Category Archives: Problem Solving

The One Way to Constructively Defuse an Argument

Constructive conflict is a healthy part of any organization. Deprived of it, we end up with a lack of innovation, status quos are not challenged, necessary questions are avoided, and there is a lethal amount of consensus. The key is how we address this conflict.

One way to face conflict is fast and furious. Like the multi-sequel movie franchise, we can follow Dom Toretto’s philosophy:

I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters; not the mortgage; not the store; not my team and their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.

When we lead through a “quarter-mile at a time” mindset, we are likely to engage in such practical strategies as seeking compromise, utilizing empathy, avoiding blame, apologizing, and forgiving past actions. However, while these techniques can be effective, they do not work when we are in the midst of a heated argument where we feel emotionally invested. So how can we improve our ability to resolve our interpersonal conflicts?

According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, you are more likely to resolve conflict through superior reasoning strategies when you consider the situation in the long run. By distancing yourself from your current feelings, you are better equipped to unravel negative events and find resolution. Otherwise, according to another study, you are prone to ruminating, recounting, and re-experiencing the negative event indefinitely.

Still not convinced you are better off with a marathon (versus sprint) mentality? A study in Psychological Review found that imagining the future is a natural outlet to thinking more abstractly about an interpersonal conflict. Once we are able to transcend the present moment and put the negative events in context, we are less focused on recounting it and more focused on thinking about the bigger picture. And with enhanced adaptive reasoning strategies, the research reported that participants had a greater influx of positive emotions and insight.

To resolve conflicts, we need to think beyond a “quarter-mile at a time.” How will it pan out tomorrow, next week, and next year? It may not be as harrowing as a fast and furious solution, but the measure of successful leadership is not reliant on how quickly you reach the finish line.

Ozzy Osbourne on Overconfidence and the Power of “I Don’t Know”

ozzy osbourneThere’s a classic track off Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album Blizzard of Ozz called “I Don’t Know.” In this song, Ozzy sings of people looking to him for answers, “asking me who to follow,” “what’s the future of mankind,” and “looking to find the truth.” His simple response: “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.” You may see this as a copout from the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, but admitting you don’t know may lead to the most strategic decision you can make.

In a wide-spread international study of managers, consultants, academics, and students, Mark Chussil created a tournament to record how decision-makers solve a competitive-strategy problem. The contest is based on three fictitious industries that each have three competitors. The industries starts out identical (cost structure, product line, performance, etc.) and the participants are tasked with devising the most successful three-year strategy. A computer then analyzes the simulations and compares them with the other participants.

If this tournament sounds easy, consider that the number of possible outcomes in each industry is 3,201,872,665,419. In an attempt to discover successful decision making traits, Chussil has found many interesting results ranging from market adaptability to goal selection to the ability to predict outcomes. One finding I’d like to focus on is what I’m calling the Ozzy Effect, i.e. the willingness to say, “I Don’t Know.”

In Chussil’s research, he analyzed participants’ speed and processing abilities before they finalized a decision. He then split them up into three groups: 1) the I-already-knows whose confidence led towards snap judgments, 2) the Now-I-knows who felt confident after deliberating, and 3) the I-don’t-knows who made a thoughtful decision but did not feel overly assured.

Mark Chussil Strat Decision

Of the three styles, the best-performing tournament strategy was overwhelmingly the I-don’t-knows. These individuals were able to avoid the traps associated with overconfidence, including a willingness to explore all options, test multiple theories, and keep an open mind. They also took more time to make a decision and continued to search for solutions (versus trying to bolster the decision that was already made).

Before you make your next big decision, consider the Ozzy Effect. Start with an I-don’t-know mindset so you can attack the problem with a clear perspective and avoid the assumptions associated with thinking you already know. You can then communicate the new cultural expectation, differentiate the good decision-makers from the bad, and promote those on your team who display these Ozzy-fied characteristics.

Weekender: Charlie Gillingham on the Essence of Creativity

Charlie GillinghamWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a simplified algorithm of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why simplified? Because it’s the weekend!

When searching for innovative ideas, how much time do you waste in the pursuit of divine inspiration? If you are eating up valuable time (or reading this in an attempt to spark inventiveness, i.e. procrastinate), consider the wise words of Charlie Gillingham.

Charlie Gillingham is the keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist for the rock band, the Counting Crows. He also studied artificial intelligence (AI) at University of California, Berkeley and worked as a software engineer in the field of AI before becoming a full-time musician. In a recent interview, Gillingham was asked about the prospects of AI being used in composing.

People would like to believe that there’s a magical essence that makes a human being a human being and makes it different than all other things on earth. The truth is much, much more complicated. People point to creativity as something that’s somehow magical, somehow metaphysical, you know, comes from some other plane. But the essence of creativity is making choices, making guesses. These are things that machines are so good at… Anyway, people tend to think creativity’s some kind of a high bar, but it’s actually not. It’s one of many high bars.

I hope Gillingham’s comment does not minimize your romantic vision of an artist. When I read it, I was comforted with the idea that creativity is making choices. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities, or worse, the blank page. By simplifying our understanding of creativity, we can demystify the process, usurp the frustration of writer’s block, and break down the problem into alternative solutions.

So go make some choices.

Too Many Television Choices? How Leaders Can Avoid Faulty Decision Making (and a Jam-Packed DVR)

Tvs bannerI’ve really enjoyed this summer. Unlike the rest of the year, summer is the one time when I don’t feel pressure to keep my television viewing current. My DVR is not on the brink of overflow and I can leisurely catch up on programs I’ve missed without worrying that someone will spoil it. But fall is coming and with it is a whole lotta of new TV.

My issues are of my own doing. I don’t have to watch all of my shows; there is just so much good television. I both can’t keep up and I really, really want to. Therefore, to ease up on this unnecessary, leisure-time pressure, I’ve decided to remove some shows from my viewing rotation. Making this resolution is easy; keeping it is not.

There is simply too much television… [The audience] is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shows.—John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks

How do I decide what shows to abandon? I have two that are wrapping up this year, so I can’t miss their conclusion. Three are frequently referenced at work, so I can’t cut myself out of the break room chatter. Others make me think, are reserved for family time, or are simply too good to ignore. And let’s not forget about the promising new shows coming out.

With so many shows to pick from, I don’t want to choose the wrong ones. This quandary is not uncommon. Numerous studies have concluded that we often make a bad decision when presented with too many options.

In a recent experiment, acclaimed neuroscientist Paul Glimcher asked participants to choose one candy bar amongst those offered, including their favorite, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, an Almond Joy, and a Milky Way, the Snickers was always chosen. However, when participants were offered twenty candy bars, including Snickers, they frequently picked a candy bar other than the Snickers. This may not seem unusual except that when Glimcher removed all the choices except the selected candy and the Snickers, a significant number of participants were unsure why they chose a candy bar other than their favorite.

Malcolm Gladwell’s classic Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking discussed an overcrowded hospital Emergency Room in Chicago that had too many patients, not enough doctors, cramped space, an inadequate number of beds, and scarce resources. Finding that over thirty patients a day came in complaining of having a heart attack, the hospital conducted a study. They found that…

…extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.

And in a 2004 study, Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar concluded that extensive choices in retirement funds hinder purchasing decisions and decrease subsequent satisfaction with the purchased plan. Using data from 800,000 employees, Iyengar and her team found 75% participation when offered two 401k plans, but it dropped to 70% when eleven plans were offered and 61% when there were 59 plans. Then, once the employees with more options chose their plan, many opted out or chose lower-return plans.

Consumers are saying that greater choice does not always lead to a better experience.—Jonathan Hurd, Altman Vilandrie & Company Director

Thankfully, there are ways we can sift through the options to improve our decision making. Consider the following:

What’s the problem? Before getting lost in the infinite number of solutions, spend more time defining the problem. You can then concentrate on a clearer, more distinct objective.

Narrow it down. Since decision making is hampered by feeling overwhelmed from an excessive number of options, begin by removing the undesirable choices. This will minimize distractions and allow you to focus on the best decision.

Rank it. Once you have a list of the best possible solutions, make a pro/con list. Order them by favorability consult with your team, and carefully analyze the data.

Do your due diligence. Time pressures are a sure path to faulty decision making. A sense of urgency is necessary, but allow yourself time to weigh your options before committing.

Don’t let an overwhelming number of options harm your decision making. Remain vigilant of the impact this can have on you and your team. Like my clean DVR cue, maintain a clean approach to how you organize your thoughts. With a little discipline, it can be as easy as pressing delete.

Jason Bourne on Unethical Amnesia

jason bourneWhy does a leader act unethically? Are they pervasively corrupt? Do they lack a moral foundation? Are they generally depraved? If people were so predictable, detecting immorality would be simple. The real diagnosis may be more related to our inner Jason Bourne.

In both the movie and the books, Jason Bourne is introduced with dissociative amnesia. He has no memories of his past, but is capable of advanced combat skills. As he begins to discover his true identity, Bourne learns that he may be a contract assassin. How does this relate to leadership, you may ask? Similar to Bourne’s “nice guy” persona, I’ve met numerous “nice guy/gal” leaders who have admitted to committing morally questionable acts. The vast majority are not bad people; they may just have bad memories.

According to a comprehensive study, faulty memory may explain a person’s repeated dishonesty. Research shows that after participating in unethical behavior, memories of these actions become clouded due to the psychological distress and discomfort such misdeeds cause. The researchers call this unethical amnesia.

These findings distinctively note that memories of our unethical actions are less vivid than memories of our ethical actions. In the study, people who recalled and wrote about behaving unethically were less likely to remember the details of their actions a few days later as compared to people who engaged in ethical behavior. And when studying people who cheated during a dice-throwing game, participants who cheated had less detailed memories of their actions when compared to those who played the game honestly.

Because of unethical amnesia, unethical actions are more likely to be forgotten and, thereby, repeated. Therefore, as leaders, we must ensure that these memories remain intact. According to Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, here are three tips to help you and your team’s recall.

  • Associate what you are trying to learn with what you already know. The more mental connections we can make, the more successful we’ll be. When presenting ethics-based information, build on past stories and situations. Identify links and reinforce familiar concepts.
  • Create a mental memory tree. To remember past incidents of unethical behavior, visualize the details through a memory tree. Construct big branches, then leaves. These branches and leaves represent what led you down the wrong path and the steps taken to commit the misdeed.
  • When reading the employee handbook, company code of ethics, and policies & procedures, summarize each paragraph in the margin. This requires you to reflect and reprocess. Then, take each concept and reason forward—apply them to possible situations, consider ramifications, and how each instance can be avoided.

A flawed memory should not stand between the moral and immoral path. Jason Bourne is not the bad guy he once thought he was, and you don’t have to be either. By understanding why we make unethical decisions, we can promote more ethical behavior in our organizations and help those on our team behave more in line with our company values. Ethical dilemmas will continue to arise, just concentrate on remembering to avoid them.