Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with Dr. Mark Goulston, a sought-after conflict management coach, advisory board member at Tanto Capital Partners, and consultant to Fortune 500 leaders, entrepreneurs and educators across the nation. Goulston was a UCLA professor of psychiatry for over 25 years, and is a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer.
David and David: Tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.
Dr. Goulston: I help people learn how to resolve conflict. People waste massive amounts of time, money and energy by either avoiding or poorly handling conflict – and that’s especially pertinent right now, when there are so many key issues to deal with and emotions are running high.
David and David: How are you advising people to navigate the current crisis?
Dr. Goulston: When I speak to CEO groups and entrepreneurs, I tell them they need to change their mindset and see the new normal as an opportunity for them - whether that means changing your company’s business model, bringing new products to market, or establishing more effective ways to engage customers and staff.
When you see the opportunity, you have to be able to pivot, to change what you do and how you do it. To do that, you have to resolve the conflict in your head and let go of a lot of things that stand in the way. Then you have to resolve the conflict for other people who need to join you, align them even though they’re scared, and then execute. I remember talking to Warren Bennis about this and he said, “Leaders go where they’re looking; managers look where they’re going.”
David and David: How can leaders help people change directions when they’re feeling anxious and scared?
Dr. Goulston: I don’t think the challenge is leading people through change, it’s leading them through their fear. When people are anxious, the uncertainty scares them, and it constricts their mindset. When people are in that state, they need hacks that work 100% of the time. Hacks seed the part of the mind that used to be able to listen and learn. When people try a hack and it works, they become curious and that gives them a chance to learn.
For example, here is a hack you can use when someone in a conversation with you has their arms crossed and is showing that they’re resistant to opening up to you. Listen for the words they’re using that have hyperbole - “never”, “always”, “awful” - or listen for the inflection points where their voice goes up. That’s when they’re expecting you to get into a competitive “talking at” interaction. Instead, pause just for a little bit, and pick one of those hyperbolic words and say “tell me more about ‘never.’” What will happen is if they were geared up for being talked at, the last thing they expected was “hit me with more of your stuff.” You’ll see them kind of flinch, but they’ll go a level deeper. That may make them feel uncomfortable at first, but they’ll start to reveal more and feel good that they’re now into a real conversation.
Give someone who’s scared or anxious a tactic like that, and they’ll ask you for more. And now that they’ve given you their mind, you need to give them a step-by-step strategy that will help them make the pivot that’s necessary.
David and David: You talk about the importance of leaders using experience-near language. How does that apply in leading people through their fear?
Dr. Goulston: Experience-near language is language that people feel and understand simply by hearing it. “Goals” is not an experience-near word and because of that, when you talk about goals people think “here we go again” and don’t sink their teeth into them. Not everyone has goals, but everyone has needs. When you share the needs that the company has, when you say “I need your help” and bear your neck a bit with assertive humility, you get a very different kind of buy-in.
A company usually only has three needs:
When you tell people about these needs, you can also tell them that if you succeed in the second one – if you can somehow cause people to become fans – then the first and third will take care of themselves. After that, the rest is asking them for their plan to make that happen.
David and David: And how do you do that, create that fanaticism for your company? Does it make sense to even try for that during a crisis?
Dr. Goulston: There’s a formula. It involves triggering a “Whoa”, “Wow”, “Hmm”, “Yes” sequence in people. There’s a great video dramatizing Steve Jobs going to XEROX Parc and first discovering the graphic user interface (GUI). He starts with his arms crossed, cynical and skeptical, and then he leans in (“Whoa”). He asks to try it, steps in and starts sweating (“Wow”). Then he looks back at Steve Wozniak (“hmmm”). XEROX didn’t know what to do with the GUI, but Jobs and Wozniak went back and did it (“Yes”). If you’re not creating that sequence in people’s minds, then you’re triggering, “nah”, “no thanks”, “never mind”, “goodbye.”
David and David: As a psychiatrist and a professional who deals in very high stakes situations, what stands out about human behaviors you’re observing during the pandemic?
Dr. Goulston: As people are stuck at home, they’re being pitched activities to do together – shows to watch, games to play, etc. - as a way to feel better. In these activities, adrenaline releases dopamine and creates happiness and excitement. But dopamine can also be released using oxytocin, the good feeling of social trust and closeness.
For example, there is an exercise that will create a total immersion in oxytocin for your team, even while we are social distancing. It’s called The Ten Word Remote Check-In, and I created it to help leaders who are trying to get work done in a video meeting while also checking in with people to hear how they’re holding up.
In the exercise, you ask people to think about the worst they’ve felt during the prior week, connect that with one of the ten words offered (Anxious, Depressed, Afraid, Frustrated, Angry, Ashamed, Alone, Lonely, Exhausted, or Numb), and put that word in the chat. When you see the chat filling up with people’s names and these emotions, it generates a huge feeling of oxytocin – we’re all going through this. You then print up the chat file, pair people up according to who chose the same word, and have those people check-in with each other every week. People will start to feel closer and more connected to each other.
David and David: Any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Dr. Goulston: As a leader, it’s crucial to put yourself in the shoes of your people and customers and give them a clear vision of what their new normal could be. Forget whether you can supply anything to them for now. If you can give them a clear vision of the new normal, even at the cost of your immediate sale, they’re going to remember that.
Original article posted on Forbes on May 19, 2020
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