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KF #9. Manages Conflict Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

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.

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.

706: Minimizing the Frustration and Resentment of Workplace Conflict with Jeremy Pollack

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Jeremy Pollack says: "Put care first."

Jeremy Pollack shares how to prevent conflict from ruining your relationships.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The six basic needs at the heart of conflict
  2. Three tactics for keeping your calm in a conflict
  3. How to handle a conflict that’s going nowhere 

About Jeremy

Jeremy Pollack is a leader in the field of workplace conflict resolution and peacebuilding. He is the Founder of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, the largest workplace conflict resolution consulting firm in North America, and a regular contributor on the topics of leadership and organizational conflict management to publications such as Forbes.com, Fast Company, Industry Week, and many more. Jeremy is also the author of the recently released book The Conflict Resolution Playbook: Practical Communication Skills for Preventing, Managing, and Resolving, Conflict. 

Resources Mentioned

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Jeremy Pollack Interview Transcript

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

Jeremy Pollack
Hey, Pete, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. You’ve got a wealth of experience when it comes to conflict resolution. And I’d love to hear, for starters, what’s one of the most surprising and counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about conflicts and resolving them?

Jeremy Pollack
That’s a good question. So, I’m not even sure that this is totally counterintuitive but it’s just something that has dawned on me through the work that I’ve done, is that someone’s sort of approach, attitude, etc. in a conflict really dictates the way that others are also going to interact with them.

So, if you’re in an escalated state, it will escalate other people. And if you aren’t, it’ll help deescalate. And so, one thing that I’ve worked on with people, for instance, is what I call being generous with your heart, essentially, which is making the first concession. And sometimes people feel like, “Well, why do I always have to be the bigger person?” or something like that.

But if you start to cross that line and be a little bit generous, be a little bit more open, maybe a little bit more vulnerable, it usually opens the door for someone else to do the same, because a lot of people are trying to save face, especially when they’re resolving conflict. They don’t want to admit they’re wrong and they don’t want to admit the other person is right or something like that.

So, if someone is willing to make that first concession, and say something like, “You know what, I think you’re right,” or, “You know what, you’re not wrong,” or just admit that there’s a sphere of possibility that someone is not necessarily wrong or right, and be a little bit vulnerable. It actually opens up the space. So, I don’t know if that’s counterintuitive but it was something that it seems almost intuitive but it kind of dawned on me through the work, I’m like, “This is really an important step in resolving conflict.”

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting about that concession, “Okay, you’re right,” it’s like they don’t have to be right about the core contentious piece, but it sounds like, if this is fair, you could give them some bit of concession, affirmation, validation, on anything, like, “Hey, it totally makes sense that you’re trying to look out for what’s best for your building,” or, “your tenants,” or, “your employees,” and they’re like, “Well, yeah, of course.” And so, it’s like that costs you nothing.

Jeremy Pollack
Absolutely. If you could just find one point of agreement, especially if it’s like a deeper-level agreement, an agreement on sort of a core value, or a core interest, or a core need, or something, if you just find one point of agreement, that opens up a sphere there of possibility to start collaborating so someone can see you not necessarily as an opponent but they start to see you as, “Okay, this is someone who’s essentially becoming a partner in this resolution process.”

So, it’s as simple as when you say the words, “You know what, I think you’re right about that,” or when you say the words, “I agree with you that that’s important,” or, “That concerns me too. You’re right.” Those kinds of things, it suddenly takes you out of the opponent mode and into a mode of, “We’re on the same team, potentially. We just come from different perspectives or different positions. We need to figure out how to get aligned in some way, but we do have some shared or common values there.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Cool. Well, hey, so we got one tip off the bat. So, maybe we can zoom out a bit and tell us your book the, Conflict Resolution Playbook, what’s sort of the core idea here?

Jeremy Pollack
The Playbook is really aimed at being a very practical step-by-step book for different types of conflict scenarios. So, for both personal and professional life, I think we’ve got several chapters, 15 chapters on just different types of conflicts and give a little bit of an example of what could happen and some techniques to help resolve, manage, or transform the conflict. So, it’s meant to be like a very sort of step-by-step playbook as it’s written in the title.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I understand the psychology of human needs is a big part of this. Can you unpack for us what are some of the core needs that we got to have in mind as we’re engaging in these conversations?

Jeremy Pollack
Yeah, there’s a wide research field in human needs theory, and it’s been done in different types of fields from economics to psychology to anthropology, and there’s sort of a consensus on certain needs. But essentially, I’ve done a lot of research in this field and it seems to me, I’ve focused on six core needs, essentially. But some of the really basic ones are safety. It’s not physical safety but psychological safety, a feeling that, “I have an expectation of feeling secure and stable and, also, I feel safe to be myself, be who I am without the fear of retaliation of some sort.” So, that’s psychological safety.

We have a basic need for autonomy, to feel that we have agency or some input in making decisions that affect us in our lives. We have a basic need for identity, and I might clarify that by saying it’s a need for a positive, coherent identity, so we try to structure our world in a way that makes sense for us and how we fit into it.

And when someone, for instance, does something, or seems to do something, or seems to say something that threatens, even unconsciously feels like a threat to one of those basic needs, we respond in fight/flight, we respond in acute stress response, and that’s typically where a lot of conflicts start is this perception of a threat to one’s basic needs, goals, or values.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You listed three of those needs. Can you share what are the other three?

Jeremy Pollack
Sure. Well, we have a basic need for care, or what we might call connection, so being part of groups and feeling like we’re cared about by other people. We have a basic need for stimulation, for feeling challenged, engaged, etc. And we have a basic need, at least in this culture, we have a basic need for growth and progress, a feeling that we’re making some progress in life. And it doesn’t mean financial progress, or it doesn’t mean progress in a certain domain. It means progress in some way, like, whether it’s on a health domain, or a self-care domain, or my home domain, or some feeling that I’m moving forward. So, most people have this basic need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really interesting in terms of when you start to feel escalated, I think this is a really great framework in terms of, like, “Hey, what’s going on here? Oh, I feel that my autonomy is potentially being impeded here. That’s what’s going on and that’s why I’m getting a little bit, like, going.” So, maybe while we’re there, do you have any tips for, hey, when you’re in the moment and you’re starting to feel a little bit like you’re approaching the furious, how do you cool it off?

Jeremy Pollack
Yeah, good question. So, number one, I would say there’s a little bit of prep work sometimes. If you’re noticing that you’re getting triggered on a regular basis by certain things, certain situations, certain people, you might do a little analysis, like you said, and just determine, “What is it that this person or that rhetoric is triggering in me? What does it feel like it’s threatening?”

And you can go through those kinds of six basic needs or some basic goals that you have, or values that you have, and start to understand, like, “Is that a true threat? If it’s a true threat, how do I know that’s truly threatening me? What are the consequences?” kind of unpack it a little bit. And if you’ve noticed that you’re feeling threatened by something, you might have a framework for what would be called cognitive reframing or I sometimes call it soothing.

So, like for instance, if I’m in a situation at work and I’m feeling micromanaged, and it’s feeling like I’m not being trusted, that might be threatening my sense of identity as a worker there. It might also be threatening my sense of autonomy, to control my own sort of work style, etc.

And if I start to remind myself, “Wait a minute,” just mentally, “Wait a minute. I’m still in control of my work situation. I have power. No one’s taking away my power. I’m safe. I’m okay. I know who I am,” whatever the kind of thing is that you need to hear to soothe yourself, that’s a cognitive reframing technique that could be important, and it’s really unique to each person. They have to kind of figure out, “What is it that feels like it’s a threat? And how do I reframe it that?”

The other things that I talk a lot about are breathing, which is I think something that a lot of people talk about when they start feeling like they’re escalated. Focusing on your breath, you can do some basic breathing techniques like counting down three, two, one, as you breathe, as you exhale, and counting up, one, two, three, as you inhale, and just focusing on that breath and just kind of staying calm.

Another one is mindful speech. So, being able to speak, you’re going to slow down your speech a little bit so that you actually hear yourself enunciate words, articulate very clearly. And that process, any mindfulness techniques, whether it’s breathing or speech mindfulness, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, it gives the brain a signal that it’s okay to slow down, we’re not in a flight/fight, we don’t need to protect ourselves against the threat. So, slowing down your breath and your speech and even your movement sometimes can actually help you sort of signal the brain that it’s time to calm down a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool stuff. And I’m curious, could you share with us a cool story of some of these things really coming together for someone who used these principles to get through a tricky conflict situation?

Jeremy Pollack
Well, it’s hard for me to speak exactly on other people’s experience. I can speak on my own, I guess. I definitely had, for instance, a difficult conversation even yesterday with an employee who gave me some feedback about something that I did as a leader and put her in an awkward position, and it was tough for me to hear at first, and I was listening and, really, my inclination, just like most people’s inclination, is I really want to defend myself, I really want to sort of dismiss what she’s saying, almost reject it, let her know, “You’re incorrect. That’s not what I said. That’s not what I meant,” and sort of defend against. I’m sort of feeling my heart rate increase a little bit.

But I used these techniques. I slowed down my speech. I waited and listened. I didn’t defend. I very, cognitively, made a point not to defend myself and, instead, try to validate her. Slowed down my speech, focused on my breath, and just calm. And then when she was done talking, I just tried to kind of repeat back what I heard from her, made sure that I clearly understood it, and then validated her in some way. I actually ended up agreeing with her on some levels, I said, “You’re right. I did put you in an awkward position, and that wasn’t my intention. And I didn’t even realize I did it. It was definitely a blind spot. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m going to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.”

And I gave her a little bit of a plan that I thought would be a good plan, and she agreed and that kind of thing. Anytime, especially for a leader, I think, in my experience, it’s very hard to get feedback sometimes because we have an identity as being the leader or the boss or something like that, and if someone is challenging that, giving us feedback, it’s very easy to get triggered and to feel like, “Well, this person is kind of challenging me on some level as being her boss or his boss,” or something.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And so then, in order to have more of those positive conversations and outcomes, you outlined 10 essential communication skills for resolving conflict. And I’m curious, it might be tricky to go through all 10 in the time we have available. But what’s maybe a couple that you think are super easy to improve with a couple quick practices or tactics that make a big difference?

Jeremy Pollack
Okay. So, one skill that I think is really important that I include in pretty much every training and coaching program that I deliver is called validation, and there’s some great material on validation, but it’s really simple. Essentially, when someone gives you some piece of feedback and it’s hard for you to hear, first of all, calmly listen and some of those techniques we just talked about where you can start breathing and you can just calm yourself down, maybe cognitive reframe things. Just breathe for a second and just listen.

And when they’re done, the validation part is, number one, “Can you repeat back what you heard?” So, this is a form of reflective listening. So, repeating back what you heard in some concise way so that they know you heard them and you also know that you heard them correctly because then they have the opportunity to say, “No, that’s not what I meant,” or, “That’s not what I said.” Or they could say, “Yeah, that is what I said,” and so they feel heard. So, that’s really important to calm someone, deescalate someone in a moment, especially if they’re feeling a little emotionally triggered.

And then if I could find some piece, as we said in the beginning, if I could find something that I could find agreement with or some merit in what they’re saying, and let them know, “You know what, that’s important,” “You know what, I’m concerned about that too,” “Yeah, you know what, I think you’re right. That was a misstep on my part,” or anything that you can find agreement on. Again, that lowers the defenses and it opens up a space for being collaborative.

And then the next part, I always say that there’s two main parts to conflict resolution. One part is the care part. It always starts with care, and that means listening, validating, trying to find alignment. So, it’s showing that I’m here, I’m caring about what you’re saying. And then the next part is solution, which is a collaborative process. It shouldn’t just be a sort of unilateral where I say, “Well, here’s what I’m going to do.” It should be, “Well, here’s what I’m thinking about doing. What do you think about that? Or, do you have any suggestions?” and opening up that space for collaboration and creating a solution that seems to work for everyone.

So, those two pieces – validation, alignment in all that care bucket – and then the next piece is sort of working towards a solution of collaborating on a solution, being creative, maybe sometimes thinking outside the box. Those are two pieces that are really important.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally, I think those really do make a world of difference and often is a lot of fun to see what you can come up with together there. Now, you also mentioned six classic conflict scenarios: criticism, passive-aggression, gaslighters, insubordination, conflict with the supervisor, and confronting a bully. First, just definitionally, I’ve heard different definitions for gaslighting and gaslighters. Lay it on us, Jeremy, how do you define gaslighting?

Jeremy Pollack
Gaslighting, essentially, is a way of trying to call into question someone’s reality. So, if someone brings to you, “Hey, this is how I’m feeling,” or, “This is what I experienced,” or they’re confronting you or giving you some feedback, essentially, and you say something like, “Well, that’s crazy,” or, “Well, that’s just ridiculous. That didn’t happen. Stop being so sensitive.” Those types of things where you’re basically calling into question the validity of someone’s reality, that’s gaslighting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you find yourself in these scenarios, I’m curious, to what extent are there some universal prescriptions versus specific prescriptions in terms of, “With criticism do this, versus gaslighting do that”?

Jeremy Pollack
I have some formulas that I tend to use so if I’m feeling like I’m getting criticism instead of gaslighting someone, I have a different, like a sequence that I might use. And one thing that I tend to focus on is trying to separate behavior from interpretation. And what that means is when I’m hearing someone giving me feedback on something that I’ve done, like this is what happened yesterday, they might have a story or an interpretation or a judgment on the behavior that I did or what I said, what I did.

And my job is not to internalize their story and their judgment, and start making me feel a certain way about myself, and then I get triggered. My job instead, if I can, is to separate out, “What’s the behavior that they’re talking about, what I actually said, what I actually did, and the interpretation or the judgment that they placed on it?”

The first part, I can own. And if I can own that, if I can go, “You know what, you’re right. I did do that. I did say that.”

That helps a lot in deescalating the situation because it helps people feel like I’m not gaslighting them and, actually, I’m owning up to the thing that I did. The next part, the interpretation part, I don’t have to own because that’s their interpretation, that was how they perceived it.

What I can do with that part is I can reinterpret for them, “Here’s why I actually did it,” and I can also reassure them, “Let me just tell you that I didn’t intend for that. I actually really do value you, and I apologize if I was not clear and I came across like I didn’t value you or I don’t value your time. I really do value your time. I appreciate your time and that wasn’t my intention. And the reason that happened was…” and then you can give your real explanation.

So, reassurance and reinterpretation are what you can do for the judgment part. Ownership is what you can do for the behavior part, and that requires you separating those two things out – behavior and interpretation. That’s a way to respond to someone’s criticism. To respond to someone’s criticism with gaslighting where you just kind of immediately dismiss or reject them, and you say, “Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s untrue. I didn’t do that. I didn’t mean to do that. It’s crazy that you think I did that.” Those kinds of things are very, very frustrating because it makes the person feel completely unheard, completely unvalued, and will usually escalate the situation or create a lot of resentment.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if you are, I guess, I don’t know, the victim or the recipient of gaslighting or bullying behavior, or passive-aggression, what are some of your top tips in terms of how do you address that well?

Jeremy Pollack
Yeah, this is an important topic. I’ve coached a lot of folks that are recipients of sort of chronic gaslighting and sometimes chronic bullying. If you’re in a situation with someone who you generally trust and you have a good rapport with and you just feel gaslighted in that moment, certainly, you can give them some feedback and say, “You know what, I understand that this is feeling a little bit intense for you, or it’s triggering you in some way, but it feels like you’re not listening to what I’m saying. You’re not hearing me. How can I get this across in a way that we can communicate better about it?”

You kind of call it out in the moment, because if you have the rapport and the trust with that person, you have a relationship with that person, it helps to highlight that and maybe they can calm down. And if they can’t, then maybe it’s time, “Let’s pick this conversation up tomorrow. I think it’s probably better if we pause for a second,” or something like that.

But if you’re dealing with someone who’s a chronic gaslighter, who you really never feel heard by, they’re never willing to own up to their behaviors, admit that they’ve done anything wrong at all, it’s always someone else’s fault, or etc., that’s a tough one to correct in terms of the relationship. And what I usually work on with people is they need to set boundaries for themselves as a form of self-care, as a form of self-esteem because self-esteem can be very much hurt in relationships where there’s constant gaslighting or even constant bullying going on. So, really making sure that you take care of yourself by setting some clear boundaries.

And sometimes with gaslighting, a lot of what I hear with gaslighting is someone will make an agreement with someone, and then two weeks later it’s out the window because the gaslighter basically says, “Oh, it never happened. We never talked about that. You’re crazy.” And it’s really important for someone who’s dealing with a gaslighter to start writing things down a lot, unfortunately, taking notes, making sure that they can check with themselves, not that they’re going to convince the gaslighter that they’re wrong or something, but they can check with themselves and go, “You know what, I am right. We did say this. I wrote it down here so that I know I’m not crazy, so that I don’t internalize this person’s story that I’m crazy or my memory is going or something like that. I need to set boundaries for myself so I can take care of myself.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s perfect. Thank you. And maybe if we back it up a little bit in terms of, before we even get to a conflict scenario, you’ve got a whole section in terms of strategies to prevent conflicts. And I was most intrigued by letting go of resentment and setting clear expectations. What are your top best practices for these two conflict-preventers?

Jeremy Pollack
Well, resentment is a tough one to let go of because when I talk about letting go of resentment, people often push back and say, “But if I stop resenting them, then they won,” or, “If I stop resenting them, it means either I’m saying they’re right or I’m not holding them accountable anymore,” or something like that.

And, really, resentment is like serving yourself poison. It’s not doing anything to the other person. It’s just hurting yourself. It’s just sort of a ball of energy that you’re holding onto. So, if you want to confront someone that you have rapport with, I think that’s important if you’re feeling resentful and you could do some reconciliation.

One exercise that I have people do sometimes is I do a writing exercise, especially if it’s not someone that they can actually do any kind of conflict process with, especially if it’s someone who maybe passed away, like they’re resentful of their father or their mother who’s not with us anymore, something like that. They’ll do a writing exercise where they actually write to the person, they actually write a letter to the person saying everything that’s in their heart, on their chest, everything that they really felt hurt about, etc., and they don’t send it, they just put it in their drawer. And then they write another letter from that person to themselves in a way that they think that they would like to hear from the other person.

So, whatever they would like to hear, “What would it sound like if they really heard you and they really wanted to resolve this, they really wanted to get back in a place of trust and care with you? What would that sound like? What would that letter response sound like?” And I have them write that letter. And it opens up the heart a little bit and then I have them write one final letter back to the person in response to that and, again, opening up their heart this time, being caring and potentially vulnerable. And so, doing some sort of writing exercise sometimes can help if that person is not available for it.

Setting expectations is really important to prevent resentment because, a lot of times, people have expectations that they never set with anyone, that they just assumed were there, so they hold someone else to their standards without getting an agreement on it, and then they create resentment in that way. So, I think it’s really important when you’re noticing you’re having conflicts with someone to sit down with them and to start kind of looking at, “What do you feel like are the standards or expectations here in our relationship, or in our organization, or in this workplace, or something?”

Let’s make sure we’re really clear and we’re aligned on that because, a lot of times, that process of setting expectations with someone will bring out how misaligned some of the things are, “I never knew you expected that of me,” or, “I think that’s unreasonable,” or, “Oh, you expect that. Okay, I can do that. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.” And so, that process of transparency and clarity is really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if you’re working with someone and you’re trying to follow all these best practices and you’re just not making much headway, like someone else just does not want to cooperate or play ball, how do you think about tough cases and when you want to kind of walk away and find an alternative?

Jeremy Pollack
Yeah, I think a lot of conflict resolution has to do with motivation. Every relationship, whether it’s a relationship with a company, with a boss, with a partner, with a spouse, every relationship has some cost benefit analysis. And the benefits, the value you get from the relationship has to outweigh, I think, by some measure, the cost of managing the relationship. In other words, the stress that you get from it.

So, if you have a really low stress relationship, you get a lot of value from it, your motivation to stay in that relationship is going to be high, and vice versa it’s going to be low. So, I sometimes work with folks and companies that, for instance, say, “I don’t want to resolve this conflict with this person because I don’t need to work with them, I don’t need to talk to them, there’s no downside of me just not having any conversation with them,” and yet the company goes, “No, they need to work together.”

So, this individual has very low motivation to resolve. And with low motivation, it’s going to be very tough for them to do some of the uncomfortable stuff that conflict resolution processes tend to bring people into. So, there’s a level of discomfort that you have to look at motivation. So, if someone says, “I’m just not motivated to resolve,” then sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll work with them and kind of understand, “Well, what are you motivated to do? Like, how do we reframe motivation? What do you want here? What kind of work life do you want, for instance? Or, what kind of life at home do you want? Paint a vision for me. Tell me how it would look.”

And we create a vision and we go, “What steps can we take to get there? Or, if those steps aren’t possible, then is this the right place for you? So, I ask them, “Is this the right place for you? Is this the right relationship? Is this the right organization for you to be in?” Sometimes, a lot of times, when they get to the point where there’s just no motivation to resolve, they can admit, “I’m not sure that this is the right thing.” And sometimes I’ve coached people out of relationships, out of their work situations, where they just didn’t feel confident in doing it but they really wanted to leave. And so, sometimes that’s where it’ll lead, they just need some help.

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

Jeremy Pollack
I would just say I’ll reiterate these two main buckets of conflict resolution when people are resolving conflicts – care and then solution. I just want to reiterate don’t skip the care part and jump straight to problem solving. Whenever possible, do the care part first, meaning listening to someone, validate them, let them know that you care, that you agree with some part, you can find merit in what they’re saying, and then open up the space for collaborative solution-building.

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

Jeremy Pollack
Well, I think the Robber’s Cave experiment by Sherif back in the 1950s was a seminal work in intergroup contact theory. I think that’s a really important work. And the whole field of intergroup contact has emerged from that. Basically, a seminal work.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Jeremy Pollack
Getting to Yes, right behind me. Getting to Yes is a really foundational book on negotiation and conflict resolution. I think that’s a really important one.

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

Jeremy Pollack
When I do coaching work, I just use Google Spreadsheet. I track all our progress for my coaching clients in there. I’m sure there are other platforms that are more robust but I love to use something like a spreadsheet to track progress with every coaching client I have so I know exactly what we’re doing, what action items we’re using, and what commitments they’re making.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jeremy Pollack
Meditation. Morning meditation.

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?

Jeremy Pollack
I have just a tendency to consistently kind of remind people to put care first, and that seems to resonate. Put care first.

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

Jeremy Pollack
You can go to our website PollackPeaceBuilding.com. I’m also at CoachJeremyPollack.com.

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

Jeremy Pollack
Final challenge to be awesome at your job, stay open-minded with people’s perspectives. Don’t think that your perspective is the only right one. There might be multiple right perspectives.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jeremy, this has been fun. I wish you much luck in all of your conflict resolving.

Jeremy Pollack
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it.

685: How to Manage Conflict and Work Peacefully in Virtual Teams with John Riordan

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John Riordan shares practical strategies for overcoming the unique challenges of conflict among virtual teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three best practices for preventing conflict 
  2. How to face conflict head on with the SBID model
  3. The three options you have when working with a jerk 

 

About John

For over 30 years, John Riordan has been committed to challenging people and organizations to reach their full capacity – first as a leadership program founder and director in East Africa, and now as an organization and leadership development consultant. He has consulted with a broad range of federal, private sector and non-profit organizations conducting hundreds of planning, team building and training workshops ranging from large conferences (200+) to small intact teams. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

John Riordan Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

John Riordan
Absolutely. My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I want to hear about the Marine Corps marathon that you did. How is that different than a normal marathon and what’s the backstory there?

John Riordan
Well, yeah, so that’s a good question and the backstory is interesting too. So, first of all, I’ll say a former friend, I don’t like this guy anymore. I went out for a jog one day and I’ve never ran more than three miles in my life, and he says, “Have you ever thought about running a marathon?” I laughed out loud, like, “Are you kidding me? Five miles would be a stretch and I have no interest in running a marathon whatsoever.”

He says, “Why not?” “Well, I couldn’t think of a thousand reasons why not. I don’t want to get injured as well.” “You don’t have to get injured. If something hurts, you stop.” I’m like, “Okay. It’s boring. Running for hours is boring.” “Well, could you do something about that?” Well, long story short, you could listen to things and learn things, and you’d be amazed how much you can learn while you’re running for two or three hours at a time.

Long story short, he coached me simply by saying, by asking the ultimate coaching question is, “What could you do about that?” And, ultimately, he’s sort of helped me dismantle all my own defenses to the point where I kind of had to do it. And so, I like to say I completed the Marine Corps, meaning I walked-run, not run the whole way. I had all this mental models. I thought everyone who ran any marathon would be super athlete fit runner. Nope, not the case whatsoever.

You look at any marathon, but the Marine Corps especially, I mean any size, shape that you would be shocked at who is capable of completing a marathon. I thought you had to die at the end, because as the first marathoner, I thought that was the requirement. You had to run with all your strength and then collapse and die. Nope. Apparently, that is not a requirement so I couldn’t stick to that one.

And so, just dismantling all these barriers that I had in my mind, some of which were simply like, I guess you’d say excuses, but many of which were just misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or assumptions I was making. And it was such a powerful metaphor for my own experience because I do this kind of coaching with folks all the time, and so to experience it for myself and realize how many assumptions I’m making, how many misunderstandings, how many barriers, artificial barriers I’ve put in my way. And when you remove those, it’s like, “Oh, shoot. Now I guess I have to do it because I have no more excuses.”

And the Marine Corps is, they call it America’s Marathon. It’s the beginner’s marathon. It’s a very flat course. They promote first-time marathoners so you get kind of bumped up if it’s your first one. And there’s thousands of people cheering you the entire way, and so it’s just a high the whole way that you’re being cheered on and encouraged and all that stuff, and so it’s a great experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Well, yeah, there’s lessons right there and metaphors and excuses.

John Riordan
Well, I tell you, so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, “What could you do about that?” is a fine question.

John Riordan
Yeah, it’s a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so you’ve got a boatload of experience when it comes to leadership development and you’ve got many courses. And we had several conversations with folks about virtual teams and virtual leadership and virtual meetings and overcoming distractions when you’re working from home, etc. What intrigued me about you is you’ve specifically got courses on dealing with conflict in virtual environments and facilitating in virtual environments.

And I think those are probably two of the toughest things to do with folks who are in different places. So, let’s dig in and talk about conflict resolution stuff in a virtual context. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a juicy story? Like, what’s a good, good, meaty, reality TV-grade drama or conflict that you’ve seen or heard about from your clients resolved through virtual media?

John Riordan
Yeah. Right. So, as I say, conflict is typically challenging for most of us regardless even when we are in person, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and all that other sort of stuff.

Well, you layer on the virtual context and it just changes the parameters, and there are some upsides. There are some upsides to the virtual context. We might not annoy each other as much, my personality might not grate on you because we’re not across the hallway from each other, whatever. But clearly, the downside is, the big challenge is, that the little misunderstanding in that email goes unaddressed and we have to be intentional, very intentional, about bringing it up because, otherwise, when we’re in person, we’ll bumped into each other in the hallway, I’ll see you as we walk, we’re walking out, I’ll see at lunch, whatever, at the next meeting, “Hey, Pete, about that thing, about that project, about that whatever…” and we have these, otherwise, even unnoticed interactions.

The volume of interaction that happens in person, that is in the Ethisphere, really, it has been very interesting to watch the literature emerging in the past 18 months because, prior to COVID, you had intentionally virtual organizations, people who chose to work virtually, their organization wanted them to work virtually, their job was structured for virtual work. Well, the past 18 months, for most of us, has been suddenly virtual without choice, without option, without structure, and, basically, chaos.

And so, all that Ethisphere interaction just vaporized and, all of a sudden, you and I are exchanging emails, we have that misunderstanding, but we don’t see each other, at best on a video conference, if that, once a week, and so I’m not going to setup a meeting to address this minor thing with you, and so it grows, and so that distance grows. And pretty soon, you start to have the wedge that develops.

So, turn to the juicy stories, geez, I don’t even know where to begin. The one that pops to mind is we’re sitting there on a meeting convened by a full-bird colonel, and one of the participants is on video, and he’s clearly distracted. And as the colonel is presenting, this guy is talking to other people, he’s looking all over, he’s like obviously not paying attention. Well, this doesn’t go over well with the colonel who finally stops and says, “Hey,” I’ll call him Joe, “Joe,” awkward sound, “Joe.” This guy is talking, he doesn’t even hear himself, he’s probably muted the whole thing.

I mean, it’s a good couple of minutes before Joe finally looks down and awkward, and, “Oh, I’m sorry…” And he’s like, “So, are you with us, Joe?” “Oh, oh, sorry, sorry.” Well, there’s too many people on the call, the colonel is not going to address Joe right there and then, which is good. So, what’s the colonel going to do? Is he going to make an appointment with Joe? Is he going to setup another call to have this discussion, what happened? I mean, this whole thing was like it just snowballs. The whole team is involved because everybody watched it.

If you were in a conference room and someone was distracted and that happened, it would essentially get resolved real-time, probably, optimistically, just by virtue of the interaction. In the virtual world, that meeting is over. Boop! Everyone disappears. So, we all witnessed it and then it’s over. There’s no hallway discussion, there’s no post-chat discussion, and so you have this awkward thing. And the only way to resolve it is reconvene and have a discussion, both the colonel and the individual, and then bringing it back to the group.

I mean, the processing of that conflict in the virtual context too so much more effort than it would have real-time, optimistically. Real-time, you just interact, resolve, address, move on. And so, in the virtual world, it is challenging to be intentional, to lean into it, for those of us who it’s not a natural strength. There’s a few people where conflict they’re just good at it, and then there’s the rest of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to know how things conclude. So, what happened with the colonel and Joe here today?

John Riordan
Well, let’s just say Joe kind of wrapped it up with this, which is, in his mind, his perspective was that this was urgent, this was…I don’t know if he used the word crisis but, in his mind, this was urgent and he needed to address it right away. Well, I don’t know how familiar you are with the military, but with a full-birded colonel, like you could pretty much use rank, unless it’s a general, you pay attention to the colonel first or you interrupt to say, “I’m sorry, sir. The building is on fire. I’m going to have to step away for a few…” and so, his lack of awareness of the protocol and how to handle his situation on his end.

Now, the colonel is very reasonably gracious but it definitely clarified that this guy, and so he was two steps down from the colonel, he’s a civilian so he reports to his boss, his boss reports to the colonel. Well, let’s just say it was clear he has a lot to learn, so now he’s kind of – what’s the right word – not demoted positionally but he didn’t show up well. He showed up really badly so now he’s going to have to overcome that. It’s going to take time for him to demonstrate that he has learned and sort of overcome that experience with folks.

And, again, in the virtual world, he only has very limited opportunities to do that. In person, you’d have more meetings, you’d have more interactions, you’d have the hallway. Now, he’s like he has to lean into it and really reestablish his reputation in a lot of ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

John Riordan
So, he’s still there, as far I know. It wasn’t that bad but it was not good.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that does kind of paint a picture in terms of things that can occur and the extra challenges that ensue. So, lay it on us, what are some of the best practices you’ve discovered when it comes to managing conflict when folks are remote?

John Riordan
First and foremost, intentionality. Paying attention. It’s so much easier when we’re virtual to just dismiss it and let it go and it’s no big deal, and it might not be a big deal. It’s just that clumsy email, or maybe they didn’t really mean it, or maybe I’m misinterpreting what Pete said in his text, and just let it go. Okay. But, however, it’s so tempting to do that because when we switch off the call, I’m back in my own world and I’m not going to see you in the hallway, I’m not going to bump into you in the coffee break, and so it’s easier to just dismiss it.

So, paying attention, intentionality, “Is this worth addressing? Should I address it?” And even before that, I like to say, “What’s my bias with regard to conflict in the first place?” I am conflict-avoidant, so I know that my bias is to let it go. And, therefore, given that bias, I may need to lean into this and step into this more than I feel comfortable with. That’s probably true.

There are some people in the world who are conflict-seeking who don’t mind. My father-in law was this way. He loved a good knockdown drill. Like, to him, everything was an opportunity for a very energetic debate. Anyone else would’ve said, “Gosh, why are you arguing?” And he’d tell them, “I’m not arguing. We’re just having a healthy debate.” So, he didn’t mind and he would lean into everything. Most of us, percentage-wise, I think most people are on that conflict-reluctant.

And so, how to assess yourself with regard to your style around conflict, and then in the virtual realm being attentive and intentional, being more open to it. And then third, I’d say, is talk about it. Talk about it. Like, for goodness’ sake, bring this up as a team with your colleagues, “So, Pete, you and I are going to work together for the next 12 months. Hey, can we talk about some operating agreements? How are we going to handle differences of opinion? How are we going to handle conflict? How are we going to handle our working practices? What’s our communication style? What can we do to help each other and find a good way through the middle?”

And so, having a conversation about how we will handle conflict, before we’re in the middle of a big conflict, is so, so critical for teams. It’s so helpful to get it out on the table so it’s not some awkward taboo subject that nobody wants to broach.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s just so huge when it comes to aligning expectations in many contexts in terms of, one, upfront we kind of know, hey, what we’re dealing with and what the standards are. And, two, it just sort of prevents a lot of that stuff. It’s like someone is mad because someone else has not fulfilled their unspoken expectations, and it’s like, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize I broke a rule that was never mentioned as being a rule. Oops!” So, that’s just a great practice to do in many contexts.

And so, when it comes to, “How are we going to address conflict?” have you seen any particular best practices that have been in a lot of operating agreements and been really helpful for folks?

John Riordan
Yeah. Well, that would be the first one, is to establish a set of operating agreements. Now, I would offer, prior to that, a really good practice is to do that, have that conversation and do an assessment. I don’t necessarily mean formally, just as a team, just discuss, “Pete, what’s your style? Are you more conflict-avoidant or are you more conflict-seeking, somewhere in the middle? Help me understand your style. I’ll explain to you that I do tend to be conflict-avoidant. I get uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. It’s just I get all sort of uneasy, so bear with me to the extent that you can encourage me and keep me going in the conflict. That’ll be helpful to me. So, let’s have that discussion. Where are we as a team?”

And there are some really simple models that will help folks have a conversation. There’s from Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He has this conflict continuum, and one end is artificial harmony where we’re all avoiding it, “Oh, it’s great. Everything is great. Yup, we’re all good. Yeah, no, no, no, there’s no problem here.” “Like, really? Because it sure sounded like there was.” So, artificial harmony on one end.

And on the other is destructive conflicts, mean-spirited attacks and backbiting and all that sort of stuff. And so, the ideal is healthy and constructive conflict is somewhere in that middle ground where we’re able to have the hard conversations and we’re open to that. So, assessing, with a small A, you don’t have to take a big instrument or anything, just, “Where do you think we are? And let’s talk about it. And what would it look like for us to maintain a healthy and constructive conflict culture?” And then that can lead you into, “Okay, so how do we do that?”

And I would say that that becomes a matter of operating agreements where we can talk about it, like, “What does that look like?” “Well, we should respect each other.” “Okay, what does that really mean? What does that really look like for you?” “Well, it means we don’t interrupt each other.” “Well, I’m a strong extrovert. I don’t care about interruptions, but if you do then I’ll try to pay attention to that. If I interrupt you, don’t take it personally. I’m not trying to dismiss your point. I’m very extroverted.” “Okay, good.” We can learn about each other, come to some agreements, and then try to put them into practice.

And so, when it comes to what those agreements are, I would say there are clearly some general ones, like respect, taking responsibility, addressing things early, not letting it fester, criticism in private, constructive critique in private, affirmation in public, those types of pretty general stuff. And then you get into specifics for a given team based on their situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And so then, let’s say we’re in the thick of things and someone did something that maybe we didn’t have the good fortune to have listened to you earlier and then, thusly, those operating agreements were not formally established. Someone did something. I am miffed. What do you recommend are some of the best ways to go about cleaning that up and addressing the matter? Any go-to scripts, words, phrases, principles?

John Riordan
So, there’s a feedback model that is a nice…I like that word script. I like the model of a recipe. So, I use this metaphor a lot. You have a recipe, how to make something, once you’ve done it a number of times, you can play with it. You don’t have to follow the recipe exactly and you can add something or try something different and see how it goes. But the basic recipe, at least, is a guide.

And so, this model is from the Center for Creative Leadership, SBID – situation, behavior, impact, desired outcome, SBID. And so, what’s the situation? So, I don’t call you and leave a voicemail, and say, “Pete, we need to talk. I’m just not happy with how you attacked me at the meeting the other day.” “Whoa, what on earth?” That’s like you’re already going to be on the defensive. You don’t even know where I’m coming from.

So, give a little context to this. What’s the situation? “So, Pete, we’re in that meeting, we’re on that call, we’re having that discussion. Do you remember that? And I was presenting, do you remember? Do you remember how you asked that question to me? I don’t know if you knew. So, that situation.” “Okay, yeah, I’m with you. We’ve got it. I understand the context.”

Now, the behavior, the B, that’s critical because it’s not an accusation. It’s simply a statement of behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re a jerk.” Not that.

John Riordan
Exactly, “Pete, you keep criticizing me in public. You keep dismantling my argument.” “What? I’m not trying to…I don’t even know what you’re…I’m not dismantling you.” “Well, you asked that question.” “Ah, yeah. That’s all I did was ask a question.” “Well, you’re trying to undermine me.” “Whoa, I’m not trying to undermine you. I just had a question about your data. Like, really, I’m not…”

Okay, impact. The impact was, “It felt to me that you were trying to undermine my credibility. It felt like you were questioning my presentation, questioning my data.” “I was asking a question about your data I wasn’t trying to embarrass you in public.” So, that impact helps you understand how your behavior impacted me, but it also is important for me to own that, assuming good intent, unless I have enough record to believe that you actually are out to get me.

And the other possibility is that you didn’t do it intentionally but this is how it impacted me, and can we have a conversation about that. And that is a huge, huge – what would you call that – a sea change, a really big distinction. And here’s the question you can write down, “Did you do this on purpose?” Did the person, whoever they are, did they do this to you intentionally? Did they do it to you on purpose?

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is that a question you ask yourself internally or a question you ask of the other party?

John Riordan
Well, kind of both ends. That’s a good point. It starts with me asking it of myself. So, my example is somebody cuts me off in traffic, “Aargh, can you believe that? What an idiot.” And then my wife says, “Well, maybe their wife is having a baby. Maybe their house is on fire. Maybe they have all kinds of reasons.” Well, the person didn’t roll down the window and say, “Hey, are you John Riordan?” “Yes.” “Oh, okay, I’m going to cut you off because I can’t stand you and I want to ruin your day.” That’s not what they’re thinking. They are just being self-centered, they’re just going about their day, they’re not paying attention to me, and they cut me off. It doesn’t mean it’s okay but it wasn’t about me. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

John Riordan
You’re asking a question in the middle of a presentation, your mindset might be, “I don’t really like those numbers. I wonder where he got those.” There’s all kinds of reasons why you might be asking that question other than, “Watch this. I’m going to ask this question and dismantle John’s argument. It’s going to be great. He’s going to fall apart,” because that would be intentional and then we’re adversaries.

But there’s a lot of other possibilities as to why people do what they do. And so, having that discussion, disarming – I love that metaphor – disarming the conflict so that it becomes instead of a capital C, we’re having a full-blown argument, it’s a small C, “Can we talk about this?” “Well, I didn’t like your numbers.” “Well, I appreciate that and, of course, you have the right to ask about my numbers. I would ask you to respect the fact that this is a presentation in front of senior managers, and could you have followed up with me later, or I ask you to review the material ahead of time. I don’t know if you did, but I would’ve appreciated you asking me that question before the meeting, etc.” So, there’s all kinds of ways we might address it to resolve the distinction without it getting to a capital C, conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, as I step into this scenario that you’ve created, John, I just sort of wonder, like, what do you do when the other party…? I won’t say that they’re like malicious evil jerks trying to get you, but they just think your concern is dumb, they’re like, “Look, John, this is a data-driven organization. We try to make the best decisions. If I’ve got a question about your data, I’m going to ask the question about your data, I don’t care where we are, who you’re talking to. It’s just how we get to the truth and optimal business results. So, pull up your big boy pants and get a thick skin and stop whining to me about this inane bull crap so we can go make insane value for shareholders.”

Let’s say you get a pretty rude but not like maliciously, “That’s right, buddy. I’m out to take you down, so watch your back.” So, a pretty brute and dismissive response. How do you think about those?

John Riordan
Yeah. So, let me emphasize the distinction that you just made because, again, one is, “I have reason to believe that this person is an active adversary. They are literally out to take me down.” And those do exist. I’m not talking about being naïve and pretending that everybody is your best friend. There are a few, and hopefully a few, adversaries that you should watch out for. If you have a lot of adversaries, then you got to decide whether you can sustain that lifestyle and that career, and some people can, but for many of us, that might be a signal for a job change. If I’m surrounded by people who want to take me out, you either sign up for that or you don’t. So, that’s the first distinction.

The second, the way you’re describing it, is, “Look, it’s not about you, John. I really don’t care. I’m going to keep asking those questions. You just have to get over it.” So, they’re not out to take me down but they’re not also going to handle me with kid gloves. Then it becomes a question of power – power and influence in the organization. Because if that voice is coming from a full-bird colonel, and I’m the low person on the totem pole, then, guess what, I have to either live with that and go about my business, or I have to decide I’m in the wrong organization.

If that person is a peer, and we’re on equal footing, so to speak, then that’s a whole different scenario, “What influence do I have? Do I continue the discussion? Do I counter with, ‘Hey, I’d just be down. I think that’s a great way for us to work, because if I did that to you, you wouldn’t be happy. Can we not find a better way of working together?’” That’s the D in the SBID, the desired outcome is, “Can we learn to work together well?”

Now, option three, if that voice was coming from a subordinate, somebody who reports to me, I’d say, “Okay, have a seat. We need to talk. You need to decide whether you want to stay here or not because this is not how we’re going to operate in my sphere of influence.” So, it depends on who that individual is and what power and authority relationship we have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s handy. Thank you. Well, tell me, John, any other key things you want to make sure to mention about conflict resolution and in virtual settings, maybe any sort of tools or favorite apps, software, or things that you find handy?

John Riordan
That’s interesting. For me, the resources, they’re now showing up online. Apps-wise, it doesn’t come to mind but in terms of models. So, one is by an author named Peter Block. And Peter Block’s partnership model lays out this distinction between trust and agreement. And so, you ask yourself, “Okay,” and I go through this exercise, a great exercise for everybody. You’re mapping out, especially in the work context, but of course it bleeds over to the rest of our lives as well. How much trust is there in the relationship? And how much agreement, in terms of the content of the discussion?

So, we disagree about the numbers and the data, but I don’t distrust you. I trust that you’re just asking a question about the numbers. That’s okay. Versus, if there’s no trust, then we have a serious problem. Trust is obviously far more critical than agreement. If I trust you, we can disagree about anything but I still trust you. We trust each other. And that distinction is huge.

So, Peter Block has a great article. I’ve got summary worksheets on this on my website but it’s the kind of thing that really helps you lay out, “Okay, who are my allies that I trust, we agree, we’re working in the same direction. I can really rely on these folks. There’s other categories and there are some unknowns, and then there’s this adversaries. We disagree on the direction and, guess what, we don’t trust each other so watch out.” Okay, let’s not be naïve. Let’s map this out. So, that’s a really helpful, sort of getting the lay of the land.

Let’s see, Patrick Lencioni’s material around conflict is fantastic. That’s all available on his site. Good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Riordan
First and foremost, in practical terms, from two authors, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. And there’s a lot of different ways to say this but the bumper sticker for their material is, “Be yourself with more skill.” Be yourself with more skill. And I tell you, if I gave them a nickel for every time I’ve shared that thought, I owe them.

And what I love about that is five words. It’s amazing, five words. But, boy, you talk about a life journey, and this applies so powerfully to the work, in your career, and what I’d like to say your calling, but it also applies equally to your personal relationships, family, friends, community, you name it. Be yourself, be who you are made to be, figure out who you are, bring yourself to the table, your values, your strengths, your personality, but do it with more skill.

I spent years trying to be something else, be more of this, be less of that, as opposed to, “Okay, who am I? And then how do I show up skillfully? How do I bring my strengths to bear in a skillful way?” If that makes sense, it’s such an interesting but very powerful nuance.

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

John Riordan
I really appreciate the stuff that they did around this piece around authentic leadership, so Goffee and Jones. And, essentially, one of those harbingers, there’s been plenty of research around this, but the culture of leadership, and the shift from command and control. So, my dad was a marine, World War II, Korean War marine, and let me tell you, you did what the boss told you to do – command and control. “Why should I do what you tell me?” “Because I’m your boss. Because I’m above you. I outrank you. You name it. You do what you’re told.”

Well, clearly, we take it for granted, but leadership culture has evolved tremendously. Their article was called “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” It kind of flips it on its head.

And so, leadership now is about respect and response, and people choosing to follow you, choosing to allow you to influence them. And that’s what leadership is about now and it’s really evolved tremendously. And so, that piece of research, that kind of encapsulated that and demonstrated that, amongst men, but, to me, it’s a real – what would you call that – a milestone, a marker, that we have really shifted as a culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

John Riordan
Currently, the one that is making the biggest difference in my life is called The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin.

She calls them tendencies, these ideas of, “How I operate? What makes me tick? What moves me from ideas into action? And how different that can be for different people?” And that has been super insightful for me and in sharing that with clients and helping people understand and, of course, it overlaps with personalities and all those other things, but, essentially, focusing in on moving from thought into action.

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

John Riordan
Yeah, I would repeat that one, The Four Tendencies. So, for me on that, the huge lightbulb for me is that I am motivated by external factors, and I spent years trying to be more self-disciplined, trying to develop kind of just put my nose to the grindstone and get it done. Not bad to have self-discipline. That’s great. But she distinguishes that some people are internally motivated, and they will, when they decide to do something, they’ll go do it.

Other people are externally motivated. So, I can have a great idea, and something I’d even like to do, but if nobody else is involved, if I’m not accountable to anybody, if I don’t have to answer to anyone, if no one else is there, then the likelihood I’ll be doing it is much lower. As soon as somebody else is involved, I’ll do it.

So, I’ve harnessed that, I got myself an executive assistant who is my professional bulldog, and I say, “Jorie, make sure this happens.” I’m on this podcast because of her. I love doing these things but I’m not going to do it. She says, “You’re going to do it. Make sure it happens,” and then I do it.

And so, harnessing that tendency, for me, of external motivation, I mean, I can’t even tell you everything I’ve been able to accomplish simply because it’s gone from ideas, the long list of good ideas in my head, and actually turning them into action.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

John Riordan
I would say two. Exercising has been huge.
I can’t say enough about it just in terms of de-stress, in terms of getting all that energy out in the negative sense, and then coming back and being ready to go. But, also, what I love about going to the gym, one of the big upsides, is little incremental small victories. So, I keep track of my workouts. I’m only there for half an hour, 40 minutes tops, but I try to just keep incrementally improving.

And it’s very cool to start the day by adding a few more reps, or adding a few more pounds, or adding a few more whatever to that weight or to that exercise, and to feel like, “Okay. All right. This is something I can win at.” And so, now I can go back into the day and bring that same sense of energy and motivation into the rest of what I got to do. So, that’s number one.

And then number two, what I listen to. I can’t say enough. The same thing, through the 18 months, like God bless you if you grew up with lots of positive encouragement and I had a very affirming upbringing. But my dad worked for IBM, very neutral, not an entrepreneur, just went to work and came home, so I never had somebody, a voice in my ears saying, “Hey, you got this. You can do it. Get in there. You’re great at this. You can…” whatever, all that sort of coaching and positive affirmations. And so, it’s been huge to tap into just little YouTube clips, different motivational stuff that suits my style, and to really have that voice in my ear, literally, cheering me on, coaching me on. It’s been fantastic. Very, very much a game changer, especially over this stressful time.

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

John Riordan
Oh, that first one, “Be yourself with more skill.” That’s number one, absolutely.

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

John Riordan
JR@JohnRiordan.com is the email address and JohnRiordan.com is the website.

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

John Riordan
That journey of self-discovery is absolutely, I can’t say enough about what a starting point that is. And it’s a journey, it’s not like you take two weeks off and learn about yourself, and then that’s it. But to delve into that, “What are your core values?” and contemplate on that. Really define it, writing it down. Everybody, almost any American is going to say, “Oh, I have core values.” “Okay, what are they?” “Ahh, I don’t really know.”

So, what are your core values? Write them down. Think about them. Define them. There’s different ways to go about that. What are your strengths that you bring to the world, to your work, to your family, to your…What are those? Do you know what they are or you just kind of know? And what’s your personality traits? What makes you tick? What motivates you? And sort of capturing that, collecting that awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, John, this has been a treat. Thank you for sharing the goods. And keep on rocking.

John Riordan
Thank you. My pleasure. My pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity. I hope this is encouraging and challenging and useful for folks.