Niels is a successful leader. He is engaged and able to engage others around him, he is focused, upbeat and pragmatic, he and his team deliver consistent results, and he is humble about it, conscious that external circumstances and luck have also played a role in their success.
There is only one dark spot in his stellar performance, something he is not proud of: he stresses about disagreements. He knows that whenever he is faced with a disagreement, wants to voice a different opinion, needs to intervene and help resolve a clash between other people, he feels very uncomfortable; he also knows that when he feels uncomfortable, he is not at his best. He hates not being at his best.
In spite of various training courses that taught him the key strategies to manage conflicts or the best tactics to influence, to “get to yes” and to turn around crucial conversations, he has yet to find the key to overcome his discomfort.
Niels knows that his challenge has nothing to do with his problem solving skills; anything that can be analysed and measured rationally is a no brainer for him. His difficulty is rather with the type of situation when different views clash, and they cannot be reduced to equations; when people see things from different perspectives and develop surprisingly different perceptions to which they appear to be very emotionally attached. In these cases he experiences a mix of surprise, misbelief and dislike; he becomes judgmental and disconnected, and at the same time emotionally stressed; he finds it vey hard to stay cool and anxiety appears to cloud his thoughts.
Niels is not alone in this struggle. Most leaders admit to experiencing a lack of self-confidence when dealing with disagreements, something very close to fear. Some try to avoid disagreements in order not to face their fear; some try to fight their fear by becoming overly righteous or domineering, some prefer to wear the mask of the non committal “pleaser”; and the vast majority tend in hindsight to regret how they finally choose to behave, they ruminate at length over what they “should”, or “should not” have said or done. These experiences are however very rarely shared with colleagues; it is mainly the external consultants or executive coaches who get to hear their stories (about 70% of my ca. 500 executive clients have at one point confessed to this state of distress, but less than 10% openly include conflict management in their development plans). It is like if shame prevented them to admit a weakness that points more at how and whom they are than at what they do.
How can we explain that so many brilliant minds experience such deep anxiety and do not even dare to openly talk about it?
Neuroscience-based psychology starts to shed some light over this phenomenon. There appears to be three biases that make us truly stressed and ineffective in dealing with emotionally charged conversations and disagreements; unfortunately, the more we experience being ineffective, the less self confident we are, which increases our stress and anxiety; and so on, in a negative spiral.
Becoming aware of the 3 biases is the first step to break the negative spiral, to overcome the anxiety and to fuel constructively open conversations.
Let us look at these biases in an ascending order of importance.
The NUMBER 3 bias is what we can call the “Negativity Bias”.
What we currently understand of our brain is that we are programmed through evolution to protect ourselves from everything “new” by always imagining the worst scenario. Even a simple difference of opinion is perceived at first as a threat and our body is automatically activated into a state of alert (e.g. accelerated heart beat). Unless we are aware that this is just a reflex, we might “believe” to be really facing a threat, hence our perception of anxiety or fear, an impression of being at risk or under attack. This makes us defensive, which in turn makes us less effective.
Two things happen when we unconsciously suspect a threat and get defensive: first, our body stiffens into an automatic “fight or flight” reaction and we start to unconsciously behave in such a way that causes the other person to get defensive as well (even an act of defence is somewhat an act of war); second, the defensiveness of the other person confirms our initial perception so that we feed our fear and become truly convinced that we are facing a threat, hence we act even more defensively. This phenomenon is called the “self fulling prophecy”: we act in a way that makes the prediction true.
How do we recognise the Negativity Bias?
The simplest way to recognise that we are trapped into the Negativity Bias is to notice our posture: our chest is closed and we need to breathe faster, we may assume a protective position (crossed arms and legs) and make ourselves smaller, or we might be tensing our muscles, bending forward. At this point, if we roll the shoulders back and open the chest, we can notice quite a difference. This is the beginning of changing our emotional state.
What can we do to offset this bias?
There are surprisingly simple methods that can be applied, both to overcome and to prevent the bias. Simple, but not easy, as it is often the case.
The best approach is of course to prevent falling into this bias. Think about this: when we feel happy and relaxed we are less likely to view differences as threats and rather more likely to feel a joyful curiosity; when we are concerned, stressed, and busy defending our image, credibility, status, we are much more likely to quickly feel threatened and “go to war” to protect ourselves. See? The way to prevent falling into the negativity bias is “simply” to learn to (in the words of Brene Brown) “let go of whom we think that we should be in order to be who we are”.
It is not very easy to learn to feel comfortable with ourselves and loose the need to defend, so when we are not able to prevent, we at least need to learn how to overcome: the best way to overcome the negativity bias is the four-step formula: “recognise, declare, pause and breathe”. The first step is of course to learn to recognise the bias and the second necessary step is to spell it out clearly in our mind or even declare it out loud “I start to feel a bit anxious”; this conscious verbalised recognition initiates a physiological change, so when we then pause a few seconds and in addition focus on making our breathing more regular, we can influence our body to relax; our mind then gets ready to focus externally and we find back the curiosity to learn about different views and perspectives.
The NUMBER 2 bias is what we can call the “Ego bias”.
This is a phenomenon also referred to as “self-deception”. It is again linked to a mechanism of self-protection, but this one is a bit deeper.
In a nutshell it is an over concern or an exaggeration of our responsibility that leads us to almost identify with the job and its challenges and makes us loose perspective of reality. Whenever we are confronted with an issue (a difficult challenge, an uncertainty, a difference of opinions, a disagreement or a complaint) we may feel ashamed of not being able to tackle it, to resolve it by ourselves, to need others. The more responsible we feel, the more ashamed we are of feeling unsure. We “get into our head”; instead of sharing the responsibility and inviting an open dialogue, we exaggerate the issue and feel so bad that we need to either justify ourselves or pin the problem to someone else.
Look at the picture, it tells an interesting story. Where is the real business issue? it’s the graph on the table, right? Where are the people looking? At each other! One is blaming, the other is justifying. This only escalates confrontations, it is definitely not a good start for an open dialogue.
How do we recognise the Ego Bias?
The easiest way to know that we are experiencing the Ego Bias is to notice if we are doing the following: we move the dialogue inside our head (repeatedly asking and answering questions to ourselves); other people cease to look like people and start to look like obstacles; whatever issue we are considering, it grows and gets more serious inside our head; we also notice that we start to collect past examples to confirm our opinion and seek alliances to confirm our convictions (see also Arbinger’s “Leadership and Self-Deception: getting out of the box” for some no.nonsense examples). We become very self-conscious and self-righteous. However, if we try hard to smile and joke within ourselves, or to minimise, we may feel the beginning of a shift. This is the beginning of changing our mental state.
What can we do to offset the Ego Bias?
Once we notice that we exaggerate the seriousness of the issue, we start to also understand its consequences: by debating inside our head and searching for proof to confirm our sentiment, we actually block any possibilities to act; we numb our curiosity and paralyse our initiative; we prevent any possibility to have a healthy conversation that could help address and resolve the issue. From inside our “mental box”, we may focus so much on judging and doubting that we do not find a way out into action; we blame, criticise, justify, express pessimism, and basically do nothing constructive.
Effective techniques consist of asking ourselves questions like “Am I talking to myself? Who else can I ask instead?”; “Am I exaggerating?”; “What is the reality?”; “So what?”. We can also try to remember happy moments when we were curious and influential and capture back the feeling. We can finally learn to verbalise how we feel; saying out loud “I am feeling a bit judgmental now” makes it easier to smile at ourselves and get out of our head.
The NUMBER 1 bias is what we can call the “Rationality Bias”
This is the most profound bias of all, the hardest one to overcome. In a nutshell, we deeply believe that “rationality will get us there”. We often think that given enough data and time, everybody will come to the same conclusion. Hence we focus on “explaining and convincing” based on extensive data and facts. We seem to believe that if we prepare really well, we can get to an agreement.
When we fail, it must then be because we have not prepared well enough, we are incompetent, unable, not influential; we feel misunderstood, unheard, and insignificant. We get highly stressed and develop a deep feeling of shame.
It is again neuroscience that comes to our help. For centuries we have been taught that we can learn to form our opinions based on rational thoughts rather than from pure instincts; instincts is for animals, rationality for educated human beings. Well, it appears that we got it a bit wrong.
According to recent research, lead by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking fast and slow”), our brain tends to save energy by taking “intuitive” short cuts whenever possible. According to Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind) we immediately associate a judgment (good or bad, right or wrong) to our intuition. Only then do we start to collect support data to prove that our initial intuition ardour judgment are right. The problem is that we often “forget” to play devil’s advocate with ourselves, so once we have collected enough proof, we start to believe that our truth is “the” truth. But our initial intuition and our judgment are heavily influenced by our context, cultural norms and personal experiences. Someone else who maybe looking at the same “triggering event” would likely have an entirely different intuition and judgment, find own support data and start to believe another truth to be “the” truth.
Do you see where this is going? It is going into a confrontation.
The vast majority of Conflict Management Courses teach us how to deal with confrontations when we already are in a confrontation.
But a different approach is possible. We suggest that it is possible to open a constructive dialogue from differences. We need to learn to say “Let me share how see it from my standpoint, and I am curious of how you see it” instead of “Let me explain to you why I am right”.
How do we recognise the Rationality Bias?
Here are the key signs that you suffer of Rationality Bias:
- At the end of a conversation your position is exactly the same as at start
- In case of failure your next step is to “get better prepared next time”
- If a third party asks you “what did the other person think or feel?” you have no idea, because you have not asked; all you have is your assumptions and your interpretations.
What can we do to offset the Rationality Bias?
As always, awareness is the way to start.
We have developed a model (see diagram) that we use in many of and our courses to visualise a different approach towards our cognitive processes and assumptions, and to stimulate learning dialogues. This usually raises a lot of interest, stimulates curiosity and initiates a shift of consciousness which leads to wanting to practice more.
A strategy is then required to move from simple awareness to leading and mastering courageous and open conversations.
We suggest a simple Five Step Strategy (we call it THE C.L.E.A.R. MINDSET™ METHOD)
- Clear our head of worries, anxiety and assumptions
- Lead an open dialogue with confidence, courage and a smile
- Encourage and invite different views
- Align on a common intention, accepting differences of approach
- Recognise opportunities and co-create positive change
As always, simple does not mean easy. Learning to practice and master each step takes time and courage. In our courses, we have specific exercises to learn and practice for each of the five steps. If you wish to know more, please get in contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also be interested in our upcoming online FREE LIVE MASTERCLASS: How to overcome the 3 major missteps that affect leaders ability to tackle complaints and resolve conflicts (you can register by clicking the link below)
- Brene Brown, The Power of Vulnerability, TED Talk
- Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Self-Deception: getting out of the box
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow
- Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind
- “Love” by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov, at the 2015 “Burning Man” Festival, Nevada (photo author unknown)