“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


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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