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How leaders can overcome conflict, influence others and raise performance

By Professor George Kohlrieser (December, 2006)

"Deep within humans dwell those slumbering powers; powers that would astonish them, that they never dreamed of possessing; forces which would revolutionize their lives if aroused and put into action"

These words of Orison Marden are very powerful. We need to understand that within all human beings there is this deep, slumbering power that most do not even activate. And that is one of the first ways to understand the hostage metaphor.

What I try to help leaders understand is how one can be a psychological hostage. And we see that people limit themselves every day. It is a sad story to see leaders who do not see the full potential of what they can do; which means those people they are leading also often don't have a chance to open those opportunities.

We can be a hostage either through ourselves or to someone, something or a situation outside. But the key is how the mind focuses. And when we understand the way the brain works, we are naturally going to look for what is wrong.

The brain is hardwired to look for what is wrong, particulary for anyone who is naturally a worrier, too anxious, or a perfectionist. But it doesn't have to be that way. We must be able to change the focus, so that we can either be in a winning cycle or in a losing cycle. We have control.

Introducing the mind's eye
The mind's eye determines 24 hours a day what we focus on. Even in sleep, the mind's eye can be working. There are some people who are going to see a half-full glass or a half-empty glass. So if you have somebody that is constantly looking for what is wrong, they are not going to reach their highest potential. And we can easily be taken hostage because we focus on the wrong thing. The winners are going to be able to always see, no matter what the frustration, no matter what the pain is, where the opportunity lies.

How leaders can use the mind's eye to manage a hostage situation
A good example is a CEO who brought together his top 90 people for a meeting, to implement a new strategy. He had been the CEO for some nine months, and he sent out an e-mail saying "We are here to discuss the situation, to discuss implementation – not to criticize or judge the strategy".

In a very short time a high potential says, "But this is a contradiction. If we do this, this is going to be impossible." The CEO responds, "How dare you attack me in front of the group! How dare you criticize me for ….…" and went on – "Didn't you read my e-mail?" Total silence.

You see, he was taken hostage by that one action. The alternative was to control his mind's eye, so that he would see another option – maybe ask a question, "Could we talk about this later?"; do something other than demoralize him. As a matter of fact, it shut down the whole group. They had to end the meeting early.

So we always have to remember what our goal is; never lose sight of that; and then get the language, the transactions, to go with it. You can be held hostage by your own emotions, and then it translates and you start talking in a way that demoralizes. How many times in a meeting does a leader end up talking about something she/he does not want to talk about?

Interfering with what happens
When we look at talent and talent management, research shows that only about 5 to 15% of talent is genetic and hereditary. The rest is under our influence and under how the brain gets wired.

The real key here is resilience. It has to do with how much endurance you have, so that you are not taken hostage by frustration, pain, whatever stops you; but you attach to the benefits so strongly, you just "go, go, go" and you don't give up.

What leaders have to do is to change their mindsets. We spend too much time trying to change behavior and not changing mindset. If you get a mindset change, very often the habits and behavior will start to move in a positive way too.

Understanding motivations
Leaders must create emotional bonds. Attachment behavior is part of human nature – to create attachments to persons, to countries, to homes, to goals, to pets, to places, etc. Out of this comes the bonds. Bonding creates inspiration. However, loss of bonding through separation, loss, frustration, and disappointment is how people get de-motivated. And that is because it opens the grief process. So resilience is this ability to go through the attachment/bonding/separation /grieving process, in order to come back, re-bond and reconnect and stay inspired or get inspired again. 

If you fail in a goal, if you are frustrated, if there are conflicts, if there is a disappointment – and it can be anything from loss of an office, from loss of a parking space, to failure to get a contract, dissapointment in a performance review, somebody leaves,– all of these things can break the bondings. What leaders have to do is to help people come back and re-connect.

The secure base
We all need secure bases to feel trust – people, homes, goals, etc. But the fundamental one should be with people. Your boss should be a secure base. Your team should be a secure base. So part of your role as a leader in an organization is to ensure you and your team, your colleagues, have access to secure bases.

If you are cynical, if you have too much negativity, if you have behavior that is disruptive to the social bonding of that team, that is a performance issue. And that has to be put on the table and dealt with. But when you have a secure base you can deal with conflicts. And conflicts can divide and destroy a team more than anything else. As leaders we have to understand that difference is good; it is only when the bonding is broken that the problems start.

Finally, we must bring together the personal, professional and the organizational sides of our lives. If you don't have some balance in your life, if you are not using all the neurons in your brain, if you don't have a hobby, if you are not living a full mental state of the neurons working together, something is going to go wrong – because you get pulled and taken hostage.

Professor Kohlrieser teaches on the High Performance Leadership, the Mastering Top Management Dilemas, Leading the Family Business and Orchestrating Winning Performance programs.


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