Tag Archives: Context

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.

Three Ways to Provide Meaningful Context with Questlove

Ever had a new, ingenious idea that was met with a thud? I’m sure YOU haven’t but you’ve probably seen it happen to others. I was speaking with a CEO recently who had been working on an exciting new direction for her company. She had questions about strategy, but what we really should have been discussing was her communication plan when launching it.

At the company-wide unveiling, she eagerly revealed the plan. There were charts and graphs and every other quantifiable measure to support her idea. And then there was silence—a bleak, soul crushing silence.

It turns out that no one, including her leadership team, had any inkling this was coming. They thought they were attending a quarterly review, not a turn-the-world-upside-down upheaval. Change, in itself, can be scary, but what’s even scarier is when you don’t understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s. What my colleague was missing was context.

Context involves our ability to interrelate something you already know with whatever change we’d like to instill. Questlove, a music aficionado, record producer, and drummer/joint frontman for The Roots, recently discussed this on Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin:

No one has ever had success in music without being contextualized in an artistic community. So, you think you like Stevie Wonder, but no, you associate Stevie Wonder with Smokie [Robinson], The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Motown family… The only people that had success without a family or contextualization are one-hit wonders… Everyone is associated with a movement. Look at The Police. They were part of that post-punk movement, early new wave movement, Talking Heads. Even if they don’t do it by design, we as consumers think that.

Just as no one has ever had success in music without being contextualized, no leader is successful in business without contextualizing their ideas. With context, the leader sets the tone so they can initiate commitment and support for change. It taps into individuals’ established schemas and mental models so they can create the mental links necessary to apply the new information to their construction of reality. If this seems complicated, these three simple techniques can help you provide context to your team.

Know thy audience. Everything is interpreted through someone’s context. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Thus, when your message is delivered in a context that is not compatible with the audience, miscommunication is inevitable. Maintain an understanding as to what your audience already knows and how they are most receptive to learning.

Squash fears. Change is often associated with fear, and fear is often associated with a lack of understanding. So illustrate how the new plan meshes with the current strategy. Explain what, if anything, it is replacing. Describe how it will reallocate resources, job duties, etc. and how it will affect individual employees.

Provide history. Every new concept has a background, a past. It may involve an update, revision, or enhancement to a current concept; a best practice; or a new industry standard…but it didn’t materialize out of thin air. Plot out the history so others can visualize how the project started and why it is necessary.

Very often we assume others can comprehend these connections without explanation; after all, it is so clear to us. However, as in the case of the aforementioned CEO, she had been thinking about her new direction for almost two years before the launch. That is two years of pondering, brainstorming, and intellectualizing. Two years of making the associations she needed to bridge the gap between her vision and the current state of the company. Two years of contextualizing.

Want to learn from her misstep? Inform your team of the issue at hand through a workable framework. Address their concerns. Give them the background information you already possess so they can visualize the decision making leading up to your resolution. It may not seem like much, but it’s the context they need to associate your new Stevie Wonder with their classic Smokie Robinson.

J.J. Abrams on Establishing Boundaries

jj-abramsI recently witnessed a manager delegating work without any apparent limits or parameters. At first glance, this seemed liberating. The employee had total freedom to complete the task as she saw fit. Then she came back in the manager’s office for clarification, and back again, and again.

The next day, when I asked her about the experience, she stated all she wanted was a little direction. The manager had a different take; he was trying not to stifle her creativity and, per his ideology, “I hired her because she’s a pro. I shouldn’t have to spoon feed her.” So the question becomes, how much guidance should you give when delegating an assignment? J.J. Abrams might have the answer.

Back in early 2000s’, esteemed director, producer, and screenwriter J.J. Abrams was approached by a network to develop a new show. By this point in his career, Abrams had an impressive litany of successes— Armageddon, Alias, Felicity, Regarding Henry, etc. Regardless, he was not given free rein to present whatever was on his mind… and he prefers it this way. As he told Wired magazine,

I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries. With Lost, when ABC chairman Lloyd Braun called to say he wanted me to come up with a show about people who survive a plane crash, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I will come up with that,’ and I did—very, very quickly. What was great was he had given me a very specific assignment. So when I called him back and told him my thoughts, they were far weirder than what he would have ever expected. He was basically thinking about doing a kind of castaway show. But the constraint he imposed allowed the weirdness to kind of feel like fertile ground. Weirdness within limits, you know? If it had been un-limited—if he had called and said, come up with a weird show—I would have thought, I don’t know! What does that even mean?

“Weirdness within limits.” That might be my new delegation mantra. To provide these limits, leaders must be adept at delegation. This is more than handing off the tasks you don’t want to do. True delegation is an opportunity to build competences, experiment with new techniques, and grow confidence. When delegating, consider the following:

  • Provide context for the project. Explain why it matters, the impact it will have, and how it fits into the larger scheme.
  • Be specific. Your ultimate objective should not be a guessing game. Provide clear purpose for the initiative.
  • Resist the urge to micromanage. If you’re going to allow for freedom of expression, step back so they can express the freedom.
  • Offer focused feedback. If they are getting it wrong, that means they need more of your insight to guide them.
  • Impart positive support. When the project’s done, don’t be stingy with the compliments.

If established genius J.J. Abrams works best with boundaries, why shouldn’t we provide the same consideration to those on our team? You don’t need to present a detailed blueprint, but carte blanche doesn’t work either. With a little direction, you can save a lot of time and frustration, plus you’ll end up with an all-around better product.