Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why don't we speak up?

In my classes on Influence, we learn to identify 1) key behaviors that are at the heart of creating change and 2) “recovery behaviors” that represent what to do when things aren’t working as expected. Two generic recovery behaviors are 1) speaking up, and 2) training. It sounds easy; when a process isn’t working as expected, we need to speak up.

Sometimes speaking up is the hardest thing to do. I quote statistics from a 2007 study by Leadership IQ in which they found that over 80% of nearly 10,000 business people polled said they “occasionally or frequently withhold important information from bosses, coworkers and employees because they fear the conversation will end badly”. So this is not just some of us….this is nearly all of us.

Is work that stressful? Interesting statistic – the period that you are most likely to have a heart attack is from 6am to noon on a Monday. There is no other six hour period during the week which has a higher incident. So the stress caused by worry at work is bad for our business and bad for our health. Let’s talk a little more about the components of worry.

Worry occurs when we perceive and increase in our vulnerability and a decrease in our power. Vulnerability is the feeling we have that we are at risk. I have written and spoken before about power. There are 3 kinds: positional power (where you rank in a given context), personal power (credibility and track record), and technical power (knowledge in the subject at hand). Sometimes we are in situations that make us quite vulnerable (disagreeing with a ‘powerful’ person, challenging ‘common knowledge’, being asked to do things we don’t understand) and we feel worried about the outcome. So we do nothing. That’s safe – in the short term.

When your body enters a stressed situation like that, it responds just like it does to any threat. It moves blood from your core to your limbs (so you can run) and from your cerebral cortex to your limbic brain (so you no longer reason well, but your reactions are fast). This was great when we were running from saber-toothed tigers, but not so helpful when you are trying to reason through a problem. That’s a great reason to keep your mouth shut.

Want to worry less? Do the math! Increase your power and decrease your vulnerability. Increase your power by 1) Learning more about the subject at hand (technical power) and 2) learning relationship building skills and improving your credibility (personal power). As you practice these skills and perfect them, you will gain confidence which will reduce your vulnerability.

Still, you may find yourself over your head from time to time. In those cases, here is a four point plan when you go into “runaway” mode:

1) IIf you feel yourself stressing out, worrying, say “Stop” to yourself. Say it in your head over and over until the runaway feeling stops. This will arrest the autonomic runaway that will keep you from being able to think. It also gives the voice in your head something to do besides scream at you.

2) Breathe. Oxygenate. You need to calm yourself and think. You are deciding not to panic, but to think your situation through.

3) Now THINK! Think about your situation and turn off all self-critical thinking (“GOSH, I must be an idiot” does not help right now). Turn them OFF. Analyze your logic using critical thinking – what is really under discussion? What are the important issues? What claims are being made? What evidence is there to support the claims? How does that evidence support the claim?). Revise your assumptions. Create new hypotheses. Stay in this mode calmly until your logic is driving you and not emotions. You must stay out of the “fight or flight” state.

4) Now CHOOSE. Once you have begun creating logic again, choose how to proceed based on your training.

IIf If you STILL find yourself unable to shut down the worry monster, remember NEVER to worry alone. Call a friend with whom you can vent. Make sure they understand the rules if venting; They aren't allowed to try to solve your problem, only to listen and try to understand it. If you want to try solving the problem it is highly unlikely to happen UNLESS you are able to get through the four step plan. Trying to trouble shoot the issue without being calm will likely lead to a downward spiral and a bad result.

Realize that as you practice communication skills, you will find yourself going into runaway less and less. Runaway is a side-effect of taking a position of advocacy because you are invested in trying to “prove your point”. As your communication skills improve, you will find yourself not advocating positions, but collaborating. In collaborating, other points of views are encouraged and the task is to understand and reconcile the differences between them (rather than destroying any “competing” perspective). This is much more holistic approach to communication and generates better decisions and therefore better business results.

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