Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume. Available here and by RSS on April 29.
And on May 6: Compulsive Talkers at Work:Part I
Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this? Available here and by RSS on May 6.
Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.
Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be so difficult.
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.
To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
Ego depletion is a recently discovered phenomenon that limits our ability to regulate our own behavior. It explains such seemingly unrelated phenomena as marketing campaign effectiveness, toxic conflict contagion, and difficulty losing weight.
When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
If you're the target of a workplace bully, you probably want the bullying to end. If you've ever been the target of a workplace bully, you probably remember wanting it to end. But how it ends can be more important than whether or when it ends.
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into a toxic form.
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, lay off, or make other organizational adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Here's Part II of an exploration of how the fear induced by these changes can lead to the need for further restructuring.
When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, spin off, relocate, lay off, or make other adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Often ignored is the fear these changes create in the minds of employees. Sadly, that fear can lead to the need for further restructuring.
Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal responsibility for ending it.
Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
Sometimes changing organizations goes smoothly. More often, it doesn't. Whatever methodology we use — and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard, what's happening? What makes change hard?
As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
Your company has just done another round of layoffs, and you survived yet again. This time was the most difficult, because your best pal was laid off, and you're even more fearful for your own job security. How can you cope with survival?
What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on might just help keep you untwisted.
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
Humor can lift our spirits and defuse tense situations. If you're already skilled in humor, and you want advice from an expert, I can't help you. But if you're humor-impaired and you just want to know the basics, I probably can't help you either. Or maybe I can...
Feeling distrusted and undervalued, we often attribute the problem to the behavior of others — to the micromanager who might be mistreating us. We tend not to examine our own contributions to the difficulty. Are you micromanaging yourself?
Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.
One widespread feature of organizational life is the announcement of across-the-board cuts. Although they're announced, they're rarely "across-the-board." What's behind this pattern? How can we change it to a more effective, truthful pattern?
Do you consider yourself a body linguist? Can you tell what people are thinking just by looking at gestures and postures? Think again. Body language is much more complex and ambiguous than many would have us believe.
When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted, what can you do?
Workplace bullies are probably the organization's most expensive employees. They reduce the effectiveness not only of their targets, but also of bystanders and of the organization as a whole. What can you do if you become a target?
When we depend on praise, positive support or consumption to feel good, we're giving other people or things power over us. Finding within ourselves whatever we need to feel good about ourselves is one path to autonomy and freedom.
In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.
How we cope with problems is a choice. When we choose our coping style, we help determine our ability to address the problems we face. Of eight styles we can identify, only one is universally constructive, and we rarely use it.
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Wishing — for ourselves, for others, or for all — helps us focus on what we really want. When we know what we really want, we're ready to make the little moves that make it happen. Here's a little user's guide for your wishing wand.
When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
Layoffs during the holiday period of November 15 through January 15 are far more common than you might think. Losing your job, or fearing that you might, is always difficult, but at this time of year it's especially helpful to keep in mind that the experience does have a bright side.
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
Grief is usually a private matter, but for many, September Eleventh is different because our grief can be centered in the workplace. On September Eleventh, give yourself permission to do what you need for yourself, and give others permission to do what they need for themselves. Here are some choices.
Many of us are experts in risk analysis and risk management. Even the non-specialists among us have developed considerable skill in anticipating troubles and preparing plans for dealing with them. When these habits of thought leak into our personal lives, we pay a high price.
Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy, you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.
Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
Diversity of perspectives is one of the great strengths of teams. Ideas contend and through contending they improve each other. In this process, criticism of ideas sometimes gets personal. How can we critique ideas safely, without hurting each other, while keeping focused on the work?
Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
We've all made mistakes, and we'll continue to do so for as long as we live. Making mistakes is part of being human. Still, we're often troubled by our mistakes, even when we remember that many mistakes turn out to be great gifts. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes?
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
Have you had a major success lately? Have you become a celebrity in your organization? Are people showering you with accolades? When it happens, we feel great, and the elation does finally come to an end. What then?
Taking on the full load is what we do when we feel fully responsible for either the success or the failure of some organizational activity. Instead of asking for help, we take extreme measures to execute responsibilities that might not even be ours.
If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished Truth. When you kill a messenger, you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the Truth at your peril. Killing messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive — good news or bad.
Because of the events of September Eleventh, and out of respect for the dead and bereaved, Point Lookout didn't appear this week. I hope we can all find a way through our pain to a place of peace and respect for all. Please take the time that you would have spent reading Point Lookout and use it to move us all a little closer to that goal.
Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
When somebody complains to you about someone else's performance, you're entering into another dimension — a dimension of three minds. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Triangulation Zone.
"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.
When you celebrate — even minor successes — you change your outlook, you energize yourself, and you create new ways to achieve more successes. Too often we let others define what we will celebrate. Actually, we're in complete command of what we celebrate. When we take charge of our celebrations, we make life a lot more fun.
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
Some people use rhetorical tricks that push our buttons, which makes choosing wisely difficult. Implied accusations make us defensive, which is almost always a bad place to be. What other choices do we have?
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