Human’s possess an instinctive threat system – our internal alarm which warns us to danger by creating feelings of anxiety, fear or aversion in order to motivate us to action. It triggers our Fight-Flight response and it’s the reason you are able to read this page right now; in pre-history, a countless number of your direct ancestors successfully deployed the system in all manner of dangerous confrontations, perhaps during an unexpected encounter with a Sabre Tooth Tiger while out for a stroll with the family.
Here’s the thing though. It doesn’t necessarily need a moment of danger to trigger it.
Because this instinctive behaviour is hard wired, we are biased towards processing threat based information. It captures our attention more powerfully than positive information.
We are subconsciously vigilant at all times. It permeates our interactions with family, friends, colleagues, team-mates and our bosses. For some of us, the smallest criticism of our actions can get the adrenalin running with all its attendant bodily reactions – the increased heart rate, sweating, anxiety and even outright hostility to the other person in the conversation.
If you think back to your last performance review; your memory of it won’t be the superlatives used to describe your good bits – it’s the ‘areas for improvement’ that stick in the mind. This negative bias triggers threat-based emotions such as fear or anger, which then motivate us to protect ourselves – that may result, after thoughtful consideration and a deep breath or two, in an attempt to improve on our weaknesses. Or slamming a fist onto the red button to launch angry missiles at our perceived tormentors.
It’s the reason Donald Trump so readily and damagingly takes to Twitter. For him, it’s the social media version of Defcon 1. Such is the volume of criticism of the president’s actions and decisions, his instinctive threat system may well be in overdrive. Trump’s performance review is upcoming – at the ballot box in November 2020.
In step six of I Don’t Agree, I speak to a counselling psychologist to learn how we can learn to control our Instinctive Threat System; to improve our lives at work, at home and in the community. Get the critically acclaimed book here…
“In an age where rage is all the rage, here’s a manual for how we can agree to disagree and move forward. A pacey read written with hope, heart and a very welcome sense of humour.”Victoria Harper, Features Director, The Daily Telegraph
“If you think you don’t like conflict, you’ll love this, getting good at disagreeing isn’t just useful, it’s essential and Michael shows you how.” –Sam Conniff, best selling author ‘Be More Pirate’and ‘How To Be More Pirate’
DO YOU AGREE? The results of a study by Professors Jacquie D Vorauer and Stephanie Danielle Claude (called Perceived Versus Actual Transparency of Goals in Negotiation) showed that negotiators over-estimated the transparency of their own objectives. Not only that, it was found that neutral observers to the negotiation, who had been informed about the participant negotiator’s goals in advance, also overestimated the extent to which those goals would be transparent.
Which suggests to me that lots of us struggle to clearly communicate what it is we want. The academics described combatants as typically assuming that the validity of their position in the negotiation is glaringly obvious to their adversaries. Consequently, they saw their adversary’s opposition as self-interested and hostile. The reality is, they probably couldn’t work out what the hell was going on!
This may go some way to explaining why there’s a lot of shouting in the world. Do you agree?
An edited version of this article appeared in Haymarket’s Management Today on Aug 3rd 2020.
One of the irritating things about collaboration is that it’s difficult to achieve.
The other irritant is the frequency with which this C word gets used. It’s sprayed around so liberally inside organisational life that, if you’re like me, the mention of it sets your teeth on edge. I worked for one CEO who would have sprinkled collaboration on his chips. He dropped the word so often; he must have thought he could speak it into existence.
It’s not just him.
28 of the FTSE 100 claim collaboration –or its first cousin, teamwork – as a corporate value. Back in 2012, IBM’s Global C-Suite Study of 1,709 CEOs found that 75% saw collaboration as the key to future success. Eight years later, as I’m sure you’ve found, whenever the person at the top of an organisation is speaking, the chances are that, in a game of buzz word bingo, ‘collaboration’ will keep the fingers on the buzzers busy.
But are we any good at it?
I believe this ongoing preoccupation is because successful collaboration is elusive. While we can see its potential to change our fortunes, it streaks by overhead, cometlike, to remind us that we don’t really understand how to do it.
It’s the same in politics. Many people wish that those in parliament could reach across party lines to solve the big problems – the plan for how we emerge from Corona lockdown would benefit from wider political perspectives. If only politicians were not hemmed in by their ideologies! Here again collaboration is comet like – streaking across the heavens to taunt those below.
I’m looking heavenwards and being taunted too. A report I read claimed collaboration projects fail most of the time.
If only we possessed a managerial sixth sense to identify in advance which collaborations will win. Imagine that. Morale would be stratospheric, interpersonal politics might be reduced to zero AND, once everyone’s palms got too sore to continue high fiving, we’d have more capacity to generate more growth.
That report is a 2015 study involving 106 companies called Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-structural View of Resistance to Relational Strategies. Snappy! However, it’s a critical read with wider implications than supply chain economics.
A couple of familiar problems stood out:
Tarnished reputation: Managers struggled to assess in advance the true value of any collaboration. The resulting poor return on investment was said to tarnish the reputation of future collaborations.
Organisations ‘invested scarce resource in collaborations that offered no unique value co-creation potential’.
Territoriality: 73% of companies cited turf wars as a barrier. Partners could not break out of their siloed mindset to make collaboration happen. A telling remark was made by a senior manager…
“People are more concerned about who will get the glory or the blame rather than evaluate whether or not a decision will benefit the entire company”.
This resonated with me. I recently asked a close colleague to help me with a collaboration project. There was a momentary far-away look in his eyes which seemed to suggest he was mentally grasping for the unobtainable. He then snapped out of his reverie to answer thus:
He’d been burned before.
I see collaboration as a cocktail of roughly 3 parts optimism to one-part trepidation. They can be an exciting opportunity, but the path is strewn with trip hazards related to human nature. Even the slightest problem, the failure for one partner to meet a deadline for instance, can cause crab like behaviour in which everyone scuttles back to their silos and may only emerge again to point an accusatory claw at the others. The management energy required to get things back on track may undo any benefits in the collaboration.
For me, the main flashpoint occurs at the intersection of two planes…
When worlds collide – the horizontal versus the vertical
Collaboration is a horizontal occupation – organisations need to work side by side to achieve a single aim.
Each partner also has their day-to-day obligations outside of the partnership – a budget target to achieve or bottom line to protect; I think of this in vertical terms.
It’s where the horizontal and vertical meet that conflict arises. If business in the vertical needs attention, a poor performing quarter or a client crisis, when you need all your people back in the room, then these will take priority. If you need to cut back on resource commitment the other partners may resent that if they have to fill the gap left by you.
I’ve also found that because each partner is tasked with hitting hard targets in their vertical, some are tempted to compete to maximise their share in the partnership to justify the time spent in collaboration – it may become tempting (in the worst cases) to actively undermine other partners, or to make a big deal over any mistake they may make. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, it hurts. I’ve also driven that sort of behaviour in my teams. Karma.
Going back to the research, I raised an eyebrow as I read that 73% of companies cited a refusal to share important information between partners as a source of frustration. 63% reported a lack of faith that individuals in one business unit would do anything to benefit another. This is clear siloed thinking writ large. I’ve been guilty of that.
The fallibility of human nature seems to be the blocker. Fortunately, there’s a way through.
Make a List
I have no qualifications in psychology, but I’m sure most people have enough self-awareness to know their weaknesses and their bad habits. Even if we seldom admit our faults to others, it’s the admission to yourself that counts. From there it’s easy to set them down in list order. There are good reasons why you might do that…
Atul Gawande, in his 2008 best-seller The Checklist Manifesto, showed how simple checklists achieved unpredictable results in his profession – he’s a surgeon. At the time there were 230 million operations annually. On average, 7 million people were left disabled and 1 million died. Gawande nailed it down to human fallibility and attention, especially to the mundane details easily overlooked.
A five-point list which included the prompt to wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds, clean the patient’s skin with antiseptic, and wear a sterile gown reduced central line (a chest catheter used to administer drugs) infections from 11% to zero in the hospitals tested. Or 43 infections, 8 deaths and $2million dollars.
Another list developed by Gawande for the World Health Organisation, was designed to enshrine collaborative behaviour in the army of medical experts gathered around their patient on the operating table. You’d think that here of all places the collective weight of medical knowledge would be able to pin down collaboration, to stop it streaking about the firmament to help save a life. Yet in a survey of 1000 operating room staff in the US, Israel, Italy, Germany and Switzerland only 10% of anaesthesia residents, 28% of nurses and 39% of anaesthesiologists felt their operations had high levels of teamwork. By contrast; 64% of the surgeons, the operating theatre equivalent of the CEO, reported high levels of teamwork. Gawande reported the sense of teamwork he’d experienced in theatre was more credit to luck. He described the lack of it was due to the complexity of his job, which creates a division of tasks by expertise. This resulted in highly skilled people sticking narrowly to their domain.
Here I see the vertical plane of the personal clashing with the horizontal goals of collaboration. More so when I learned that surgeons walked into the room fully gowned, expecting everyone to be in place, including the patient, unconscious and ready to go. If you are a member of the in-theatre team, the surgeon may not even know your name – a commonplace occurrence. That’s not collaboration, it’s command and control.
It transpires that knowing the names of all the people working across a collaboration project makes the output more effective. Gawande included it in his list; before an incision is made, everyone confirms they have introduced themselves to each other. The team are then prompted to discuss the joint goals of the procedure. The patient is included –the patient must confirmed their identity and the site (on their own body) of the procedure – it’s all about encouraging teamwork.
If something as ordinary as a prompt to a surgeon to wash their hands can have such dramatic impact, then referring to a checklist of your bad habits could be powerful too. Especially if you meditate on it before entering into any collaborative endeavour – it might serve as an internal filter to guard against the emergence of your worst traits. Like those surgeons, you could wash your hands of your flaws to allow those horizontal goals to flourish.
I’m powerless to suggest what should be on your list but if you need a little advice, you might ask anyone who loves or respects you enough to be honest, but suitably diplomatic in keeping the list short…
With the possible exception of any children you might have.
I asked Freddie, one of my kids, to share his opinion on my worst traits. He paused for a moment, mentioned that I was quick to anger, a little tight with the pocket money, then once up and running expanded at length. I asked him to stop at one side of A4.
Having a list is one thing, putting it to work is another – it’s hard to make it habitual. There’s a solution;
Many successful people claim a ritual to be the seat of their success. Take Steve Jobs. Each morning, it’s said he looked in the mirror to ask himself whether or not he was happy with whatever was on his to do list if today were his last day on Earth. If his inner voice answered in the negative over consecutive days, he made a mental note to shake things up.
Gawande’s lists were similar – they allowed people to ritualistically reflect on the task ahead and their role within the team. As he proved, they are effective in improving organisational culture.
I won’t claim my own ritual to be up to par with Jobs or Gawande, but it works for me, because it’s uniquely personal, and a little odd…
A collaboration usually starts with a meeting to kick things off. I visualise the room where that might take place and then create a mental image of a coat check outside the door. This is a place to hand in various robes representing the less appealing aspects of my character. I find it more effective when I imagine the coat check to be my wife (Katy). Firstly, I remove my coat. It’s an old favourite, representing my tendency to competitiveness whenever I find myself amongst a group. It has wide shoulders and padded elbows – great for shoving everyone aside. Katy takes the coat and raises an eyebrow, it’s not enough. Under my coat is often a flamboyantly purple, tonic Tuxedo. I call this my ‘it’s all about me’ jacket. Removing this in my mind’s eye causes me to think about how any gathering of people shouldn’t be unduly influenced by a single personality – how everyone should be able to leave their ego at reception. The exercise enables me to back off on the more thrusting aspects of my personality and let other people’s ideas into the room. These two garments are usually enough, but each meeting of minds is unique, and there may be more garments to remove.
Collaboration in conclusion
Collaboration is a complex beast. It’s an act – something we physically do. It’s also a value and an aspiration. No wonder it’s a tough nut to crack – but there are some nutcrackers in the cutlery draw of our imagination…
The act of making a shortlist of our shortcomings and ritualising the behaviour you aspire to, could mean better collaboration and less conflict at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical is possible.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph and also in Management Today on International Women’s Day on March 8th 2018 and led to the publication of my first book: I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It is published by Harriman House and out now.
It’s well known that there are too many pairs of brogues strutting across the top of the glass ceiling.
This isn’t new news, men have long dominated the boardroom, and advertising, the industry I work in, is as blighted as any other (indeed, there’s an argument that we shoulder more blame, having reinforced gender stereotypes through countless ads – but I’ll leave that one for another day).
It all goes back to how we react to stress. For years – and you’ll probably remember this from biology at school – science believed that when threatened, humans underwent a ‘Fight or Flight’ process: we either came out swinging, or legged it. However, around the turn of the 21st century, scientists realised that a lot of the clinical work supporting ‘Fight/Flight’ had been performed on men. Gender simply hadn’t been considered when it came to scrutinising the data. We had based our insights around only one half of the species.
Men certainly do appear to have a strong Fight/Flight instinct. In 2012, Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley identified a particular gene (SRY, or ‘The Macho Gene’ as news stories dubbed it at the time) that triggers the development of the testes, secretes hormones to masculinise the body, and appears to nudge our adrenal gland into overdrive when under stress. The fact that women do not have SRY points towards a concurrent conclusion from the world of science: that women’s Fight/Flight instinct is calmed by Tend/Befriend, a process first identified in work by researchers at the University of California.
Evolution is at hand here to explain why. Fight/Flight fails as a survival strategy for women because historically they have taken primary roles in ensuring the little’uns become the big’uns. The same Darwinian forces that push men into Fight/Flight works the other way in females: high maternal investment favours responses that don’t jeopardise the survival of their children. Sociologically speaking, ‘befriending’ activity involves affiliation and collaboration within a group, creating networks to provide mutually assured support during stressful times. Tend/Befriend means reaching out, building trust, defusing conflict, putting the kettle on and breaking out the Rich Teas.
What does this mean within business? If I look without any prejudicial squint, I see clear indicators of Tend/Befriend in the businesswomen who help me run my organisation.
Recent research supports the idea that such an approach is simply more effective. A 2015 survey of 2,000 people by the University of Cambridge found that female CEOs generated more profits than their male counterparts. They were more likely to maintain business outlooks favouring controlled growth, reinvesting profits over taking equity out. They were more averse to risks that may mess up their employees’ livelihoods. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to take equity out at the earliest opportunity, taking more risks to do so.
In a related sphere of influence, while doing the research for my book I detected evidence of Tend/Befriend in a UN report about the type of policies that get enacted by male and female politicians. To give one example, the number of clean drinking water projects in India in areas with women-led councils was found to be a massive 62% higher than those with men running the show. Plainly the guys think their constituents need to man up. Who needs water, right?
Does this stray too close to the cliché of female leaders as ‘nurturing’ types? Well, a study by US leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman of 16,000 leaders (two thirds male, one third female) suggested women outperformed men in taking initiative, getting things done, and driving for hard results; and pointed out that these were ‘not nurturing competencies’, inferring that they are commonly assumed qualities of male leaders.
Is it possible that these so-called ‘male’ business qualities are smoothed by the fine-grained sandpaper of Tend/Befriend? That women possess a wider spectrum of competencies, and therefore make more rounded leaders? If so, we men clearly need to explore whether or not we can ignore the klaxon call of our testicles and… woman up.
My personal role models in this endeavour include two female business partners on my management board. Both can engage their inner Boadicea in the hand-to-hand combat sometimes required in business, and in the next breath are elbow-deep creating an induction programme that ensures our newbies have a motivating experience in their first weeks. Their approach contrasts favourably to my past motivations, which have all been about competing for and closing of deals – actions borne of fight mode.
Since becoming aware of how male responses can colour business making decisions, I have actively tried to channel Tend/Befriend. It’s proved effective in the staple activity of ad agencies, the group brainstorm. I have noticed men seem to speak more in those meetings, not necessarily in a good way: often speaking over women and diverting the course of that person’s creative flow, refocusing the room to the interrupter’s idea. Many brilliant trains of thought are ruined in this way. We have put in place protocols to guard against ‘diverters’, including a 50/50 gender split, and someone is assigned to call out such behaviour if it occurs.
Can I continue to counter my male Fight/Flight instincts? Interestingly, the Zenger Folkman study ranked gender against 16 competencies deemed essential to success, including communicating prolifically, developing others and being collaborative (women came out top in 12). To describe these qualities as competencies is salient, because a competency is learned. I may be hardwired to fight or flight, but I can cling to the idea that, with practice, I could become a tenderer befriender.
Whether I achieve such a goal or not, it’s clear that inequality is holding business back. We really don’t need to be sat in opposing camps factionalised by gender (especially when gender is a spectrum). By making the playing fields level between men and women, we will not only improve the way we do business, but everything we do in life.
To reach that particular promised land, we need all the talent out there, working in harmony from a position of jointly held power.
The above article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph on International Women’s Day (March 8th) 2018 as part of their Women Mean Business campaign. It is an edited extract from my first book;I Don’t Agree – why we can’t stop fighting – and how to get great stuff done despite our differences.
Public discourse feels more polarised than ever before. This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It is published by Harriman House and out now….
In the early days of the pandemic many people were baking bread and rediscovering their kindness gene. That seems like a long time ago now. We’ve gone from clapping for carers to uncaringly slapping down anyone who may not share the same views as us on everything from race, gender, equality, class and the wealth gap.
Many people I know are capable of instantaneous combustion into a bin kicking rage at the mere mention of the ‘plan’ for reopening schools. I have seen the same level of frustration from those who are desperate for them to open too. It’s difficult for any measured argument to cut through the clatter but worse, it seems we’ve all stopped listening to each other anyway. Everywhere you look some shouty ‘influencer’ is pounding someone else for daring to see things differently.
This is most apparent in the conflagration of debates arising in the wake of the BLM protests: tear down a statue or let it stand? Legitimate protest or an act of vandalism? Venturing an opinion either way may attract a threat from the other side to tear you down. You don’t agree with them? Well you’re cancelled so there.
These arguments thrive on social media. Big issues are over-simplified by self-appointed citizen journalists, deliberately polarised to present someone or some group as the villains. Bubbling animosity can quickly become a firestorm. JK Rowling is threatened with rape and murder for her views; do concerns for male violence towards women trump the rights of trans people to express their identity? It’s all opinions (forcibly expressed) and no solutions.
What happened to the ability to take a deep breath and take perspective?
It should be OK to communicate the fact you see things differently. It should be equally OK for someone to disagree with your beliefs. That’s normal human discourse. At least it used to be. But it feels like real debate is being put into lockdown just as we emerge from it.
How do we agree to disagree and just get on with stuff?
In 2010, I spectacularly fell out with my fellow shareholders in a business I ran for a decade. Minor disputes over the direction of the enterprise turned into a power struggle, culminating in a firework’s display of red-hot emotions on the office floor.
We could have sold seats on Ticketmaster, but there was no going back.
In the period of reflection that followed the collapse of that partnership, one question kept coming back: was my partner’s position in the argument as valid as mine? Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can I confirm that yes, it probably was. Actually, what an idiot, I’ve done it again – strike the word ‘probably’ from that previous sentence. Even after ten years, it’s hard to acknowledge the other side’s perspective.
One of the first things I learned during my research was why the argument I had with my former business partners ended up the way it did. I couldn’t recognise my attribution bias: a state of mind where the deadlocks that prevent everyone moving forward in a disagreement are likely to be blamed on the other side – by both sides.
We actively seek out evidence supporting our position in the argument and our negative opinion of those on the other side; becoming blind to any evidence that suggests the other side might have a point. In this way our prejudices are reinforced.
We have a preference for what the clever folks in lab coats call similar-others. Meanwhile, we dislike dissimilar others. It has also been shown we tend to hold positive expectations of people who look and act like us, anticipating that they will be fairer, more trustworthy and more intelligent than those who are different.
But if we remain vigilant to our biases, while sharpening our cultural sensitivities, we are free to explore less confrontational ways to confront an argument. We can become more generous to those who might just hold a different view point. And how do we do this? Practice a little of what is called Status Affirmation.
I learned about this from the work of Dr Corrine Bendersky at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In her 2014 study she showed how people with conflicting political views could be persuaded to view their opponent as less adversarial. Berdensky used the Dictator Game – a famous experiment in social psychology in which a player (the dictator) decides how to share a prize (often a sum of money) with a second player. The latter has no influence over the decision and no rights of complaint should the dictator opt to share nothing. All they have is their persuasive powers.
You might expect that when people play this game with strongly held opposing opinions it may result in dictators who keep all the prize, all the time.
Not so. Having screened participants for their political affiliations around a hot issue of the day (then it was the so called Obamacare legislation), Berdensky reported that dictators gave away an average of around 40pc more of their prize – a pot of 10 tickets for a lottery – to those opponents who disagreed with them about the Obamacare act but who had also affirmed the dictators’ status. Opponents who had merely shoutily disagreed with the dictator without doing the affirmation earned zilch a lot of the time.
So, how to affirm someone’s status in a disagreement?
It’s about careful choice of words. You simply acknowledge your different opinion to your opponent by saying something like…
‘I know we disagree about this, but…’
And then you begin to work in the affirmation. The exact wording will vary depending on the subject, but it might be along the lines of; ‘I really admire people of principle like yourself, who can persuasively outline why they stand by their beliefs.’
Or ‘I understand your position and I see your viewpoint is increasingly influential in the world.’
After you have affirmed the status of your rival you might then go on to outline your argument, subject to any concession you might make to their point of view.
Some words of caution: Silke Eschert and Bernd Simon, from the Institute of Psychology at Kiel University, urged for a recognition of equal status, not high status. A famous quote springs to mind – I disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Worth bearing in mind next time you wade into a dispute with any firmly held opinion.
Will people listen more in the future? There’s still much to do. But, back to my first point; that some of us aren’t really hearing the wider perspective. It is time to stop shouting down and listen up instead.
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It’s published by Harriman House (£14.99) and out now.