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823: How to Collaborate Smarter with Dr. Heidi Gardner

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Dr. Heidi Gardner reveals when, why, and how to collaborate optimally.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stop overcommitment and overcollaboration
  2. How diversity makes for better collaborations
  3. How to overcome the barriers to collaboration 

About Heidi

Heidi K. Gardner, PhD. is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School, and was previously a professor at Harvard Business School and a consultant at McKinsey & Co. Named by Thinkers50 as a Next Generation Business Guru, Dr. Gardner is a sought-after advisor, keynote speaker, and facilitator for organizations across a wide range of industries globally. She is the co-founder of the research and advisory firm Gardner & Co. and the author, alongside Ivan A. Matviak, of Smarter Collaboration.

Resources Mentioned

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Heidi Gardner Interview Transcript

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

Heidi Gardner
Thank you so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom when it comes to collaboration and doing it smarter and better. First, I want to hear, you’ve actually got to experience a little bit of an inside view of an interesting slice of history. You worked with the German Ministry of Education during the post-reunification time, helping reform their English curriculum. Any interesting stories from that era?

Heidi Gardner
So, this goes way back. It was the year 1995, I believe, and I was a Fulbright fellow living in a town, a city, called Dassel, Germany, which was basically smack in the center of what had been the DDR. And at that point, it was a pretty rough time to be living in the former East Germany in the sense that a lot of young people had cleared out, they had moved to West Germany in order to seek better economic opportunities, better job prospects.

And I was there working inside the education system, I was teaching in the Gymnasium, which are the high schools, and teaching in some of the technical programs and things, and I was also doing a lot of teacher-training and education curriculum reform. And it was a fascinating time to be there and experience this sort of change.

What I realized at the time is that, because of people’s relative isolation behind the Iron Curtain, there were so many things that they hadn’t been exposed to intellectually, culturally, that I had taken for granted, and I saw that as a real eye-opener for me. I had known that, of course, growing up in the States in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but to experience it firsthand and to be with people, explaining things that were very basic and very run-of-the-mill to me, which were fascinating to individuals who hadn’t experienced them previously.

For example, the idea that everyone in my family had their own car. It was an incredible eye-opener to them that that was actually pretty normal where I came from. And the idea that we would have bananas day in, day out, that was kind of the cheap food, things like that that I learned to appreciate more by living in that kind of environment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Okay. Well, now, let’s hear a little bit about collaboration, and you’ve seen a whole lot of different environments, some in which people are grateful to be in, and some very much not so grateful. Could you share any particularly striking, surprising, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about collaboration from your work and research here for so many years?

Heidi Gardner
Absolutely. So, when we’re talking about collaboration, we’re not just talking about run-of-the-mill throw-a-team at every problem. We’re talking about the term we call smarter collaboration, which is starting with the end in mind and being hyper-intentional about how you bring people together, which particular kinds of experts do you need, when do you need to bring different people in so they contribute different perspectives that, collectively, allow the group to be something more innovative, more profitable, more productive, somehow better and tackle more complex issues than any of those people could’ve done on their own.

And what was surprising to me as we’ve been studying this over the last 10 plus years is how many mistakes people can make with something, which is a relatively straightforward process like that. One of the big mistakes that people have fallen into recently, sort of a trap, if you will, is the belief that if collaboration is good, more is better.

And so, what we see is a phenomenon of what we call overcommitment or over-collaboration, that people are joining many, many, many teams, or getting drafted onto different projects, or being asked to join the committee or the taskforce or the initiative, and people are stretched so thin that converse to the intentions, the intentions were, “Hey, let’s make the most of this great employee we have,” but the opposite happens.

That person gets stretched so thin that they end up doing fairly similar work project after project after project, and they don’t have the time to engage deeply, and they don’t have time to stretch their skills, and they don’t have time to really learn and think about how they could improve what they’re doing, and they also typically don’t get great coaching or mentorship along the way. And it’s been really surprising to me how common that problem is overcommitment inside lots of kinds of organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
The problem of overcommitment, I have seen, felt, heard that from my own firsthand experience as well as that of many others I’ve worked with. I’m curious, what is the fundamental root cause of overcommitment? It just seems like it’s almost ubiquitous in terms of professionals have too many emails, too many meetings, too many projects, and it’s just a cluster in a lot of organizations and a lot of professionals’ work lives. So, what’s behind this and how do we fix it?

Heidi Gardner
I see two kinds of root causes and both of them, I should say, stem from really good intentions, and that’s why it’s oftentimes hard to find a solution for it is because people are trying to do the right thing. So, in one scenario, you have the idea that “We’ve got these people who are really great at some specialized area and we want to make the most of them, both because they want to be challenged and because we, as a company, are paying a lot of money for these specialists, and so let’s really make sure we deploy them where they can make the most impact.” That’s the intention.

But, as the person’s reputation grows inside the organization, more and more people want a piece of that thing, so they’re like, “Oh, let me go grab Jane for this project. Let me go grab Joe, this expert,” and Jane and Joe keep getting tapped again and again and again for all of these different pieces of work, and that’s when we run into that problem of overcommitment. But, again, it stems from good intentions, “Let’s make the most of their skills.”

The other scenario is maybe even more pernicious. There is a very strong, credible research-backed reason to believe that when teams comprise people with very different kinds of backgrounds, and life experiences, and cultures, and a whole variety of different categories of diversity that that team has the potential to outperform. Very true.

Pete Mockaitis
Potential.

Heidi Gardner
But oftentimes what that means is that people who fall into particular categories, if you will, inside organizations that are underrepresented, the demand for them exceeds the supply for those individuals. Think about it in gender terms. This is happening in a lot of corporate boardrooms right now where they say…

Pete Mockaitis
“Hey, you’re a woman. Get on our board, too.”

Heidi Gardner
Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Just like that. Okay.

Heidi Gardner
Absolutely. And they’re all looking for the same women, “Oh, well, we need a woman who was the CFO of a Fortune 500 company who has this kind of background and this number of years of experience.” And guess what? There aren’t just that many of that particular kind of person. And those individuals end up getting tapped again and again, in this case, for corporate boards or inside organizations. I worked with, for example, a lot of professional service firms. There just aren’t, empirically speaking, that many black women partners in professional service firms, and everyone wants their perspective and their wisdom and their experiences on their teams.

And so, those individuals are just pulled in so many directions, both, in the case of professional services, on client-facing teams but also on internal initiatives, like hiring, and recruiting, and employee engagement, and diversity and inclusion committees, and all of these places. And this is the second way that people get over-tapped and overcommitted.

And in both of those scenarios, managers and leaders with good intentions need to take a step back and look at the system. It’s not a set of individual choices. It’s a whole bunch of choices that systemically, collectively add up to trouble. And what we recommend, you asked for some solutions, first of all, and one probably I’ll keep coming back to in the course of our conversation, is get the data.

There is data that exists somewhere at some level in every company or organization that shows what people are working on and how many different ways and directions that they’re pulled. And there needs to be a person or a department, depending on how big the organization is, that keeps an eye out for this problem of overcommitment.

We studied it in a biotech company, for example. They asked us to come in because they had dropped a major ball, and figured out way too late that some of their best scientists were pulled in a thousand different directions, and when something really went wrong in one project, there was nobody to cover it.

So, this biotech asked us to come in. We took a look at the data and we started by asking them, “How many projects does every scientist like this one work on?” And they said, “Oh, probably two or three,” and they were right to some degree. Most people worked on two or three projects at once. But when we ran the numbers, we found that there were some people working on seven, eight, even eleven projects at once.

And those people who were most over-stretched also happen to be relatively new joiners, and so they didn’t know that that wasn’t normal, a normal workload, and even if they suspected it wasn’t, they were trying to make a good impression in their first months or year at the company, and they didn’t raise their hand and notify anyone that they were just way too overstretched. And so, one of the solutions is collect the data and figure it out, empirically, what’s happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you said took a look at the data and ran the numbers, when you say collect the data, that’s kind of what I’m curious about is how robust is the tracking and recording of this sort of thing in organizations? In my experience, the answer is not very, so you kind of have to go build that from the ground up, or I have seen some pretty cool enterprise-wide systems that capture that stuff, although sometimes they’re gamed and not being accurately reported.

So, when you talk about the data and the numbers, I just want to get your sense for what are the systems and platforms by which that is readily obtained versus how are you building it from the ground up?

Heidi Gardner
So, the best data, I think, is not reported for this purpose because, you’re right, it’s either garbage data and people don’t get around to doing it so at the end of the month, they kind of make a guess.

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, my timesheet. Yeah, typical report.”

Heidi Gardner
Yeah, exactly. Or, they game the system for whatever purposes they think works best for them. So, don’t collect data specifically for this purpose, besides it’s just one more admin thing that nobody wants to do. But there is a wealth of data inside many organizations that’s collected for other purposes that can be mined for these sorts of insights.

So, the obvious one is in professional service firms or other kinds of sales or project-based organizations. There are actually ways to track, say, on distribution list, or who’s submitting to certain expense codes, or who’s billing their time to certain files. There are lots of ways that are lots of data sources that are hidden in other kinds of repositories that can be mined for this.

In the biotech company, for example, they have to file a lot of paperwork for grant applications and compliance reasons, and those were actually brilliant project rosters. And so, if you’re creative, you can take a look inside databases that are capturing data for other purposes, and figure out who’s working on how many different things. Again, expense codes are a great one.

Another way to do it though is through a whole variety of platforms now that capture, essentially, network clusters inside firms. And so, you can see you have to make some inferences but you can see that if there are the same eight people emailing each other with similar subject matter, etc., or the same people in certain Teams groups in Microsoft Teams. Or, you can mine calendars for the kinds of meetings that people co-attend. And you use de-identify data so that you’re not actually snooping in what Joe or Jane is specifically doing but you’re looking at patterns. And the patterns are more important than any single individual.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s clever. I like it. Whether it’s from the emails or from the calendars, or from the expense codes, even if no one is judiciously carefully tracking where each hour of their day has gone, you can see what’s that involvement looking like and where and zeroing on some stuff. So, such a fun project on the, I guess, enterprise-wide scale. I’m curious about individuals, if we’re zooming into individuals and teams, what are some of the top do’s and don’ts you recommend they can start right away in terms of getting better collaboration?

Heidi Gardner
So, team leaders are, ultimately, responsible for the health and wellbeing and outputs of the group. And so, it starts with the team leader, first of all, getting some clarity on the degree to which each team member is already committed to other pieces of work. And perhaps even before composing the team, seeking out individuals who are not the usual suspects. Because if I need to think about project X, my mind will jump to certain people who have a reputation for doing that kind of project well or a piece of it.

Well, what if I went to that person, and instead of asking them to join my team, ask them for a recommendation of somebody whose competence they could vouch for who isn’t quite as busy as they are. Now, this hinges on people knowing the skills and quality levels of their colleagues, but especially on their willingness to let somebody else kind of take their “spot.”

And this falls to top leadership to make it a priority that says, “Busier is not better. Doing quality work is better.” But if there’s that kind of culture where people are willing to make referrals, the team leader should be asking not always the usual suspect but perhaps approaching that person with the strong reputation and asking for a referral to somebody else, maybe an up-and-comer, maybe somebody who’s new in the organization, maybe somebody for whatever reason, doesn’t have as widespread of a reputation but is still fully capable of doing the job.

So, get the right people on the team, make sure once you get the team together that you understand not only how many other pieces are they working on, but on a pretty granular level, “Where are we going to have some friction in the calendar?” This sounds like Project Management 101 but it’s astonishing how often this piece gets skipped.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Heidi Gardner
And once the leaders of the team understand that particular team members are going to be under really severe pressure at certain points, then it’s a question of rerouting the work, of approaching other leaders of teams and asking for some flexibility. It’s not leaving it up to the individual, and I think that’s a big problem in many teams, is that individual members feel like they either just need to suck it up and deal with it, or they’ll be perceived as not capable or strong, or that it’s up to them to kind of work the politics and figure out whose project to prioritize.

And that shouldn’t be the job of those individual team members. That should be something that the leader takes on his or her shoulders. And so, there’s an awareness there, there is a willingness to intervene when necessary, and I think everyone in the organization has to create the context where people feel comfortable raising their hand, and saying, “I’m overstretched. I’m not unwilling to do hard work and lots of work but, right now, the degree to which I’m spread across, taking that hard work and spreading across too many different initiatives is unproductive.” And that’s what we need people to identify.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, bringing some of these bits together, could you share with us a fun story or two of a team or organization that was having some disappointing collaboration, and then what they did to change things up and the cool results they gained from doing so?

Heidi Gardner
So, there’s a great experience I had working with the executive team of a huge global electronics manufacturer. And we were asked to work with them because they were really struggling on innovation as a company, and leading innovation as this executive team. So, my team and I worked with 35 top executives. They were the senior president of a certain division, or of a geographic area, or of a product line, or chief-level officers of functions.

And with them, we conducted a psychometric profile. So, we’ve developed this tool, this online tool, which allows people in just 10 minutes or so to complete a bunch of questions, and it provides them with real insight about their natural tendencies. All else equal, what kinds of problems are they drawn to? All else equal, how do they prefer to operate, in a group, or individually? Are they risk-seekers or risk-spotters?

And you might think, “Oh, we all know this,” but actually, we tend to have some blind spots. And so, what we did with this group from the electronics company is we gave them all this profile, this Smart Collaboration Accelerator, and, first, we shared with each individual where they came out. Then what we did is we analyzed the group, all 35 of them, to see what their collective profiles were.

And it turned out that 33 of the 35 were extreme risk-seekers. In other words, they were motivated not to miss a single opportunity, but there were two people on their team who were risk-spotters. They were the kinds of people who weren’t motivated to take opportunities. They were motivated not to fail, not to make mistakes, not to have anything blow up.

And when we revealed with this data, these were mostly kind of engineers and very quantitative people, and we could put the numbers in front of them that said, “Just on that one dimension, here’s what you look like as a group.” There was a bit of kind of nervous laughter and then the, “Ha-ha, do you think that’s why the regulators are crawling all over us and so forth?”

And then one guy kind of raised his hand, we were in a virtual meeting, he raised his hands on Zoom, and he said, “You never effing listen to me.” He’s like, “I’m that risk-spotter, and I keep telling you that we have these problems that are coming up, and nobody ever pays attention.” And his colleagues said…they kind of laughed, and they said, “Yeah, we hate listening to you. You’re such a downer.”

But it revealed two things to them. First, it revealed to them that they were, in fact, incredibly biased on that dimension, and that they were steamrollering the outlier. Rather than making the most of the diversity in that team, these two individuals who could have helped highlight some real problems before they emerged and blew up, they were majority-ruling and, basically, going with what everyone else who were these risk-seekers decided was better for the company.

And through this kind of conversation, it was like, “Well, all right, we need to make the most of the diversity on the team. Even when you don’t like to hear it, they’re probably telling you something really important. And, oh, by the way, if you’re one of those risk-spotters, you probably need to learn to raise issues in ways that those people can understand what you’re talking about, you’re not just shooting down every idea.”

But what was powerful as well is that the group then realized that, because they were so similar on multiple dimensions, there was something really flawed in the organizational processes that meant you kind of had to be one of these cowboys in order to make it onto X Co. And they looked back at all of the succession planning and everyone coming through the ranks, and they figured out that they were more or less weeding out people who didn’t fit the mold at most rungs of the organization.

And it was a very powerful experience for them, again, once they had the data in front of them, they could visually see how skewed they were in certain behavioral terms that it wasn’t productive for them and actually signaled more root-cause problems throughout a lot of their systems and processes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful, and a pattern, I think, we see quite often. I’m thinking about administering the Myers-Briggs type indicator to many groups, and it’s almost like folks are closeted, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m secretly an introvert, but it doesn’t feel like that really works here, so I put on my extrovert hat around the sales and marketing deal-maker-y people and do that, or I prefer sensing in terms of like getting to the real facts of things as opposed to always imagining these cool possibilities and ideas, and I get called a wet blanket and such.”

Heidi Gardner
Exactly. And what we have worked with groups on, and this can be corporate boards that are a dozen people, it can be functions and departments and business units, what we can do when we help people understand their own natural tendencies is to figure out how to use those as a strength, “How do you bring your voice into the room, especially if you’re the outlier? But, in any case, how do you interact with other people? How do you raise concerns? How do you spot opportunities? How do you engage with people and keep them motivated in ways that are really authentic to you?”

Because I think that is a problem where oftentimes people feel that they have to fit in, they have to mirror somebody else who’s already successful there, and they, of course, are facing a huge burden then because, by not being able to be themselves, it’s really quite painful and draining, but the organization loses out.

There are huge amounts of research showing that when you have people who are genuinely different from one another and can play to their unique strengths, they’re more innovative, they’re more likely to spot both problems and opportunities, they’re better able to customize and tailor solutions to complex problems.

And so, that feeling of needing to fit in, whether it’s how you look and dress and sound, or what kinds of problems you’re attracted to, not being able to foster diversity and true inclusion in terms of bringing those people’s diverse efforts into the room and valuing them, that’s a real process loss for a lot of organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you, well-said. Well, tell me, any key things, Heidi, you want to make sure to mention in terms of top do’s and don’ts for collaboration before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Heidi Gardner
Well, one of the most important things I think when an organization is embarking on this journey of smarter collaboration, they say, “Okay, I get it. We need to really leverage all of the different perspectives we’ve got. We need to break down some of the barriers and the silos inside this organization. How do we get started?”

And we have done research with well over 10,000 senior people across organizations around the planet, and we know there’s five, six, maybe seven common barriers that come up from one place to the next. But what’s unique is…or not unique probably because there’s not an infinite combination. But what’s different for each organization is the prevalence and the importance of those barriers.

And so, for example, one of the barriers is competence trust. If I’m going to bring you into my special cherished project, I have to believe in your competence. I have to think you deliver high-quality, on-time on-budget, that you’re actually really good at what you do, but it’s not enough. Another kind of trust is essential, that’s interpersonal trust. Even if I think you’re a guru but if I think you’re a jerk, I’m still not going to work with you. And so, we know that interpersonal trust, or lack of it, or lack of competence trust, those spring up in most organizations.

But, depending which one really matters, which one is really standing in the way of people working across silos, that is the factor that needs to determine what course of action you take. Because if you’re trying to generate greater competence trust amongst employees, you’re going to go down a path of maybe learning and development, and helping people establish some curiosity in what other people do, and helping people hone their elevator pitch so when they’re talking to somebody, they can describe in compelling ways how they add value to problem-solving or whatever. But if you need to fix interpersonal trust, you need to go down a completely different route.

And so, the point of this is anyone looking to improve smarter collaboration in their organization, they have to start with a database diagnostic. They have to have some objective way of figuring out what stands in between them and really effective collaboration, and then make sure that the solutions they’re developing are tailored to those problems.

Because, all too often, we have worked with leaders who say, “I know exactly what’s wrong here,” and, actually, most leaders are pretty biased in their views of what goes on inside the organization. Nobody refuses to collaborate with the CEO, go figure. So, they don’t see that it’s a major problem, and they don’t understand how their position of authority and a whole lot of other things actually skews their perception of what stands in the way for an average person inside the organization. So, I would say find ways.

We have a toolkit coming out. We codified a methodology to do this after five or six years of doing it ourselves. We’ve now created a toolkit that will be published by Harvard Business Press as companion to our book, where people can use this methodology. We tell people in a very step-by-step kind of way how do you collect the data, how do you analyze it, how do you draw conclusions from it, how do you present it back to executives, and what do you do about it. And I’m hoping that that’s what people use in order to really create and craft a collaborative solution that will drive the kinds of outcomes that we know are advantages of smarter collaborations.

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

Heidi Gardner
My favorite quote is the one that we used as the dedication in our new book. We’ve dedicated the book to our two daughters Anya and Zoe, and all of the smarter collaborators of their generation. And the quote we used is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And that quote really resonates for us in this rush, rush world wherein sometimes we feel like taking shortcuts, and, “It’s just going to be better if I crack on and do it myself.” And that works some of the time, but if what you really need is a great solution, if you really want to go far, finding ways to engage in smarter collaboration is absolutely essential.

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

Heidi Gardner
One of my most recent favorite studies was done by Dr. Randall Peterson who’s a professor at London Business School, and he engaged in a very ambitious study of corporate boards.

And so, these individuals, board chairs and independent directors participated in his research and went through this rigorous methodology where they helped him understand in very objective ways what were the dynamics inside the board.

For example, he found that boards that are truly inclusive of women have much better and very different styles of problem-solving and conflict resolution. So, for example, boards that are very male-dominated tend to vote and to cut short discussion and majority rules, and it stamps out dissent and curtails the discussion of unpopular options or opinions. Whereas, boards that are more inclusive of women tend to talk things through in a more substantive and holistic way.

And fascinating discovery is that boards, therefore, with more women on them and where women’s opinions and contributions were more valued, actually were linked to significantly less shareholder dissent. Now, shareholder dissent is something that every corporate board cares about because if their shareholders are creating formal actions saying that they don’t have faith in the way that the board has operated, that’s hugely problematic for governance.

And Dr. Peterson’s research was able to link the way the boards interacted with the gender composition with that very important outcome. And it was a first, not only in the corporate board space but also in helping us understand why it is that gender inclusion is so powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Heidi Gardner
I’m going to go way back to a book that was incredibly eye-opening for me. It was called The Russians by Hedrick Smith. And I read this book when I was 15 or 16 years old, so that was in the mid ‘80s, and it was the height of the Cold War. And I had only ever thought about the Russians as a block of people, sort of the Commies, the bad guys. They were featured in all of the movies as the one that Rocky wanted to pummel, or the idea that the US hockey team had to beat the Russians.

And I read this book as part of a summer program that I was about to attend, and it opened my eyes to the idea that the Russians weren’t a monolithic block. They were humans just like all of us Americans. And although it’s incredibly simplistic conclusion, for me, having grown up in Amish country in Pennsylvania, where it was not the most open society or community, and we looked at anybody who was foreigner with a fair degree of suspicion, humanizing the “enemy” was incredibly powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Okay. And can you share with us a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Heidi Gardner
Well, I have to go back to the Smart Collaboration Accelerator. It’s not just because we developed it. It’s the psychometric tool that’s science-backed, and it has helped so many organizations and teams and leaders fulfill their potential. It’s incredibly powerful. And we’ve now got 150 people around the world, accredited coaches and professional facilitators and consultants who are trained up in using it. And we are bringing the power of those improved dynamics and self-awareness to create smarter collaborators in a whole range of industries and generations.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Heidi Gardner
It’s hardly novel but exercise is my favorite habit, particularly walking. And I walk as much as I can, even conduct most of my internal meetings and some of my external ones from my treadmill. There’s a fair amount of good research that suggests that walking helps to stabilize some of the rhythms in the brain.

There’s a great deal of research that shows that walking is related to expansive thinking. And I didn’t know the research when I got so into walking, but started holding walking meetings with colleagues, and with family members, and with a whole variety of people where we would try to hash through different kinds of ideas. And now when I get to a new place, walking is the first thing that I try to do. And if I am stuck on a problem, I get on the treadmill.

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

Heidi Gardner
One nugget that came out of our research, we did a study of how smarter collaboration benefits individuals. And, initially, it looked as if people who had bigger networks were better off. And as we dug further, we realized that bigger isn’t better, better is better. And we can now quantify what it takes to make a better network in smarter collaboration terms, and it means accessing a variety of different kinds of not only experts but people who think really differently about problems and about solutions.

And it also means keeping ties open, at least to a small degree, so that you don’t need to be constantly in touch with people. They don’t need to be your best friends in order to contribute a brilliant idea, but they do need to be just warm enough that if you ring them up, or drop them an email, or however people communicate, that they’re going to respond and they’re going to help you solve that problem, or they’re going to give you their own nugget that will help you break through.

And that idea that people don’t need big networks, introverts make brilliant high-quality networks, and they don’t need to be the life of the party. So, the idea is better is better when it comes to forming a network, and the diversity is really key there.

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

Heidi Gardner
Our website is GardnerAndCo.co, and we have all of our studies and our books up there. And speaking of books, our new one Smarter Collaboration has just come out, and we encourage people to take a look at that as well.

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

Heidi Gardner
I want people to take a few minutes every week and just reflect on whether anything has surprised them. This is a question I ask my executive participants in programs at Harvard. I teach at the Business School and the Law School at Harvard, and, usually, by sort of day three or four of a program, I ask “What surprised you about being here on this program?” And often people are stumped but then the ideas start to flow.

And what we realized is asking about surprises forces people to confront what they have taken for granted or what they had expected. And I encourage people to stop every week at some point and just look around and say, “What has surprised me in the last few days?” because that will challenge us to think about what we do take for granted, what we had expected to happen, and it will raise our antenna up to being more curious about the world.

It will prompt us to ask better questions or engage in conversations that might take us to places that we weren’t open to hearing before, or we might tune in to a different kind of podcast, or a different news station, or new source that we would, otherwise. And if we seek out surprises, I think it really opens our mind. That will be the challenge I’d offer up to people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Heidi, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun collaborations.

Heidi Gardner
Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure.

821: How to Keep Calm and Defuse Tensions in Conflict with Hesha Abrams

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Master attorney mediator Hesha Abrams shares her tried-and-tested strategies for navigating conflict with ease.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to actually calm people down in an argument 
  2. The four part process to defuse any situation
  3. The magic phrases that help any conflict 

About Hesha

Hesha Abrams is an internationally acclaimed master attorney mediator, with a unique talent to manage big egos and strong personalities and a keen ability to create synergy amongst the most diverse personality types, driving them toward agreement. Specializing in crafting innovative solutions for complex or difficult matters, Hesha has resolved thousands of cases in every conceivable area during her career including over the secret recipe for Pepsi. She coaches executives in politically difficult situations to prevent conflict and speed resolution.

Resources Mentioned

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Hesha Abrams Interview Transcript

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

Hesha Abrams
My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear some of your wisdom about Holding the Calm: The Secret to Resolving Conflict and Defusing Tension. Could you start us with one of the most tense situations, negotiations, mediations you found yourself plunged into, and tell us the juicy dramatic details of the story?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, goodness. I have so many, it’s hard to choose. But the one that people seem to like the most is that I mediated over the secret recipe for Pepsi.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, do you know the secret recipe for Pepsi?

Hesha Abrams
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hesha Abrams
I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it just carbonated water and high fructose corn syrup?

Hesha Abrams
No, I’m sworn to secrecy. I’m sworn to secrecy. But what’s interesting is that the recipe is different in different parts of our country and in different parts of the world. So, what it really is, is a trademark for Pepsi, Coke, things like that. It’s really their trademark that they have to protect so they can’t allow anybody to use a recipe and then change the trademark and be, let’s say, “Pakistani Poopsi tastes like Pepsi.” And that would be disastrous.

And so, that was a very juicy, very interesting case. But I’ve done cases for Google, and Facebook, and Verizon, and Yahoo, and Nvidia, and IBM, and Microsoft, and all the major players, and then tens of thousands of individuals trying to find some level of justice. And that’s why I joke when you said, “Share your wisdom.” What I want to say is it’s battle-tested.

I have been boots not only on the ground but in the trenches of human conflict with blood and guts on my boots. And there’s lots of good books out there that talk about theory and philosophy and ideas about resolving conflict but I wanted to write a tool book, “What do I do with my idiot brother-in-law?” “What do I do with this horrible boss?” “What do I do with this terrible neighbor, or friend, or supplier, or client?” fill in the blank. What are the things you can do right now to improve the situation?

And, literally, that’s why I wrote the book. This shouldn’t be for professionals only. This should be for everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful stuff. And, Hesha, we can edit this out if we need to, but am I to understand you’ve literally had human entrails on your boots in a wartime scenario?

Hesha Abrams
No, I’m being very overly literal, and I like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, there’s a dramatic story. I think that’s the one maybe that we needed to…all right. We’ll see.

Hesha Abrams
We should not edit that out. That’s terrific. But I have had people spit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Hesha Abrams
I’ve had people get into a fistfight. I had two oilmen once that were both billionaires fighting over, whatever it was, I don’t know, $10, $20 million, which is pocket change to them, want to come to blows, and I literally put my body in between them. So, things get pretty intense when you’re dealing with amygdalas being triggered and bumper kart egos, and, “Mine, and you’re not going to take mine.” Well, we act at our most cavemen/cavewoman best, is what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Hesha Abrams
And it’s normal. Every single one of us. You poke on amygdala enough; people are going to roar. And so, the question is, “What do you do when someone’s poking you? What do you do when you want to poke someone else? How do you get out of it?” That’s the thing, is how do you freaking get out of it? And I have easy tools, easy ways to do it, and I’m so glad your listeners are listening so we can talk about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m glad, too. So, tell us, is there anything that’s particularly counterintuitive or that most of us get wrong in our conception of conflict?

Hesha Abrams
Yes, and that’s a great question. So, let me give you an analogy that I use. Spaghetti sauce. You drop it on the counter, you take a wet sponge, you wipe it right off. No big deal. You leave it overnight; you’re scraping it off with a spatula. You leave it three or four months, it’s old and moldy and nasty. And that, my friends, is conflict.

And so, why don’t we just wipe it up when it’s wet? That would be so easy. Well, we don’t because we’re afraid, we don’t know how. We’re afraid it will get worse, we’re afraid to know how to handle it, and so we close our eyes kind of ostrich-like, and just hope it’ll go away, and hope it’ll get better. And I’m here to tell you it doesn’t get better. It just gets old and moldy and nasty, and it finds a way to erupt at the most inopportune times because all conflicts, 100% of it starts with tension. Every single one.

Even if it’s the silent, “Mm-hmm” thing. We just don’t notice it because we’re not trained, we’re not taught, we don’t have these Holding the Calm tools to know how to wipe the spaghetti sauce off when it’s wet, so it’s harder, it’s older, and nastier and harder. And to stay with the analogies, sometimes people pee in their own bathtub, and you can’t get it out. You got to drain the whole tub. So, how can you avoid it and then how can you drain the tub when you actually need to? So, those are analogies between spaghetti sauce and peeing in the bathtub people aren’t going to forget.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, just to be really clear here. I’m getting the message associated with the spaghetti sauce in terms of addressing it quickly. Now, the peeing in the tub, what are we saying there? It’s like that seems another metaphor. I’m thinking it’s like, “Oh, I shot myself in the foot,” but maybe you’re getting at it’s hard to separate urine from bathwater once they’re intermingled.

Hesha Abrams
Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very visceral imagery. Thank you. Okay.

Hesha Abrams
Which means we won’t forget it. You’ll think about it now. We can always say, “Oh, don’t put your foot in your mouth,” right? But we all do, we’re all humans, and we do. What do we do to get out of it? How do we get out of the doghouse? How do we avoid getting in the doghouse to begin with? That’s what this Holding the Calm stuff is about. And it works with giant CEOs of giant Fortune 100 companies, global conglomerates.

Why? Because those guys and gals have egos just like the rest of us, and they want to win, and they want to not lose, and they want to look good just like if we’re fighting over a hundred bucks or a hundred million. It’s honestly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, maybe before we go into some of the detail tools, is it a general principle, like the spaghetti sauce, you recommend we go ahead and address stuff quickly before it becomes extra, like it will have a tendency to grow nastier and more vitriolic over time? Is that the general pattern you see over and over again?

Hesha Abrams
Well, it depends. Yes, often that is the case, but a lot of times, just again, I give so many analogies because people will remember the analogies of what we talked about. Let’s say there’s a bomb in the town square. That guy waddles out his Michelin soup. He doesn’t just start cutting wires. He looks. He diagnoses it. Is it pressure switch? Is it chemical switch? What is it?

And what tends to happen is that we react, we don’t diagnose. We don’t take a step back. If I’m in conflict with an extrovert, that is going to be a different set of tools than when I’m in conflict with an introvert. Just that simple thing right there. Also, what if somebody is a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner? That’s easy. It’s just one, two, three. And if I can give you a list, there’s an example of that. It’s paying attention to the verbs.

“So, I see what you’re saying. That looks good to me,” somebody is a visual learner, I’m going to use visual cues with them. “I hear what you’re saying. That sounds right to me,” they’re an auditory learner, I’m going to speak auditory words to them. Kinesthetic means that you touch and you feel, and they’re going to say, “I don’t get it,” or, “That doesn’t feel right to me,” or, “It’s not good in my gut.” All right, that’s a kinesthetic learner.

So, when I’m talking to them, it’s just like, a Samsung versus an iPhone. They’re both smartphones but completely different operating systems. So, when you’re interacting with someone, the first thing you do, like the bomb detector, is you look at them, you listen to them, you let them talk for a minute. And while they’re talking, you’re listening to content, of course, but I’m going to say to myself, “Are they introvert or extrovert? And are they a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner?” That’s it.

Now, I have a wealth of knowledge. Which tool am I going to use? Am I going to use a scalpel or am I going to use a sledgehammer? Am I going to delay or am I going to push? Am I going to deal with feelings and emotions or am I going to deal with tasks, process? It’s not hard once you know to look for that, and that’s what I go over in Holding the Calm is the easy simple ways to be able to do that, and sentence them so that you can just simply ask, and then people will reveal themselves to you easily.

And then when you respond to them in their own operating system, they’re not going to say, “Oh, thank you for noticing that I’m a visual learner and speaking to me in visual words.” No, they’re just going to go, “He gets me,” “She gets it,” “I feel heard. I can trust her,” “I can believe in him. He’s got integrity.” That’s what they’re going to say.

And all it is is that you met them where they were. You hit them with their frequency, and you resonated with them. And all it takes is a few moments of holding the calm, stepping back, and diagnosing. And it’s incredibly simple. And that’s what some of the things that I lay out in Holding the Calm.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we take a step back, we listen, we diagnose, we see, “Are they introverted, extroverted? Are they visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?” And then we just use those types of words or visually words versus auditory words? And just like that we have an extra degree of rapport in the room?

Hesha Abrams
Indeed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that sounds easy.

Hesha Abrams
Indeed. It honestly is.

So, there’s a corollary story that I wanted to add here. I heard this on NPR’s Hidden Brain. There was a couch company that sold bespoke customized couches, $20,000 and $30,000 for a couch, custom arms, custom piping, custom fabric, blah, blah. People will go through the process, and a huge percentage of them at the point of sale would not complete the sale. Well, the company was very frustrated.

So, what do we normally do when we have a problem? I joked that we have flat foreheads because we smash our heads against the wall all the time. So, you usually have gas in the car or you have a brake. And what we usually do is we do gas, we push forward. So, the company did more sales, more promotion, more discount, more marketing, and it didn’t do anything.

Finally, they put on the brake. Remember the bomb detector analogy I gave everybody, stepping back and diagnosing? And they had somebody call all the people that didn’t complete the point of sale, the vast, vast majority. Do you know why they didn’t buy this $20,000 couch? Because they didn’t know what to do with the old couch.

So, the solution now is obvious. “When you buy the new one, we take away the old one,” but it didn’t dawn on them because they hadn’t taken the time to diagnose and to find out and to put the brakes on. That’s a huge beautiful example of holding the calm.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re a pro.

Hesha Abrams
So, one of the things, the way I designed the book is I didn’t want to make 15 volumes. I’ve got 35 years, like I said, in the trenches of doing this. What would be immediately accessible for people? So, I wrote 20 tools in 20 chapters, each one with stories and anecdotes. And I’m going to give some of them today on our talk, and I give them away to people. I say, “Take my stories. These are battle tested. They work. Use them with other people.”

Just imagine what happens. Somebody says something, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to school you. We’re going to tell you where you’re wrong, how you analyze it incorrectly. We’re going to bring you additional data. And everything we’re doing is like that finger-in-the-air schoolmarm going, “You’re not right.” And what does the person do? He just shuts down, not listening to a doggone thing you say because no one, even if they are wrong, responds to that. It’s just not going to happen.

So, what you do is you build some kind of rapport, and you can do it with, “Oh, well, you’re a golfer, I’m a golfer,” “We both like to bake.” But then the person has to be self-revealing to tell you stuff about themselves, and in conflict, they’re not going to. So, all you have to do is listen, like that bomb detector in the town square, and as they’re talking, you’re going to hear these things. So, now, I know how to speak to you. Now, you feel listened to and heard. Your amygdala calms the heck down because never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.

And they actually train cops and police officers in that. You don’t walk into a volatile situation and say, “Calm down. Calm down.” All you’re saying to somebody is, “Whoa, you’re out of control. You don’t know what you’re doing. I do. I’m going to take power and control from you,” which just freaks them out more. So, you back off, let the person breathe, lets you breathe, and, now all of a sudden, you’re an ally instead of an enemy, and all kinds of magical cool stuff can happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds beautiful. Can we dig into some of these 20 tools? Are there a few that leap to mind in terms of having a really good bang for the buck in terms of, “Oh, this is not very hard, and yet it makes a world of difference in these situations”?

Hesha Abrams
Indeed. So, chapter one is speaking to the ears that are hearing you, and that we just talked about and there’s more, obviously, than what I can do right here, but that’s at least giving you a start. Let me give you an advanced technique that’s not as easy. It takes a little more effort but not very much, and everyone is going to laugh when I say this. If you’re dealing with somebody difficult, VUC them. I was going to with…

Pete Mockaitis
With a V.

Hesha Abrams
Yeah, “What did she just say?” I’m going to say, yeah, you VUC them because they can’t VUC themselves. And it’s V-U-C-S, and I came up with that purposely because everyone knows what they’re thinking they thought I said. Now, you won’t forget it. So, V-U-C-S. The V is validate, the U is understand, the C is clarify, the S is summarize.

It’s a four-part process to defuse anything. And when I say anything, I’m not using hyperbole. Anything. I’ve mediated multibillion-dollar cases. And late at night, you know what we’re talking about? The CEO is asking me about his idiot brother-in-law that he’s got to deal with, or a problem at work, or a problem with his private school kid’s coach, a Lacrosse team or something like that, and how does he handle that. That’s what we’re talking about.

So, this is a human being thing. It works for all of us. And that V of the validate is the number one. It’s the WD40 of interpersonal relations. But where it gets hard is that if you can validate, sure, go ahead, “I see your point of view. I can understand why you’re so upset. What happened to you was wrong,” blah, blah, blah. But let’s do the advanced class. Let’s say you can’t do that because you think the other person is wrong or an idiot or arrogant, self-righteous, stubborn, misguided, I mean, fill in the blank with whatever you want. How do you validate then?

Here’s the trick. You name the emotion. That’s all you got to do, “Wow, you sound angry.” “I’m not angry, I’m frustrated.” “Okay, you’re frustrated.” Now, I got data, don’t I? “Okay, help me see that. I want to understand.” Now, I’m going to say, “Help me see that,” if they’re a visual person; “I want to hear more about that,” if they’re an auditory person; “I want to understand that more,” if they’re a kinesthetic person.

And I’m just listening to them, and then using verbs. Literally, verbs. And someone may say listening to us, “Ugh, that sounds a lot of work. That’s too much.” Really? I can do it in two minutes. Or, you can spend the next hour fighting with somebody. What’s less work? And by starting with just the V, validate if you can, and if you can’t, just name the emotion, hear what they’re saying, let them talk. Then the U is the understanding part.

Unless someone is completely psychotic, really ridiculously psychotic, they have a point. You may not agree, you may not understand it, but they have a perspective and they have a point. So, dismissing them as, “Well, you’re just an idiot,” or, “You’re stupid,” or, “You’re misguided,” or blah, blah, blah, and, unless again, they’re psychotic, they’ve got a point I want to understand so I’m going to ask some questions.

And I have all kinds of sentence stems in the book that I tell people, write them down on a Post-it note and stick it by your phone or your computer, or put it in a note in your phone so you have it at the ready when something like this happens. And they’re wonderful because they just let people start to talk, and that’s the U for understand. Because when you do that for somebody, they’re going to feel understood.

Then the C is to clarify, just ask questions, “Okay, how would that work? Under what circumstances would that happen? Does that always happen?” those kinds of questions. Then, at the end, you can summarize, “Okay, so what you’re concerned about is this, and you feel like it’s unfair, or you don’t like the way this happened, and you’re looking for this kind of a response.”

In a complicated situation, that’ll take me 40, 45 minutes. In a more simple situation, 15, literally. Or, you can spend the next two days fighting with somebody.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, the whole V-U-C-S taking 15 to 45?

Hesha Abrams
It depends on the complexity of the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Hesha Abrams
And how well you do it, quite frankly. The better you do it, the quicker and easier it is. And the bonus is, at the end, the person is not going to hate you, they’re not going to think you’re awful, or you’re dismissive, or you’re disrespectful, or you’re offensive, or all the other things that people think when they’re not listened to. They’re going to feel like, “You get it.”

And often the position will soften because someone is actually listening to them. And people will start to say things, like, “I know I said that but, you know, it’s not really that bad,” only because you defused the tension. You wiped the spaghetti sauce up when it’s wet. You off-gassed the tank so that it wouldn’t explode. Just that simple stuff is wet-spaghetti-sauce wiping, which maybe should be the title of the next book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, perhaps. And can you give us some examples of these stems?

Hesha Abrams
It depends on the situation. That’s why I have them divided throughout the book because it depends on the situation. So, let’s say you’re having to deal with somebody that is just obnoxious, or all of these DEI stuff we’re talking about these days. You think he’s racist, or sexist, or homophobic, and they’re just saying stuff, and you’re taken aback. You don’t know what to say or how to say it.

You can say, “Did you intend to offend me with that statement?” You will see backpedaling like you don’t want to know. No one’s going to answer, “Yes, I intended to offend you,” right? And if they are, then I’m going to VUC them, I’m going to say, “Well, you’re really passionate about that. I want to understand why.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Hesha Abrams
Now, all of a sudden, I have another tool that I can use. And let me give your listeners what to do at the Thanksgiving table or the Christmas dinner table with that one relative that just always says nasty stupid stuff, either because they really mean it or because they just like to get your goat, and you know that happens at the table.

A great one is to turn to them and say, “Do you know what I admire about you?” Freeze. Everybody pauses. That guy will pause, ears, boing, are going to open, and then you can say anything you want, “Your passion, your curiosity, your ability to hear both sides of an issue,” whatever you want to say, there’s no retort to that, there’s no answer to that, so it stops and everyone else around the table will smile and nod, and say, “Thank you for shutting that down,” and then you go back to eating turkey.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking if it’s the person who just says stuff, it could just be, “Your courage. I would feel sheepish and embarrassed to spout the things that you’re saying.” I guess you don’t say it that way. But I guess that is something I would admire in terms of I tend not to say things that will trouble people willy-nilly because I’m scared.

Hesha Abrams
But that’s the whole reason why I wrote Holding the Calm for everybody because that’s the wet spaghetti sauce. We don’t say anything because we’re scared and we don’t know how to do it. But if you say to somebody, “You know what I admire about you?” how is that bad? It stops the conversation immediately.

And then find something to fill it in with, “That you’re so passionate,” or, “That you’re so punctual, you’re always on time,” or, “You always dress so well,” or, “You bring the best potato casserole,” or, or, or, whatever you can actually say. You can make it harder and firmer or you can make it gentle and easy, but either way, it stops because nobody is going to say, “Oh, I don’t want to hear the rest of that sentence.” “What I admire about you,” “What I respect about you,” “What I like about you,” nobody is going to say, “Eh, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it doesn’t need to be at all related, it doesn’t need to be at all directly related to what they’ve just mentioned?

Hesha Abrams
Exactly, isn’t that great?

Pete Mockaitis
You could just absolutely, “You’ve got great taste in earrings.” Okay.

Hesha Abrams
And it shuts it down because, let’s say it’s something weird like that, “You have great taste in earrings.” How do you respond to that? What are you suppose to say? It just stops the conversation. So, holding the calm is pragmatic. It’s not Kumbaya, “Let’s hold hands and walk through the meadow together.” We live in a jungle, there’s predators out there, there’s real-world stuff we have to deal with.

So, I wanted to make this book extremely practical for real-world stuff. So, sometimes all I want to do is get you to stop because that’s all I can do. Sometimes I want to get you to understand. Sometimes I want to get to make a cold peace with you. Sometimes I want to get to make a warm peace with you. I want correct a misunderstanding, repair a relationship, move us forward. That’s sort of the spectrum.

You choose whatever it is you want to do, whatever your courage wants to do, whatever your need is. Maybe you only see this person once a year at the holiday dinner, or you don’t have to see your boss very much, or your neighbor, or, let’s say, your spouse, those kinds of things. You figure out what it is you want and then apply it however you want.

And then what you’ll find is it’s so easy that the more you do it, you’ll say, “Oh, hot darn, those were like magic beans. They worked. All right, I’m going to try something else. Oh, look at that.” That’s how it actually happens. I got 30 years of doing this, and I’m telling you the same techniques I’m teaching all of you. I walk into a conference room, and one guys says, “Give me $100 million,” and the other guy says, “Here’s $100,000, hands down.” How do I solve that?

Everyone’s got fancy schmancy lawyers, they went to Ivy League schools, that are everyone smart, and they’re arguing over all kinds of stuff. How do I get that settled? With all the stuff I’m telling you, because it’s human beings, whether you’re wearing a T-shirt or a $5,000 suit. It’s exactly the same.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like, in that particular scenario that you highlighted, in terms of there’s a huge gap associated with the financials that people are willing to go for, you’re not so much, it sounds like, getting into the particulars of how one arrives in an appropriate dollar amount technically, financially speaking, so much as the human emotional side of things. Is that fair to say?

Hesha Abrams
Again, I hate to keep saying it depends on the circumstances. That’s why I go through that in the book so that it’s not one-size-fits-all. Let me give you another example. There’s a guy named Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and they were psychologists. And before them, Adam Smith’s rational man was the way economics was built. Human beings are rational, we make rational decisions, it’s all databased. And those of us in the social sciences know that’s just not true. It’s just not true.

Well, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proved it mathematically and scientifically, and they won a Nobel Prize in economics for proving that. And it’s absolutely brilliant how they do it, and so I’ll give you a quick short example. Bananas, 25 cents each. I’d buy a couple. I’m going to make a banana bread. Bananas, four for a dollar, 35% boost in sales.

Now, that’s just dumb. Why would it make any difference at all, and you want an extra 10% boost in sales? Limit two. That guys is going to knock at my bananas. I may have two bananas that rot and get all brown and nasty, and I got to throw them away. But look at that, how it works on the human brain. And people that are trying to sell us, the data people, the retailers, they know this stuff. That’s why you see price points the way you do.

It used to be that 4.99, people will see it as $4 not $5. $499, they will see it as $400 not $500. Even at 4,000 versus 5,000, that’s how the human brain works. Now, we can say, “Oh, you wouldn’t fool me with that. I look at 499 and I know it’s 500 bucks. I get that.” Not your brain, not the part of your brain that makes decisions. It will see it as, “Ah, that’s pretty reasonable, it’s about 400 bucks.” No, it’s not. It’s 500.

But that’s why they keep doing it that way because they know how we think. And you know who are masters at this kind of stuff? Casino owners. Do you ever notice in a casino, there’s no clocks, there’s no windows? They want to have people not know what time it is and not have anything about the outside world. They want them completely total captive audiences, and the drinks flow freely. That’s not because they’re being generous.

They want to keep you at the table because they know the odds are they, of course, are going to win, and they’ve absolutely figured out mathematically how often the slot machines need to ching, ching, ching, ching, ching and have somebody win, and how little they can have the win before it will hit the dopamine receptors in their brain like a chicken in a pen hitting that pellet to get that pellet out, they know it mathematically. That’s how amazing it is because we take human beings, and we put electrodes all over their heads, and shove them in MRIs. We know all kinds of stuff about the human brain works.

Scientifically, it’s just that normal people haven’t been able to catch up to how it is so we still think, “All right, you know, bananas, four for a dollar, that’s a good deal, even though I only need two.” So, to understand how human beings think, honestly, is a way to serve them better. Now, of course, people can manipulate, a fork can be used to eat or stab you, so every tool can be used different ways.

What I try to do in Holding the Calm is it’s very ethical and there’s high integrity to it, and the basis of it is service, “How can I serve you better by understanding you, by being on the same wavelength as you?” It’s better for a negotiation, it’s better for problem-solving, it’s better for team building. This kind of stuff is used for all of that. All of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d also love to hear a little bit more about some particular words and phrases. We’ve heard some about matching the visual versus auditory versus kinesthetic. We heard saying “Calm down” never does the trick. And we’ve heard “You know what I admire about you…” is magic. Any other magical words, phrases that you love or really hate?

Hesha Abrams
So, I have a whole chapter on percentages which I find so interesting. People will speak in superlatives or in generalities, “We always do this. We never do that.” And 20 years ago, I’ve done a lot of…I probably made 10,000 speeches in my life, and I’ve consulted and trained all over the world. I’ve done a lot of this stuff. And I would have big groups, and I could guinea pig and try different new things and see how they would work.

And so, one day, I just thought of that. And so, I had a large group, and I said, “What percentage of the time does always mean?” And then I had people write it down, and then we facilitated up in the front on a big flipchart. Always goes from 100% down to like 65. Now, the people that say always is a 100 think the 65-ers are idiots. And the 65-ers think the 100s are extreme.

How about with never? You think never is zero? Au contraire, monsieur. It is not. To a lot of people, never is 20%, maybe even 25%. The same with rarely and a lot. So, I have a whole thing in there where I call it “Always Never, Rarely A Lot.” People will use those four words all the time. And by all the time, I mean 100% of the time.

So, if somebody is being adamant with you, “We never do that,” let’s say you want to return something, you just practice easy negotiation, and you go return something at a store, “We never do that.” “Oh, what percentage of the time is never?” “Well, it’s like 80%.” “Oh, so what are the exceptions that fall into the 20%?” Bing, bing, bing, bing. Now, I got information. Now, I got data.

People will say that, “Oh, we never do salary raises,” or, “We always do salary raises, or salary evaluations at the end of the year.” “What percentage of the time is always?” Now, if you get 100%, okay, now, you have information and you can feel comfortable, “Right, it’s happening at the end of the year. Well, I think 75 or 80% of the time.” “Oh, so what do we do the other percentage of the time? What would be the reasons for that?”

Now, it’s a pathway in and you have information. And look at all you did. You asked a clarifying question, “What percentage of the time is always, never, rarely, a lot?” and you’ll like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so funny, Hesha, well, one, that’s eye-opening, like, “Wow, I never would’ve guessed,” so that’s insightful and powerful right there. Thank you. I guess I’m thinking I am in the camp that always does mean 100% and never does mean zero percent. And if you asked me the clarifier, “What percentage is always?” I’m almost insulted, like, “Well, of course, it’s 100%. That’s why I said always. Otherwise, I would’ve said often or frequently or most of the time.”

Hesha Abrams
Isn’t that great?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, now I’m intrigued. That question doesn’t rub people the wrong way or do you have alternative variations you recommend?

Hesha Abrams
Well, what’s interesting is sometimes it does. And then let say it does, “Really?” and then you ask somebody else, “What percentage is always to you?” And, guaranteed, even with CPAs, even with accountants who are very numbers-oriented, it will vary. And then somebody else will say it. So, if you’re afraid you’ve got somebody like that, you ask a couple people in a room.

And it’s a technique that I use often if I have to do large groups or if I’m meeting with a board, for example, and I’ve got a bunch of people. I don’t want to say to people, “You know, we all have different perspectives, and we all think about things differently, and we have to be open to blah, blah, blah” That’s like nauseous. No one wants to hear that kind of garbage.

But I say, “You know what, who wants to do a fun little exercise?” No one’s going to say no, and I do this little exercise. And you can do it on one of the words. I would do it on at least two or you can do all four. And then as people go around the room, and they say different percentages, then somebody like you, Pete, will go, “Huh? What? No. You think that always is 80%? How can you think that?” “How can you not think that?”

And then, all of a sudden, a new interesting conversation opens up. And it’s a way of having people see for themselves we are very different. We think very differently. It’s not just a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, introvert, extrovert. Baskin and Robins have 32 flavors for a reason. There’s a lot of different things that people want.

And even something silly. Let’s say I’m in a more casual group and I want to do an icebreaker thing. I may say, “Okay, choose, salty or sweet?” And sometimes people go, “Huh? What?” “If you had to choose, potato chips, French fries, or cake cookies?” You will see people divide up instantly into their salty-sweet teams. Instantly.

And then you know what kind of happens? “That other guy across the room who I hate, he’s a salty and I’m a salty, he’s a sweet, I’m a sweet, are you kidding me? How can I have anything in common with that guy? And what if we’re the only two in the room that both think that? Oh, God, now I got commonality with that guy?” It begins to bridge some of that.

I’ll give one more thing just because I’ve done so much of this. I experiment and then I come up with new ways of trying to make these points because people will get it better if they can get it themselves. It’s the whole “teach them to fish, don’t give them a fish” thing. So, I once did this just on a lark, literally on a lark. I was on a big Zoom conference call probably 10 years ago. I was doing Zoom a long time ago, and I had all these people and they looked super bored and disinterested, and, “Okay, I’ve got to get these people attached.”

So, I said, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” And everyone went through it, and, all of a sudden, people started having conversations because, “Ooh, the vanillas are purist,” or, “The chocolates like it to be decadent,” or some of them wanted the gooey, chocolatey, ribbony, nutty, rocky road-y thing. And then people couldn’t stop talking and it created this commonality between people.

And at the end of the training, when they did the evaluations and they’re all saying, “Oh, it was so great.” “What was your favorite part of it?” A huge percentage said the stupid little ice cream exercise that I literally made up on-the-fly. And that’s because it was so personal to them, “This is me. See me. Hear me. Validate me. And now let me bond with you. I don’t care what I bond over. It’s ice cream.” It’s a sports team, it’s a politician, it’s a food restaurant.

Human beings have this clannish desire to bond and connect with each other. And when you create and foster ways for that to happen, I’m telling you, barriers fall down, things break down. It doesn’t have to be this big huge fancy schmancy stuff. In fact, the big huge fancy schmancy stuff doesn’t really work. It’s too big. It’s really the small.

I have a whole chapter in the book that I call “Small Winnable Victories,” that you don’t solve problems with big huge things. You solve them brick by brick, stone by stone. You dissolve problems from the outside so that they melt in. You create commonalities to where, “You know, I really thought I hated you and you were an idiot. But it turns out you’re not so bad, you know.”

And I’ll give your listeners a quick easy, easy way to deal with somebody you absolutely dislike or despise, and you got to deal with them. Look at them, ask yourself one question, “Would they pull my kid out of a burning car?” And if the answer to that is yes, which 95% of the time it will be, they’re not so bad. There’s something redemptive.

And if, in fact, they did pull your kid out of a burning car, you’d have a very different relationship with them. So, we start from that place, and it just lets walls start to come down so solutions can be found, team building can happen. This stuff works, I’m telling you. It works.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s so funny, it’s like as I think about that question and folks I might be at odds with, it’s sort of like my bias is tilting or slanting me so it’s just like, “Okay, statistically, yeah, maybe 95% is probably the overall view. It’s like, but I’m really not so sure about this guy.”

Hesha Abrams
That’s marvelous. That’s marvelous because it means that you’re demonizing him or her unless and until they do something redemptive, and they may not, so you pretend. And if you can pretend, it’s like the placebo effect for your mind. If you pretend that they actually did do something redemptive, all it does is give you more avenues and ways to deal with them because in Alcoholics Anonymous, they have this great saying that says, and I’m not sure if they originated it or not but I’ve been told that, that, “Resentment is poison that you drink but expect the other guy to die.”

Think about how amazing that is. Poison that you drink but expect the other guy to die. And what happens with this paradigm-shifting technique I’m teaching you is it stops the poison, and you get to a point where, “You know, you’re still a jackass but you don’t bother me anymore, you don’t affect me anymore, you can’t harm me anymore.” There’s tremendous freedom and power in that. Tremendous. Tremendous.

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

Hesha Abrams
Well, I wanted to remind people I created a website HoldingTheCalm.com. And my goal with this is to just get this out into the world because I feel like we were all cavemen, cavewomen shoving food in our face, and I want to give people a fork, a knife, a spoon, chopsticks so we have better ways to handle things.

So, I put all my podcasts on there. I’m doing webinars. And I’m just putting everything free. Just download it and take it. And I’m doing this little one-minute videos. So, people don’t have time, and we’re all so busy, so it’s a quick one little minute video on a little topic with one of these techniques or one of these ideas that you can like or forward it onto someone else, and say, “Hey, this might be good for you, too.”

So, I have that, and I have a discussion guide in the back of the book. And, originally, the folks wanted me to sell that as a separate workbook, and I refused. I said, “No, I’m giving this away for free, and I want it in the back of the book,” so that if you’re an organization, or a company, or a church, or a homeowners’ association, or a family, any group of people, and everyone gets the book, you can go through the discussion guide which is like five pages, so it’s nothing.

And you just start asking questions of each other, then it makes it real, and it makes it to be, “What percentage is always for you? What percentage is it for the other guy? Really? How can you think always is 80%? I don’t understand that.” Then you’ll learn something about them. They’ll learn something about you. It creates this team-building bonding thing that actually creates a little bit of Teflon against conflict, which is really pretty magical.

So, that’s why I did it that way because my goal is to just get it out there and help people learn to do this better because we don’t teach this in school. We’ve got people running around shooting people because they’re so angry and mad, and write nasty things on social media because there’s no off-casting valve. So, anyway, this is my little tiny contribution within my sphere of influence to try to help make the world a little bit more harmonious, so that’s my message. And if it resonates with you guys, please, take it, use it.

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

Hesha Abrams
Well, I’m a major Trekkie, so I love Captain Jean-Luc Picard, he said, “Only impossible until it’s not.” And I like that. And I would tell you, I have one more that I put in the book, actually, both of those are in the book. My husband has a friend who’s a Navy Seal, and Navy Seals, as part of their training, have to tread water for, like, ever, and they’re supposed to do it until they die is the concept.

And so, my husband asked this guy, “So, how long can you tread water?” He said, “I don’t know, I’m not dead yet.” And I think about that, at least for myself and for everyone else, “How big can I get? How smart can I get? How loving can I get? How forgiving can I get? How graceful can I get? I don’t know, I’m not dead yet.”

And I feel like if we all sort of be continuous learners, which everyone has to be listening to your podcast, they’re continuous learners, and they’re committed awesome people or they wouldn’t be listening to this kind of podcast, how big is big? I don’t know, I’m not dead yet. So, let’s get big, everybody. That’s the goal. That’s my little inspirational speech for the day.

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

Hesha Abrams
Well, I love the Daniel Kahneman-Amos Tversky thing. I love there’s a chapter in the book I have on politeness and stability matters because there was a study done in England, literally, scientifically, about “Does politeness actually get you anything? Can it actually work?” And it does. And they figured out, neuroscientists have found that there’s 187 cognitive biases in our brains, and one of them is called the bias of reciprocity.

And, again, unless you’re a sociopath, and you’re just like a normal person, which is the vast majority of us, if I do something for you, you kind of feel compelled to do something back for me. You get invited into someone’s house for dinner, you bring a bottle of wine or flowers. There’s this, “I don’t want to be in debt to you. I want to do that.” That’s what politeness does. Simply being polite and civil in engenders politeness and civility back. And I love that study.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite book?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, God, I have to many. Should I be a dork and talk about my Star Trek books that I read like candy? I consume the right candy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued. What’s the dorkiest Star Trek book you own?

Hesha Abrams
Oh, God, they’re all marvelous. I just got done finished reading one on Kathryn Janeway called Mosaic by Jeri Taylor that was just fantastic. I really like that one. But I read a lot of neuroscience stuff. I just got done with Erik Barker’s Plays Well with Others which was just fantastic, really marvelous. I read – what was that other book about – Influence by Robert Cialdini, of course, is marvelous, the Ken Blanchard books are always good because they’re trying to make the world a better place. So, I have the nonfiction stuff that I enjoy, and then I have my guilty pleasures.

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

Hesha Abrams
HoldingTheCalm.com, it’s got everything you need.

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

Hesha Abrams
Oh, what a great question that is. The Navy Seal analogy. I would suggest that what you do is write down on a piece of paper why you’re good at your job. What is it that makes you good at your job? And then, tomorrow, do it better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Hesha, thanks. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun in your conflict resolving.

Hesha Abrams
Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

819: How to Stop Avoiding Conflict with Sarah Noll Wilson

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Sarah Noll Wilson shows how avoidance harms work and relationships.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The many consequences of avoiding conflict
  2. The key to overcoming avoidance
  3. How to train your body’s fight-or-flight response

About Scott

Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah Noll Wilson helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching, Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health. 

With 15+ years in leadership development, Sarah earned a Master’s Degree from Drake University in Leadership Development and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa in Theatre Performance and Theatre Education. When she isn’t helping people build and rebuild relationships, she enjoys playing games with her husband Nick and cuddling with their fur baby, Sally.

Resources Mentioned

Sarah Noll Wilson Interview Transcript

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

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thanks for having me. I’m really excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m excited to hear about Don’t Feed the Elephants!: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Relationships. But, first, we need to hear about you and your fondness for accordions.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Some people picked up baking during the pandemic, I picked up playing and collecting accordions.

Pete Mockaitis
Collecting. How many do you have?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Eight.

Pete Mockaitis
How much space does that take up in the home?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A lot because they’re not small, and they come in these big suitcases. I didn’t intend to buy eight. Three of them are actually broken, so I need to find homes because accordions are quite fragile.

Pete Mockaitis
Who would even like a broken accordion? Any takers?

Sarah Noll Wilson
There’s a market for accordion pieces. But, yeah, I had my grandpa’s accordion, and I always wanted to learn it, and then never had the opportunity. And this is actually the story, I wanted to cheer up my young neighbor whose birthday party got cancelled when everything shut down, and so I serenaded him from his front yard. The six-year-old was not into it. He was just like, “What’s my weird neighbor doing?”

And then, through a random chance on the internet, I got connected with one of the world’s best accordion players. He gave me some lessons during the pandemic, and then I got a frozen shoulder, I couldn’t play for a year and a half, and now I’m back.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Okay. Kudos. And so, what makes the accordion special and fun when you’re playing it?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, that’s a really beautiful question. The instrument is incredibly complicated because you have three different components you’re thinking about. You have the keyboard on the one side, you have the base notes which are organized in a different order, it’s chromatic or by frets, and then you have the bellows. And so, one thing that I love about playing is somebody with ADHD, it’s really hard. And as a business owner, there’s very few tasks I can do where my brain can totally focus on one thing. And because of the complexity, it’s very much a point of self-care for me.

Also, it’s just fun and quirky, and people don’t expect you to pull out the accordion. And the other thing is it became a place where my parents and I bonded virtually, so they loved to hear me play. And so, when I play, I think about them, so there’s like an emotional component to it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a lot to that notion associated. It has sufficient complexity to completely absorb your thoughts, and, thusly, it’s self-care. And I’ve been seeing a lot of people saying things, because I got so into this at Chess.com and cheating allegations, like, “What’s this Chess.com all about?”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it just sucked me into this whole world. And that seemed to be a theme for a lot of people in the pandemic, was with chess, it’s like, “Oh, well, this absorbs all my thoughts and I’m not worried about all this stuff because I’m thinking about, ‘How the heck can I checkmate this guy in three moves? Is that even possible?’ Wait, let’s try this. Let’s try this.” And then the brain is completely consumed with the puzzle.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I like to think of it as a snow globe that finally gets to settle, and you just get to focus on one thing. And the problem is, as I’ve actually gotten better because I’m taking lessons from somebody who knows how to teach a beginner because my friend, who I met, was like teaching me music theory on the second session. I was like, “I just want to know what to do with these buttons.”

But, one night, I was playing, and I was playing a song, and I stopped, and I looked over at my husband and I was like, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about something with the business X, Y, Z.” He’s like, “Oops, time out. Time out. You’re not playing complicated enough music if you’re thinking about business at the same time.” And he’s like, “I just want to make that observation.” But I can see that with chess because that’s not just as simple as, “I’m making a move and now I’m waiting.” You’re looking at all the possibilities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. All right. Well, let’s talk about your book Don’t Feed the Elephants! Tell me, did you make any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries about conflict and avoidance when you were digging into this?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I love that question. When I started out on this path, I always lovingly say I’m a card-carrying member of the conflict avoidance club. I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up from families of conflict avoidance, and I was really interested in, “How do we have the conversation?” and there are so many great books out there about things you can say and things you can do.

And the thing that I started to notice in my journey of experimenting and trying to figure this out is that there wasn’t a lot about, “How do we name and notice the avoidance?” Because what I was seeing is that there were people who had, even when they had the tools of how to have the conversation, they were still avoiding it.

And so, that took me on this trajectory of, “How do we get really curious about the avoidance so that we can push through that and then have the conversation?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I want to talk, absolutely, about how that’s done. Maybe we could start with a little bit of why. Is avoidance okay?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it working for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we decode that? Like, what’s at stake here?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, sometimes it is appropriate. And we have to understand that if we’re avoiding, whether we’re conscious of it or not, it’s because we’re coming from a place of protection. We’re protecting ourselves, maybe we’re protecting others, which is still protecting ourselves. Maybe we’re protecting our power. Maybe we’re in a place of protection.

And one way I like to think of avoidance is through sort of the lens of there’s aggressive passive-aggressive avoidance where I’m stonewalling, where I’m throwing the grenade as I leave the room. And in those situations, it’s like power over the situation. I’m trying to cause a reaction and then leave. Then there’s fearful avoidance. I’m afraid to be hurt. I’m afraid I’m going to be retaliated against. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings. And then what does that mean about me?

But then the third one that I like to frame it up is this conscious avoidance or disengagement. And maybe I might avoid a situation if I truly know that I’m not safe. I might avoid a situation because, I mean, we’ve all had moments where we go, “That’s just not a battle I want to pick right now.” Maybe my energy is spent somewhere else. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s not as important to me, and I go, “You know what, it’s just…”

But the difference is conscious avoidance, from my perspective, is if aggressive avoidance is power over, fearful avoidance is feeling powerless, conscious avoidance is like power from within that I’m making the choice not to engage, and I’m coming from a place of acceptance rather than fear or resignation. And so, I think that’s important because sometimes, when people are getting excited about this work or other people’s bodies of work of, “How do we have the conversation?” they’re like, “Got to have the conversation. Got to free the elephant,” and they get really aggressive about it, but sometimes it might actually be safer and better for us to not. But I wanted to come from a place of choice instead of a default.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense, as oppose to, “That’s just too much. I’m overwhelmed. This is scary. Avoid. Eject. Evacuate,” instead of that just being like exactly automatically where we go. That is one of several options at our disposal, and we will thoughtfully conscientiously choose what works best for us. So, now, tell us, what is at stake or what do we stand to lose if our default setting is to avoid conflict? Like, we are chronically consistently avoiding conflict, what will be the implications, consequences for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So much. There are implications of our connections with others won’t be as deep or as authentic. We can cause harm to relationships that we won’t realize. One of the ways I think about it is that the comfort we gain in the short term doesn’t always outweigh the damage in the long term. I’ve seen organizations where when they are a culture of “harmony” or “niceness,” a lot of problems are underneath the surface.

Actually, I just had a client recently who said, “You know, when we don’t speak it out, we always act it out.” I loved how he said that. And so, that could be relationships, high-quality, deep-trusting relationships, that can be from an organization perspective. We can be losing out on creativity and innovation and better ideas, that psychological safety, but also on a personal level if we’re avoiding.

For some people, we also could be sacrificing ourselves in the process of not setting boundaries, of not being clear about what we need, not being able to communicate that. And that can erode your relationship with yourself and your relationship with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, plenty is at stake there. Then tell us, how do we overcome that avoidance? How do we find the courage? What’s the process?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, the tools that we’ve put together, the framework we use, and I always say this as a disclaimer, if you will, that humans are complex, and relationships are complex, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Even if you and I have a really great relationship, maybe you’re stressed about something, like you’re in a different headspace, or you’re “hangry”, or you’re focused on something else.

So, I always say it’s all about, “How many tools can we have at the ready so that we can bring it out?” So, one of the things that I recognize in the conversations and all the work that I was doing with individuals, and even in my own experience, is that a lot of times, the reason, one of the reasons we were avoiding is because we’re thinking of the conversation as a confrontation.

And I think that, “How do we prepare people and how can we think about this situation differently so we can diffuse the heat for us?” So, what I lay out in the book, and what I firmly believe in, is that one of the ways that we can approach these conversations so that we can have more courage is through curiosity.

And the reason that curiosity is so important is a couple of things. So, one of the things I noticed as a pattern is that when people were frustrated in a situation, they often just say frustrated and didn’t really understand exactly why they were frustrated. And what we know about relationships is that if there is a conflict, if there’s a disagreement or tension, it’s usually because a value of ours is being stepped on or a need is not being met. And so, people weren’t going to that level.

The other thing that I observed is that people would rarely get curious about the other person. They’re just busy being mad at them and not considering their perspective. And then, finally, because we’re talking about multiple humans and relationship with each other, it was really hard for people to get curious about the role that they played.

And one of the things we know also about curiosity is that in order for us to be curious, that activates our higher-functioning part of our brain, which calms down that primitive amygdala brain that will get triggered when we’re feeling threatened in a situation. So, our approach is we call it the curiosity first approach.

And so, it starts with getting curious with yourself, and that could be asking questions, like, “What am I feeling? What do I need in this situation? What information do I have, don’t I have?” When we’re talking about work in particular, and we’re struggling with someone, this comes up a lot when we’re working with managers, is, “Is it a preference issue or is it a performance issue?” because sometimes we confuse the two, that, “I think you’re not performing well because you’re not doing it how I would want to do it.”

And so, it’s just taking a little bit of time to slow down to unpack, and go, “What am I actually feeling? And why am I feeling that way?” And so, here’s what it can look like in practice. I was working with somebody. This is like a classic story that I think just demonstrates it so beautifully. He was a manager, and one of his team members would interrupt anytime he’d have a conversation with someone in the area.

So, she would shout over the cubicle walls and interrupt, and it just drove him nuts, and he’s like, “I have to tell her to stop.” And I said, “Yes, you do. But, like, what is it about that? Like, what value of yours is being stepped on when she’s doing that?” And he thought about it for a moment, and he went, “I think it’s disrespectful.” And then I invited him to get curious about her, because I said, “Clearly, she doesn’t think she’s being disrespectful.” I said, “What value of hers do you think she’s honoring in this moment?” And he was like right away, “Oh, shoot, she thinks she’s being helpful.”

And so, now they can have a very different conversation around needs instead of just, “Don’t do that.” So, phase one is get curious with yourself, and then it’s get curious about the other when it makes sense. And the reason I say it like that is because we always say curiosity is an invitation, not a prescription.

For example, I’m not going to ask somebody who’s experienced harassment to get curious about their harasser. Like, that’s not going to be the ask. And then when we’re going into the conversation, “How can we approach it from being curious with them?” And there are some strategies we lay out there. So, it’s very much anchored in, “How do we get clear about what’s going on, get clear about what I’m feeling, get clear about what’s the impact I want to make on this conversation?” And then enter into it as a conversation instead of a confrontation. That’s a lot of information I just summed up for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And I like it that it’s, okay, curious, curious, curious in terms of the running thread through it all. And so, that’s easy to remember as opposed to, “There’s nine key principles, Pete.” And I guess I’m wondering, even before we can get to that place of higher-order emotional, intellectual, wise, calm processing…

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thoughtful, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re just angry, it hurts. Like, is there sort of like a stop, drop, and roll, or CPR, or First Aid before we get into these wise thoughts just to be able to get a grip to be able to go there?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yes. And for us, it’s being able to notice and name in the moment when we’ve been triggered, and to build up that muscle to be like, “Oh, I am frustrated right now.” Because, you’re right, you can’t jump to that when that amygdala is triggered. We’re not getting curious. And so, for us, that’s why a lot of our work is on helping people understand our biological stress reaction so we can start to see those in the moment, so then we can name it, because I firmly believe in what I’ve observed is when we can see something and name it, then we can choose to change it.

And so, some strategies. One, when you notice you’re getting emotionally triggered is deep breathing is really effective. And I always love to explain why because we know breathing is helpful in a stressful situation, but it’s literally because our organs are massaging the vagus nerve, it’s the longest nerve in our body. And when we can massage that, that actually kicks off chemicals to calm down that sympathetic nervous system response, that fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flock response, and so deep breathing is really powerful. And what I love about breathing is it’s free. And if we’re lucky, it’s always with us.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I am a subscriber to the Breathwrk app, so I like all kinds of breathing things. Tell me, any finer points when it comes to deep breathing in terms of nose, mouth, counting, pace, diaphragm, or just any kind of deep breathing is just fine?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I think any kind of deep breathing is fine, but if you’re noticing you’re particularly emotionally triggered, for me, personally, I love the four-four-four just because it’s really simple. I’m going to breathe in for four counts, I’m going to hold it for four counts, and then I’m going to exhale for four counts. And, again, we can’t get to that higher thinking if we don’t realize that our brain has been flooded, and that can be tricky in the moment.

Because the thing, sometimes when we hear people, it’s like, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not react,” or, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not have the other person react,” and it’s really important for us to understand that that stress reaction happens so fast. Our amygdala can flood our brain in 0.07 seconds. It happens so fast. So, the goal isn’t to remove the reaction. The goal is how quickly can we notice it so then we can work to try to recover, so we can show up more intentionally.

I can go on and on about the amygdala. It’s my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, 0.07 seconds, whenever we have a precise number, it makes me think you know what you’re talking about, Sarah.

Sarah Noll Wilson
You want a couple others, right? Like, the chemicals will peak in 18 minutes but it actually can take up to 24 hours for cortisol, adrenaline to be metabolized, which is why I’m not a fan of, like, “We have this tough conversation. Let’s figure out the solution.” I’m like, “Nope. My brain isn’t there yet.” I’m very pro go-to-bed mad, which, like, bucks every piece of advice you get on your wedding day. But to go to bed consciously, intentionally, to say, “I’m not in the headspace right now. I need to give this some time for this to clear up. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about sort of First Aid or CPR as the deep breathing in the moment. I’m curious, any prudent self-care strategies during the 24 hours following the flooding?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think that that looks different for different people. So, I’m a big, big believer in figure out your personal manual, if you will. So, for me, I know that going for walks and getting physically active is really helpful in helping me, like, settle that brain a bit so that I can access the higher-functioning parts of our brain.

And, again, I’m just speaking from my experience, so physical activity can really be valuable. Depending on your situation, some kind of physical touch can be really valuable and calming. And one of the things that I wanted to just, like, talk about for a moment, because I think meetings after the meetings get a bad rap. We’re all like, “Oh, we got meetings after the meetings.”

But, biologically, typically the first stress response we have is what we call a flock response. We flock to another human to be like, “Am I crazy? Did that just happen?” And sometimes that can be unproductive. If I’m just coming to you to vent and to ruminate, that can be unhealthy and unproductive. But sometimes it can be a healthy response, to say, “I need to talk to someone else about this to get perspective, to help me kind of navigate my emotion so I can get to a place on the other side.” So, if you have people with whom you can talk to, that can be really powerful, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about the self-care, and we talked about the deep breathing. And when it comes to these levels of curiosity, are there any super questions you find to be particularly effective in surfacing that positive curious mojo?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. I think, for yourself, one of the most important questions is, “What do I need in this moment?” We don’t often, and this has been my experience with the work that we get an opportunity, I feel like we get a front-row view of humans and teams, that we don’t often think about it. We’re just mad, or we’re just frustrated, or we’re just scared, or whatever the case might be. But, like, “What do I need in this moment?”

So, that, one, it takes the pointing of the fingers away from someone else, to, like, “What do I need?” So, when I think about getting curious with yourself, I think that’s a really important question. I think a hard question that is equally important is, “What role am I playing or did I play?” And there might not be an answer to it, but a lot of times we likely have contributed to a situation, and so that’s valuable.

When I think about the question that I would want to ask about someone else, and when I talk about getting curious about someone, the goal isn’t to fill in their story or to make assumptions. It’s just to remind ourselves that they have a story, that they have a perspective on this. And so, I love the question, “What makes sense to them?” because sometimes what can happen is, when we are emotionally triggered and put into that protective state, we can jump to judgment, like, “They’re an idiot. I don’t understand why they would do that.” But we all are walking around behaving in ways that make sense to ourselves.

And then when I think about getting curious with, I think, again, one of the questions that we don’t often think about, we’re just like, we ramp up for this conversation, we’re feeling the apprehension or the nerves, or maybe we’re feeling the fight, whatever it might be, is to ask yourself, “What impact do I want to make with this conversation? What’s the impact I want to make on you, on our relationship, on this moment, for me? Because maybe my impact is I want to set a boundary, which means that in order for me to do that, I need to be maybe more courageous. Maybe I want to repair so I need to be more empathetic.”

And I think that we kind of just like go into the conversation and we don’t think about, “What’s the impact I want to make?” Not that you can totally control it. You can’t. The other person gets to decide the impact, ultimately, but it can calm us down. And what I love about that question is that, at the end of the day, I can’t control you and your reaction but I can control how I’m going to show up.

And so, for me, if I’m going into a particularly heated conversation, and I’m talking about this, like, I’ll calm but, let’s be real, my heart races and I’m stressed the night before and thinking about it. But sometimes, even if the result isn’t what I hoped for, I always want to leave knowing I did my best and I showed up as intentionally as I could.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, those would be the three questions.

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. And if it’s not us but someone else who’s avoiding conflict and we really do have to have that conversation, or so it seems to us, any pro tips for engaging that person optimally?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, when I hear that, I think, like, a situation where, “You two clearly need to talk, like you need to stop talking to me.” But then I want to talk about how you could bring it up in a team. So, I’m a big fan of, “It sounds like you need to have a conversation with this person. What can I do to help?” And then leading them through. That’s what I love about the curiosity first approach, is you can use it for yourself or for someone else.

So, if they’re coming to you and they’re all fired up, “Yeah, like I can see you’re mad. What’s the need that you have right now that’s not being met? Yeah, I can see that. What information do you think they’re missing that might be valuable?” or whatever the case might be, but encouraging. And there are times when, and I’ve had situations, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty. I’ve been guilty of this, but there are times where maybe someone’s talking to you about a situation, and it’s the third or fourth time. And at some point, that’s when there’s, from my standpoint, a loving push of, “I can see this is still bothering you. This is the third time you’ve brought it up with me. I’m actually not the one that can change this situation.”

And so, one of the practices that I love that’s from Marshall Goldsmith’s work in his book Triggers is in any situation, we can accept it, we can adjust it, or we can avoid it, and so navigating that. If it’s a situation where I feel like I’m sensing, like, “I think we need to talk about this,” then I’ll just approach that, “Hey, can we talk about that meeting and what happened?”

I’m a big fan, especially if it’s one to one, of coming at it from a place of, “I want to hear your perspective, and I’d like to share with you mine,” because I wanted it to be an invitation for a conversation instead of just, “Hey, I want to tell you how terrible you were, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But to just say, “Hey, would you be open,” I also love that language, “Would you be open to talking about that meeting? I’d like to hear your perspective, and I want to share with you mine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you used one of my favorite phrases when you talked about, you said you liked that language. And I would like to hear some of your favorite words and phrases in the course of these conversations that seem to be really handy, and maybe some words and phrases that are troubling and ought to be avoided.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Anything that’s always, never.

Pete Mockaitis
Always, never, should, but.

Sarah Noll Wilson
To avoid, yeah. Any you, “You do this,” and “You always do this.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You always should never…”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, those are juicy. Some phrases that I like to have, and it depends on the situation. Okay, so let’s talk. One of my favorite phrases to use when someone is getting heated, because, again, there are times when I will fight, and there are times when I will get into a full freeze mode. I love the practice of honor the emotion but coach the behavior.

And what that looks like is, “Hey, Pete, it’s okay that you’re upset right now. What’s not okay is you keep interrupting me.” So, you honor the other person’s emotions, but you’re setting some boundaries on what’s appropriate for us to talk about. You know, I’m also just a big fan of “Tell me more.” I think that, so often, I don’t think, I know this from, like, observing conversations day in, day out, is that sometimes we think we know what the other person means, and just like double-clicking, or that’s such a corporate phrase.

But just getting curious about, “Okay, when you said transparency, what did that mean to you? Or, how would you define that? Or, what would that look like in our relationship?” Because a lot of times, you know, there’s Judith E. Glaser, she’s a researcher that built a body of work, Conversational Intelligence, and there’s a study that she referenced that it’s something like nine out of ten conversations miss the mark.

And some of that is because we think we understand each other, “Oh, yeah, you said this, and I said this, and I know what that means to me, but I don’t actually clarify what that means to you.” When I’m working on a team, I love using language of observation and then an invitation, “I want to make an observation. I feel like we’re dancing around X. What do other people think?”

“I’m on the balcony right now,” that’s language we use, “I’m on the balcony right now, and I want to make an observation that we haven’t heard from half the group, and I’m curious about what we’re missing out on because we’re not hearing those voices.” So, I love an observation because it’s not as strong as just an accusation, and it invites people into the conversation in a safe way.

Something that’s a practice that I wish I would love to see happen more. Oh, wait. I have two more. I’ve got like a whole slew of them. This actually comes from my colleague Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell, and it’s asking for a do-over. So, when a conversation doesn’t go well, and you know it, you just go, “Oh, I, like, stuck my foot in my mouth, and I want to repair it.” Sometimes we’ll just leave it and linger and hope it goes away, and we pretend that it didn’t happen.

But she uses the language of, “I’d like to do a do-over. And a do-over isn’t so I can reiterate my point of view into over so I can show up more intentionally.” And I think that can be really, really powerful when you’re trying to repair, because courage isn’t just when things are in conflict. We need courage when we’re trying to repair or heal a relationship. I think one of the hardest things to do is to really honestly apologize when you’ve hurt somebody. That can be really, really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Sarah, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think the thing that people are so much more capable than I think we give ourselves credit to be able to hold steady. And so, what I always lovingly say is practice won’t make it easy but it might make it easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I was about to ask for a favorite quote. That might be one. You got another?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I do. I do. That’s not mine. That’s my quote. My favorite quote is from the author, Minda Harts, and she wrote the book Right Within, The Memo, and the quote is “Nobody will benefit from your caution, but many can benefit from your courage.” That is on my mind and heart every single day in my work.

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

Sarah Noll Wilson
Dr. Tasha Eurich, her book Insight, I love the study on self-awareness that they did that basically showed that roughly 90% of people think they’re highly self-aware and only about 10-15% are. And I think that’s valuable for us. I like to think, instead of thinking, “I’m self-aware.” Now I think, “How might I not be?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And a favorite book?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The Waymakers by Tara Jaye Frank, and it’s clearing a path to equity with competence and confidence. I think it’s a really excellent book that offers tangible practices on how we can show up differently for those of us who are committed to pursue equity and inclusion.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A tool that I like in my conversations, and this comes from the work of Conversational Intelligence, is understanding that all conversations dance in the space of transactional, positional, or transformational. And once I understood that, I could show up very differently of knowing what the moment and the relationship needed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I know what transactional is. What’s positional and what’s transformational?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, positional. So, if transactional is an exchange of information, telling, selling, yelling; positional is advocating and inquiring; and then transformational is sharing and discovering.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. And a favorite habit?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The one I’m working on building is sleep because it’s the domino that everything else falls from. So, for me, it’s doing things to have really good sleep, and playing the accordion. That’s also one of my favorite habits.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I recently became aware of Crescent Health, does sleep coaching. That exists now. Fun fact.

Sarah Noll Wilson
That’s so interesting. Love that. Can I add that to my list? It’s the linchpin of mental health for me.

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?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Two. “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” And the second one is, “You don’t get to decide if you’re trustworthy. The other person does.” Those are the two that I hear the most.

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

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, they can come to our website SarahNollWilson.com. My name is on the site but the team is behind it. Or, if you want to connect personally, my DMs are always open, so I’m very active on Twitter and LinkedIn, and I’d love, love to hear from folks.

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

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. Notice. See if you can notice and name the emotion or reaction. See if you can do the CPR we were talking about, and take a deep breath and to then make an intentional choice. So, see if you can catch the amygdala flooding, or hijack, sometime this week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sarah, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck with “Don’t Feed the Elephants!” and all your adventures.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thank you.

815: How to Get Along with Anyone at Work with Amy Gallo

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Amy Gallo shares how to constructively deal with difficult people at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The massive costs of bad relationships at work
  2. How to build your immunity to criticism
  3. How to work well with eight key types of difficult people

About Amy

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. She is the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone, and a cohost of HBR’s Women at Work podcast. Her articles have been collected in dozens of books on emotional intelligence, giving and receiving feedback, time management, and leadership. As a sought-after speaker and facilitator, Gallo has helped thousands of leaders deal with conflict more effectively and navigate complicated workplace dynamics. She is a graduate of Yale University and holds a master’s from Brown University.

Resources Mentioned

Amy Gallo Interview Transcript

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

Amy Gallo
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you for being here. I’m excited to chat. And we’re going to learn, at last, how to get along with anyone at work. Impressive.

Amy Gallo
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
But, first, we need to hear a little bit about you and karaoke. What’s the story here?

Amy Gallo
Oh, my gosh. Okay, so I have a terrible voice. Like, I feel like I could be the definition of tone deaf but I love to sing, so karaoke is where I thrive. And it’s funny, my husband knows how much I love karaoke, he knows how my voice sounds, but when we go to karaoke with new people, and I start singing, there’s a moment where, like, their eyes go wide, and they’re like, “Wait, what’s happening?” because I think it’s probably pretty terrible but I make up for it in enthusiasm. Because I think they’re just sort of like, “Wow, she’s really having a great time, and it sounds terrible.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in a way, I think there’s a certain beauty to that. I don’t know what virtue I’d pin it on but it’s something good. It says something good about you, Amy. Zest for life, hunk humility, fun lovingness.

Amy Gallo
Yeah. And I think confidence, too, of just like, “You know what, it sounds terrible but I’m having fun, so have fun with me.” And my favorite karaoke song is Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, which can be sung as a duet, and oftentimes I’ve gotten strangers to sing the duet with me, but these were pre-COVID times. I haven’t done karaoke in a long time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I hope that you get some soon.

Amy Gallo
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds like a hoot. All right. Well, let’s talk about your latest here, Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). That’s a nice promise of a title inside that book. Can you tell us, maybe for starters, just to get the juices flowing, any particularly surprising, counterintuitive, extra fascinating discoveries you’ve made along the way in doing your research and assembling this book here?

Amy Gallo
Yeah. Actually, I’ll share two things. One is something I found out in writing the book and something that I found out since writing the book. So, the first one I would say, I knew that social connections were important at work, and I knew that having fractured relationships or stressful relationships or tense relationships with your co-workers was not good, but the depth of research on the impact of social connections, positive social connections, on us as, both in terms of our wellbeing but also in terms of our performance.

There’s this amazing study that showed from a team of professors at Rutgers that showed that people who identify as friends at work have better performance review ratings. So, the whole idea that this is sort of soft, and, “Oh, it would be nice to have a friend at work,” it’s not. This was actually really about productivity and performance.

And then, on the flipside, the research around how terrible stressful relationships are, or animosity in our relationships, both for our productivity, creativity, but also for our health, there are studies that show that having an incompetent manager, for example, raises the likelihood that you’ll have a heart disease. Or, there are studies that show that people who have animosity in their relationships had wounds that were less slow to heal, or were slower to heal.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Amy Gallo
So, it’s actually having a physical impact on us.


Pete Mockaitis
That makes a lot of sense. I think that when it comes to the stress and the cortisol, or whatever sort of your biochemical mediators of that, it seems like more and more research are showing up that when there’s a chronic stress situation and not good healthy outlets, such as sleep, exercise, friends, social support, bad things happen in the body.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, and I think, for years, we thought the way we interact with co-workers, our relationships with them, were sort of icing on the cake. And I think just tremendous amount of research that shows the impact of those relationships make it clear that it is the cake. This is how we get work done, whether or not we’re successful, whether we achieve our goals, is largely dependent on the quality of our relationships with the people we work with. And I think it’s just so clear on the research.

Now, the second insight I’ve had I wanted to share, which has been since I wrote the book, and this is a little bit of insider baseball on the writing of the book, is each chapter. So, the book is around archetypes of difficult people, and each of those chapters included a section of what if you are this person, what if you are the insecure manager, or the know-it-all, what you should do. And the manuscript was way too long, so, with my editor, we agreed to cut those sections out.

And part of the thinking of doing that was that we didn’t think people would actually have the self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
“Surely, not I, Amy.”

Amy Gallo
Exactly. Like, who would get to that section, and be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s me,” right? But I cannot tell you how many people have LinkedIn-message me, tweeted at me, called me, my friends have texted me, and said, “I’m reading your book, and I’ve seen myself in that archetype, or I’m seeing myself in many of the archetypes.”

Which is so encouraging because that’s one of the themes of the book, is that we’re all the difficult person at times, and it can be hard to recognize that, it can be even harder to admit it, but the more we do that, the easier these interactions and resolving some of the conflicts we have with people we work with will be.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like a thesis right there. Well, I was about going to ask, what’s the big idea behind the book. It sounds like we hit it. Anything else you want to mention in terms of a core thesis?

Amy Gallo
Well, I think the other thing is we often feel subjected to these relationships, especially if the person we’re having difficulty with is a manager or someone we can’t stop working with because they’re a critical member of our team. And I think one of the other core themes is this is in your control, not that you can change that other person.

I don’t have to explain to people that that’s not going to work. You can’t actually set out making your colleague a different person but you can control your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions, your behavior in a way that changes the dynamic so you don’t have to feel stuck in these challenging relationships. You actually can do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a very inspiring and encouraging, so cool stuff. I don’t have to change someone else. I have some areas or things I can control that will make an impact.

Amy Gallo
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s really cool. Could you maybe kick us off with an inspiring story of someone who there was a co-worker, “Wow, they weren’t feeling it,” and then they saw a transformation and some cool results?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, so I actually will share a personal story. It’s a story I open the book with, and it’s not transformational in that, all of a sudden, this person became, like, my best friend. It just got easier, and I’ll explain. So, I had this boss earlier in my career who was just a chronic micromanager, gossiped about people in the office with me, which made me believe she was probably gossiping about me to others.

She would assign work and then, the next day, assign, like, three more projects. And when you said, “Whoa, what about these other things?” she’s like, “Why are you even focused on that?” It was I really never knew where I stood, and it was stressful. It was just incredibly stressful. And I found myself, about three months into the job, thinking about her constantly.

I would be walking the dog thinking about what I was going to say to her in an email response. I’d be at a birthday party I’ve taken my daughter to, finding myself going over conversations we’d had, and I was like, “Okay, I got to quit. This is not worth it.” And instead of quitting, and I’m not sure what made me do this, but instead of quitting, I was like, “Wait, let me see if I can just change the way I feel about her, and let her stop taking up so much room in my psyche.”

And by sort of re-appraising the situation, seeing it instead of being stuck working with this person, see it as an opportunity to keep this job, which I actually really like, and can I learn something from it, can I learn about the kind of manager I want to be, can I learn about how I handle stressful situations. I stayed in that job for 18 months. She did not change. I want to make that clear. It’s not that she behaved differently. I just changed the way I thought about it, and the amount of investment I put into making that relationship better, because I was so…

Part of what was so hard is that I was set on…I really thought if I could just…well, how do I want to say this? Like, I just thought if I could transform this relationship, if I could show her the way that her behavior was impacting others. And I had a friend who said, “I don’t know she cares.” And so then, I thought, “Okay. Well, she doesn’t care, or I don’t know if she cares or not, so I’m not going to focus on priding myself on being able to reform this woman. Instead, I’m going to focus on priding myself on reforming myself.”

And it really became the beginning of this work that led to this book of just observing relationships, looking into the research around, “How do we deal with stressful relationships?” and what works and what doesn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s a lot of good stuff. And you’ve mapped out eight archetypes, and I want to have a little bit of time on each of them. But it sounds like you’ve got a master key right here that would be applicable to all eight of them, so let’s hit that first. How do we control our thoughts, our feelings, and do a re-appraisal? Are there some super powerful questions, or breathing techniques? Or, what are some of all your favorite tools that can take us from, “Aargh, I want to strangle this person” to, “Oh, okay, that’s alright”?

Amy Gallo
Yup, so a couple things. Number one, I think that there’s a mindset shift we have to make, which is that instead of believing that this relationship is indicative of who we are and what we’re capable of, because that was the problem with my boss is that I was struggling with her, and I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m not good at relationships with co-workers. I guess I’m not good at managing up. Maybe I’m not even good at my job because she seems to be questioning how good I am at that.”

So, rather than thinking of this interaction, this one relationship as indicative of who you are, remember that you probably have many, many more relationships with co-workers, people outside work, that are positive, and let those be a reflection. So, I think that’s the one mindset shift you want to make right at the beginning, is right-size this person’s influence on you, that it’s just one relationship, remind yourself of that, and you’ve got many more that are probably very positive.

The second thing I would say is that you really want to observe your reactions. So, make an effort to really pay attention. When you’re in an unpleasant interaction with a co-worker, think about how do you react. So, for me, sometimes I’d blame the other person, “This is all their fault.” Or, I might blame myself, “What have I done wrong?” Or, I try to completely disengage and just shut down, “This isn’t worth my time,” and I’d dismiss it all.

All of those reactions are perfectly valid in that they’re probably not true but they’re perfectly valid in that they’re your thoughts and feelings. And I really learned this from a professor named Sigal Barsade. She was a professor at Wharton, and unfortunately passed away a few years ago. But she talks about emotions being data not noise. So, rather than trying to get rid of those emotions; pay attention to them and what are they telling you about what you care about.

And then another tool I would really say is try to re-appraise, and that’s really what I was describing what I did with my boss, was instead of saying, “This is a vexing situation I’m never going to get out of. Wow, this feels like a threat,” because, many times, these conflicts or difficult interactions with people can feel like a threat, “What’s the opportunity here? What can I learn from this situation?”

And I don’t mean to put on rose-colored glasses and be naïve while someone’s mistreating you over and over, but I do mean to think, “Maybe there’s an opportunity here for me while I work on improving this relationship. Maybe there’s an opportunity for me to learn something.” And learning might be interpersonal resilience, the development of the skill to bounce back from stressful situations when we’re in them, or bounce back more quickly when we have them, but also to feel less stressed when we’re in them.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what comes to mind here is as you’re talking about a set of skills, boy, any professional could benefit from them and I would like more of myself. And I’m thinking about Dr. David Burns who wrote Feeling Good, Feeling Great, and more, so I’m thinking of those books. And he had a phrase about becoming immune to criticism. That sounds like a nice thing to have going for you. And so, I’d like that, and it sounds like a nice positive, optimistic vibe, to say, “Ooh, this is cool. I have an opportunity to learn some resilience and maybe to become immune from criticism.”

Are there any other kind of facets or angles or slants you want to put on the learning growth development opportunity? I find, when I’m feeling cranky, which might happen in such a context, I’m not as jazzed about the idea of learning, it’s like, “Oh, Amy said I can do some learning to be more resilient,” or, “Pete said I can learn to become immune to criticism, so that’s pretty snazzy.” I don’t feel excited about the learning even though I love learning most of the time. So, any pro tips on maybe just getting a jolt to the system to steer into that happier place?

Amy Gallo
Absolutely. And I will tell you, I’m the same way. It took me months to change this relationship, or change my view of this relationship with my boss. It’s not as if you’re in the middle of being yelled at by a tormentor, or you just had credit for your project taken by a political operator, and you’re like, “What can I learn here?” Of course, you’re going to be angry, upset. That’s where those sort of observing those reactions comes in because you’re going to give yourself some space.

The other thing is you do need to make sure you allow yourself to feel those feelings, and maybe even find someone to vent them to, to sort of get that out a little bit. And just remember, the one thing I do try to remember in the moment when I am so mad, that our brains are mini-making machines. So, they’re going to try to make…create a story around what’s happening. And the story typically paints you as the hero and the other person as the villain. It’s usually not an entirely true story, so allow yourself to feel the feelings, observe what your brain is telling you, and then ask yourself.

One of my favorite things to do is to ask myself, “Okay, how do I know that’s true? Is that true? What if I’m wrong?” And just start to challenge yourself. And that’s going to bring down the threat response or what emotional intelligence experts call amygdala hijack, which is where, when you sense a threat, even if it’s just a threat to the harmony you experience with others in the workplace, we go into that stress response. The amygdala takes sort of precedence over the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our rational thinking.

And so, most people know this as the fight or flight. So, of course, when you’re in fight or flight, there’s no opportunity to learn. Your brain is like, “Protect, protect, protect,” or, “Defend, defend, defend,” and so you have to figure out how to sort of bring that down. Challenging the story that you’re telling yourself, sometimes going and having food, or deciding, “I’m not going to think about this today. Like, I’ll give myself 15 minutes to think about how mad I am at my boss, or mad I am at my colleague, then I’m going to stop, and then I’ll say how I feel about it tomorrow.”

And I think that I can remember, thinking about being immune to criticism, I actually don’t know. I don’t know that book and I don’t know the author, but I don’t know if we want to be immune to it. I just think we want to be immune to the sort of shame or embarrassment that comes along with it, because we want to be able to hear criticism and learn from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it. I think immune from the disease, symptoms, if you will, of that, is how I interpret it, as opposed to, “I am oblivious to all feedback always from here on out.” Okay.

Amy Gallo
That’s right. Exactly, “Don’t hear you. Thank you very much.” And I actually had this experience. I remember someone sent me a piece of criticism, actually ten pieces. I remember there’s a list of ten things sent via email.

Pete Mockaitis
“Amy, here’s all the things you’re doing wrong. I’ve done you the favor of consolidating them into a single document.”

Amy Gallo
Well, it’s actually even worse than it sounds because it was after I had done a very visible project. I was actually on video, this live video event, and it came into my inbox, I think, half an hour after the event ended, and it was like, “Great event. Here are ten things you should do differently next time.” And I was so mad, I was red in the face. I can remember, I was shaking, like as if I hadn’t eaten for a day.

I was like just feeling woozy from my emotional response, and I said, “Okay, just close it. I can’t process this in this mode, and so I’m just going to close it.” I went and had lunch. I cried. I’m pretty sure I cried, and then I came back to it, and I was like, “Huh, okay. Like, three of the ten are very valid. Another four probably have some truth to them, and then there’s three I don’t believe. And so, let me, with that frame of mind, actually react to what was said.” And you know what? It made the next one better. It really did.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You’re bringing back memories of the time I…one my early days of speaking, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was like, “I want to be a speaker,” and follow your passion, right? And so, I did an all-school assembly, and it was my first one, and I learned the hard way that that’s a very different audience than the students at a leadership conference. It’s wildly different. And so, I just missed the mark, and the principal sent a note that was brutal. It’s like I heard nothing but negative things.

And so, I chatted over with a good mentor, Mawi, from Episode number 1. Great guy. Mawi Asgedom. And it was so, in that perspective, it’s perfect when he says, “Whenever you get feedback, it’s never completely true and it’s never completely false.

And I found that that’s been a really valuable perspective here on out is whenever you have feedback, some of it, just as you ran down with those ten points, some of it is dead-on, some of it is just bonkers, and some of it is, hmm, we have to dig in and investigate and see some nuance and context for how it applies.

Amy Gallo
Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I’m glad we’re talking about feedback because it is such a core part of interacting with people that we find difficult, which is that, oftentimes, they’re either giving us feedback, either verbally or in an email, like the two that we received, or it’s implicit, they’re not agreeing with the way we’re doing something, or we don’t agree with the way that they’re doing something. So, feedback is such a critical part of both how we deliver it and how we receive it, of navigating these tricky relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s great. Well, now, let’s dig into the eight archetypes. I bet, boy, we could talk forever, like, “Oh, I know someone like this.” But could you maybe give us the name of the archetype, a quick maybe sentence or two for “This is what that looks, sounds, feels like,” and then a quick sentence or two, “And if you’re seeing this, here’s what I recommend you do”?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, okay. So, let’s start with insecure manager, first one, insecure boss. This is someone, and my boss, actually, that I described earlier probably fit into this category, who isn’t entirely confident in their position, and, therefore, will micromanage, will maybe make it impossible for you to do your job by withholding information, or not letting you interact with people in another department, for example, someone who basically is defending their ego through their actions and behaviors.

So, one of the things to remember about the insecure manager is we all have some level of insecurity, it’s a normal thing. If you don’t, you’re in that nice tiny little group of people called psychopaths. So, we all have some self-doubt. What the research shows around insecure managers is that one of the things that works, and I don’t love giving this advice because it’s not fun to do, but is that you really have to help calm their ego.

And that may include giving them some genuine compliments, pointing out things that they do well, I imagine there’s something, because that helps to calm the ego and you help can form an alliance with them in terms of, “How do we actually do this work? How do we move forward? How do you get what you want?”

Okay, so then there’s the pessimist. I think that’s pretty clear that someone who’s just overly negative, shoots down ideas left and right. One of the things that you need to remember with the pessimist is, again, this is not necessarily malicious behavior. It often feels like they’re trying to take you down, and that’s possible. But, more often than not, it’s sort of a disposition, sort of how we view the world. There are people who just are what researchers call prevention-focused. They’re focused on preventing bad things from happening.

And one tip with them is to really make sure that they have a sense of agency, because pessimism isn’t necessarily bad if they’re pointing out important risks that we need to see. But what’s bad is if they feel like they can’t do anything about it. So, you might ask a question when they say, “Well, that will never work,” say, “Okay. Well, what would work?” or, “Okay, I hear you,” and you don’t want to polarize with a pessimist because they think optimists are idiots.

And so, if you’re like, “No, everything is good,” they’re like, “Oh,” they’re just rolling their eyes at you. So, you want to validate that their perspective is…you hear their perspective, and then ask them, “Okay. Well, what can we do to change that? Or, if you had all the resources in the world, what would you do?” Just sort of give them a sense of, “You have power in this situation.”

The victim is the third archetype, and that’s sort of a flavor of the pessimist. This is someone who also thinks things are going to go terribly wrong but they think they’re going to go wrong to them. They’re very focused on how they’re being mistreated. You have to watch out because sometimes people are, indeed, being mistreated, and are, indeed, a victim in the workplace. So, be careful in using this label, and any of these labels when you’re thinking about your colleague because you want to make sure you’re not blaming someone for a mistreatment that they’re on the receiving end of.

One of the main tactics with victim is similar to the pessimist which is to ask them to reframe. So, when they say, “I never get what I want.” Ask, “Well, what’s a time that you have gotten something you wanted?” because the chances are they may see these things as sweeping generalizations, the behavior or the treatment they feel like they’re receiving, but chances are, there’s a time in which they had the agency, had the ability to change something. You want to remind them that they have that in them, and that can really help.

Then there’s one of my favorites, the passive-aggressive peer, and this is someone who says one thing, does another. They don’t feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings in a straightforward manner. This is the question I get asked all the time, “How do you deal with these people?” One of the things you can do is to really focus on the underlying message.

So, they may wrap their comment in a snarky message but they actually have an underlying thought or feeling. And if you can figure out what that is, either by asking some questions, or just by paying attention and focus on that, then you can sort of give them…you’re actually giving them permission to be a little bit more straightforward.

Passive-aggression is often motivated by fear of rejection, failure, an avoidance of conflict. So, if you can make it safe for them to actually say what they believe, then, hopefully, you can nudge them to be a little bit more direct, or, at least, you’re addressing the underlying business issue with them. Even if they’re going to continue to be passive-aggressive, you’ve gotten to the underlying message.

So the know-it-all is the one I identify most with because it’s the one I think I am more often than the others. Someone who confidently says what they believe sometimes without any data to back it up. And this also the mansplainer, the person who talks over you, maybe interrupts. And the know-it-all, I think one of the things that really works is asking for those facts and data.

So, if they’re saying, “This product will never succeed,” or, “Our customers don’t want that from us,” is just say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I don’t have the same understanding. What are you basing that on? What assumptions have you made? Here’s the data I’m working with. Can you share the data you’re working with?”

And what I like about that tactic is it can be confrontational. A lot of the tactics in the book are both subtle, and then there are some that are very subtle and some that are very direct. And this is one of the more direct ones because I think it also puts the know-it-all on notice, like, “We’re not just going to let you do this. We’re not just going to let you proclaim…” and while also engaging them in a conversation about the topic that they’re being a know-it-all about.

And then, sometimes, I think, also, you need a group of allies to help you combat that behavior, especially if it’s interrupting or if they’re targeting specific people. We often hear about, there’s lots of studies, actually, that show that men interrupt women more often than they interrupt other men, for example.

So, then forming a coalition with folks and who you work with to say, “Well, we’re going to call out that behavior when we see it.” And someone might say, “Amy didn’t finish her point. Can you please let her continue, and then we’d love to hear from you?” Something like that so that it’s not just on you to completely combat the know-it-all behavior.

Then you have the biased co-worker, and this is someone who commits microaggressions toward you, exhibits bias in their comments or behaviors. This is an incredibly difficult one to combat, although there’s lots and lots of books and articles and research about how best to handle this. And I will say that the one thing that I think works well with biased is assuming the person has done it unknowingly, which we know a lot of these microaggressions often people aren’t trying to exclude someone.

They aren’t trying to offend someone even if maybe they don’t care, or it may be that they just aren’t aware that what they’ve said is inappropriate or has the impact of being exclusive, or excluding rather, to the person who was on the receiving end, is to ask a question. When someone makes an inappropriate comment, to say, “What did you mean by that?” or even, “Oh, could you repeat that?” because sometimes even making them say it again helps them reflect on, “Oh, wait. How is this actually being heard?”

That’s not 100% successful tactic. And, in fact, none of the tactics, I would say, will be 100% successful all the time. But, oftentimes, that does encourage them to reflect on their own behavior and how it’s being received by others. And now we’ve got the tormentor, and that’s someone who you expect to be a mentor but then ends up trying to make your life miserable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, clever. Tormentor.

Amy Gallo
Exactly. And I have to tell you, I didn’t know what to call this archetype for a while, even though I had heard tons of stories about this type of behavior. And I went to LinkedIn and asked someone in my network, Mike Gut, and I have to give him credit, he said, “That should be called the tormentor,” and it was perfect.

And that’s someone maybe who assigns you needless work, talks about all the sacrifices they’ve made, clearly think you should make the same kind of sacrifices. And research shows that we actually tend to have, this was very surprising research that we’ve published in Harvard Business Review, that when we see someone going through something difficult that we’ve been through ourselves, where we’re maybe working full time while raising kids or going through a divorce, we have less empathy for them.

And that’s because we either have a little bit of, well, I should say the researchers posit that it’s probably because we have a little bit amnesia about the situation, which is, “Oh, that’s in the past.” And, relatedly, we think, “Well, I got through it. What’s wrong with them? They can do it. Like, I knuckled my way through it. Why can’t they do that too?” And that really informs the tormentor’s behavior.

And, again, this is one that, oftentimes, and a lot of the people I talk to for the book who were working with a tormentor, chose to quit. And I don’t give that advice to leave your job lightly, but I think the tormentor can have a real impact on your psyche. If you’re interested in having a better relationship with them, and maybe you can’t leave your job, then you might think about how you can form an alliance with them.

Give them some sympathy for the sacrifices they went through. Giving someone empathy when they’re tormenting you is the last thing you want to do, but instead of seeing it as generous to them, see it as generous to yourself, which is that, “I’m trying…” this is a strategic move to try to transform the relationship.

The other thing is there’s really great research showing with abusive supervisors, which is what I put the tormentor, that’s the category I had put them in, is that if you can show that they need you, either you have a specific type of knowledge, or you play a critical role on the team. If you can make them aware that they will be dependent on you for something, you can switch the power dynamic a little bit, and that can really help to change the dynamic between you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Amy Gallo
And then, lastly, we’ve got the political operator, and that is someone who…we all play office politics, but this is someone who plays that game really only to benefit themselves, and often at the detriment of others. So, they might take credit for your ideas, they, again, might be someone who interrupts. They’re constantly trying to sort of boost their visibility, their ego, often at the expense of others.

And one of my favorite tactics with these folks is to ask them for advice. It’s a bit of a strange tactic and sometimes can backfire, but to say to them, “You know, you’re really good at being visible or promoting yourself,” or you might even say playing office politics, “What could you teach me about doing that?” And what’s helpful about that tactic is it gets them to reflect on the way they do it, and no one, as far as I know, and when I’ve seen this tactic used, this has never happened. But as far as I know, no one is going to be like, “Oh, well, you have to step on others every moment.” They don’t give you the bad version.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’ve read this great book by Machiavelli, it’s called The Prince, it’s my operating manual. I think you’d love it.”

Amy Gallo
That’s right. They’d say, “Here’s a copy for you to follow as well.” Yeah, no, they don’t do that. Instead, they reflect on, “Hmm, okay. What do I do that’s positive?” And, again, it’s sort of a subtle way to show, “I’m paying attention to the way you’re behaving. You’re about to tell me the good way to do this. Let’s hope you continue to do that.”

The other thing about asking anyone advice, what several studies have shown, is that when you ask someone for advice and they give it to you, they’re much more invested in your success partly because of their own ego because they’re like, “I want to see my advice actually work.” And so, with any of the archetypes, any type of difficult person, sometimes asking for their advice gets them to be a little bit more invested in you and takes down the animosity a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, Amy, this is a lovely rundown. Well, not so lovely to live it but very useful rundown.

Amy Gallo
A menu of monsters at work. Here you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell me, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Amy Gallo
Sure. So, the one other thing I want to mention, there is a chapter in the book that’s principles to get along with anyone. Meaning, if someone fits into all the archetypes, I hope that’s not the case, or maybe defies categorization altogether. And one of the principles is one that I return to over and over myself, and I’ve seen really worked with my coaching clients and with the people I consult with, which is to treat any of this, the tactics I’ve just shared, for example, or any of the other tactics in the book, treat it as an experiment.

You’re not going to have ten steps to reforming a passive-aggressive peer. It’s never that simple and distrust anyone who tells you they’ve got the failsafe solution. Instead, choose the tactics you want to try out, try them out for a short period of time, two weeks, three weeks, take notes, see what works. Okay, tweak and try again.

You have to have that sort of scientist mindset both to sort of keep your spirits up while you’re doing this because it’s hard work but also just to figure out what will work for you and your unique situation because it’s always this is a big “It depends” kind of advice area. The advice that’s going to work for one person dealing with a know-it-all is not going to work with someone else dealing with a know-it-all.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Gallo
So, F. Scott Fitzgerald, this is a quote I’ve always found really interesting, and he says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still keep the ability to function.” And I think what I really like about that is that it is hard to hold conflicting thoughts in your head, especially when you’re navigating difficult relationships because, at the same time, you’re like, “I want to be done with this person. I have no interest.” You might even think, “I hate them.”

And, at the same time, you need to remember, “Well, okay, wait. In order to do well at my job, or in order to survive this week, I need to get along with them.” And so, you’re going to need to hold conflicting thoughts in your head in order to actually survive and thrive in these relationships.

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

Amy Gallo
So, one of my favorite researchers is Julia Minson, who’s at Harvard Kennedy School, and she actually does a lot of work around conflict and difficult conversations with another professor at Harvard Business School named Francesca Gino. And they found, this is actually one of my favorites, they found that more than three quarters of people who were about to go into a debate with someone about a controversial issue, so just in a conversation, not a formal debate, but were going to have a conversation with someone about some contentious concept or idea.

Three quarters of those people predicted that they would win the conversation, which, of course, is mathematically impossible, which just shows you sort of the arrogance and confidence we go into these conversations where we really believe that our view will prevail. And I think it’s important to remember that’s really not the case. You’re going to…

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, inand my brain goes to…I’m perhaps a collaborator, to a fault, “Now, let’s think win-win if we’re going to have a creative solution in which we can, as best as possible, meet as many of our respective needs as one can do by enlarging the pie and whatever.”

So, in a way, I don’t even think about so much as winning and losing. It’s like, “We’re going to go in there and we’re going to do our darndest, and I’m hoping I walk away with this really important deal point, or whatever, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Amy Gallo
Yeah, that is the right mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, absolutely. Well done. Great. Because if you see it as win-lose, like if you go in with the goal of proving that you’re right and the other person is wrong, you have nowhere to go in that debate. Because if the other person shows up the same way, like, what are you going to learn? Where are you going to get to? It’s a simple concept sort of but you don’t want to treat these relationships or these conversations as win-lose. And it’s doesn’t have to necessarily be win-win, but I’d rather go in with, like, “Well, what can I learn?” Curiosity, “What’s going to happen at the end of this?”

Julia and Francesca also did this other study about conversational receptiveness, which I think you actually probably would rate very high on, and it’s the use of language to communicate one’s willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views. They studied this quite a bit. And one of the things I really like is that they actually have found in their research that women tend to naturally exhibit conversational receptiveness.

And the reason I like it is because, I’m a co-host of the podcast Women at Work, I look a lot at gender research, and most of it is very depressing and very negative on the experience of what the penalties we incur at work, the behavior we’re allowed to exhibit, but I love that this research shows that we’re just naturally better at this. And their conclusion is if you want to improve the way people at work interact, you don’t put women in charge of some of these difficult conversations. And if you want to train people to be better at conversational receptiveness, focus on men.

So, anyway, that’s one of my other favorite findings.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Amy Gallo
I’m a big fiction reader, and I have lots of favorite books over the year. But one of the ones I read recently was a collection of short stories by a woman named Danielle Evans, and it’s called The Office of Historical Corrections. And what I like about it, as someone who thinks about conflict and relationships all the time, is that every story, ultimately, and most stories have a point of conflict, but these really are about conflict over interpersonal issues but also how political issues play into those personal issues.

And I really read it with that lens of, “How do relationships fall apart?” and then “How do they come back together?” or, “How do they not come together because people can’t actually repair them?”

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

Amy Gallo
My Notes app on my phone. I used to have, like, a photographic memory when I was a kid.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Amy Gallo
Yeah, my Spanish teacher in high school, when we did vocab test for extra credit, I would write the page number that the vocab word was on because that’s how I remember that, and I would picture the page. My memory now is so terrible. I think it’s age, stress, there’s just too much that’s happened in my brain for it to recall those sorts of details.

So, my Notes app has become my memory. And it’s funny, I actually like it because it helps me capture ideas. I actually, sometimes, write the beginning of articles in there because I have a phone with me all the time, but it’s also just funny to look through. Like, I have over, I think, 1500 notes at this point. And sometimes it’s just like a random word, I’m like, “I don’t know what this means.” And so, it’s also entertaining to just go through and look at. So, it’s productive and entertaining.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share, something that really connects and resonates with folks, and they quote back to you often?

Amy Gallo
Yeah, I did a TEDx Talk, and at the end I shared this mantra about conflict. And it’s the thing when someone will say, “Oh, I saw your TED Talk,” and they’ll repeat it back to me, and it’s, “Sometimes people are going to be mad at you, and that’s okay.” And just sort of accepting that rupture in relationship is not only normal but sometimes it’s helpful. It helps you either repair that relationship and make it stronger, or you can learn something about yourself in that in those disagreements.

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

Amy Gallo
They should go to my website which is AmyEGallo.com. I actually have a monthly newsletter I send out with advice about relationships at work, conflict, communication. You can sign up for my newsletter there. And also, you can find my book Getting Along and my previous book as well, which is the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict.

And if people are interested in gender, women at work, I also co-host that podcast I mentioned, Women at Work, which is put out by Harvard Business Review which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Amy Gallo
Yes. Remember that your relationships matter, and don’t shortchange them. And I mean that not just about repairing the relationships that are causing you grief, strife, but also be appreciative of the relationships that fill your cup. I think sometimes we take those relationships more for granted. Thank your friends at work. Send them a thank you note. Send them an email or a fax message, just saying that, “You know what, I’m so glad for our connection.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Amy, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and much getting along with different folks at work.

Amy Gallo
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.

812: Bill George on How Emerging Leaders Can Succeed Today

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Former Medtronic CEO and current professor, Bill George shares foundational principles for excelling as a leader in today’s world of work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What a “true north” is and why it’s so critical
  2. The top three distractions leaders must overcome
  3. Powerful questions to clarify your purpose

 

About Bill

Bill George is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic.  He joined Medtronic in 1989 as president and chief operating officer, was chief executive officer from 1991-2001, and board chair from 1996-2002. He is currently a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, where he has taught leadership since 2004. 

Bill is the author of: Discover Your True North and The Discover Your True North Field book, Authentic Leadership, 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis True North, Finding Your True North, and True North Groups. He served on the boards of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Novartis, Target, and Mayo Clinic.  

He received his BSIE with high honors from Georgia Tech, his MBA with high distinction from Harvard University, where he was a Baker Scholar, and honorary PhDs from Georgia Tech, Mayo Medical School, University of St. Thomas, Augsburg College and Bryant University.  

Resources Mentioned

Bill George Interview Transcript

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

Bill George
Thank you, Pete. Glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to be chatting with you. And I’m fascinated, you’re a bit of an interviewer yourself. You’ve chatted with 220 of some of the finest leaders of organizations. I’m curious, what’s been the most surprising and impactful theme that’s emerged for you from those interviews?

Bill George
Well, first of all, let me say I did the interviews, Pete, for my book True North and I’ve got the Emerging Leader Edition out now. I truly aimed it at your generation of leaders from Gen Xers to Millennials, to Gen Z because I think it’s a different time to lead today. I think the good news is that people believe that being authentic is the way to lead. That’s a huge change from when I was CEO at Medtronic when it was all about charisma and style, leadership style, and all those things because, now, it’s much more real.

And so, I’m really excited to hear that. And that’s in all the leaders, I interviewed 50 leaders for my new book, and that’s what they’re all saying. So, I’m thrilled to hear that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Authentic, that sounds like a good thing. Tell us, what precisely do we mean by authentic, authenticity, authentically if we use these words a lot?

Bill George
Sure. It means being genuine, being real, being who you are. And I think, for a long time, when I was growing up, you had to be something different. You were expected to emulate Jack Welch or be a different person than you are, and I think that’s a big change. And I think we realized, part of it comes with being, well, just to be vulnerable to admit your mistakes, being human. We all are and we all face similar challenges of trying to lead an integrated life and have a good career and a good family life, like you have. This is very critical.

And so, I think people today don’t want to work for a phony, they don’t want to work for a jerk, and they want to work for somebody who’s authentic and is real. And that’s what they’re saying, and I think one of the reasons a lot of people are quitting their jobs is because they’re working for the wrong boss or somebody they don’t admire or don’t respect.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then can you tell us, what’s sort of the big idea or main thesis behind True North?

Bill George
True North is before you can lead other people, you have to learn to lead yourself. And I think, today, the new book is really saying, “We have a different challenge we have today than we did 30 years ago, and we need new generation leaders to step up. We need to open the door and let younger leaders take charge,” because we’re leading through a series of intersecting crises, and today you have to be an inclusive leader, you have to have a clear set of values, you have to have a purpose for your leadership. That wasn’t true in the past.

And so, I think a lot of the Baby Boomers don’t get that and they don’t really know how to lead people. And so, that’s why I wrote the book to encourage younger leaders, like yourself, to take charge, and I think it is about time, and the challenge is there. I have no question about that, people are ready. But this leading in crisis is a tough thing because, look, we have multiple intersecting crises right now, and your generation, frankly, has been through one crisis after another, and you know how to cope with that, so.

Pete Mockaitis
And I have a feeling we could spend a whole interview talking about these intersecting crises, but I can’t just let that lie. What are these multiple intersecting crises that provide the backdrop context for us?

Bill George
Well, I think COVID is the first crisis we had that affected everybody, maybe World War II, but that’s before our time, but it affected everyone. And I think it’s had…there’s a huge post-COVID psychological effect. People don’t want to go into the office, they want to work from home, they want to work for a sense of purpose, they want to work for an organization that’s inclusive. There is a big change taking place.

But, in addition to that, we’ve got the fallout from Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We haven’t seen a war in 77 years like this, and where an aggressive attack like that took place. And there’s, of course, that’s driving inflation rates up to a record high, 9%. We haven’t seen that in 40 years. And we’ve had the so-called Great Resignation, but we’ve got 11 million jobs open right now and only 5 million unemployed, so this is a huge change.

And so, leaders, having to cope with these changes and figure out, “How do we get people to come together?” And the new attitude today, employees have agency, that’s what I write about in my book, that we’re going through an employee revolution. Starbucks is an example. Here’s the quintessential employee-focused company. Now, they got 160 or 200 stores, they’re applying for unionization. Why? I think they’ve lost touch with their own employees.

And so, I think we’re facing enormous changes and we need people to understand these changes and know how to lead through them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when we say true north, what precisely do you mean by that?

Bill George
True north is who you are. It’s your most deeply held beliefs, the values you live by, the principle you lead by. And I think most people understand what that is. They get pulled off course of their true north. It’s also where you find satisfaction and joy in your life. And don’t we all want that? Don’t we all want to say we work for a clarity of purpose, and, “I can be who I am, live my values. And, at the same time, I can find real joy and satisfaction in my work”?

We spend a lot of time at work, we should find it. And I think a lot of organizations just see work as drudgery, just drive people harder. It’s not going to work. And so, that’s your true north. And then, once you know your true north, then the key is, “Can you find an organization where you feel aligned, that their mission and values align with your own?”

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us some sample articulations of a true north? In some ways, it sounds like it’s felt and known and experienced, and I imagine it also can be articulated and communicated. And, yet, there is a distinction, it feels like, between, “Oh, this is our mission statement. It’s a bit different.” Could you unpack that for us?

Bill George
Yeah, I think your true north is basically your moral compass. And if you think about that, and we see something like Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, a brilliant guy, but he has no moral compass, so he can’t decide who to let on his site and who not to have on, or what damage they’re doing to offset the good. So, I think true north is your moral compass.

Now, I think when you understand, “Why are we leading? Why are you spending all this time being a leader?” Really, you need to have a clarity of purpose, and that’s what we call your north star. That’s your constant point in the sky. My north star is to help people reach their full potential, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I was in college, across every organization I’ve worked for, and teaching now at Harvard Business School. So, I think if you have that sense of your true north.

Now, here’s the problem with that, Pete, is that people get pulled off course. They get seduced by money, fame, and power. And these are the three great seducers. And so, I think it’s important to stay grounded in who you are and not let to get entrapped by that. We’ve seen a lot of people that happens to them, it’s a real tragedy. But I think, again, why would you go through your life without a sense of purpose? And so, that’s your north star, and having that understanding, what it’s all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, Bill, I’m just curious. Have you chatted with Mark Zuckerberg and discussed his lack of moral compass? And how did that conversation go?

Bill George
No, I have not chatted with him. I’ve read tons of things about him, everything he said, and I don’t think he’d want to chat with me because he’s only interested in driving more people to Facebook, and, frankly, what’s happening, they’re being driven away right now. The young people are all moving away. Some people or older people who are still on Facebook, they don’t use it anymore. 

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, just because…I want to stick with this for a second, because, well, one it’s a bold statement, “Mark Zuckerberg has no moral compass.” And, two, it’s something I think we can relate to, it’s like, “Oh, people know what Facebook is and who Mark Zuckerberg is.” So, what would be some examples of, if Mark Zuckerberg did have a moral compass, what might that potential articulation of a north star look, sound, feel like? And then what might be some decisions that would naturally follow from that?

Bill George
Well, he wouldn’t have founded a site that sells your private information, that’s where it starts. If, say, you’re consulting a therapist, you may not want that sold or you may not want requests from a lot of therapists. There are certain elements of privacy, and I think a lot of people, when they sign up, don’t realize that that information is going to be sold and you’re going to be profiled down to your eyebrow. And so, that’s one thing that’d be different.

And you wouldn’t let a lot of people on the site, you know, I know people who have committed suicide because of they’re so abused on the site. And so, you would keep those people off, you would say, “No, you can’t come on here. We’re not going to have hate speech. We’re not going to do all those things. We want to have a friend site.”

And so, I think he’s kind of lost sight of all that. Now, he’s going to go to more of like a TikTok, short videos, celebrity videos, stuff like that. But I don’t want to just pick on him. There are a lot of other people that have tried to lead without a clear sense of true north. Some of them, like Elizabeth Holmes is going to jail. Mark Zuckerberg is not doing anything illegal. I just think that he’s going to lose it, and he’s got a long way to go. And I think he’s a young guy, he could do a lot of good for the world, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you mentioned your true north is to help others realize their full potential. Could we hear some other examples of people’s true norths that really do inspire, they guide their decisions, they provide a sense of satisfaction and joy in life when they’re in alignment?

Bill George
Yeah, a lot of people, and, of course, in Medtronic, we’ve got a lot of people in healthcare and a lot of doctors devote their whole life to try to heal people. Nurses, too. Anyone involved in healthcare is committed to that. I know people in our community, like Tim Welsh, I’m meeting with later today, who’s vice chairman of the largest bank in this area, a US Banc, and he’s got 26,000 employees.

He’s totally committed to help you have a more secure financial future. If you need a mortgage, he’s going to help you find a way to do that responsively, not like we did 10, 12 years ago when everything collapsed. And he really wants to help people, and he’s been calling them up during COVID and scheduling, and saying, “How can we help?” because a lot of people are hurting. They get payday loans and things like that, and a lot of the poor people being taken advantage of. So, he’s totally committed to that.

Now, I just mentioned payday loans. A friend of mine, John O’Brien, that’s in the book is a former homeless man. His whole commitment is financial literacy for the poor so they won’t be taken advantage of in their own communities. Those are a few examples. But Mary Barra is really committed to changing General Motors, from fossil-fueled cars to electric cars. And she’s shut down all development of anything that’s not electric car. And by 2035, they’ll be out of fossil fuel cars altogether.

So, she’s a woman, in 41 years, one of my former students, and just very passionately committed. And her role is to try to help contribute to climate change by converting the automobile industry into electric cars.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, it’s interesting. As I reflect upon the north star, the examples that you share, some of them feel very broad and applicable in all spheres or domains of your life, like, “Helping others realize their full potential.” You can do that with a spouse, children, etc. as opposed to financial literacy for the poor or no-fossil-fuel cars in this organization. It seems like sometimes they can have a more broad or narrow flavor. Is that accurate and fine?

Bill George
Absolutely, yeah. And I don’t think just saying, “Hey, I want to change the world,” is really…

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, too broad.

Bill George
…living by a north star, and that’s too broad for me. But I think you want to understand, like, “What do I do?” I mentor people, students at Harvard Business School, all the way from MBAs up to CEOs, and I’ve been doing this since I was in college, not just CEOs, but that’s what I do. I’ve been doing it. I’m not some kind of genius in medicine. At Medtronic, we have a lot of other people who invented things, and my whole idea was to build an organization where people are performing at their peak.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so I want to try one on with you, since I got the almighty master of true north here, Bill George.

Bill George
No, not almighty. Just another guy trying to stumble through the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ll say a leading expert in this concept, then. So, I think that truly resonated for me. It started in my career but I really am seeing it with my children as well, and it really does provide me with joy and satisfaction, even a rush, a thrill. And my articulation goes to discover, develop, and disseminate knowledge that transforms the experience of being alive. And that’s a little bit wordier than help others realize their full potential, but that’s really what I mean pretty specifically.

Like, I get fired up when I hear about a thing, it’s like, “Whoa, I never knew that, and that’s awesome.” That gets me going, and I’m excited to share that with other people. And sometimes I’m discovering it and curating it from others, and sometimes I’m kind of figuring it out, cracking the code, and developing it myself, but that gets me going. Would that count as a true north or would that be an adjacent or subsidiary concept?

Bill George
Oh, absolutely, it is. It sounds like you’ve made, what I call in the book, the-I-the-we journey. So, it’s not just about Pete being the biggest man around, the most important person. It’s about you really are trying to share this with other people, and get them fired up and excited. And I love your energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Oh, thank you.

Bill George
You not only have a passionate to your work and go quit and sit out on the beach. And I hear about people quiet-quitting. What is a quiet quitting? Look, if I hate my job, quit. Go do what you love. How would you like to spend your 40 years or 30 years of your life doing something you hated? Why? You only live once.

But, no, I love your passion for it. And, yeah, you’re helping other people. Hopefully, with this podcast, you’re helping them realize what they want to do in life and what kind of roles they want to have. Like, the reality is, Pete, we spend more time at work than anything else. And shouldn’t you be able to claim some joy and satisfaction with it? And, at the same time, shouldn’t you be able to have a complete wonderful family life?

You said you have three kids; I spent a lot of time with my kids. I don’t want to work for a job I don’t have time to see my own kids. That’s really important, and have a good marriage and a good life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so this true north business sounds awesome. Can you tell us, if folks are struggling with that a bit, like, “Oh, that sounds really nice for Pete and Bill. They’ve got a handle on that. I have no idea what mine might be or how I’d articulate it,” any strategies or approaches for zeroing in on it?

Bill George
Yeah. When I say you’ve got to be who you are, go back to your life story and think about who are the people in your life, your parents, school teachers, coaches, scout master, whatever? Who had the greatest influence on you? And how did they influence you? Who did you look to them? What did you learn from them?

And then think about some you don’t want to think about or I call the greatest crucible in your life, the greatest challenge you ever faced where you kind of felt like everything was stripped away, all the pretense, and everything else. You really have to figure out who and what you are and what you wanted out of life. That happened to me. I lost seven elections in a row in high school and college because I was too eager to be a leader. I was a kid that was trying so hard to get ahead but I didn’t realize leadership is all about relationships.

It’s funny, some seniors at Georgia Tech told me, they said, “Bill, you’re moving so fast to get ahead, no one will ever want to work with you, much less be led by you.” And they were right, it was all about me. That’s why I said you made that the-I-the-we journey, but I hadn’t made that yet. It was all about, “Have you seen my resume, man? Look at this. Here’s my GPA and here’s all the organizations I’m a part of.” I didn’t get it, so I had to make that transition back then.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so we talked about crucible, the hardest times. Well, you mentioned the pandemic mental health situation, and that I think many people might point to that, and say, “Well, yeah, that’s probably the toughest thing I’ve been through in terms of a crucible.” And so, how do we interrogate, investigate, explore that life experience, like, “Yep, I lived through the pandemic. I was sad, lonely, deeply depressed, and it sucked”? How do we turn that into some insight?

Bill George
Well, you have to reframe it. You’d start with that, “Yeah, it sucked. Who wants to be sad, lonely, and depressed?” Come on. So, now, “What my life gives me joy and where do I want to spend my time? And how do I want to do that? And who are the people around me that care about me and I care about them?” Call it your support team, “Who are the people around me I want to be with?” Why would you spend your life not just be lonely and depressed or with toxic leaders?

I worked for organizations with toxic leaders that wanted to manipulate me, and I felt like I had to put on the armor to go to work every day. That sucks, as you say. That’s not how I want to live my life so I had to make a change, that’s when I went to Medtronic. But I would say to people, figure out what it is and then go do it. It’s your life. You only got one life to lead, and that’s what I’m talking about in the book, is trying to say, “How do you do that?”

We talked about having an integrated life. I remember there was a time in my life, Pete, when I was traveling 70% of the time, and I was under stress all the time, I would, myself, and I was under a lot of pressure. And, finally, I looked myself in the mirror, and say, “Hey, this is not worth it. This is not what I want to do. And I’m not working for the man to make money. There’s got to be more to life than this.”

And then it was hurting my family, my marriage, my kids. When I made the change at Medtronic, it all turned around because I felt like I was working for a purpose, to restore people to full life and health, and can motivate an organization, help develop leaders in the organization. So, everything turned around then. And so, I encourage people listening to this, figure out, what do you want out of life? And you don’t have to follow what somebody else wants for you. You’ve got to be your own person.

Pete Mockaitis
And I believe that you had a practice at Medtronic that we had a guest speak about, and it’s amazing, associated with that, I believe, tell me about this. Is it true that you had an annual company event where, for an hour, you took to stage multiple families that were people staying alive because of a Medtronic device? Is this something that you did?

Bill George
Absolutely. It’s more like two hours.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Bill George
And probably, so in the December, you speak all the Christmas party, I changed it into the holiday party. It wasn’t really a party, but that was the most meaningful day of the year. Everyone said, “This is kind of, I figure out, why I’m doing what I’m doing.” You even find them in the accounting department or in the IT department, “Now I understand why I’m here.”

This woman gets up and says, “See my little girl? She wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Medtronic.” Or, a guy gets up and said, “I’ve got your product, and I’ve got a new life.” Or, there was a young man that really influenced me, a young man named TJ Flack from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had cerebral palsy from birth, and it’s not curable, but he got a Medtronic drug pump and it’s changed his life. And he patted his belly, his stomach, and he said, “This is my friendly ally. It saved my life.” Totally, I remember calling him back when I was retiring 12 years later.

And he came in and he said, yeah, he had a good job now. He’s not going to be a superstar but he has a family, a marriage, kids. He’s got a life and before he had no life. And so, that makes you feel it only takes one person, if you feel like you helped one person’s life. so, yeah, there are a lot of tears when people talk about these things but pretty exciting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Bill, yeah, absolutely. I’m sort of tearing up a little bit right now, and I wasn’t even at these meetings. But a podcast guest, Don Yaeger, Episode 371, four years ago told me about this, and I was like, “Wow.” So, just hearing the story about it happening is something that is enough to stick with me. And, here you are, Bill George, the man behind it.

Bill George
By the way, Don Yaeger is an awesome guy. He is an incredible motivator and he inspires me. And that guy, one of my students, get in my class, get in my courses, and he’s gone out and carrying it out, and he’s doing it now, but, yeah, he’s fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think another thing I love about that is you realized you had to make some changes, and that didn’t mean, “Ah, I’ve got to quit my job. Got to leave Medtronic,” but rather it was an internal shift, which then flowed into practices that reshaped your context to be more awesome for everybody.

Bill George
You’re a very smart guy. That’s exactly what he did. He had to reshape the context. If I went to production with Medtronic, I’d said, “Pete, how are we going to make 3.91 a share? Can you help me?”

Pete Mockaitis
I’m inspired.

Bill George
They know how to do that. Yup, they know how to make a quality product. I remember a woman told me, she said, “Mr. George, I make a thousand heart valves a year, and I can tell you that if for you, 99.9% quality is fantastic. If I have one defective valve, someone is going to die and I can never live with the fact that I caused someone’s death.” And she’s a woman who didn’t have any direct reports. She went in training classes on quality of how to make a heart valve. So inspiring.

She’s simply, “You know, when I get home at night, you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about those 7,000 people who are alive in the world today because of the heart valves I make. That’s what gives me pride.” Now, this woman is never going to be rich but she’s rich in her inner heart, and she’s got a great one, I bet, but she’s not going to be rich.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so, Bill, this is a lot of inspiring stuff. And if listeners are saying, “Yes, I want to be that kind of person who makes positive impact in these ways,” what’s the day-to-day, step-by-step practices, processes, conversation stuff we do to get there?

Bill George
It’s hard work. I mentioned processing your life story, processing your crucible. A lot of people don’t want to do that. Studying. We talked about Mark Zuckerberg. How do people go off course on getting seduced by money, fame, and power? I’ve seen very, very successful people do that, and they kind of lost it. They didn’t live in Hendersonville, they went to New York, okay, and they want to be a billionaire. I’ve seen people literally do that and lose their way and wind up in jail.

But I think, then, you have to think about, “How do I become self-aware?” Self-awareness is the key to anyone who wants to lead. You have to be self-aware about yourself, because the hardest person you literally have to lead is yourself. So, then I think you need to practice. I happen to be a meditator but you need some form of introspective practice where you put all the electronics away, take 20 minutes, and really reflect on, “How did I show up today as a leader? What kind of person was I? And did I find fulfillment? Did I find joy in what I was doing? What kind of day was it?” and do that every day.

And the next thing I would recommend is surround yourself with some truthtellers. They’ll tell you what you don’t want to hear. They’ll hold a mirror up to you, and say, “Bill, look how you showed up today. You were kind of too aggressive and pressing people. Relax a little.” And you need those truthtellers in your life. So, I believe in 360-feedback, I believe in having people around me that tell me when I’m getting off track, and they help pull you back. Boy, you get off track your true north, it’ll help pull you back, “Why am I worried becoming CEO of Honeywell? I don’t even love the mission or the purpose? I’ve got leave, okay. Does it matter if it’s a much smaller company? No, I want a life.”

And so, think about that. Or, I used to have students tell me, Pete, these are 26-year-olds, 27-year-olds. “I work a hundred hours a day when I was trying to get into business school,“ hundred hours a week, I mean. And, man, that’s great, I said, “Really? How do you have a life? You can’t have a life and work a hundred hours a week. And, by the way, what are you doing? Why are you over it? If you’re going to be a leader, you got to learn how to delegate. Let other people do it and stop trying to take over everything.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, so I also want to get some of the don’ts, there you go, like don’t try to take over everything. Any things that you recommend that we stop doing, as we want to, if we want to make progress on this journey?

Bill George
Well, I think stop trying to look for fame, recognition, power over other people. Your job as a leader is to empower people. And stop trying to be, like, command and control, and, “I want a title. I want to be manager or supervisor, director, or vice president, senior vice president, CEO.” That’s where I got caught up in that trap, and that’s not a good trap to be in. I just want to do it. I really find joy.

By the way, then you will get to promotions because the people around you are saying, “This is a person I really want to work with, I want to be led by.” So, you build those relationships. And so, you want to stop chasing the brass ring, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with being well-paid and making money, but how much do you need?

Elon Musk is worth $250 billion, which I can’t even conceive of. I can’t conceive of what it’s like to be worth a billion. But does he give any money away to help other people? No. Why not? What’s he going to do with it all? You can’t take it with you. So, I said that I feel blessed enough to make money. I did well, very well at Medtronic so we give it away about half our net worth into the grants from our foundation. But I’m not trying to brag. I’m just saying share it. Share it around.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That’s beautiful. Well, Bill, now I want to zoom into the particular specific interactions you have with people that you’re leading, you’re influencing, you’re interacting with. Are there specific words or phrases that you’ve really found magically helpful along this journey or pretty toxic and have chosen to abandon?

Bill George
Yeah, if you want to lead, create an inclusive environment with a sense of belonging. And I think that’s really important. Don’t be exclusionary of other people just because they’re different than you. Accept people for who they are, and then reach out and help other people. Let me give you an example of someone I interviewed.

Alan Page, who just played for the Minnesota Vikings, Hall of Fame football player, National Medal Award of Honor, he said, “I’m not about football. I’m about helping everyone get an education.” So, he took the money he got from the Hall of Fame, created a foundation, others would give into it, to help kids who wouldn’t otherwise go to college, not the A+ student but the kids who wouldn’t otherwise go to college to go.

And he’s done amazing, he sent 7700 kids to school that otherwise wouldn’t go on and got into college, whether it was a four-year or two-year vo-tech, they got through, and that’s what he takes pride in. And so, somebody like that is I really admire. You could say, “Oh, he’s a big man, he’s a big football player.” No, he doesn’t look at himself as a celebrity. He just said, “I’m a guy who’s just trying to help other people.”

So, that’s why I commend you when you talked about your own purpose, you make that I-the-we journey. But if it’s all about me, it’s not going to end well.

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

Bill George
Yeah, I want to mention the fact that today, everybody talks about diversity, Pete. I think it’s not just about diversity. It’s about creating an organization that’s inclusive, so I feel fully included. I don’t feel different like I’m out of step here because I’m a man or woman, or my religion, or my race, or my sexual identity, or national origin. Accept me for who I am. Just let me be real.

And I think that’s really important. And I think that’s what good leaders today do. You can’t help people reach their full potential if you’re judging them by their gender or color of their skin or religion. So, I think creating an environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging is really…we have a new idea in the book that I’m very excited about. Instead of being a command-and-control leader and telling you what to do, the leader is coach, and think about coaches you’ve had.

A coach isn’t going to be your six unless you feel your cares about you. I think of the coaches I had when I played high school and college sports, and my coach really care about me. And can that coach really challenge me to be my best? And so, it’s an acronym we use in the book, but I think that leadership is changing so there’ll be more coaches to help people, and be challenging, and say, “Hey, you didn’t give us your best game today. You can do a lot better than that. Here’s where you can get better.” You can get out there and help people. So, that’s, I think, a big idea.

And, finally, I think leading with a clear sense of be a moral leader with a sense of moral compass. That’s not a religious term. That’s a sense of, “We know where this person stands. We know what his or her values are, and they are not going to be moved off it,” even if you disagree with them. We don’t have to be the same but they have clarity about who they are and what they stand for.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, you said there’s an acronym. What is it?

Bill George
C stands for caring about people because people won’t follow you unless they know you care about them. O is organize people in their sweet spots. Think of a sports team, not everyone can be the quarterback or the point guard. You got to get people where they’re using their greatest abilities. And then the third, or the A is align people around, like we’re talking about Medtronic, a clear sense of mission and purpose, or purpose and values.

And then the second C is challenge people. Challenge people to be their best. I had a student who played for Coach K, Mike Krzyzweski at Duke, and he would say, “He seems like a great value. There wasn’t a day when he wasn’t at my face, yelling at me about why I can’t be better.” And then, finally, the H is get out and help people. I think business executives spend too much time in their offices, sitting in meetings, going over their PowerPoints charts, looking at numbers. You’ve got to get out there with the people, and that’s where the action is. So, that’s the idea of what it means to be a coach.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thanks, Bill. Now, let’s hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Bill George
There was a Buddhist monk man, who just died recently, named Thich Nhat Hahn, he said, “The longest journey you’ll ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.” And by that, he meant is to be a leader today, you can’t just lead with your head. You’ve got to lead with your heart, with passion, compassion, empathy, and courage.

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

Bill George
Well, I can tell you about a breakthrough, Pete, is the work that’s being done, taking ideas from meditation and how neuroplasticity changes people’s lives, and now you can mold your brain as a result of it, and you can overcome the kind of anger parts and move into a kindness, more compassionate kind of person through these practices. And this have been studied with fMRI by Richard Davidson at Madison. Brilliant work. He ought to get a Nobel Peace prize, or a Nobel Medical prize for this.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Bill George
I’m reading a book called Younger Next Year, and it’s how you stay young by staying healthy and taking care of yourself by exercise every day, eat healthy, get some sleep, and relieve your stress. And I think if you begin to do those four things, you’re going to live a lot longer.

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

Bill George
I hate to confess it but I use social media and I use a computer a lot because, now, an awful lot of work is done remotely. But for whatever bad things you see, I can reach a lot of people. I’ve got a quarter a million followers on LinkedIn, and I can have dialogues with people, and I try and respond to every comment that people make. I can’t get them all but I sure try. And I think it’s a great tool to reach people. So, the negative things I said about Facebook, something on LinkedIn just gives me a great source of networking with people that I maybe never met in person.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Bill George
For me, I think I mentioned to you, it’s meditating every day. I just got back from India from a meeting with his holiness, the Dalai Lama, last week. I got back on Sunday. And, man, I was exhausted after a 35-hour trip, and I had to meditate to kind of regain, overcome jetlag and get my health back.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with people and they quote it back to you often?

Bill George
I didn’t make this up, but, “Be who you are because everyone else is taken.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Bill George
Yeah, be authentic and, yeah, that’s what I try to do and share with people. Follow your true north.

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

Bill George
Yeah, you should read the Emerging Leader Edition of True North. It’s my best book, I believe, and I’m very excited about it because it takes all these ideas that we’ve been talking about, and you’ll find it a great guide to leading a more fulfilling life.

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

Bill George
Yeah, you only live once. Make a difference in the world. Whatever money you make, you can’t take it with you. Make enough money to have a good life and take care of your families. But do something where you’re really have an impact in the world, a positive impact. You can leave a mark, so that when you go to your grave, people will look and say, “Here’s a person that really had a positive impact in my life.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Bill, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in following your true north.

Bill George
Thank you, Pete. Thank you for having me on. It sounds like you’re already following yours, so thank you.