” So, it takes quite a lot to have fake employees and fake ideas and all of this kind of stuff. It takes really having no interaction with other people who could ever fact-check that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, yeah, that’s intriguing. And so, that’s an alternative reality alright with all sorts of details and inventions. Okay. And you said you had a free-rider story as well. Do tell.

Tessa West
Yes, so kind of the one lesson I’ve learned about calling out free-riders is these individuals tend to be very socially sensitive. They get away with free-riding because they’re well-liked and they can make good dinner reservations and they know all the gossip. So, what happened in my situation was we called out a free-rider, told this person we knew they weren’t doing anything, thought because they were socially motivated and cared what we thought that would get them to re-engage, but it was just the opposite.

And he felt so uncomfortable in meetings that what he did was he set his cell phone to ring, to pretend ring, at the last 10 minutes of the meeting so that he could exit the room before everybody else did so he didn’t have to talk to anyone. But it was the sound on an Apple iPhone of the alarm so we all knew it wasn’t a real ring. It was just the alarm going off, but he would pick up his phone when the ring went off, and say, “Hello? Oh, I’m sorry, everyone. I have to leave a few minutes early,” and leave so that he didn’t have to interact with us.

And I kind of realized later that that was kind of motivated by this extreme discomfort with hanging around too long with team members that had kind of shamed him for doing nothing, and it backfired. It was really hard to re-engage him once we had done that. He had pretend phone rings going off so he didn’t have to talk to us.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. And so then, the better plan is to get a very specific gameplan in terms of, “These are your tasks over the next few weeks that you’re going to be owning,” and then it’s kind of like black and white there.

Tessa West
I think it’s black and white. I think the first step is to re-engage them by saying, “We miss you so much. These were all the great things that you brought to the team,” even if it pains you in your role and your rolling your eyes the whole time, kind of reminding them why you liked them, really helps kind of get over that hump, and it helps them with that shame feeling of being called out.

There’s this great research on free-riders showing that even if you show them evidence of their free-riding, they almost never admit it. And so, this is something that just people don’t ‘fess up to. So, actually, you don’t want to end up in this debate with them over whether they did it or not, how bad of a person they are or a team member. You really just want to talk about, “What we’re going to do moving forward, but also what we want to see more of out of you, what we really like, and wish that we had more. We miss that kind of thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I’m thinking about some free-riding experiences, and it was kind of odd that it’s sort of like there is incontrovertible evidence, like, “So, in your timesheet, you marked this amount of time, and, yet, here we see in the Skype notes how long this meeting actually took with me, and yours is much longer.” It was really weird actually.

Tessa West
Yeah, it’s really disconcerting when someone won’t admit to something that’s so obvious. It’s like they’re five years old and their face is covered in like brownie batter, and they’re like, “I didn’t eat the brownies.”

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s talk about just that concept. I’ve got a buddy, and we’ve talked about this a few times in terms of, I don’t know what the construct is. Is it humility, self-confidence, something? But in terms of like I have enough humility to know that I’m wrong. I make mistakes. I misperceive things. And I often realize that there are multiple sides to each story, etc.

And, yet, so if someone comes out confidently saying something that doesn’t seem quite right to me, I can be like, “Well, that doesn’t quite seem to check out but, boy, they seem so confident about that.” Like, I tend to just almost fall for it. And then, I remember once I was having a steak dinner, and I thought, “This is weird. This doesn’t taste very good.” And I love steak and the restaurant seemed expensive enough such that it should be good. And I thought, “Huh, so there must be something wrong with my sense of taste or smell. Maybe I’ve got COVID again.”

Tessa West
Again.

Pete Mockaitis
And then I thought, “Well.” And I said, “Well, that’s interesting, Pete.” Like, I’m here talking to myself internally, like you question your very ability to perceive things rather than…I guess I just give people the benefit of the doubt, like so aggressively until it’s like I’ve got multiple incontrovertible points of data, and it was like, “Nope, you’re dead to me.”

And so, I don’t know. Help us out, Tessa. If we’re just too nice, forgiving, proactive benefit of the doubting, humble, easily swayed by a very confident talker with something that doesn’t quite seem right, how do we recalibrate?

Tessa West
Seem Pollyannish. So, first off, you’d make a great gaslighter victim. They would love you because they’ll make you feel really special, and that’s kind of the first move of the gaslighter, and you’ll buy it and think, “This person is so positive and encouraging. They give me so much attention,” all of these wonderful things make you susceptible.

But I would like to kind of walk up to you and whisper in your ear this one fact that you’ve got to keep in mind, which is ability to read people, an emphatic ability, and confidence in that ability are correlated almost zero in the real world. So, if you encounter someone who comes across as super confident and knows what they’re talking about and has really strong opinions, that’s probably completely uncorrelated with their actual abilities.

In fact, some people are great and think they’re terrible, and some people are terrible and think they’re great. There are very few things in social psychology with such a weak correlation as ability, actual ability to perceive and read people, and your confidence in doing so. But we still think that confidence means competence. We mix them up all the time. It’s a really common thing people do, but those two things are also completely unrelated. In fact, there are some stats that are showing they’re negatively correlated. The louder you are, the less competent you actually are.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, appreciate that whisper and that’s handy in terms of gathering that. And so then, if we find ourselves in that situation, is there a great next step in terms of getting, I don’t know, is it just like gathering some evidence, or doing a test, or talking to somebody? It seems like a little extra dose of information could be very handy.

Tessa West
A dose of information and don’t kind of follow the temptation of talking to your best friend at work who you see as your kind of shared-reality person. So, most of us have, if we’re lucky, one person at work that we’re always on the same wavelength with that we can talk to them after a meeting, and say, “That felt really weird, right? Like, that interaction between Bob and Jen was strange.” So, our temptation is to always go with this kind of good friends and confidants.

But what you actually want to do is go to people you don’t know that well, those who have a lot of connections with others that are outside of your network because they can give you a real reality check of how widespread the problem is. And for people who are targeted by jerks, the best thing to do is to talk to others who used to work with that jerk and have since left for whatever reason because they’re just more likely…they have less to lose, so they’re more likely to open up, so in so far as you can form any of those kinds of connections.

Sometimes I talk about, a little bit in my book, the surprising connected people. So, when I worked in retail, it was the person who worked at the coffee shop because everybody went there. But now that I’m in academia, it’s actually the IT people who fix people’s computers because they really know what’s up, like they know who’s actually rude and nice and all the juicy stuff on their computers, which isn’t relevant to me but they tend to actually know everybody more than other professors do.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s true, if they’re rude or nice in terms of like, “Hey, fix this, jerk,” versus, “Oh, thank you so much.”

Tessa West
Some people are really kiss-up-kickdowners. Yeah, they’re so nice to other professors but they treat the IT people like trash. And I actually learned a lot about those folks and what I wouldn’t trust them with just based on that information.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, we talked about the last three categories, those are bosses, do we play the game any differently when it’s our boss versus just another colleague?

Tessa West
I think so. Some of the basic communication points I’ve made of opening with a compliment or strength and focusing on the behavior, those are really true for everybody. I would say that people almost never give upward feedback to a boss, so people are incredibly uncomfortable having these conversations with bosses, and your tendency is to confront people who are at the same level as you and to just never do it with a boss even if in an exit interview on your way out.

So, I would say that I think it’s not so much that we need to approach this differently because of the status difference, that matters, but it’s more that we have to learn how to confront people who are higher status than us, and we almost never do. So, we have a lay theory that you’re allowed to do certain things with people who are the same level as you or below you, but you’re not allowed to do them if they’re higher status than you.

And I actually think that’s a bigger problem that we need to break, is that we need to learn how to ask for and give feedback to everybody kind of regardless of the level because if we kind of operate with this lay theory of, “It’s cool to have radical candor with your teammate but not your boss,” that’s not going to solve most of our difficult problems at work. And even when you talk to a boss, you’re usually complaining about someone at the same level so you’re still kind of doing it. So, I do think that that matters a lot.

I would say, though, that when it comes to complaining about powerful people, it really helps to have other powerful people on your side who aren’t emotionally invested in the problem. So, in so far as you can connect with other leaders to get their advice, other managers, it really helps to form that kind of network at the top even if it’s just a quick feedback conversation you have with them so they know where you’re coming from, can give you some advice on what works and what doesn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then, if things are really nasty, what do we think about in terms of talking to HR, quitting? How do we think about those decisions?

Tessa West
I try to avoid the real egregious stuff in my book, the HR-related stuff, because I think, for the most part, if it’s really terrible in an objective law-breaking way, so Title IX, MeToo, like harassment, those are more straightforward to deal with because people are actually violating their contracts, but HR does not care about the low-level stuff.

In fact, I have dealt with HR a lot as a leader in my department at NYU, and they just like tell us to deal with it ourselves, and then call us complainers if this stuff comes up. So, their bar is really, really high for stuff to care about, and you got to keep that in mind if you want to complain to HR, that nine times out of ten they’re going to say, “This is a little low-level for us. They’re not violating anything. It sounds like you just have some conflict,” but obviously they’re actually abusing you and violating rules, that’s different, but most of the time people aren’t, and that’s kind of an interesting phenomenon where people often claim, “I’m going to report you to HR.”

I had this happen to me because I told him, I told someone not to send an email and he did, and then he told me I was going to report him to HR for complaining about the email. It was so stupid but it’s kind of an empty threat nine times out of ten because HR is busy with the real stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good to know. And then, in terms of leaving, like when do you think it’s severe enough, like, “You know what, this environment is ugh”?

Tessa West
It’s kind about, yeah, breaking up at work is hard, and I think this is something we don’t actually talk enough about, how do we decide when to leave. I think there’s a couple clues. So, the first is figuring out whether your jerk is intentional or not. Are they even aware of the problem? And some jerks that we talked about, like micromanagers and sometimes even bulldozers, aren’t totally aware of just how destructive they are. So, are they aware? So, you go to find that out.

And then you’d have to find out if they have the goal of actually engaging in change. So, are they motivated to change? We know from the close relationships that are, for instance, that if you have conflict in a marriage and one person is motivated to change and the other isn’t, you’re headed for a divorce. There’s really nothing you can do about it unless that person has that motivation. So, you need to find out whether they’re actually motivated to change or they’re just defensive and think there’s nothing wrong.

And then the third thing is what’s the environment you’re working in? Is it a breeding ground for jerks? Not all environments are sort of equally fertile for jerks at work. Some really encourage it, or at the very least don’t do anything about it, and others are really strategic and systematic about making rules and policies that make it hard for jerks to thrive.

So, ideally, you want to work in a place where it’s not super fertile ground, you don’t have this sort of dog-eats-dog hyper competitive culture that encourages things like kiss-up-kickdowners, you don’t have absentee bosses at the top who don’t care what happens. You want a place that’s like a barren desert that these jerks can’t thrive in. So, if you have kind of the ideal environment, plus accountability, plus willingness to admit, or at least understand the problem, then you’re in a much better place. But if those things are missing, then I think it’s actually really hard to stay in that job.

That said, I do worry a little bit about people leaving jobs because of jerks, especially right now. We’re seeing this with the Great Resignation because just because you leave the job doesn’t mean you’re going to find it any better in another place, and you haven’t really developed skills of dealing with this stuff. So, at least, try some of these things first before you’re ready to move on.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s actually a really great place to be, well, it’s very unpleasant to be. But in terms of if you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose, and you’re ready to leave, or rather than leave right away, try some things, and if they didn’t work, it’s like, “Well, hey, nothing lost. I was ready to be out the door anyway.”

Tessa West
“Nothing lost. I learned what works and what doesn’t.” I’m all about at least you could put forth the effort and you learned something along the way. You learned what strategies might help you in the future. Jerks at work aren’t going anywhere and we can’t control who we work with. And so, this idea that you’re going to go to like a grass-is-greener job, I think, just doesn’t really exist. I think it’s an illusion that a lot of us have. Just wait two weeks, you’ll meet a new jerk eventually, so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And how might we come to conclude that we are, in fact, the jerk at work?

Tessa West
Yeah, no one thinks that they’re a jerk. I have this survey on my website, it’s my book, called “Are you a jerk at work?” And you can take my quiz and get feedback. And I had about, the first hundred people that did it online, 90% of people thought they were the ideal coworker. That can’t possibly be true. I think most of us see ourselves in a pretty glowing light but there’s a couple things you can do.

I think if you’re a leader, you can really look out for your Achilles’ heel at work. What are your weaknesses? What’s the version of you that happens when you’re the most stressed out, getting the least support, and the most sleep-deprived that you are? And all of us have kind of these emotional tendencies that can lead to jerk behavior.

So, if some of us are really anxious, we micromanage. It makes us feel in control. Others of us when we get anxious, we really disengage, we free-ride, or we’re a neglectful boss. So, you got to know what those little triggers are and then you have to put steps in place of what you’re going to do when you experience those triggers. It’s a lot like having a behavioral therapy.

You can’t control the triggers but you can control how you respond to them, and I think it’s really important to learn those and then replace them with healthier behaviors. Don’t just tell yourself, “Don’t do that thing.” Actually, replace it with something else. But they key here is if you hold even just a little bit of power, no one is going to tell you you’re a jerk. It’s rare.

I give people these strategies because no one feels comfortable confronting. Nine times out of ten, you’re never going to find that out in a direct way. You’re going to have to play detective by figuring out who seems disengaged from you, who used to show up and doesn’t anymore, so these kinds of things so you have to really look out for those subtle behaviors in other people.

And then, certainly, if you ask them if you’re problematic, they’re also going to tell you no, so you have to ask them about your specific behaviors. But I really think a lot of this has to do with knowing your own triggers and being honest with yourself about what the worst version of you looks like, and we all have that version.

We probably all saw that version during the pandemic come out at some point, and then just admitting to yourself, “These are my triggers, this is what I do, this is the worst version of me. Here’s how I act. Let’s figure out what I’m going to do instead the next time that trigger comes along and makes me feel that way.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Tessa, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tessa West
I’d say that if you feel like you’ve been a jerk, it’s okay. You’re in good company. We all have the potential to sort of be both on the receiving end as well as the giving end of these things. And I really want to kind of normalize people talking about and thinking about these jerky behaviors because I think they’re super common, and don’t feel like you are the only one who’s ever been targeted, or the only one who’s ever acted this way. We all have the potential to do these things, and I think it’s just all about learning smart, short, simple strategies on what to do about it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Tessa West
You know, I had a really hard time with this one. You’re not going to like this quote, so, “Every body on Mt. Everest was once a very motivated person.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it is provocative, so.

Tessa West
My friend Annie Duke is writing a new book on how to know when to give up. You would think with trying to promote a book where it’s all about showing initiative to deal with jerks at work, I wouldn’t be pro giving up but I do actually think it’s a really provocative topic of knowing when you’ve tried all the things and it’s time to throw in the towel.

And I think, especially, and you brought this up, when we’re dealing with conflict at work, when is it time to move on? When have you done everything you can on being able to read the situation enough? So, like this little meme pops up in my social feed, and it just reminded me of this kind of important point that there is such a thing as a sunk cost when it comes to dealing with these things.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, we’ve had Annie Duke on the show twice, so I’m totally looking at the release date, October 4th. Okay, hopefully, we’ll have her around then for her three-peat.

Tessa West
She’s fantastic, yeah. Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Tessa West
My favorite study was one done by Wendy Mendes, who’s a social psychophysiologist at UCSF. But what she did was she had minorities and whites, I think they’re African-American and whites interact with each other, and she found this really interesting effect where white people engaged in these over-the-top friendly overtures, and they do this the most when they’re the most stressed out physiologically.

So, she identified this phenomenon called brittle smiles, which is the harder you try to be nice and overly smile and overly ask someone how they’re doing, the more stressed out you are physiologically. And it’s a great mismatch between body and mind and face, but I love it because I study communication. It just shows what a hot mess we often are and why it’s so confusing to interact with people.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s so hilarious on so many levels. Alright, first of all, is it only white people?

Tessa West
It’s whites and African-Americans, so we don’t know if everybody does this but I’m assuming they do. It’s a pretty general phenomenon.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, when you said white people, that reminded me of this episode of “Community” in which the character Elroy Patashnik, this like VR scientist says, “I’m addicted to encouraging white people.” And so, he’s just like, “This man knows what he’s doing.” So, he just says these like throwaway phrases that just make people feel good.

And it’s funny, I do the same thing with my kids when I’m feeling stressed, and I was just like, “Oh, my sweet angel, would you like some macaroni and cheese?” And it’s almost like I’m trying to soothe myself or it’s like I’m…

Tessa West
You’re self-soothing.

Pete Mockaitis
Or it’s like I’m unleashing my anger in a way that I hope they can’t perceive quite yet because they’re two and four and they don’t pick up.

Tessa West
They totally can, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-oh. All right.

Tessa West
A second favorite study of mine. And we stressed out parents, dads and moms, and we put them through the three-year test, which was super stressful. And then we reunited them with their kids and had them play, and the kids picked up the stress from the parents, and they showed physiological synchrony with the stressed parents, and they act more avoidant with like a new person, they were more withdrawn. And this was as young as six months old, kids start to show this, so we do actually leak all that stuff out.

And, here’s a little tidbit for you, the more you try to suppress it, the worst it gets. So, just like go home and be an a-hole to your kids. That’s better. I have an eight-year-old, I get it. You’re stressed, you’re like, “Hey, want a cookie?” and they’re like, “Mom, why are you acting so strange?”

Pete Mockaitis
“Dada is feeling frustrated because it’s 3:00 a.m. and still dark outside, and he’d like for you to go back to bed. Okay? Thank you.” All right. And a favorite book?

Tessa West
Ooh, that’s a hard one. Children of Time it’s a sci-fi book by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I probably butchered that. I almost exclusively read sci-fi. So, this book is about spiders on a new planet that have evolved to be super intelligent. And it’s really all about status and power and mind-reading other species and what they’re going to do. It’s the best social psychological book I’ve read on power and status about spiders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tessa West
My Google Calendar Excel spreadsheet that allows anyone who’s close to me to just write down when they want to meet in a 30-minute window, and it has saved me tons of time, and it’s also made it possible for people who are less comfortable bugging me to just go on and reserve their time. So, what I found is the people who are the most comfortable kind of nagging me for time tend to come from like really high social-class families where they learn to just push their way through things.

Whereas, the first-gen students don’t do that. They feel rude. And it just creates this kind of mismatch between who has access to me and who doesn’t. But if you get the Google link and you can just sign up, it’s kind of this great equalizer among all my students.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Tessa West
When I have feedback conversations, I always end them with, “Do you have any feedback for me?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Tessa West
And then they look shocked and they don’t know what to say but they get used to it after about the third time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Tessa West
One thing that resonates with people is power and status is established within the first minute of a team and often very subtly. So, it doesn’t take much to establish yourself as a leader. Something as simple as having everyone go around the room and say their names will often work. And people find this to be surprising but really effective if they want to actually assert themselves in a team.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that feels like a whole another podcast conversation. But while we’re on the subject, okay, what are the top things I can do to appear powerful and high status in my minute? So, is it just like introducing myself powerfully or by being the guy or gal who says, “Hey, how about we all introduce ourselves?”

Tessa West
Yes, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
I should ask for the intros and that makes me powerful.

Tessa West
It does because here’s what happens, especially if you don’t know each other well, the person who asserts himself as the organizer of the group, not the person with the loudest opinions, the strongest voice. The person who says, “Let’s go all around the room and say what our names are. Okay, everyone, let’s get together and organize these applications. I’ll take A through D.” That person, all of a sudden, everything else they do is seen through the lens of leadership, all their other future behaviors, because they’ve established themselves as a non-self-interested leader from the get-go. They’re actually interested in the wellbeing of the group.

The next piece of advice I would give you is don’t try to convince people by talking for a really long time. My favorite rule is what Marty Nemko calls the stoplight rule. So, you have 30 seconds to make a point when your light is green. In 30 seconds, it turns yellow and people are hoping you wrap it up. At the minute mark, you’re still talking, they’ve minimized you and they’ve gone to shopping online. They’re not even going to listen to you anymore, so less is more.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Tessa West
TessaWestAuthor.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Tessa West
Yeah, I’d say normalize talking about jerks at work. If you have power, open up these conversations with a tale of your own jerkery and what you did to realize that you were off-kilter at your job, and that will really help other people feel much more comfortable in admitting their own mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Tessa, this has been fun. Thank you and keep on being not a jerk.

Tessa West
Thank you. You, too.

717: How Logical and Sensitive Professionals Work Best Together with Devora Zack

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Devora Zack says: "Work with rather than fight against your own natural personality."

Devora Zack shares approaches to understand a key personality trait–in yourself and others–so thinkers and feelers can thrive together at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to tell if you’re a cactus or a snowflake 
  2. The leadership style that harms motivation
  3. The platinum rule for giving feedback 

About Devora

Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, a Washington Post bestselling author, and a global keynote speaker with books in twenty languages. Her clients include Deloitte, the Smithsonian, Delta Airlines, the FDA, Johns Hopkins, and the National Institutes of Health. She has been featured by The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, US News & World Report, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Self, Redbook, Fast Company, and many others.

She is the author of Managing for People Who Hate Managing, Singletasking and her upcoming book is called The Cactus and the Snowflake at Work: How the Logical and Sensitive Can Thrive Side by Side, releasing November 2021. 

Resources Mentioned

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Devora Zack Interview Transcript

Devora Zack
Thanks for having me back. It’s a pleasure to be with you again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Well, I’m excited to dig into your work here, The Cactus and Snowflake at Work. I’ve done a number of Myers-Briggs workshops in my day, and so I’m digging what you’re talking about. Can you maybe share with us what’s sort of overall the big idea or main thesis here?

Devora Zack
The big idea of this book is that some people lead with their heads and some people lead with their hearts, and they can really get on each other’s nerves. However, with the right set of tools and understanding of different personality styles, we can be each other’s best friends instead of worst enemies.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well-said. And so, can you maybe share with us, for starters, something that was particularly surprising or counterintuitive that you discovered in putting together this work?

Devora Zack
I’ve actually been really interested in this dimension of personality for many, many years, and, as you know, I’ve written a couple books that feature introversion and extroversion, and those are better known in the general culture than thinkers and feelers, so I really was excited to come out with a book with a different focus about thinkers and feelers. However, since those terms aren’t as well known, we decided to give the more playful terminology and called them cactus and snowflakes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the cactus, being the thinker because they might be prickly or blunt, and the snowflake, the feeler, because they may have hurt feelings. Is that the premise here?

Devora Zack
I’ve identified three main distinctions between these two. The cactus, who leads with his head or her head, tends to be more logical, analytical, and direct. And the snowflake, who leads with his or her heart, tends to be more sensitive, empathetic, and diplomatic. One thing to keep in mind is that everyone has bits and pieces of both of them, so it’s not that there’s just two clear-cut types of personalities, but envision a continuum, a line where people are somewhere along the middle. A few people are at the far ends, but most of us can identify to a greater or lesser extent with both personality dichotomies.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. That totally resonates. And I guess I’m curious, if folks are in one camp and then the other, what might be some mistakes that they make, they don’t even know they’re making, like a straight up blind spot, like, “Oh, I had no idea that I have offended you in this way or overlooked this key thing”? What are some real watchouts that each type should look out for?

Devora Zack
Well, one watchout is to think that people are all basically the same. In fact, people are dramatically different from each other in terms of how we live in the world and how we experience the same situations and how we communicate. So, a mistake many of us make is that we tend to use what would motivate us to try and motivate others or to build rapport with us to use that on others when, in fact, often what would motivate you, if you’re a different personality style than me, is completely opposite of what I would be motivated by.

So, I introduced the big two in this book along with a bunch of other ideas and tips and techniques. The big two is to observe and ask to figure out what someone else’s preferences are, and then to calibrate your communication to meet others where they’re at.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when we’re observing, what are some of the key things we should be on the lookout for, some telltale signs that are helpful?

Devora Zack
One is the types of words people emphasize, the language people use, and I have a whole translation section in the book. However, at the most basic level, cacti tend to use the word “think” more often, and snowflakes tend to use the word “feel” more often. And in our English language, they’re mostly interchangeable. You can say, “Well, what do you think about that podcast?” “Oh, I felt like it was really interesting and enlightening.”

So, just listening, at the very beginning of learning how to flex your style, that’s what I call meeting people where they’re at, is to just notice and observe who uses “think” and uses “feel” more often, and then to match that language whenever possible. If you’re, let’s say, presenting to a large group, you can assume there’s cacti and snowflakes within the room, and you want to practice integrating both types of language into your presentation so that you can connect with as many people as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really an interesting point there in terms of just the language itself, there’s, “I think this,” “I feel that,” because a lot of times when people say, “I feel this,” it’s not actually an emotion that they’re identifying. It’s like, “I feel like we’ve been spending a lot of money lately.” It’s like that’s not an emotion. That is a thought and, yet, if someone who, a cactus, who prefers thinking would be more likely to say, “I think we’ve been spending a lot of money lately,” versus the snowflake who prefers feeling would be more likely to say, “I feel like we’re spending a lot of money lately.” And that’s really intriguing that we’re expressing the exact same thing and yet there’s a clue as to how we may be oriented in and working with the world around us.

Devora Zack
That’s right. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. We can also look at how people decorate their homes or offices, and you can do that even if you’re Zooming or working remotely. You can also calibrate how you envision or experience a situation against how others do.
Another important concept that I introduced in this book is what I call the non-event. And what that means is that something that could be a big deal to me, if I’m a snowflake, might be a complete non-event to you as a cactus. So, we may walk out of a meeting and I may think, “Wow! Everybody sure fell apart in that meeting. We’re going to have to start from scratch.” And you might respond by saying, “What are you talking about? It was totally productive. It was fine.”

And it’s easy to be judgmental to each other around that and think that each other is wrong, or insensitive, or too sensitive, when, in fact, what one person picks up on may be completely a non-event to the other person as if it didn’t even happen. Similarly, if a cactus and a snowflake are walking along together, and one of them maybe ignores the other one for a few minutes, then one person could be really offended, and the other one was thinking, “What are you talking about? We were just walking quietly.”

So, non-events are very big deal to look out for in the world to figure out if you and other people are on the same wavelength.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, let’s say you got a clear sense, “Okay. Hey, I’m clearly a cactus,” or, “I’m clearly a snowflake,” and then, “I’m interacting with someone who has a differing preference,” what are your favorite tips in terms of how to do that effectively?

Devora Zack
Well, the first step, even before that, if we can just rewind it a tiny bit, is to get to know and understand your own personality style. So, the book actually has a self-assessment in it so you can figure out not only if you’re primarily a cactus or a snowflake but how strong your preference is. And then it’s to work with rather than fight against your own natural personality. So, that’s the first step, is getting acquainted with yourself and having a level of acceptance with yourself.

Then, we get to the next point, which is what you were getting at, which is, “How do we communicate with each other?” And we aren’t always going to get it right, particularly because we may not know what personality style people have when we first meet them. However, by listening carefully, that’s a very useful tool in finding out where someone is coming from, and asking general questions and letting the other person decide how specific to get in their responses. That helps us in building rapport and also communicating with people that we may or may not know where they’re coming from.

That presupposes also that we are open to understanding and working with different types of people. It’s easy to say, “Oh, if you’re the opposite personality style of me, that we’re just going to aggravate each other.” However, we can be each other’s greatest resources because, let’s say, if I’m cactus and I’m very logical and analytical, and I work with you, and you might be more of a snowflake, and you’re more empathetic, we can give each other tips and help each other out in areas that we’re not gifted in by filling in the blanks for each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, can you share some cool stories and examples that bring this to life?

Devora Zack
Sure. Here’s one and it is “do good” versus “feel good” leadership. So, a lot of people who read my books are interested in how they can work with other people, particularly if they’re managing other people. And what’s tempting, as a leader, is to be what I call a “feel good” leader to just make people feel good and to say, “Oh, that was great. Keep up the good work. I’m so proud of you. Keep at it,” but, in fact, it’s also very helpful, and that’s more of a snowflake tendency.

What the cacti is more likely to do is what I call “do good” leadership, which is to say, “Well, you can do better than that. I know that you can achieve higher aspirations than what you’re settling for, and I know you can try harder.” So, a snowflake might initially be really put off by the fact that someone is telling them that they can do better and it’s not good enough. However, what’s interesting is that when I work with different groups, the “do good” leadership style actually motivates people more and makes them feel better than the “feel good” leadership style, which just says to people, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re fine as it is,” and then they don’t achieve their potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now that’s quite an insight right there, and I think those who are practicing the “feel good” approach will probably have a better resistance to making a switch because one that could be rather uncomfortable. Yet, the prize is twofold there. That’s pretty awesome in terms of not only are you getting better results but people are feeling better, like, “Hey, I did great work and I’m improving and I’m making cool stuff in the world.” So, that’s powerful.

So, can you underscore that a little bit for the skeptic or the resistant snowflake? What’s some of the most compelling evidence that really confirms, “Yeah, this is absolutely true, so go for it even though it’s uncomfortable”?

Devora Zack
What I do, when I’m working with people and I’m trying to convince them that there’s a lot of benefit to “do good” leadership, is I ask them to reflect upon an important and meaningful coach that they’ve had in their life, and it can be an actual coach like from a team, or it could be a leader, or a family member, or somebody that inspired them, and to write down traits of that coach, and how the coach inspired that person.

And more often than not, the lists are full of things like, “Pushed me harder than I’d been pushed before,” “Didn’t take half an effort for…” “Didn’t accept half an effort.” And they’ve soon discovered that the people that have made the biggest positive impact in their life have often been people that pushed them further than they thought they could go, which is a trait of “do good” leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s beautiful. As you say this, I’m thinking right now about a high school English teacher, Judy Federmeyer, and how I was kind of accustomed to getting great grades all the time fairly easily. And then I think with our first writing assignment with her, I got like a B or a B+, I thought, “What’s going on? I’m not accustomed to such things.” And it was kind of unsettling in the moment but, boy, it was so valuable in terms of it’s like, “Oh, I actually need to exert some effort,” in so doing, my writing got a lot better. And so, I am forever grateful to Mrs. Federmeyer.

Devora Zack
Pete, I loved that you gave that example because my best coach was also my high school English teacher, Mr. James Killian.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome.

Devora Zack
And my first essay that came back covered in red ink was quite a blow. However, the fact that I could write books now, I give him all the credit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Certainly, and it does feel good in terms of the growth in the moment, and then the long-term abilities that you have. And then my fondness for her, as you share, to this day. So, that’s beautiful. Cool. Well, so tell us, any other transformational tidbits along those lines in terms of, “You might think this but, in fact, here’s this other thing that’s true that you might want to get on board with”?

Devora Zack
Sure thing. So, another idea I have in the book is what I call “nay.” And it stands for “not about you.” So, whether you’re a cactus or snowflake, when you’re put off by another person’s behavior or language or style, is to think, “It’s not about me.” N-A-Y, “Not about you. Not about you.” Because we often tend to take other people’s personalities personally when, in fact, they just have different personalities than us.

And the more we can accept, once again, as I mentioned before, that we’re really different from each other and stop trying to correct other people, particularly in our own minds, the more effective we’ll be. So, if I want to improve the world, the best thing I can do is focus on myself and focus on the three things that I can control, which are my thoughts, words, and actions. And that’s it. I can only control what I say, do, and experience in the world.

And to this end, I encourage people to mind their own business. So often, when you hear, “Mind your own business,” it’s considered something kind of rude or impolite. However, it can be inspirational, too, that I don’t have to live outside of my own business. I don’t have to worry about other people achieving their potential by meeting me where I’m at, instead I can just always say, “It’s my responsibility to meet others where they’re at regardless of what our relationship is like, or if I report to them, or if they’re more senior than I am.” It’s to always just say, “I’m going to focus on my own thoughts, words, and actions and take responsibility for how I engage with others.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that “Not about you,” and sometimes it’s not about you even if they’re talking about you in certain occasions in terms of like just the mood, right? If folks are, I want to say, sometimes it’s lashing out. Or, if you’re in a mood, it can sort of color everything in terms of how you are communicating with other people and/or if you’re the cactus and have a certain bluntness, then it can be super helpful to remember, in the snowflake position, “Oh, I’m not horrible at my job. This person doesn’t hate me. It’s not about you at all. It’s just how they express it.” That’s lovely.

Could you give us some more cool examples of collaboration then when it comes to how we might complement each other’s temperaments extra nicely?

Devora Zack
Sure. So, let’s say, for example, I’m a cactus and I believe that this touchy-feely stuff can make a difference in building rapport, but I’m not really gifted at it, and so I think, “Well, my team is better off without us attempting to have this motivation of rapport. Our team is better off without having these touch-feely interactions.” Instead, what I can do is identify someone who I work with who seems to have a snowflake quality, and ask them to take the lead on maybe some get-to-know-you activities or building connections among team members.

And so, finding out who’s good at what, and you don’t have to always be the smart one in the room, or the one who’s leading, and instead finding people who match certain objectives you have and letting them take the reins. So, it takes a little bit of humility to do that. And, in the end, you’ll be having a more productive team because you’ll have all different perspectives introduced from the cactus and the snowflake perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. And I think it can go vice versa in terms of I’m thinking about days where we interviewed a bunch of candidates, and then we made our decisions, and then we needed to call all of them and the vast majority were told, “No, you will not be moving forward in this interview process,” which I have a lot of snowflake tendencies myself, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know. Oh, I really, really don’t want to do that, killing dreams, after dream after dream on the phone.” And then someone else on the team is like, “Oh, that’s fine. I don’t mind. Just like no problems.” So, it’s intriguing how it can take just way more or way less sort of emotional energy, depending on the nature of the task and the nature of their temperament.

Devora Zack
That’s right. And when you’re working with someone more long term, and let’s say you need or want or don’t want to but have to give someone feedback, it’s easy to give feedback in the way that you like to hear it as opposed to what resonates with the other person. So, that’s why I don’t totally believe in the golden rule, which is treat others how you want to be treated. I use the platinum rule instead, which is treat others how they want to be treated.

So, if I am a snowflake and I like to get feedback in the following way, like, “Oh, Devora, it’s so nice to see you. You look really nice today and we all really appreciate your input,” and then that might ease the blow of things I need to fix, or work on, or improve upon, or things I might not be aware of that are not in my realm of consciousness.

On the other hand, someone who’s a strong cactus, if I started giving feedback to that person in the same way, it would really get on their nerves and make them feel like it was just fluff and I was beating around the bush and so on. So, they might much prefer, and in my experience, this is true, feedback that’s very direct, like, “I want to give you feedback on three behaviors that I think we can switch and improve so that you can be more effective when working with the board of directors.” And that can actually make their eyes light up, like, “Oh, great. Thanks for the feedback.”

And I’ve seen this play out in real-life situations again and again, that flexing our style, in other words, giving feedback or communicating with someone in a way that works for them is way more effective than giving feedback in a way that works for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s nice. So, the platinum rule is a nice example of a best practice that sort of cuts across here in terms of regardless of whether you are a cactus or a snowflake, or the person you’re communicating with is a cactus or a snowflake, that notion of thinking about their style in a manner that works with their style works well. Are there any other “universal” best practices that kind of, “Hey, regardless of who you are and your preferences and temperament, and the person you’re interacting with,” some things that tend to work well across the temperaments?

Devora Zack
Yes, another concept that I introduced in the book is what I call “beans up the nose.” And its roots come from, perhaps you might recall in first grade or so, if a teacher might do an art project with dried beans and Elmer’s Glue and paper, and what you would do is glue the beans to the paper in artful designs, and that was your project. Does this ring a bell? Did you ever do that as a kid?

So, the worst thing the teacher can say, as the students start working away with their projects, is, “Now, class, whatever you do, don’t put beans up your nose.” And, sure enough, beans start flying up noses, and the school nurse has to come running in and help out. So, I’m using that as a metaphor, we put beans up people’s noses all the time, and whether we’re snowflakes or cacti, we just have different tendencies in how we do it.

So, what I caution people about is be careful what you say because you might be putting beans up someone else’s nose. So, always pause before you speak, and think, “Is this putting beans up the nose?” And I have to say, I do it myself, and it’s amazing how often I almost suggest to people to put beans up their nose in terms of, “Oh, I’m really not good at speaking off the cuff so I’m probably going to mess up this Q&A at the end of the speech.”

Or, if someone says, “I’m really very sensitive as a snowflake, so I might start crying in the middle of the performance feedback.” In other words, making people think about things that they didn’t have in their mind beforehand. And this happens in interviews a lot, and it happens when people are working with opposite types a lot, so just be careful about putting beans up people’s noses.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that connects in terms of some folks talking about certain kind of rules or guidelines or principles, and it’s like, “That wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do this thing that I’m not supposed to do.”

Well, Devora, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Devora Zack
Well, to know that everyone has times when they are their own opposite, and sometimes that can be by design because they want to be effective and so they’re using tools that come from the other side of the spectrum, which is fine. And other times it can be because we’re in a difficult spot and we kind of go into our own shadow state, which is based on some of Carl Jung’s concepts.

So, sometimes we short-circuit and become our own opposites. So, I might, for example, if I’m a sensitive snowflake, suddenly start being very insensitive to people around me, or if I’m a cactus who’s very straightforward, and I might start beating around the bush and not tell people really what I’m thinking. So, it’s to be understanding of ourselves and to be able to recognize when we’re in a shadow state, and that’ll help us get out of it.

And, also, if you have worked with someone, or live with someone, or know someone pretty well, and they start acting like their own opposite, to know that they might be short-circuiting also, and to respond in a way that’s supportive as oppose to amplifying the issues that someone is dealing with.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say short-circuited, I’m curious, what are some things that sort of trigger you to go opposite or shadow state?

Devora Zack
So, sometimes it’s unanticipated change, sometimes it’s when you’re sleep-deprived, or mentally or physically drained, sometimes it’s when you feel misunderstood or when you are unclear about what direction you want to head in. So, when you’re in challenging situations is when you’re most likely to go into a shadow state, and I call that being in the grip. Like, in the grip of your own personality short-circuiting.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so then, those are sort of stressors. And then, ideally, someone will be supportive and encouraging when we’re in that place. And if we’re only kind of working on ourselves without that support, any pro tips in terms of kind of getting back to center?

Devora Zack
Yeah, and it actually a similar tip to people trying to be supportive also. A lot of times, people try and be supportive by saying, “You shouldn’t be upset,” or, “It’s not a big deal,” downplaying it either in your mind if you’re taking care of yourself or to someone else if you’re attempting to make them feel better by letting them know that they’re overreacting, and that completely backfires.

So, instead, is validating yourself and others when they’re in a shadow state, and to not say, “You shouldn’t feel this way,” but to say, “I can see that you’re really upset.” Or, if it’s just you dealing with something inside your own head, is saying, “It’s valid for me to be upset,” as opposed to saying, “There’s something wrong with me,” and then you get more upset about the fact that you’re upset.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. All right. Well, now, can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Devora Zack
Sure. So, this is a Henry Miller quote, he’s an author. And I love it so much that it’s taped to my computer when I’m writing a book, “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly whatever is in hand.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Devora Zack
Well, I really just love following any up-and-coming neuroscience because I find it really fascinating to see how our brains work according to scientists, and how that plays into organizational behavior, and supports a lot of stuff that people in my field in general management have been professing for a long time, but then finding out what is happening with our neurotransmitter signals in our brain, to me, it’s just fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Devora Zack
My favorite book has always been The Phantom Tollbooth since I was about 11 years old, and I just think it’s the greatest book I’ve read in a million times.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Devora Zack
I actually have a brand-new favorite tool, I’m so excited. It’s a 1960 typewriter that still works. And to be able to do writing on a real typewriter is very exciting, and it’s called The Torpedo, which I think is kind of cool. But really, it gets a whole different part of the brain going when I write on it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. What part of the brain? How would you articulate the difference?

Devora Zack
Well, you can’t backpedal like you can when you’re typing on a computer. And so, you have to just move forward and do a pure stream of consciousness writing without rearranging things or deleting things. And what you come up with then is very visceral and often more raw than what happens when you’re writing on a computer, and a lot of great insights come of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Devora Zack
Journaling every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And a key nugget you share that really seems to resonate and connect with people; they quote it back to you often?

Devora Zack
Be true to yourself. Work with rather fighting against your true personality.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Devora Zack
My company website MyOnlyConnect.com, and currently, there’s also a link to it for CactusSnowflake.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Devora Zack
Everyone is exactly how they’re supposed to be. Nobody needs to be fixed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Devora, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you many happy collaborations.

Devora Zack
Thank you. With this being one of them.
Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.