Resolving Conflict and Moving Forward

November 30, 2008

An executive in Europe was put in charge of a major project for her company. The project involved multiple offices and a number of key players. She wasn’t involved for very long before she found herself engulfed in conflict and at risk. Not good for an upward career path.

She found her way to me for some problem solving and communications counsel.

When we met up over the telephone, she briefed me on the situation and the “cast of characters”. There was a lot of negativity in her description. The negative feelings she had seemed to block a clear perspective and, therefore, a constructive way to resolve the escalating conflicts.

I had learned a neat technique during a negotiating course at Harvard Law School and with my client’s permission we used it to re-analyze the situation she had just described. We used role reversal.

I asked the client to go back through each of the characters and tell me what they would say, in their words, about her. She did.

In so doing, her tone changed. She became more empathetic to each character’s situation and mindset. We explored some characters more than others, but we covered them all.

I didn’t have to tell her what to do. She was ahead of me. She “saw” her way forward. It was one of the options she had been mulling over but in which she had not had confidence. Her mind seemed to unblock. There was a confidence and energy in her voice. She was in a hurry to get off the phone and get on with taking actions to solve the problems.

All of that took one hour. She had spent that time actively “listening” to the critical players, even though they weren’t on the call. She had interrogated them on their feelings and thinking and objectives, based on her knowledge. She had developed a new perspective on the conflict and quickly selected the actions that she now knew would begin to drive toward a solution.

Is it working? I asked her later. She said this: 
“Yes, I am happy to tell you that there has been some progress in the
last week or so.  I don’t think that I am out of the woods yet, but
there is a clear improvement.”

Thinking “out of the box”, in my opinion, is achieved by adding new information or stimuli to help us achieve a new perspective or “see” a solution that is not the one that is blocking progress.

Listening, using a variety of techniques, is one very effective way to add that new information or stimuli. And if you can’t seem to do it on your own, or do it well, get some help from someone with objectivity.

Copyright November 2008

How to Help Non-Sales Staff Sell

July 31, 2009

Copyright 2005/2009

Asking non-sales staff to sell is an issue that arises more and more these days, as organizations compete to move their products and services. Sounds good on the surface, but the request (or demand) often terrifies people who don’t do sales on a regular basis. If they are going to participate in sales activities they need help. I first wrote about this in 2005 and am updating that article here.

There is nothing wrong with sales. It is just another manifestation of influence. If the influence is of benefit to the person being influenced, then most societies would usually agree it is a “good” thing.

So, why are some people and not others afraid of selling? For the answer to this question, which I did not address in my original piece in 2005, I’m drawing on neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns’ 2008 book iconoclast, particularly his commentary on “fear”. My conclusion is that some people fear sales because they are uncertain of the benefit of the influence sales represents. They suffer from “ambiguity”, or the inherent fear of the unknown. And/or, they may, like a third of Americans, suffer from the same fear that arises from that most common phobia – public speaking. It’s the fear of failure.

In his book, Berns references the science of these fears and notes some experiments that prove the power of these fears and their effect on human behaviour. When people who have these fears hear the word “sales”, a movie runs in their head and it triggers a reaction. Think of the fear inherent in making the initiating phone call with the prospective client, or in the “asking for the order” of closing the sale. These images trigger the socially debilitating condition – fear of rejection.

Before I get into solutions to these fears, let me answer another question. Why would organizations want to have non-sales staff selling? We hear from clients that they want as many points of contact with potential customers as possible. We hear that they also want staff to cross-sell products and services to existing customers. Consulting companies want consultants to go out and bring in new business, or “kill their dinner” as they say. But many of these people are not psychologically equipped to go out and “sell”.

A number of years ago, I received a call from a truly desperate PR consultant who practically begged me to help him find new business or to get another job. A consulting  firm had recruited him from a position at an industrial association because of his knowledge of a particular industry sector. He told me he had been promised that the firm had lots of business for him to work on and that he would only occasionally be required to participate in new business pitches. Well, that lasted for a couple of months, and then he was told that he had to make a far more substantial contribution to his billings from clients he was to bring into the firm – or he would be let go. This was a likeable, knowledgeable fellow – but a salesman he wasn’t and he knew it. When he told his wife, she was devastated. She had warned him not to leave the association for the consulting field. His distress and bleak prospects had such an effect on me that I use his story as a cautionary tale for anyone who asks me about a career change, where the selling reality is not fully understood. His story also prompted me to want to find a solution to the problem.

Another situation where non-sales staff are asked to participate in selling occurs when the organization has to make a sales presentation as part of a bid on a major contract. We’ve seen these situations cause serious concern amongst these staff. Organizations that realize the terror this creates come to us looking for training/coaching assistance, to help their non-sales staff to be less anxious and to make a better showing for the prospective client.

So, what help do we provide these terrified staff?  I should note here that the solutions offered were not derived from, but are consistent with Berns’ commentary on “Taming the Amygdala Through Reappraisal and Extinction”. (The amygdala is the brain’s fear centre.)

Here are 3 critical components:

1. Brand/Reputation-building, not sales

Change the words and you change the perception of what is being asked of staff. Sales to most non-sales staff (and even to some salespeople!) is as frightening as giving a speech to an audience of 1,000 people. In truth, these people are not really being asked to close deals. Usually they are being asked to find selling opportunities or to contribute to the sales process, not necessarily to do the actual sale.

It makes sense to use language that doesn’t frighten staff. In fact, what most non-sales staff do is deliver the product or service. If they do it well and look after the customers, they help to build the brand image and enhance the reputation of the organization, thus making sales easier. If the task is explained in those terms to staff, there is likely to be far less anxiety.

2. Customer knowledge

I always want to have the customer knowledge discussion in these sessions. Non-sales staff have a perspective on their customer and some have a deep knowledge. However, many haven’t fully thought through their customer’s wants and needs. A customer knowledge discussion puts a current perspective about the customer in their heads. It often stimulates a conscious empathy for the customer. Eliciting an expression of interest in helping the customer get what they want/need isn’t difficult after this discussion.

It may seem like a “no-brainer”, but too often this knowledge and consciousness is taken for granted. When we ask them to tell us the customer’s story at the beginning of this exercise, they can’t. We get part of the story, but not all. So, we should never assume staff have it top of mind. We should always work through the customer knowledge discussion.

How powerful is this customer mindset? I met the top salesperson for the largest region in a particular division of a major bank. We talked about sales. He said he never sold. He just gave the customers what they asked for. Their ask which resulted in the sale would come after he explored their wants and needs with them, as well as the possible solutions and products that might satisfy those wants and needs. He said he never asked them to buy a product. He didn’t have to. They asked him. His success was based on customer knowledge. And while the monetary reward was good, he said looking after the customer was what he enjoyed most. No anxiety or terror here.

3. Personal contribution

Most employees believe they are making a contribution and take pride in what they do. We tap into that. We get them to tell us what that contribution is and how it helps the customer. Then we ask, if they were speaking to a customer or prospect, would they feel comfortable in talking about their knowledge of the customer? Or how they as employees contribute at their organization to satisfying the customer want/need? Customers more often want to hear a credible story about how their wants/needs will be dealt with from the people who do the work, rather than hear from a person whose job it is to “sell” making grand claims. But staff doesn’t have this perspective on their minds or the right stories prepared, if they are blinded by the terror of the demand that they have to sell.

Don’t deal with this terror by saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine, don’t worry” (this line is about as comforting as the “this won’t hurt a bit” line.) Shift the focus from outcomes to a focus on a process that will credibly show non-sales staff how effective they can be at “sales”.

Influence/Change: What Formula Are You Using?

September 7, 2009

Success at work involves influence at work. We employ influence in decision-making, sales, client relations (internal and external), change management, organizational transformation, managing, recruiting, handling conflicts, negotiations, and so on.

We all have our ways of preparing to exercise influence. Some of us are aware of these approaches and for others the approaches are largely unconscious. A way of preparing that yields the best results is to use a formula to guide our research and analysis of what needs to be in our influence/change communications.

There is a 1960s vintage formula that I have found provides a very useful question stimulus and analytical framework through which to strategically prepare for an influence opportunity. I’m referring to Gleicher’s Formula or Equation. David Gleicher was a  consultant at Arthur D. Little. In equation form, his formula looks like this:

Change = Dissatisfaction ´ Vision of the future ´ First steps towards that vision > Resistance.  (C=DVF>R)

This was later refined to DVF > Cost (economic and psychological). The thought is that, if any of the elements on the left side of the equation are weak or missing, then overcoming resistance/cost won’t happen.

The great value of using a formula like Gleicher’s when we are planning to exercise influence to achieve a goal is that it brings discipline to our thinking (or lack thereof!) It makes us examine our assumptions against what the person we are trying to influence is thinking, believing, fearing, wanting, etc.

Who hasn’t heard the admonition to be client (external or internal) centred (driven, etc.) today? Well, the client’s cost resistance is one thing, but that psychological cost is a swamp of resistance, to play on John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond. From bias, to “I don’t know you”, to the fear factors, such as the fear of failure.

This side of the formula – resistance – has the most weight, precisely because it is the client’s centre. But how many of us want to believe that we’ll achieve the influence we want to have, based on the client’s dissatisfaction with the status quo (and how much research did we do on this?), combined with our vision of the future for the client (our product, service, idea, goal, etc.), along with our gentle (or otherwise) push with a suggested action or exhortation (“now get out there….”)? Some will do thorough research (questions, surveys, etc.) and analysis, using a disciplined approach that will include the resistance part of the formula. But many will not do much more than a cursory think- through, driven by their firmly held assumptions.

Resistance is powerful. Facts and persuasive influencers notwithstanding, change can be non-existent or slow if it cannot outweigh resistance.  For example, on the issue of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, Professor Andre Potworowski flags the resistance problem in a column by technology writer Tyler Hamilton.

“It is, in effect, a challenge of change management… The greatest barrier to innovation comes from resistance to change on the part of the consumer… People must begin to see the possibility of profiting from sustainability,” says Potworowski.

And every issue, challenge – indeed, opportunity – is the same. Does DVF outweigh R?

There is a circumstance where influence/change can happen extremely quickly. I’ll take some liberty with Gleicher’s formula to explain. When I ask myself what factors have been present when I’ve seen an immediate result in influence/change that overcomes resistance, it looks like this:

Fear + Urgency + Limited Options (FULO) > Resistance.

Why? Basically the values of Gleicher’s DVF are jacked-up to the “threat” level and the cost considerations – economic and psychological – don’t have as much sway.

How many times do most of us have these FULO factors working in our favour to overcome resistance when we’re exercising influence? Not that many. So, we have to deal with the CVF factors Gleicher identified. We can “manufacture” FULO. Many high-pressure sales techniques do just that. We can introduce some aspects of FULO into DVF. Certainly there’s an ethical line for using these “weapons of influence.”

Gleicher isn’t the only one with a formula. Just a sample from my bookshelves includes:

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People – great advice for anyone.

Robert Cialdini, INFLUENCE – The Psychology of Persuasion – PhD. He has six “weapons of influence.” They are present in every analysis I do and often employed in my strategies and those of my clients.

John Adams, Successful Change, Paying Attention to the Intangibles – a change leader I found by exploring Gleicher, he asked the question “Why do so many of these efforts fail?” He found his own answer. His research led to a list of 12 Individual Change Success Factors that he believes are complementary to Gleicher’s Formula. He shared it in OD Practitioner in 2003.

Howard Gardner, Changing minds: the art and science of changing our own and other people’s minds – Harvard Ph.D. put forward the concept of multiple intelligences, and in this book outlines his 7 Levers of Change, all starting with “Re”. I’m thankful to Gardner for introducing me to a formal examination of resistance. It informs my thinking, training/coaching and counsel.

Gregory Berns, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently – MD, PhD. Berns wanted to have innovation in the title but it was overused. He really framed the fear factors part of resistance for me.

Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses – Professor Emeritus Harvard and Thought Leader, Monitor Group. Argyris discusses the undiscussable: how organizations resist change by implementing “organizational defenses”. My take on it: Most organizations talk the talk, but few walk the talk.

I will explore influence and the references above in future blogs, but in the meantime, enjoy your reading if you check out these experts. And don’t forget to use a formula to increase your strategic influence.

Copyright 2009

How Communications Can Boost Productivity at Work

August 30, 2010

By Patrick McGee, Copyright 2010

So, do organizations – particularly knowledge work orgs – have a productivity problem? Well, a study that will be released in September (it has been leaked and reprinted here) is reported to conclude that:

“In the UK private sector, staff are productive on average 44 per cent of the time. While this is pretty low compared to better performing countries or the best UK businesses, it is still much higher than the 32 per cent we observed in local government.” Paul Weekes, Principal Consultant, Knox D’Arcy Management Consultants.

Obviously not all organizations, according to Mr. Weekes, are laggards on the productivity front. However, enough are that they produce these stunningly low averages. Think about your organization. Do you know the level of productivity of your staff?

Exploring the problem a bit more, we need to understand where the time goes. The Knox D’Arcy report explains that:

“‘Lost time’ breaks down into obvious lost time (such as waiting for work, information or instruction, arriving late, leaving early, social chatting, taking informal breaks) and also time spent on activity which is ineffective, such as work  which is done incorrectly and has to be reworked.”

Well, wouldn’t you just like to quantify that to get another perspective on how costly it is? I can do that, thanks to another study by the IDC research and advisory firm. In 2001 analysts Susan Feldman and Chris Sherman authored an IDC White Paper titled “The High Cost of Not Finding Information.” In the paper, they developed scenarios to try to help with understanding of the problem. I want to focus on “Scenario 2: Cost of Reworking Information,” because to me it has a mis-communications genesis and it clearly  reflects some of the “lost time” aspects of low productivity identified in the Knox D’Arcy comments.

From the IDC White Paper:

Scenario 2: Cost of Reworking Information

A 1999 IDC study found that Fortune 500 companies would lose $12 billion as a result of intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources. IDC call this the “knowledge deficit” (see European Management Fact Book, IDC#21511, January 2000):

“The knowledge deficit is a metric that captures the costs and inefficiencies that result primarily from intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources (both information and experts). IDC’s extensive study of European firms and end-user return on investment (ROI) analysis has enabled us to estimate the average cost of ineffective knowledge management (KM) within organizations. The knowledge deficit translated into an average cost of US$5,000 per worker per year in 1999, growing to US$5,850 in 2003.

“A study by Kit Sims Taylor found that knowledge workers spend more time unwittingly recreating existing knowledge than in creating new knowledge. This study was presented at the International Conference on the Social Impact of Information Technologies in St. Louis, Missouri, October 12-14, 1998. According to Professor Sims Taylor, roughly one-third of productive time is spent in knowledge reworking. The other nearly two-thirds is spent in knowledge finding          and communication, with only about 10 per cent of time spent in actual creation         of new knowledge. For instance, Whirlpool expects to increase productivity of its engineers by 30 per cent by giving them access to existing designs for products. The following scenario uses an extremely conservative estimate of time spent in knowledge reworking.


  • Knowledge worker salary = $80,000 annual salary plus benefits
  • 1,000 knowledge workers x $5,000 per year (knowledge deficit)
  • Calculation of cost: 1,000 knowledge workers x $5,000 per year
  • Conclusion: An enterprise employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes $5 million per year because employees spend too much time duplicating information that already exists within the enterprise. If we apply this finding to Fortune 1000, we see that in aggregate, enterprises are wasting $5 billion annually. And this is a conservative estimate, since many corporations employ more than 1,000 knowledge workers. The productivity cost is staggering.”

I find Prof. Sims Taylor’s comment about 10 per cent of time devoted to creating new knowledge interesting as I think back to my early work years and time spent on a factory floor running a machine. If that $100,000 piece of equipment had only produced at 10 per cent capacity, a lot of heads – belonging to me, my foreman, our shift supervisor and the section manager – would have rolled. The company would have immediately known there was a problem and action would have been swift to get productivity up to acceptable levels. This is the problem in many knowledge work organizations – private or public. Peter Drucker’s comment “What gets measured gets managed” tells us  productivity in this work environment can be so low because it is generally unmeasured.


In organizations where output is measured – whether on the factory floor, hospital emergency unit, office, or service desk – my assumption is that for the most part productivity is much higher than where it is not measured. So, create a measurement system for your knowledge work and work environment. I will say that counting key strokes seems to be a bit draconian, but defining the output and measuring and monitoring that output is reasonable. Unfortunately, many organizations default to measuring activity, not output, because it’s easier.

Improve communications. How do we end up with unproductive work that is ineffective or has to be redone? I think we can all relate to situations where we have been told that our work output is not acceptable and has to be reworked. That can be done, but how to prevent it happening again? That takes a root cause analysis.

On the factory floor and in other environments, this happens automatically and very often continuously (quality assurance/control). In knowledge work environments, not so much. In fact, Knox D’Arcy found that supervisors were often unproductive in terms of supervising because they were doing or re-doing their staff’s work.

The wonderful element of factory floor work that I remember is the clarity of the communication. I was taught how to use the machine. Supervised closely to ensure quality. Supervision loosened somewhat as I built up speed and attempted to reach the consistent output expected per shift. I never made it. Even with more coaching I could not make the numbers. I was replaced on the machine by someone else and given a forthright and fair  explanation. I was then moved to another position where I met expectations and survived the summer work term.

This happens in good organizations and sometimes under the supervision of a good manager in a bad organization. But I don’t see it as often as required to fix those productivity numbers that IDC and Knox D’Arcy have found. I conclude that the root cause in most of these situations is poor communications and by that I mean  unclear, ambiguous direction (e.g. “you get the idea” or “figure it out”); lack of priorization of work assignments (e.g. “I know that’s a lot of things I’ve given you, but I do need them all at the same time”); inadequate training or instruction or supervision; lack of/no access to appropriate information; duplicated work assignments (e.g. three people given the same assignment unbeknownst to each other).

The fix is simple but it is not easy: clean up the communications and productivity will improve.


So, how can you clean up communications in the workplace?

There are technology solutions. I want to mention one, because when I began my research on the question “how much does mis-communication in the workplace cost business?” I started at an iSixSigma Discussions forum on the cost of rework that took me to IDC’s work for Cognisco and then back to the original IDC White Paper. Cognisco has an online product to measure employees’ understanding of their job.

There can be systemic solutions, where processes are put in place that everyone follows. For some simple examples, I looked in my filing cabinet for work forms and pulled out a sample from a car rental agency, from a roofer, from a local car repair firm and one from a contractor who worked on our house. Each one provided clarity of communication about the assignment to be completed. And we all know that if there was a dispute about the work later, we’d find ourselves back at the work form, discussing what was agreed to be covered and what was not. Interestingly, all of the forms had my signature or initials on them. There’s a formal commitment there that would be absent if the agreement was verbal. So, yes, we could use these kinds of tools to improve communications in knowledge work. And while the resistance might be high at first (“it’s too bureaucratic, it takes too much time, we’re above that”), once the benefits are seen to outweigh the perceived negatives, then we might find these solutions to be very acceptable.

So, what can you do, short of filling out a multi-copy work order form, to get the benefits of clarity and measurement? Two things: structure and training.

Structure: A work order form is just a structure of communication. In using structure, we get clarity, comprehensiveness (everything we need to know and agree to between us should be on that car rental form, for instance, including the vehicle, price, timing, contingencies/insurance, range, etc.). We use structure for priorizing work in many environments, usually on a chronological basis. Staffers might relieve a lot of stress if they could say to their boss: “That assignment is number 8 on the list and I am currently working on number 3.” Some do say something like this. Most don’t. And bosses don’t like resistance. So we hear stories of bosses saying things like: “I don’t care, just get it done.” The communication is poor on a number of levels, not the least of which is around the priority of each assignment given the limited resources, like time. The root cause here is not an unproductive staffer perhaps, but an unstructured boss. And that may be because his or her training and/or the system of that organization does not encourage such a disciplined structure. Well, if productivity is important, add structure. It works wonders on the factory floor.

Individually, anyone can improve their own productivity and that of the people around them by adding structure. In my communications training practice, I am still surprised when very successful managers tell me they’ve had no training in communications. Many have had zero training in supervising or managing as well. They learned it on the job. All the successful people I’ve worked with want to get better. They may have resistance to get over regarding a new idea or way of communicating, but if the idea or structure has strength, they embrace it.

So, we all could improve by using more structure in our communications. Putting it in writing works in services industries and other businesses. Why not in knowledge work environments? Handing a staffer a written assignment allows for discussion to surface missing information or different approaches to resources allocation. Many work environments use this structure as an assignment contract and the parties do what I did with the roofing contractor: we each sign it.  At minimum, if a manager writes down the assignment and ensures all the needed bits are in it – its priority, or who else it has been assigned to, for example – and then uses that written information to give verbal instruction, my educated guess is that productivity is going to rise as rework or ineffective work is eliminated.

We started this discussion with the call out:  How Communications Can Boost Productivity at Work. There are two choices, just as there are in that old saying: How do you eat an elephant? All at once or one bite at a time.