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The Power of Curiosity in Coaching and Conflict Resolution


One challenge in coaching other people is that you will often coach them on issues where you see a clear answer or course of action before they see it. When this happens, you can find yourself jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about their motivations, drivers and desires.

To avoid the conflict escalation, communication breakdown, and high negative emotional energy created by premature assumptions and judgments, work on maintaining an attitude of curiosity as you interact with and coach other people.

In preparing for this post, I found an interesting article at that mentioned an interesting study on the power of consciously creating a curious attitude…

[One] study asked participants to view a video of someone holding a view completely counter to their own belief system. Feminists vs. fans of pornography. Vegans vs. carnivores. Half of the participants were asked to prepare comments for the speaker. The other half were asked to prepare a single question showcasing their natural curiosity about the speaker’s point of view (“Can you explain to me why the benefits of banning pornography outweigh the costs?”). What scientists found was that compared with people preparing comments, people armed with a single question viewed the message on the video as more intelligent and reasonable, viewed the speaker as more open-minded, and most promising, were more interested in meeting and getting to know the speaker in the future.

From Curiosity and the Chrysanthemum: Defuse Conflicts, Become a 

The study reveals powerful implications for leaders who are coaching others. When you foster your curiosity, you are more likely to view the person you are coaching as an intelligent and reasonable person. That one change in your viewpoint could be exactly what is needed to get a better outcome from your coaching efforts.

When you coach and mentor others, even if you need to move closer to discipline rather than coaching, work to maintain an attitude of curiosity about their reasoning, thoughts, and motivations. You will be a better coach and experience less conflicts when you make this effort.

Here are two other interesting posts I found on the power of curiosity…

How to be curious in conflict. Even when you don’t feel like it

The optimal state of mind for negotiating and resolving conflict isn’t certainty, it’s curiosity. Here’s how to be curious even when you don’t feel like it.

“I’m curious about what happened. Let’s talk!” …

Instead of silence or violence there is a third path, which in fact can transform conflict into a healthy outcome. This third path is the path of dialogue guided by what I call respectful curiosity. When we find ourselves having…

photo credit: the Italian voice via photopin cc

How To Inspire Workplace Behaviors To Get Better Results

You have finally become the boss, and you have valid reasons to feel good about your team.

In the first few months of your new position, you have built a team of really good people.

You have strong players in every position.

You have clearly defined procedures for every part of the business.

You have incentive, safety recognition, and bonus programs.

And still, something is not quite right.

Somehow, there seems to be a sense of unease. You can’t put your finger on it exactly, but you know it’s there. It’s what you wake up at 2 a.m. worrying about.

What symptoms are you seeing? What, exactly, is your concern?

Sadly, it’s not precise, neatly defined situation. It’s the little things. Like having to spend too much time monitoring your workers – checking time sheets, correcting behavior problems, and dealing with attitude problems. Many people seem to be “doing their own thing” instead of being a part of a team.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If you are like many business leaders, you can relate to this situaiton because getting optimal team performance is a common problem for business owners. It’s a problem for the largest corporation and the mom and pop business. Putting strong players on the team supplies the foundation for good performance, but that is only part of the process. As the manager, you need to encourage behaviors that create positive business results.

A powerful tool for encouraging these behaviors is the use of targeted positive reinforcement within a well defined performance management system. Many people have written many articles, reports, and books about the use of positive reinforcement. Still, many managers and business owners wrestle with how to apply the concepts appropriately. One reason many people do not get the results they hope for is a misunderstanding of how reinforcement strategies really work.

Positive reinforcement strategies are far more than “pats on the back”, “atta-boys”, and “warm fuzzies.”  The effective use of positive reinforcement strategies in a structured performance management system relies on knowledge of your business systems, understanding the effect of specific employee behaviors on business results, and precisely targeted behavioral reinforcements.

Creating the performance management system that applies the principles effectively starts with understanding why people do what they do.

One model of explaining human behavior says that an individual’s behavior results from the consistent pairing of situations or events just prior to our behaviors and the consequences (experiences, situations or events) created by our behaviors. I will probably write more about this specific issue later. For now, let’s look at an example to quickly and simply illustrate the point.

We enter a dark room and flip the light switch to “On”. We do this because we expect light to be the result. Darkness is the antecedent. Light is the consequence. If we enter a room and consistently get no light by flipping the switch, we resort to some other behavior (light a candle, carry a flashlight, etc).

This concept can sound simple enough in the example. In practice, it is often more difficult to practically apply it in the workplace.

The key to making the principle work to inspire high-level behaviors is to clearly identify the workplace behaviors that produce the desired business results, and then to create consequences for employees that will reinforce those behaviors. Any consequence that encourages a behavior to repeat is a positive reinforcement.

But there is a subtlety in application that is very important to understand. We can encourage behaviors. We cannot enforce them. Many companies try to enforce appropriate behaviors rather than working to encourage them.

(Sidebar note: I do recognize the importance of holding people accountable for their poor choices, and I would sat that accountability is a separate issue from enforcement. More on that in a later article.)

The effort to enforce behaviors requires a high degree of supervisory input and nets only minimal standard performance from employees. Finding ways to encourage high-level behaviors requires minimal supervisory input once the system is in place, and it usually results in superior performance.

One way to achieve a consistent pairing of results (consequences) and behaviors is accomplished through a targeted improvement process much like the processes advocated by ISO, QS, and TQM management systems. The steps in this process are:

  1. Identify the behaviors that create the desired results.
  2. Measure the results of the behaviors.
  3. Provide feedback to employees.
  4. Positively reinforce the effective behaviors.
  5. Evaluate the choice of behaviors and measurements.
  6. Iterate to improve selection and definition of desired behaviors and paired consequences.

As business people, we all know that human behavior drives business results. Our daily behaviors create the results that either help or hurt our businesses. Learning to encourage behaviors that grow the business can make the difference between success and failure.

Motivation Insight: Learn to Apply the Four to One Rule

Well delivered and thoughtful praise can deliver the energy that pushes a team to great performance. Likewise, careless criticism and correction offered without balance can kill a team. Effective leaders learn to choose the right words — either positive or negative  — for every situation.

Many of my clients are in significant leadership roles.  They generally come to me because they want outside perspective to help them grow as  leaders or to improve their team environment. Some are not yet leaders.  They want to develop leadership skills in preparation for advancement. Awhile back, one of my clients in the second category had an experience that almost destroyed a good working relationship. Leaders and prospective leaders everywhere can learn from his experience.

He is a hard-working, driving leader.  He fully devotes his energy to his work.  He gives extra time to make sure that he is a positive contribution to his organization. And, like most people, he has some blind-spots and imperfections.

Overall, he brings far more positive influence than negative energy to his team. Still, he found himself on the receiving end of a disciplinary discussion with his supervisor.

In reality, every story has two sides, and this one is no different. His supervisor had a perfectly valid point, but it grew to be far more negative than necessary because of the way his supervisor presented it to him. In just a moment, I will describe the employee side of the issue and how that perspective impacts team performance.

Aubrey Daniels, a highly respected behavioral analyst and author, states that high-level team and individual performance only comes as the result of positive reinforcement (praise, rewards, time-off, etc). Anything negative (punishment, penalty, criticism, correction, etc) will, at best,  create “minimal effort.” The reasoning and data to support this statement lies beyond the scope of this article.  You can read more on the topic in Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels or Whale Done by Ken Blanchard.

“Positive reinforcement generates more behavior than is minimally required. We call this discretionary effort, and its presence in the workplace is the only way an organization can maximize performance.”

— Aubrey Daniels, Bringing Out the Best in People

For now, I’m focusing on only one issue. Aubrey Daniels calls it the 4:1 Rule. This rule says that most people need to receive a minimum of  four positive inputs on their behavior for every one negative input — if they are going to focus on and respond to the positive consequences and give “maximal effort.”

Very few leaders move smoothly through their careers without having to discuss negative performance issues with their team members. Sadly, many leaders fail in this effort when they confront negative issues in a formal and threatening manner and then do little or nothing to recognize the counterbalancing positive contributions of the employee.

I understand how leaders fall into this trap. I see the same behavior in many situations: parents correcting their children, teachers disciplining students, and supervisors discussing performance issues with employees. The problem might look different in different organizations and contests. And still, regardless of the environment, the outcome comes down to the same root problem — most of us find it easier to notice what people have done wrong than what they have done right.

Getting back to the person mentioned above.

He is committed and dedicated. He works hard. He produces results. And, he has a persistent negative behavior trait — a trait he was already working to improve upon.

The first time his supervisor mentioned the behavior, they chose to go directly to a formal reprimand without any prior discussions.

When this supervisor mentions positive contributions, they do so casually and informally. The rarely document positive contributions. In this case they went straight to the formal documentary process without so much as a warning.

And, here is the net effect: the employee feels demoralized and devalued. The employee, a person who naturally enjoys contributing new ideas and looking for opportunities to help, now acts with more caution and reservation in his work environment. He is almost totally “shut-down.”

In this case, the supervisor has “motivated” the employee to invest only enough effort to avoid future troubles and confrontations. The employee’s desire to make a major positive contribution is, at least temporarily, gone.

I understand the need to use formal disciplinary processes. However, I do not recommend, except in extreme situations, that leaders implement them at the first sign of a problem.

I recommend that leaders start the process with performance coaching and informal discussion to help the employee see the problem in their behavior. If the behavior is extreme, or if these coaching efforts fail to improve performance; then, leaders should apply more formal approaches (official verbal reprimand, written reprimand, etc.).

Formal approaches tend to feel very negative from the employees perspective no matter how much leaders soften the language they use in delivering the message. When leaders resort to formal approaches too early in the process, they first have to overcome the negative feelings before they can get back on a positive relationship basis.

Leaders must confront negative behaviors, and they must create hope. They should confront negative behavior quickly.  And, they should look for ways to praise and reward positive behaviors as well.

In an ideal world, employees who contribute more positive than negative to an organization will receive at least four positive comments for every one that is negative.

Highly effective leaders consciously work to provide at least four times as many positives as negatives so that they can inspire high level rather than bare minimum performance in the teams that they lead.

“To lead yourself, use your head; to lead others, use your heart.”

— John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Hiring Tip: Focus On The Person Rather Than The Resume

Here’s a simple hiring tip – Focus on the person rather than the resume.

I admit that the ability to confront negative behaviors and poor performance is an important skill for leaders to develop. Still, there is something you can do long before problem behaviors surface that is a step beyond that for building a high performance team. Hire the right person for the job in the beginning.

Discussions about hiring the right person frequently surface as I work with various clients across the US and Canada. The subject floats to the surface when they need to fill a position. It comes up when they realize they have the wrong person in a position. Sometimes it comes up as a question during a training session. Sometimes it comes up in a private conversation. But it almost always comes up eventually.

When people have the authority to hire and fire, I see on very common mistake — one that I have even made myself — is this: focusing on the person’s technical skills rather than on their “soft” skills. I recognize that strong and relevant technical skills are vitally important.

For example, I would recommend hiring a CPA who knows nothing about accounting, and I don’t believe you should hire a nurse or dental hygienist who knows nothing about the tasks necessary to do those jobs. So, I am not suggesting that you ignore a person’s resume. I am just suggesting that their experience and training (i.e. – their resume) only serves to qualify them to get the opportunity to interview with you.

Their resume might gets them in the door and in front of you, but it shouldn’t give them the job.

“… [get] the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats (and the wrong people off the bus) and then [figure] out where to drive it.”

– Jim Collins – Good To Great

Consider this situation.

Let’s say that you hire a person with outstanding technical skills. This person knows literally everything about the industry. They understand the legal environment. They have great job specific task skills. They understand all of the technical aspects of their position.

And, your staff cannot stand to work with them. The “technical expert” demands special attention, resists every change, speaks negatively about management and other team members, pushes the limit on workplace rules, etc.

Are they really worth the trouble? Does the positive contribution from their “technical expert” status justify the damage they do to overall team performance? In most of the situations I’ve been involved in, the answer is no.

In the above scenario, I created a situation where the person under consideration is truly a “technical expert.”  In this case, they are among the best, technically, in their field.

What about the more frequent situation? The situation where the person really is good technically, but they’re not necessarily among the best in the industry.  Now, how does their behavior with and impact on other people balance against their technical skills? From where I sit, it only gets worse.

I assume that you will only consider hiring people with at least the basic technical skills to do the job. So, faced with a choice between two candidates:

Candidate one has a great “attitude” and acceptable technical skills (my working definition of attitude includes work ethic, drive, initiative, ability to work with others, and other “soft” or difficult to measure skills), and

Candidate two has outstanding technical skills and a poor attitude

I would choose candidate number one. I just find it easier an d more productive to help people strengthen their technical skills than to coach, mentor, cajole, and counsel them in an effort improve their attitude.

“Hire the best staff you can find, develop them as much as you can, and hand off everything you possibly can to them.”

– John C. Maxwell – The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

What if you have difficulty finding a person with the right attitude? I suggest you keep looking until you find them. It is better to work short-handed for a short time than to work with a problem employee for a long time. As Jim Collins states in his landmark study Good To Great – “When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking.”

Six Tips for Confronting Bad Workplace Behaviors

It is a fact of organizational life – negative, unacceptable behaviors will happen.
When they do, the leader must address them.

I normally emphasize the benefits of encouraging positive, productive behaviors over punishing negative ones. However, my clients and seminar participants often ask questions like:

  • “What about team members who don’t want to play nice?” or
  • “What if I can’t find anything positive to reinforce?”

The short answer is this: “Confront negative behaviors early and decisively.”

When you fail to confront negative behaviors, you subtly signal acceptance of them. In effect, you encourage them to continue. As Admiral William F. Halsey said, “All problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them, but confront them.”

Personally, I prefer encouraging people to disciplining them. Encouragement is more comfortable to me – therein lays the problem. Encouragement is more comfortable to me. Any time I act out of personal comfort rather than appropriateness of response, I fail in my leadership role.

For about 10 or 20 per cent of the population, confronting problem behaviors is a no-brainer. These people are comfortable with confrontation. They do it naturally. However, the rest of us feel some stress and discomfort in a conflict situation.

My desire for peace and harmony sometimes stops me from quickly confronting negative behaviors. The paradox is this. As the leader of a team, if I do not address negative behaviors, I will get more of them. And, in the end, I will have less peace and harmony. In order to get what I do want, I have to do what I do not want to do.

Most people have a list of negative behaviors they have seen in the workplace. Here is a partial list of some behaviors/issues I have had to address:

  • Interrupting meetings
  • Supervisors treating employees poorly
  • Employees verbally attacking each other
  • Extreme body odor
  • Lack of attention in meetings
  • Too many personal phone calls at work
  • And many others.

For people who, like me, would rather avoid a confrontation, I offer these suggestions to ease the stress:

Be prepared

Pre-plan what you intend to say. In most situations, I don’t suggest that you read a prepared statement. However, you should be prepared.

Be brief

Get to the point quickly, and stay on topic. You will find it easier to be brief if you prepare in advance.

Be specific

Make sure you speak about specific behaviors – not your interpretations.

Here are some examples:

  • Rude, inconsiderate, disrespectful, arrogant, obnoxious, flighty, unfocused, smart aleck, and pushy are interpretations.
  • Interrupting, rolling eyes, speaking loudly (or softly), shrugging shoulders, looking away, walking away, and tone of voice are specific behaviors.

Explain the impact

Tell the person how other people perceive their behavior or how it affects team performance.

State the desired alternative – Go beyond a description of the negative behavior to describe what you expect in the future. By stating the desired positive behavior, you can use positive reinforcement rather than punishment to drive performance in the future.

Stay calm

The behavior may frustrate you, but now is not the time to vent. You want them to focus on your message and their behavior, not your frustration or anger.

By failing to address problem behaviors, leaders get more of them. As noted behavioral analyst Aubrey Daniels said, “Problems in the workplace are often created not by what we do, but by what we fail to do.”