Turn pressure, stress and conflict in business into productivity, innovation and trust

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“The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as coffee. And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.”

J D Rockerfeller

 

There’s a simple technique to turn pressure, stress and conflict in business into productivity, innovation and trust.

Here’s some good news. It is perfectly possible to make yourself and your people dramatically more productive. To turn conflict into creation, pressure into progress, breakdown into breakthrough. And make everyone a great deal more joyful in the process.

But first you have to accept a fact that is deeply shocking to most highly educated and skilled executives and professionals.  A fact that it took me about 5 years to digest.

 

What you know has surprisingly little impact on how good you are

The fact is that very little of our commercial success has anything to do with technical knowledge, skills and expertise.  It may suit us to believe that our value to our organisations and our clients lies is in our expertise. But it’s not wholly true. In fact our brilliance may be damaging to our effectiveness. And that could be costing us a lot of money.

Research by the Carnegie Institute of Technology shows that only 15% of financial success is due to technical knowledge. 85% is due personality and our ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead (what they call “human engineering”).

 

Our brilliance may be damaging to our effectiveness

Consider this, Nobel Prize winning Israeli-American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, found almost everyone would rather do business with a person they like and trust rather than someone they don’t, even if the likeable person is offering a lower quality product or service at a higher price.

 

Could all that investment in skills training be a waste of time and money?

There are broadly three areas of skill in a business: technical, commercial and human. We invest incalculable amounts of time and money in training our people, at school and in business, in technical and commercial skills and almost no time at all in developing their abilities in human engineering. And yet that is what accounts for 85% of our success. Skills training is valuable. But we’re missing a trick if we focus on technical expertise to the exclusion of the human.

And there’s another problem. Even where we do spend time and money on helping our people understand themselves and other people, most of the tools we use actually get in the way of taking any practical action.  We are told that the first step in understanding others is to understand yourself. The problem is that the personality tools we use are so complex that people spend even less time thinking about others because they have so much more complex ‘insight’ into themselves.

The difficulty in applying the tools that are supposed to help in this area result in little change in people’s behaviour. And this is particularly so in the way they are experienced – very often away from, and not directly related to, real business environments. Which means that, when the pressure comes on, any learnings are swiftly overwhelmed and made irrelevant.

 

We’re missing a trick if we focus on technical expertise to the exclusion of the human

After all, when did you last apply the learnings from that latest psychometric analysis when the proverbial hits the fan and you and your team are up against crisis, pressure and the clock?

Surely, the key to true dynamic skills is the ability to apply techniques in real time and under pressure.

 

People’s response to pressure is key to understanding how to improve human dynamic skills

That is, after all, what happens in elite sport.  This is how the ‘process of coaching’ works. Firstly, you help a person learn a new technique, then you put them under pressure and see if they can still execute the technique. Then it is called a skill. In a game, if they can execute this skill for the benefit of another team member then they are called a player.

In business we give people lots of techniques but most of those techniques are lost when pressure is applied. No execution. No real players. 15% of the potential value.

The learning is that people’s response to pressure is key in understanding how to improve human dynamic skills, reduce friction and increase productivity. This may sounds like a whole new layer of complexity, on top of ‘personality types’ etc.  But it isn’t. And nor is it new.

J D Rockerfeller said ‘the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as coffee. And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun’. Perhaps he knew instinctively what the Carnegie Institute of Technology proved many years later.

 

Our response to pressure is predictable. And that unlocks the puzzle.

And we have an ally. Our own psychoanatomy. People’s response to pressure is entirely predictable. And that means there’s no requirement to learn complex psychometric types which are hard to remember and apply. Some simple tools can be applied in the moment, in real times of business stress, to understand and engage with others under pressure. And that really is understanding human engineering.

Modern neuroscience has shown how our brain has developed over time. Most interestingly, how the neocortex (thinking and language brain) has developed.  But there’s one area of our brain that has seen no upgrade in millennia. And that’s the amygdala. The purpose and the functionality of this part of our brain has not changed. It is functionality we share with all our evolutionary antecedents.  And that function is to protect. It kicks into action when there is a threat. When we are under pressure.

New research applies this neuroscience to find out what happens when a person is under stress or pressure in real business environments. Using this, the researchers can codify and predict how people will react. This is rather hard to do in the theoretical ‘observational’ approach of most organisational modelling from Jung onwards.

 

Of tigers and tight deadlines – the unthinking tyrant within

So, what does the amygdala do when we are under pressure?  Firstly, our brain receives a shot of adrenaline to help us respond quickly. It also receives a shot of dopamine to reduce inhibitions that might prevent action. Then the neo-cortex receives a shot of serotonin, basically to help it calm down and thus stop you thinking too much which can be debilitatingly slow. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘the amygdala hijack’.

 

Our amygdala simply doesn’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat

All of this is fantastic when you’re being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. But not so good at work when we are dealing with complex pressures – and, most critically, other people. Because what the neural research suggests is that the amygdala simply doesn’t distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. Our response to stress, at a physiological level, is the same.

We may be the only species that does not suffer from daily threats to our existence. But instead we have invented the game of business. And in that game an amygdala response can be triggered by anything that is a threat to our reputation or our identity. This perceived threat results in exactly the same neurological drug-fest that occurred when the tiger was getting closer. And unlike in our evolution, when amygdala hijack was an infrequent occurrence, today, in the office, it is happening on a daily basis. And that creates unprecedented stress, friction and dramatically decreases productivity.

 

Conflict as a spark to leap forward not dig in and stop

So, if there is a neurological cause, is there a neurological answer? The answer is yes. There are four survival strategies triggered in response to an amygdala hijack.  These are biological responses and hard coded into our DNA. They are therefore entirely predictable.

When under pressure, some people have a need for certainty and so take charge and tend to dictate. They can come across as arrogant and perhaps uncaring. They love ideas.

Some have a need for a sense of freedom. They need to feel they are not boxed in. They can often come across as impatient and restless. They love relationships.

Under pressure a third group have a need for stability, get their heads down, tolerate things and plough on. They love getting things done.

And finally, there’s the group that have a need for security and tend to hibernate in their office. They do not like to make decisions but do they love getting things right.

Since a person’s response to pressure is relatively consistent and therefore predictable, how to deal with that person is equally predictable. There are simple things can be done differently for each style.

 

“With only 15 minutes of planning, we got a whole new approach to a Group Board member that we had struggled with for two years.”

In every office environment there is conflict, and that conflict is made worse under pressure. Breakdown between individuals and within teams is common. It’s both incredibly damaging to productivity and  not great for mental health. Either way it costs a lot of money.

Yet, now we understand the neuroscience behind the problem, there is a simple solution to breakdown. A clear set of strategies people can learn to apply to unblock relationships, build trust and unleash the power of collaboration. These strategies take less than a day to learn and can be applied to real situations immediately.

Find out more about how Agile Styles can be applied in your own business here.

 

“Of all the courses in our core curriculum, this has shown the highest correlation with accelerated revenue growth and improved performance. Individuals and teams in every service line have dramatically transformed their results with these tools.”

Katherine Steen, Colliers University Global Director

 

You might also enjoy these articles:

Why are corporates so hopeless at innovation (and entrepreneurs so good at it?)

How to make your people 30% more engaged, 29% more joyful and 26% more productive. Easily.

Leadership? It’s followship we should be worried about

 

John Rosling is a writer and lecturer on entrepreneurship, CEO of Contexis and Head of Thought at the Contexis Index; ever curious as to how entrepreneurial thinking is the key to activating purpose, stimulating agility and velocity and fulfilling human and commercial potential in global organisations.

 

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


Why are corporates so hopeless at innovation (and entrepreneurs so good at it?)

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Here’s a story we all tell ourselves. Big companies are slow, risk-averse and shackled by process. That means they can’t innovate which strangles growth and value. Entrepreneurs are fast, open to opportunity and free of corporate baggage. That means they innovate and create huge value. QED.
 
Neither story is necessarily true, of course. But we see evidence to support our beliefs everywhere.  The fact behind the myth is that there is a major problem in all but exceptional corporates in making entrepreneurship work.
 
Actually most corporates are stuffed full of entrepreneurial brilliance

Big companies have so little confidence in their ability to innovate that they spend huge amounts of their shareholders funds in attempting to bring entrepreneurship in from outside. Most have tried buying thrusting businesses and found it is almost always a disaster. Some have attempted Entrepreneurs in Residence but this is usually the route to a padded cell for the appointee. Increasingly we see big companies attempting to insulate the entrepreneur from their atrophic culture by forming arms-length partnerships and sponsorship programmes which can work but often result in hilarious clashes in culture between the corporate and the start-up (once described as the bland leading the blind).

The question that exercises me is WHY?

Why, given the absolute imperative to change, are most (not all) corporates so hopeless at creating innovation, drive and creativity? In a word entrepreneurship?’

How a team reacts under pressure is critical to determine how they behave in real situations and is quite new as a way of looking at team dynamics.

It’s a question I believe has now, at least in part, been answered by some quite brilliant research conducted in the US to describe how teams of people work in different organisations. There are two stand-out reasons why this research is brilliant:

  1. It’s new and is based on real neuroscience (what is actually going on in the head of your people), rather than the ‘observational’ approach of most organisational modelling from Jung onwards.
  2. It’s based on what happens when the Team is under stress or pressure. And that is critical to determine how they behave in real situations and is quite new as a way of looking at team dynamics.

So, how does this address the problem of entrepreneurship in organisations? Not surprisingly, those you would think of as entrepreneurs behave very differently to those you would pigeonhole as ‘corporate’. In fact, under pressure, they work in a diametrically opposed way. Hence the frustrations of entrepreneurship in large organisations. Hence the tendency for entrepreneurially minded people to quit. Yet it turns out that by showing people exactly how they are behaving you can enable them to choose a different path. You can re-programme the behaviour of individuals and teams and make it OK to be more entrepreneurial, faster, more innovative – but stay feeling safe.  We call it Agile Teams. The impact can be extraordinary.

It turns out that by showing people exactly how they are behaving you can enable them to choose a different path.

How can a team be helped to chose a different path?

To begin to understand this you have to imagine how teams behave under stress by visualising a circle or clock-face. Corporate teams typically move defensively, in an anti-clockwise direction, moving from concept or idea into evidence-based research in order to validate that idea, then to test it out in a controlled environment to prove it works, and only then to roll it out expecting users to adopt it when they’re actually being forced to comply. This creates little to no buy-in and often results in failed adoption. This is the classic command-and-control, micro-management process. It is a fear-based approach that reduces personal risk but removes choice and attempts to force participation.

Entrepreneurial teams typically move more offensively, in the clockwise direction. A new idea or challenge is shared with the team, which engages to provide feedback and input which refines direction and contributes missing considerations. Once a team of people who share the same ambition join together, put the concepts into action they then evaluate the outcomes against the team’s original intentions and then iteratively work together to make adjustments to the assumptions until the full value of the original concept gets realized. This is a trust and choice-based approach that enrols people’s participation based on their excitement for the project.

Corporates tend to put great value on planning and analysis prior to committing, which means they often move slowly and can get left behind. Entrepreneurs tend to move quickly based on minimal information. They are willing to make mistakes and learn from them, they’re agile and adjust course often, working in a state of continual improvement.

This new way of understanding how teams respond to daily business challenges has already had a dramatic impact on team performance in the few UK companies so far exposed to it.

What this shows is that in order to adopt the best of entrepreneurial thinking and application may not be as hard as the myths would suggest. That actually most corporates are stuffed full of entrepreneurial brilliance. It’s just the way teams have been taught to work that is suppressing it. And if that is true, companies like Google, Lockheed Martin and Spotify that have learnt to release the entrepreneur within may quickly become the rule and not the exception. And that really would be a revolutionary thought.

If you’re interested in learning more then get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.  And you might be interested in these articles:

The secret behind Collier International’s global revenue performance

Is being entrepreneurially minded the only survival strategy?