The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

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“I can’t work with him! The project was late because he didn’t do his part. I have to hold his hand every step of the way.” That’s what she said as she stood in my office frustrated, agitated and angry. And, she expected me to “take care of it.”

The situation is similar to other workplace squabbles and disputes where management intervention is needed to move forward. As a manager, you need to know that language choice, and mood influence your interpretation, understanding and judgment of the problem. It takes a perceptive, self-aware manager to recognize and account for their mood and the impact of subtle language choices.

Of course, no one likes to think too much about becoming entangled in workplace disputes. However, it is important to understand your legal rights if ever a transactional or litigation matter escalates. Consequently, if you would like to learn more about resolving commercial disputes from a legal standpoint, then reaching out to a commercial litigation lawyer for legal support and advice is in your best interest. As with any legal matter, some things are best left to the professionals, and commercial disputes are no exception to this.

For now, though, let me share four factors to keep in mind if you are faced with resolving workplace disputes.

1. Describe the situation without assigning blame. “He is the reason the project was late” is an example of agentive language. Agentive language makes a person the subject of the action (the late project). “The project was late” is non-agentive language. Research shows that the use of agentive language has a noticeable effect on assignment of blame and judgment. Studies that assigned financial liability found that agentive language descriptions resulted in 30 to 50% higher judgments. In our example, the upset worker stated her grievance by assigning blame to the other person. Without conscious awareness of agentive language, you are more likely to agree with that judgment. Instead, reframe the problem, as “the project was late” then evaluate all reasons that contributed. It will result in a more objective evaluation.

2. Know your mood and its impacts. Your mood creates context through which you hear and process information. If you are in a good mood, positive information (congruent with that mood) is easier for the brain to integrate and understand. Conversely, negative information is much harder to process if you are in a good mood. Similarly, if you are in a bad mood, it is easier for your brain to process negative information. Be aware of your mood when listening to an agitated employee. While negative words are harder to process in general, you are more likely to process them if you got up on the wrong side of the bed or your computer just crashed. The bottom line is your mood can bias your interpretation of the situation. Consider your mood as you weigh the “he-said-she-saids” of the situation and try taking a Mood Supplement on the morning of a stressful day.

3. Recognize language that goes against your values. Comprehension is slower for words and descriptions that espouse a value judgment that is different from your personal beliefs. For example, my brain hesitated when this employee said, “I have to hold his hand every step of the way.” Personally, I value “self-sufficiency” so the idea of “holding his hand” flies in the face of my principles. I missed the next few sentences of the conversation as my brain tried to reconcile this information. You need to know your values so that you quickly recognize language that gets in the way of understanding and objectivity. Ask for clarifying language, or for the problem to be described in different words. This will aid you in separating your value system bias from the actual situation.

4. Look for solutions when your mood is positive. Neuroscientific research shows that a happy mood facilitates semantic processing and increases cognitive flexibility, which leads to creative outcomes. A sad mood, on the contrary, promotes a narrow focus on external stimuli and analytic processing. You need to find a wise, fair and objective resolution to employee disputes that maintains morale and productivity. This kind of wisdom benefits from creativity, and creativity benefits from a good mood. Don’t try to resolve the dispute on the day the dog chewed up your new shoes or your child broke a window with a baseball. Wait for the day when your kid gave you a big hug on the way out the door. With a smile on your face, look for creative options to resolve the problem.

Enhance your ability to handle employee disputes by recognizing the power language, and mood have to influence your perceptions and processing. Neutralize the impact through self-awareness and find a creative, and objective solution.

Fausey, Caitlin and Boroditsky, Lera. Subtle Linguistic Cues Influence Perceived Blame and Financial Liability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2010, 17(5).
Egidi, Giovanna and Nusbaum, Howard. Emotional Language Processing: How Mood Affects Integration Processes During Discourse Comprehension. Brain & Language, Elsevier. 2011.

One-and-two-and-three-and-four… My dad sat next to me counting out the beats as I practiced the clarinet. Night after night he taught and I learned. I was good but was never going to be the next Bennie Goodman. Nonetheless, I read and play music and appreciate the true virtuosos. My life is enriched by my knowledge.

Today my work is in helping others discover how to use both cognition and intuition in complex decision-making when data alone is not enough. I call it infotuition – the intersection of business pragmatics with gut feel. Frequently I hear, “You can’t teach an intuitive business sense. You have to be born with it.” Au-contraire. I firmly believe you can enhance your infotuitive skill because I’ve done it. To be clear, I’m not talking about gazing into a crystal ball or reading tarot cards. Infotuition is accessing the wisdom stored in both the cognitive and intuitive part of your brain for use in a business environment.

Decisions that swim in uncertainty and ambiguity can’t be made by using the cognitive part of your brain alone. You must tap into gut feel. It’s real and it’s valuable. Like learning music or another skill, you must want to learn. Here are five tips.

1. Value it. You must place value in infotuition. Of 75 leaders I interviewed, 74 of them attest to the value of their intuition or gut feel. They learned from trial and error that the nagging feeling provided wisdom that warranted their attention. Neuroscience shows that we store information in parts of our brain that communicate through feeling. Further, your gut has the same neurotransmitters found in the brain. But the gut and the intuitive brain do not access language. Nagging feelings are their communication tools.

2. Apply yourself. Let’s say that you’re the analytical type (like me). You cultivated, developed and value logical, rational thought. The logical part of your brain is skilled and it feels good to use it. Great. Hold on to that information and balance it with intuitive wisdom. It’s as though you go to the gym and only exercised your left arm. It’s strong but the right arm is neglected. You must commit to exercising both the left and right arms. It’s the same with your brain – which is a muscle. If you apply yourself you can develop the intuitive part of your brain and use it in a skilled way. Neuroscience tells us that we develop new behaviors and skills through intentional focus. It’s called self-directed neuroplasticity.

3. Start early. The brain is plastic particularly early in life. That’s why it’s easier to learn new skills – like music – early in life. Start early in your career to engage in diverse activities that build a storehouse of experiences in your brain. And I don’t mean just work activities. Your brain draws on lessons from all aspects of life. Put yourself is positions where you must make decisions. Look for opportunities that allow you to take some risk. Then consider both fact and feeling as you decide. Notice the nagging voice and give it a name. Naming the feeling makes it more tangible and allows you to work with it. With each decision you develop experience…and your brain.

4. Start now. Okay, so you’re not early in your career. You can still cultivate infotuitive skills because the brain retains some plasticity throughout your life. It’s not too late! Plant reminders to prompt you to think, “What am I feeling about this issue? What’s bugging me about the decision?” Pay attention to your answers. Those prompts will surface additional information to inform your decision.

5. Practice. Whether early or late in your career, practice cultivates your infotuitive sense – your gut feel. You don’t have to find the time because you are always practicing every minute of every day. Are you practicing behaviors that serve you? Do you practice noticing the nagging feeling? Practice plus intentional focus will teach your brain new tricks. In time, infotuition will become a habit. It’s takes effort and, to end at the beginning, you have to want it.
Sure, some people have a knack for sensing the intricacies of a complex situation. They intuitively sense how others will respond and how a scenario will play out. They are the virtuosos. Just because they are virtuosos doesn’t mean you can’t develop your own skill to a new level of competence. My musical ability will never rival Shakira’s, but I learned enough to enjoy playing, appreciate the great artists and enrich my life. You can do the same with infotuition.