Tag Archives: Relationship

Insults and the Insulting Leaders Who Use Them

I recently read an article on foreignpolicy.com discussing how the media and U.S. policymakers commonly depict North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as irrational. The piece explains the current state of affairs from Kim’s point of view and provides historical reasons that may validate his behaviors. While I’m certainly not condoning Kim, it does remind me of the power in diplomacy.

Many U.S. politicians have verbally assaulted North Korea over the years. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “We are not dealing with a rational person, who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly” and President George W. Bush labeled them as part of an “Axis of Evil.” My question is why you would want to insult someone with whom you’d like to build a constructive relationship?

This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this. I remember when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi continuously insulted Republicans while she was concurrently trying to gather votes for the Affordable Care Act. Or when a Congressman shouted “You lie” to President Obama during a joint session address. Or when a Democratic Congresswoman called her Republican colleague a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod” during a budget debate. You could even go back to when Theodore Roosevelt disagreed with then President Benjamin Harrison calling him “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

In each of these cases, one politician was in the process of garnering support for his/her legislation; and in each case, they allowed productive debate to be disrupted by empty slurs…and they were empty. There was no substantive argument or strategic need for discord. It was frustration, pure and simple, boiling over in ineffective ways.

In the newspapers, we see this [politician] insulting that one, that one says this about the other one, but in a society where the standards of politics has fallen so much – I am talking about world society – we lose the sense of building society, of social co-existence, and social co-existence is built on dialogue.—Pope Francis

Now I am not so naïve as to argue for kumbaya-like unity, nor am I compelling you to admire your rival, but insults are not the pathway to results. Even President Trump on occasion (very rare occasion) has recognized the destructive nature of insults:

We don’t need to like the other person or agree with their point of view. We do, however, need to find ways in which to support a culture of mutual respect where work can get done with all affected parties. This, if nothing else, is a core responsibility of a leader.

As leaders, we must be focused on getting things done. This sometimes entails swallowing your spiteful thoughts in the pursuit of progress. You cannot bring people together if you’ve already alienated them and their ideas. It does not mean you should pretend to be in accord; just that you can be nice.

Don’t let pettiness distract from your ability to influence. In the midst of intense discord, feelings are raw and people tend to act out, but this does not excuse impolite behavior. Find an outlet for your resentment, but also find the right time and do it in a way that will not sabotage your deal. With practice, who knows, maybe you’ll even win them over to your side.

Supergirl on Being Overshadowed by a Super-Leader

superman-supergirlOne of my favorite new shows last year was Supergirl. You may feel that I’m partial to superhero-based shows (click here to learn more), but this really is a great story.

Remember when Superman escaped from this home planet just before it blew up? Well imagine that his older cousin, Kara, was sent in a separate spaceship to protect him on their new planet, Earth. Unfortunately, Kara’s rocket was diverted and she arrived 24 years later to find that her cousin is grown up and has become the world’s most renowned superhero.

The show picks up with Kara acclimating to her newfound superhero identity. In itself, this is an interesting story. What’s unique, however, is how Kara is overshadowed by her already-established cousin.

[We] all live in someone’s shadow in our lives, and we’re all second best to someone in our lives. What’s amazing on this show is she gets to be at the forefront.—Ali Adler, Supergirl executive producer

The dynamics between a leader and super-leader can lead to feels of animosity, frustration, and resentment– we are great, until he shows up. There’s no denying that your leadership abilities are dwarfed by the super-leader, and worse, you can’t help but acknowledge that he/she really is super. This then leads to further feels of animosity, frustration, and resentment.

When insecurity strikes, it can have devastating affects on your team. For instance, new research shows that these leaders often preclude co-workers from forming cooperative relationships. They tend to separate the highly skilled individuals, thereby blocking interactions that are essential to nurturing group success. These vulnerable leaders continue this behavior even after being instructed on the ways collaboration enhances team performance.

People [on the show] are in awe of Superman, just in the same way that the audience is. So part of what Kara is dealing with is he walks into a room and everybody gets real quiet and stares, and she’s like, ‘Oh God, oh brother. All right, it’s my cousin. Get over it.’—Andrew Kreisberg, Supergirl executive producer

While it may not seem logical to isolate your A-players, in the midst of insecurity, otherwise rational leaders frequently try to bolster their position by abating cohesion. If people don’t have a relationship, they cannot discuss your shortcomings in relation to the super-leader, nor can they plot against you.

Supergirl understands why the world loves Superman. In response, she seeks ways to learn from him. Instead of being worried about comparisons, she embraces opportunities to work together so, with time, she can be seen an equal, a peer who works with him, not under him. Utilize your relationship with the super-leaders in your life. They may be the mentor you’ve always needed.

Do You Know Your Redshirts? How to Avoid Becoming a Star Trek Captain

start trek red shirtI was recently meeting with a leadership committee tasked with overseeing a layoff. It was a grim room filled with apprehension and resentment. No one was happy to make these difficult choices, but it was understood that a reduction in force was the last available option to save the company.

The committee’s conversations were analytically based, as if de-personalizing the decisions would make them easier. Human resources did a nice job preparing quantitative research complete with charts and graphs. Performance (division, department, and employee) was summarized on spreadsheets without identifiers to allow for unbiased analyses. And everyone was armed with a calculator to crunch the numbers. It was at this moment when I began empathizing with Captain Kirk—we were both responsible for choosing the “redshirts” undertaking their last expedition.

If you are not familiar with the term redshirt, it is commonly used by Star Trek fans when referring to the characters dressed in a red uniform. It seems that anyone wearing red has a higher fatality rate than other characters on the show. This is not just conjecture. When SiteLogic crunched the numbers, they found that 13.7% of the crew died during Star Trek’s three-year televised mission; and of those who died, 73% were redshirts.

By comparing real-life layoffs to the fictional deaths of USS Enterprise staff, I am not trying to minimize how awful is it to be laid off, nor am I undercutting the immense pressure leaders are under when implementing an initiative that will negatively impact so many people. What I recognized sitting with that committee through hours of discussions is how easy is can be to begin thinking of employees as anonymous redshirts.

Redshirting the workforce may sound callous, but let’s consider it from the leader’s viewpoint. How many people can a leader really be expected to know? In a smaller company, you should be acquainted with everyone, however as the populace grows into the hundreds and then thousands, no one can realistically maintain a relationship with each person. Throw in satellite offices and a swelling organizational hierarchy and the once start-up now feels beyond one leader’s control.

My advice is to avoid the apathy associated with accepting others as redshirts. They are not expendable, even if Star Trek treats them as such. Your redshirts are responsible for getting the work done. Unlike the layers of management, redshirts touch your product and maintain relations with your customers. Their value (and your ability to make sure they feel valued) is a primary competitive advantage for the lasting success of your organization.

Being unfamiliar with every employee doesn’t excuse you from continuing to make an attempt. This direct contact not only gives you candid insights in the culture, but also provides you the opportunity to tap undiscovered potential and unearth the many ways your organization can be improved from the people with firsthand access to the processes.

You may read this and decide to uphold your redshirt practices. Be warned. If you choose to use them as a disposable first line of offense, it is only a matter of time until they grasp the stigma associated with the redshirt. Engagement will plummet, productivity will suffer, and turnover will spike faster than a Tribble reproduces.

Suicide Squad’s Three Steps to Turning Enemies Into Allies

Suicide Squad bannerHave you ever experienced a workplace rivalry? Moving beyond healthy competition, I’m referring to opposition that is counterproductive to both you and your organization’s success. It can be as obvious as jockeying against an adversary for a promotion, or as subtle as a colleague undermining your authority, abilities, or accomplishments. In some extreme cases, it can feel like we are being forced to work on a team with psychopathic criminals. No wait, that’s the plot for the new movie Suicide Squad.

In DC Comic’s movie Suicide Squad, a secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to perform dangerous missions in exchange for clemency. Imagine the opposite of the Avengers or the Justice League, where instead of working together for a common good, each member of the team is self-serving, manipulative, and basically evil.

Your worst-case experience (hopefully) is not as bad as the Suicide Squad, but there may be similarities— infighting, a lack of mutual trust, bickering, backstabbing. When faced with these situations, you have two options, run away or deal with it. The first is self-explanatory and, being the leader you are, is not a likely choice. To deal with it, we need to learn how to turn our enemies into collaborators.

In Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap’s Harvard Business Review article, they introduce a method that, if executed correctly, turns adversaries into allies. Unlike previous techniques that rely on reasoning and logic, Uzzi and Dunlap focus on the emotional aspects of forming trusting relationships. Their process called the 3Rs is as follows:

Step 1: Redirection

To begin your rivalry-conversion program, you need to re-establish the relationship. This involves channeling your adversary’s negative emotions away from you. In a comfortable setting, demonstrate that you understand their value. A sincere compliment, public recognition, and flattery can go a long way to redirecting the relationship towards more positive rapport.

Then, if possible, clear the air. Take responsibility for your actions and admit fault. Don’t push them to concede their part in stoking the rivalry, nor should you seek an apology. This is about you displaying a willingness to improve the relationship. Once redirection has taken place, which may take more than one instance depending on the relationship’s toxicity, you’ve set the groundwork for the next step.

Step 2: Reciprocity

After exhibiting energy to repair the broken relationship, it is time to loosen their negative feelings by giving up something of value. The idea it to consider how you can fulfill one of their more immediate needs or reduce a pain point. Carrying out this assignment will further establish trust and demonstrate the benefits of your partnership.

Once you’ve satisfied your promise(s), ask for something in return. Choose a task that requires little effort for them to reciprocate. If you get greedy, they will question your motives, which will only intensify the rivalry. Also, don’t give and then instantaneously ask for something in return. Let the good feelings simmer before trying to collect.

Step 3: Rationality

The final step establishes your expectations of the new relationship. You can get lost in redirection and reciprocity, but that won’t necessarily patch up a conflict. By expressing your expectations, you are mitigating your challenger’s ability to second-guess your intentions. This pushes your adversary to consider a reasoned perspective, comprehend the benefits, and recognize that they are being offered a valuable opportunity.

Rationality is like offering medicine after a spoonful of sugar: It ensures that you’re getting the benefit of the shifted negative emotions, and any growing positive ones, which would otherwise diffuse over time. And it avoids the ambiguity that clouds expectations and feedback when flattery and favors come one day, and demands the next.—Brian Uzzi & Shannon Dunlap

Workplace enemies are harmful to all involved. It distracts us from reaching our goals, absorbs our energy, and is a certain culture killer. As leaders, we cannot ignore or attempt to contain these caustic relationships. We must first model positive behavior by mending our rivalries and then assist our team to do the same. The other option is to form a team of self-interested supervillains, but with their proclivity towards destruction, that’s probably not a long-term solution.

Six Muppet-Inspired Leadership Lessons

Muppet_show_cast1Before Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall, and In Living Color, The Muppet Show was my comedy variety show. If I can give credit to any singular media outlet, it goes to Jim Henson’s brainchild. Toggling between irreverent and poignant, it never failed to deliver quality entertainment. So you can imagine how I excited I am to re-introduce the Muppets to my kids in their new primetime show.

To gear up for this joyous occasion, let’s ramp up our leadership skills with a few ways that they (and some corresponding research) can help us be more effective communicators, influencers, and team builders.

Beat Drums! Beat Drums!

Animal_IconWhen I watch Animal wildly release his fury on the drummers, it appears to be so cathartic; yet, he always seems to finish his set with just as much ire as when he started. Contrary to what we’ve been told, research shows that releasing your anger may not lead to greater personal happiness. One study found that hitting a punch-bag while thinking about the person who made you angry actually makes you angrier. And losing your temper has been associated with poorer health. So don’t be an Animal. Instead of unleashing all your frustrations or trying to bottle them up, find constructive outlets that address your aggravation.

The Power of Moi

misspiggy_1024convIf Miss Piggy seems a bit self-obsessed, first, who can blame her? She can sing, dance, and perform better than most of the pigs trying to make in in Hollywood today. Second, her inflated self-esteem is an advantage to the team. A 2010 study found that having a few narcissists on the team has a beneficial effect on the group’s creativity. When teams of four people were challenged to come up with new solutions, the groups with two narcissists performed the best.

Stuben Der Bork Bork Bork

swedish chefThe preeminent television cooking show host does not need words to teach you how to get around in a kitchen. The Swedish Chef has mastered non-verbal communication just like he masters his recipes. His lesson is simple – utilize more hand gestures. A recent study found that leaders who do not use hand gestures are perceived as distant, whereas the leader with positive hand gestures was considered to be friendlier and more attractive.

Wocka Wocka

Fozzie2As stand up comic extraordinaire Fozzie Bear shows us, we can all use a little more humor in the workplace. This can’t just come from the team; your role as leader must involve instigating the jokes. According to research, a leader’s humor style is positively associated with job satisfaction and the effects increase with increasing subordinate tenure. But be warned, humor is only effective when the leader–subordinate relationship is positive. It will have an adverse affect if there’s a sour relationship.

They aren’t half bad. Nope, they’re ALL bad!

Statler and WaldorfEasily my favorite characters from the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf sit on the balcony providing less–than-constructive commentary. With all their grumbling, these two gentlemen should be anxiety-free. Unfortunately, they epitomize the research showing that complaining doesn’t make us feel better; it makes us feel much worse. In studies of “e-venting” – expressing anger via email, text or on social media – people report that they feel better afterwards, but the research finds that they actually become angrier and more aggressive. Don’t let your Statlers and Waldorfs dominate the conversation or occupy the culture. Help them find more productive way of expressing themselves.


kermitOrganizing and directing this unruly bunch takes a certain type of leader. Kermit the Frog has been successfully managing this team for 40 years. Without disparaging the Muppets, it is safe to say that they are not exactly A-players; without Kermit, their quirks and lack of focus would not make them marketable (Lew “fish thrower” Zealand, notwithstanding). To manage B-players, Kermit possesses the three personality characteristics discussed in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

  1. He has better judgment than his counterparts, including the ability to learn from experience and avoid repeating mistakes;
  2. He has higher Emotional Intelligence, which helps him stay calm under pressure, remain humble, and build meaningful relationships; and
  3. He has a high level of ambition and is never complacent.

Embrace your inner Muppet to become a more effective leader. Whether you’re facilitating a strategy group, implementing some organizational changes, or trying to get a bunch of chickens to dance (a la Gonzo), consider how your felt-covered friends would handle the situation. You may want to consider doing the opposite, but knowing what-not-to-do can be just as useful.