by: Richard E. Boyatzis
Have you ever been blindsided in a meeting? You adequately prepared. The objectives were clear. But then, BLAM! Someone objects to one of your assumptions about halfway through the meeting and others just add to the objections. You try to explain your reasoning, but no one comes to your defense. Others join in and you feel as if you are at the bottom of a Rugby pile-on. It seems like chaos and anarchy have taken over, and your meeting is about to end with no clear resolution.
Far too often, executives try to minimize this possibility by making meetings “rubber stamp” events, where everything has been decided ahead of time and there’s no room for open discussion. But that’s a huge mistake. Repressing differences of opinion makes you less adaptable and make your meeting a boring waste of time. Instead you need to be open — and ready to handle — differences of opinion, dissent in the ranks, or even outright rebellion. Diversity of opinion is when one or more people offer a different way to view the situation. Dissent is when there’s a disagreement with a position or proposal. And rebellion happens when a dominant coalition or a sizeable force outright defy or contest your right to be the team leader. While these three things are quite different, they’re connected (a difference of opinion can quickly downward spiral into rebellion, for example) and you may feel besieged no matter which is happening to you.
The best advice I ever got about how to handle these situations was from a kindergarten teacher (who also happens to be my wife). She pointed out that when children get worked up in a class, and others get caught in their emotional frenzy, the only thing to do is to distract them. Telling them to calm down does not work. Asking them to reconsider does not work. You may have experienced a similar downward spiral of emotional contagion in an airport lounge when your flight is delayed another three hours, or at a sports event when a fight breaks out on the field and spectators join in. But in such heated situations, how do you distract people in a way that’s useful without treating them like kindergartners? Or seeming like you’re trying to manipulate them?
In the moment you’re feeling besieged, go back to basics – talk about the vision or purpose of the organization or group you are leading. Psychology studies show empirically that shared vision plays a major role in leadership effectiveness, engagement, and citizenship – and it invokes neural networks and hormonal systems that help us open up to new ideas and others’ opinions.
For example, in one study I did with Edward Mahon and Scott Taylor, we showed that members of knowledge worker teams (half from consulting companies and half from an RD division of an industrial company) were more engaged if team members had emotional intelligence competencies (as seen by others in the team, not self-assessed). But when the team members showed a high degree of shared vision in their team, the engagement scores jumped considerably higher. In another study, Joannn Quinn showed that physicians were more likely to be seen as effective leaders when they demonstrated a higher degree of shared vision in their relationships within the hospital.
We understand why this occurs when we look at the two dominant neural networks we use at work (and during much of our waking hours). Cognitive neuroscientist Tony Jack and colleagues have shown that the Task Positive Network (TPN) — a network of areas in the brain that respond to attention-demanding tasks in functional imaging studies — enables us to focus, solve problems, and do analytic work with numbers and abstract concepts, while the Default Mode Network (DMN) — a network of brain regions that are active when you’re not focused on abstract tasks — enables us to be open to new ideas, people, and moral concerns. The dilemma is that these two networks suppress each other. Focusing on metrics and financials closes a person to considering new ideas, seeing others, and considering whether something is fair or just. Several of my and Tony’s fMRI studies have shown that thinking about one’s dream of the future – one’s vision — and then discussing that vision with others activates the DMN. If we are stuck in the TPN, then we are likely to analyze the situation abstractly, which leads to a more defensive and closed response. When it comes to team rebellion, dissent, or diversity of opinion, we tend to reject what’s happening and become resistant, thereby escalating the negative emotional contagion rather than resolving or calming it.
The practical implication of all of this is that you simply cannot calm these awkward types of team encounters with emotionless reason. That just makes it worse! Instead, you need to essentially toggle between reason and emotion, thereby encouraging others to do the same. Specifically, in the heat of the moment, you need to:
- Pause and take a few deep breaths to settle your own anger, panic, or confusion.
- Ask the group to pause.
- Affirm the group’s ideas with statements like, “You are raising some important points. Let’s make sure we consider all perspectives and make this a better decision.”
- Try to guide the discussion to something bigger than the immediate question. “Before returning to the discussion about tactics and details, could we spend a few minutes refreshing our memories about our vision and purpose – why do we exist?”
- Ask how each of the arguments presented would help the team live that vision and pursue that deeper purpose.
Once when I was CEO of a consulting company with over 100 full-time employees, I heard some grumbling and dissent from a number of the consultants. I brought five of the most senior team members into my office, one at a time, and asked what was going on and how they and others felt. When I thought I had heard them, I asked them for another 15 minutes of their time. I said that I was beginning to worry about the firm’s future and how we would distinguish our products and services. I then asked them, “What do you think our clients might need in five to 10 years? What are the deeper or emerging issues they will be facing?” At the end of the conversation, I assured them we would work hard to resolve the issues they raised and also thanked them for their creative ideas about the future. I opened the next staff meeting with two agenda items: (1) a summary of what I had heard that was troubling people, and then asking for an open discussion of how we might address the issues; and (2) a brainstorming session on what our clients might need in 5-10 years, beginning with some ideas from these conversations.
This type of approach creates a time shift in perspective, refocusing people on their shared purpose, not on the tactics for getting there. Try it next time you feel blindsided in a meeting. You may be surprised to find how shifting the conversation to a shared purpose can diffuse emotions and get your team back on a more productive, collaborative path.
About the Author
Richard E. Boyatzis is Distinguished University Professor, a Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior and Psychology Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University.
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