Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Conflict and Confrontation: How Do You React?

Meeting the Bear Face to Face

In workshops, I have an engaging (well, people do seem to enjoy it) story about what to do when you come face to face with a bear. I use meeting bears as a metaphor for encountering conflict.

I ask the class participants for a show of hands: Are you supposed to curl up in a fetal position and play dead? Do you spray them with bear repellant? Do you run? Do you shoot or throw rocks? Do you walk in the woods with bear bells, hoping the sound will scare any bears away? Each of these behaviors can be compared to how we deal with conflict.

For example, do we avoid it and pretend it’s not there (fetal position)? Do we verbally “spray” the other person with our anger? Do we get out of the way? Do we go on attack? Or my favorite: I would like to just walk through life with my bear bells, hoping conflict will avoid me.

When I lived in Alaska, I went to a seminar presented by Fish and Wildlife troopers to tell me how to live with bears. I lived on a dead end dirt road in the boonies, where hunters would park their beat-up trucks and go into the woods to hunt for deer and bear. I’m sure I was the only house in Alaska without a gun.

What I learned was that with black bears, you are supposed to raise your arms up high and look as big as you can. That way, the bear will acknowledge you as the bigger bear, and leave you alone.

While hiking the Summerland trail, I came face to face with a black bear. My sweetie and I like this trail, and you may have read another story I wrote mentioning it. We usually see marmots on this hike, and one year we saw mountain goats. We were about ½ hour into the 9 mile trail when we came around a slight curve and Bart said “Oh wow”, rather quietly. I looked up and lumbering toward us on the trail was a medium sized black bear. While we stopped, the bear just kept on walking straight for us.

That was a little disconcerting. We stepped to the side of the trail behind a fallen tree, which protected us to right above our knees. While Bart rummaged in his backpack for his whistle, I momentarily felt at a loss as to what to do. After the initial surge of fear when I realized the bear wasn’t going to leave the trail for us, I just felt helpless.

I moved my arms in a sweeping motion. “Go on. Go on, now. Shoo.“ I tried to convey to the bear that it should move off the trail. The bear continued mellowly walking toward us for a few steps, then as it closed in on us at about 30 feet, veered off the trail and started walking into the woods toward Frying Pan Creek. Just then Bart found his whistle and blew it, a weak, shrill sound that didn’t even reach a marmot cry. The bear didn’t react, just continued on it’s way down the slope.

Whew! We recovered and continued on our hike. Ten minutes later, I said, “Hey, we were supposed to raise our arms above our heads so we looked really big to the bear.”

How many times had I relayed that tidbit of information to a roomful of workshop participants? Do you think I remembered my own advice when the time actually came to use it?

Forgetting good advice often flies out of our heads in the heat of an encounter. Under stress, we react, and revert to natural behaviors, not learned ones. Unless we have trained ourselves to behave in a certain way, we are likely to fall back on old behaviors that may or may not be the best way to handle a situation.

A study of the four behavior styles reveals how people will likely react when their hot buttons are pushed. As their behaviors align with their dominant styles, people can be pretty predictable.

Controllers (also known as D’s, Reds, and Drivers, depending on the behavior style system consulted) are likely to take over, dictate, suppress their emotions, blame and/or explode. Controllers are not afraid of conflict, in fact they are often the source of it. They will ask tough questions and make assertive statements with the goal of spurring action and getting results – not of actually causing conflict. However, for the other three styles, this often feels like provoking conflict or confrontation.

Persuaders (also known as I’s, Yellows, or Expressives) tend toward verbal attacks which may take the form of sarcasm and barbs, especially in the office where yelling is frowned upon. They also have a tendency to react emotionally and may cry, talk about the situation excessively, dump it on someone else, and then, may forget about it.

When Stabilizers (aka S’s, Greens and Amiables) are under a lot of tension, they will likely give in (and may later “get even”), avoid the situation or person, worry, wait too long to act, and tell others. They would prefer to avoid conflict and being relationship-oriented will have a very difficult time confronting the other about the stress they are experiencing.

When Analyzers (or C’s, Blues, and Analyticals) face conflict, they are more likely to withdraw – physically if possible. If they can’t leave the room, they will withdraw emotionally and verbally. They also tend to nitpick and try to prove they are “right”.

Essentially, two of these styles are more of the “fight” orientation (Persuaders and Controllers go on verbal attack or take over). And the other two styles tend more toward “flight”: Analyzers will withdraw and Stabilizers will avoid conflict and/or acquiesce. However, when pushed past their limits, each style will end up doing the opposite of what is their natural behavior. For example, if you see a Controller acquiescing, a Persuader withdrawing, a Stabilizer exploding, or an Analyzer going on verbal attack and getting over-emotional, you know they are out of control. These extreme behaviors mean it’s way past time to deal with the conflict in a constructive manner.

Although we all have elements of all four behavior styles, one is usually dominant. If you learn to identify others’ styles (and your own) you will gain a tremendous amount of insight into why they act the way they do and how to effectively communicate with them to create win-win situations and prevent unneeded stress and tension. Conflict is okay, in fact it is often a good thing, as long as everyone knows how to play fair.

If you’d like to learn more about how to deal with difficult situations and people, contact me for information on a workshop or coaching session. Understanding behavior styles is essential for creating positive influence and effective communication. It’s one of the most powerful tool’s in a manager’s toolbox.

And now when I tell my workshop stories, I can add one more metaphor for dealing with conflict: Shoo it away.

A baby black bear grazes the supermarket produce section in Ketchikan, Alaska, where I first learned how to live with bears.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The "Leaderless" Movement on the Leading Edge

The Occupy Wall Street movement is against greed and corruption. But what are they for? What is their vision?

I’d like to think they are for re-instating the true essence of the American Dream.

The American Dream is played out a little differently if you are a recent immigrant or home-grown, but at it’s core it is about ensuring equal opportunity for everyone. Having friends in high places in order to get ahead  is not supposed to be what the US is all about. Americans are supposed to have equal opportunity to start one’s own business, to get an education, to find a job, and yes, even for health care. Citizens insisted that they had an equal opportunity to own their own homes, which unfortunately our financial and real estate systems tried to support (although primarily from a greedy motivation not a patriotic one) to everyone’s detriment.

We don’t truly yet have equal opportunity, of course, but that is what all our laws and regulations over the past decades have striven toward. And having lived and travelled internationally, we do have equal opportunity far more than most countries.

But has equal opportunity turned into the American Pipe Dream?

The “white man’s sickness” of needing to have more and more has eroded the American Dream. Perhaps this culmination was inevitable. We watched from the outside as Washington power-brokers rewarded each other for their favors with contracts, tax cuts, and donations. Huge corporations got huger, and politicians and CEOs got explosively richer.

But as long as we were able to live in relative abundance with our computers, fancy phones and other gadgets, we let it slide. Most of us were pretty happy with our level of comfort and managed to turn a blind eye to the growing population of homeless and poor.

But now we feel the pain too. We have cut back, slid back, and spun our wheels trying to stay in place to no avail. Yet the barbs keep coming to remind us that there is a huge gap between the average American and that one percent. CEO pay is one of the most obvious:

• Since the 1970’s median pay for executives at the largest US companies have quadrupled, even adjusting for inflation. Over the same period, average pay for a non-supervisory worker dropped more than 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• CEOs at 299 US companies had combined compensation of $3.4 billion in 2010, enough to pay 102,325 workers, according to the AFL-CIO's Executive Paywatch. Average pay per CEO was $11.4 million.

• According to an October 10th, 2011 fact-checking article on Politifact, the latest CEO-to-worker pay ratio in the U.S. is “185 to 1 in one study and 325 to 1 in another -- and those numbers were not generated by groups that might have an ideological interest in downplaying the gaps between rich and poor.”

• The average American large-company CEO makes 225% more than the average large-company CEO in the other 13 largest industrial countries. According to Lawrence Mishel's study "The State of Working America 2005, 2006" from the Economic Policy Institute.

There is no doubt that compensation for large company executives is so out of whack that it can lead to poor employee morale and an increasing ‘us against them’ mentality. That type of thinking leads to employees cutting corners and not engaging in such a way that creativity and growth suffer. It’s just poor business strategy in the long run.

And now, the relentless economic struggle has resulted in the Occupy Wall Street movement. This movement is said to be leaderless but seems to me to be filled with leaders. They are the leaders of all of us complacent disgruntled Americans who have done nothing but complain and become dismayed and depressed at our lack of forward momentum. They are on the leading edge of those who want to take back the American Dream and refresh it with a more collaborative, honest and egalitarian commitment. And they want to see that commitment to refreshment and change from the current establishment powers-that-be.

We - "the 99%" - may have the education and the initiative, but the opportunities are lacking. Most of us don’t have the connections that 31-year-old Chelsea Clinton has, who was recently offered a $300,000 per year Board position with IAC. The playing field is not level and never has been. But it has gotten so enormously steep in the past couple of decades that we are exhausted trying to maintain our footing.

Things have got to change and the leaders of the change are out there camping in the streets. These leaders are redefining leadership as we are used to viewing it. How are they articulating their vision? Are we on board yet? If so, why? If not, why not? Does it have anything to do with their leadership style? What results are they getting? What relationships are they building?

Is Occupy Wall Street a revolution in leadership as much as a movement against greed and corruption? I, for one, am going to pay attention and find out.
Or is it just a movement of bums?  (Warning:  foul language!)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Boss's Day Sentiments

Have you ever heard or uttered those words before? Chances are you haven’t. I have never been in an office where the day was observed, although I am sure there is some happy outpost where the employees are honoring their boss on that day.

Eighty-five percent of employees like their boss and think they are doing a pretty good job. If you think your boss is in that 85% too, why don’t you take a moment to let them know you appreciate them? A little honest appreciation, as you know with your own employees, can go a long way.

I know many of you don’t feel comfortable giving cards or writing sloppy sentiments to anyone, much less your boss. That’s why I have come up with some snappy messages that you can add to a card or note. I suggest you forego the electronic message for something a little more time-tested and traditional. Paper, whether a fancy greeting card, a blank notecard, or even just a sheet swiped from the printer, makes a stronger impression than a virtual message, no matter how many sounds and colors are attached. How quaint, I know, but usually true.

For your greeting-card ease, check these out:

The Haiku

Haikus traditionally reference nature. They are a good choice if you work in international business or your boss appreciates poetry, the outdoors, or sushi. It’s pretty easy to create a poem with the 5 syllables – 7 syllables – 5 syllables formula. Here are three examples:

In stormy work times
Your equanimity is
An island of calm.

Your guiding presence
And encouraging support:
Like sun in winter.

“Awesome job!” you say
And I work harder for you.
I return the praise.

Try it out yourself, it's not hard.

The Limerick

Limericks are a little trickier to write than haiku. The limerick is often a little bawdy and may not be the best choice for your boss unless you have a very good relationship with them, they love jokes, and you can keep it clean. Here is the formula to write a limerick: Lines 1, 2, and 5 of limericks have seven to ten syllables and rhyme with one another. Lines 3 and 4 of limericks have five to seven syllables and also rhyme with each other. I may have fudged a bit on some of that below:

There once was a boss from Intel
Who implored her staff, “Sell, sell, sell!”
Her staff did her bidding
The boss did no ridding
And all stayed together in hell.

Oh, oops, maybe that wasn’t quite right for Boss’s Day, and anyway that was too specific for general use. How about another?

There once was a generous boss
Whose staff was prepared for loss
When layoffs came round
New money was found
So the boss did not have to toss.

Our boss is an exceptional guy
He knows how to tie a tie
And when he walks in
Respect replaces the din
On him we can rely.

There is an amazing man
Who leads a misfit clan
With patience and care
Smarts, humor and flair
With him, succeed we can!

A little Yoda-speak there on the last one, but you get the idea.

Perhaps that’s enough “poetry”, if you can call it that. But using a standard poetry vehicle lifts the seriousness and eases any discomfort about telling people how we feel, while still conveying appreciation.Once again, I encourage you to give it a try.

But sometimes you just want to say something simply. All kidding aside, you really want to let them know you appreciate what they do (at least most of the time, right?) The most straightforward and probably most appreciated note would say something like one or a combination of the following:

I am lucky to have you for a boss. (Why? Give a specific example like “no one else has ever taken their role as a coach so seriously” or “I have experienced more success working for you than anyone else.”)

You have a knack for …(managing our diverse team, simplifying the confusing, inspiring our efforts, handling difficult situations, etc….) and I am learning from you.

Thank you for your support and encouragement. (and then give a specific example of when they encouraged or supported you or say something like “There are so many instances where your encouraging words were just what I needed.”)

I appreciate your … (fill in the word: patience, persistence, creativity, resourcefulness, sense of humor, appreciation…)

You get the idea. I know finding the right words can be difficult sometimes so I hope these examples will help you express your gratitude. So don’t forget - October 16th is Boss’s Day. Since it’s a Sunday, you may want to celebrate this Friday, or at the least Monday. But really, any time is a fine time to convey appreciation.

A simple note could have prevented this public appreciation fiasco!

If you can't see the 1.48 minute Parks and Recreation video, here is the URL: