ALDP© Relationship Training

There was a time when companies could leave the quality of relationships among employees in their organization to chance, implicitly relying on policies, procedures, organization structure, and a sense of morality to encourage proper behavior. That time is gone. Changing expectations of newer generations, social media, and some high-profile cases of toxicity and harassment within companies have made “relationships” something that needs management just like any other core competency in an organization. Doing otherwise risks serious financial and reputation damage. The world has become too complex, too transparent, and too unforgiving to leave employee relationships to the vagaries of destiny.

Applied Leadership’s relationship training program is a two-day event. It focuses on how each of us can shift our behavioral and conversational patterns in a positive direction. We use adult learning techniques and insights from neuroscience to build awareness of how observations, language, and mindsets shape our reality and how we can rewire our thinking to improve interpersonal dynamics. This training is applicable for all levels in an organization.

An optional third day of training is offered in collaboration with LeadershipSmarts and is targeted for senior managers and executives. It focuses on how relationships affect culture which impacts every aspect of the business. We provide a practical approach to teach leaders how to move teams and the organization at large in a positive direction. Senior teams walk away from the training with the confidence and courage to take on the daunting challenge of shaping (or reshaping) work culture.

Reflections of Al Bolea

It's 1998, and I'm walking out of a board meeting as I pass by Shelly, the executive assistant who supports the board.  She's standing next to the entrance to the boardroom.  The color of her dress catches my eye.  It's bright blue, and it occurs to me as a bit youthful for her, given her age and the decorum of this rather conservative company.  I feel embarrassed for her, initially, and that turns into awkwardness as I become conscious that she has noticed my split-second attention to the dress.   At that point, I know it would be rude for me to walk by her without saying something, so I comment, "Shelly, that dress looks good on you."

The truth is that I felt the dress was inappropriate.  Within a week, Shelly filed an harassment complaint about me.  I was shocked.  At the time, I was the board chairman of the company and had known Shelly for about five years.  Our relationship was professional and narrowly limited to the interaction of the management team and the board.  When the HR director came to talk to me about the complaint, I remember saying somewhat dismissively, "How could merely commenting on her dress be construed as harassment?"  The director said, "Well, Al, it's not about how you felt, now is it?  It's about how Shelly felt."  A day later, I talked to Shelly and apologized, and I meant it.

There's an important lesson in the story:  harassment and other toxic behaviors are experienced by the receiver, not the sender.  At extreme levels, it's easy to distinguish what is toxic, e.g., yelling, verbal abuse, explicit threats, violence, touching without permission, and sexual advances.  However, there's a much broader range of toxic behaviors that are more subtle and subjective; often referred to as 'microaggressions.'   While these are usually wholly unintended by the sender, they still feel toxic to the receiver.

To understand how seemingly innocuous comments can grow to become microaggressions, we need to be aware of how people derive meaning from words.  We all find comfort from words that connect with our mental models and alarm when they don't.  As the HR director explained, coming from me as the board chairman, nearly ten levels in the company above Shelly, the words, "… that dress looks good on you" felt threatening to her.  If I would have said, "… nice job getting us ready for the board meeting", that would not have felt threatening because it would have aligned with what she expected from a person of my authority.  Shelly perceived my words within the context of her mental models that were shaped by her career, the company, and every other aspect of her life up to that point.

Moreover, Shelly's and my realities were each limited by the observations we chose at that moment.  As is true for all of us, we select our observations based on our entire lifetime of accumulated experiences and beliefs.  Observation is inherently biased.  Unconsciously, we ignore information that does not confirm our pre-existing views (Confirmation Bias), and we reframe evidence that disagrees with our belief (Cognitive Dissonance). What we pay attention to becomes our reality.  When we perceive threats, that becomes the lens through which we see our world, and so every interaction seems threatening, leading to feelings of distress. Distress then triggers hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain that impair memory functioning and decision-making.  If left unchecked, this chain reaction can hijack our ability to respond effectively and instead, drive a person into a state of disequilibrium, earmarked by either flight-or-flight behavior.

Bottom line:  Shelly experienced harassment, and I was the cause of it.  To respond appropriately, I needed to learn to better manage two aspects of myself:  my conversations and my behaviors.

Conversations

Conversations are composed of words and sentences in talking-listening exchanges involving two or more people.  Within an organization, conversations are a tool to interact with others.  We instruct, convey, manage, direct, and coach through conversations.  People link together through conversations and share information. Through conversations, connections are made internally and externally to markets, technologies, and opportunities.  What people talk about in an organization becomes what they believe over time about the organization, and how they experience the working environment.  The physical environment of Apple in Cupertino, CA, for example, is defined by two campuses with 3.3 million square feet of space for offices, conference rooms, cafés, and health centers.  However, the effective environment of Apple is defined by what the 16000 employees in Cupertino talk about.  These conversations create the context that is socialized within the organization and becomes, at a macro level, its effective culture.

There's another aspect of conversations that's even more important, and I want to go back to Shelly to illustrate it.  Remember that I said earlier that my relationship with Shelly was professional and narrowly limited to the interactions of the management team and the board.  That's because we only talked about those things.  At a micro-level, relationships tend to be defined by conversations.  Shelly interpreted my comment about her dress as harassment because our conversations up to that point had only focused on business matters.  For this reason, our relationship was not yet robust enough to include personal topics.  This takes a bit more explanation to be fully understood.

The criticality of conversations in terms of shaping a healthy environment in an organization cannot be overstated.  Within talking and listening exchanges, there is a neurological phenomenon occurring.  One neuroscientist describes it as a "verbal massage" of the brain that results in the sharing of energy and information.  It's called an "attuned relating" process, and it's how an infant's brain develops and how attachment is formed among adults.  This process is almost entirely driven by emotions which become socialized in conversations.  Unconsciously, the brain will "mirror" the emotions expressed by others during conversations. Much like the flu, emotions are catching and can spread across an organization.  Depending on the nature of what is being spread, this can have either a beneficial or a detrimental effect.

To make sense of this, let's take a moment to focus on two parts of a conversation, talking and listening, to illustrate four types of relationship patterns that could exist in an organization:

1. Toxic Relationships.

Talkers are cautious, either polite or argumentative, and the listening by all parties is confined to the reconfirming of judgments, facts and concepts.

2. Frustrating Relationships.

Talkers are cautious, either polite or argumentative, but the listening of some, but not all, participants shifts to a person's feelings and sense of caring and openheartedness.

3. Challenging Relationships.

Some, but not all talkers, are reflective and seek common ground, and the listening by all parties is confined to the reconfirming of judgments, facts and concepts.

4. Healthy Relationships.

All talkers are reflective and seek common ground, and all listeners focus on each other's feelings and sense of caring.

The relationship matrix of a conversation

Click for larger image.

The Conversation-Relationship Matrix illustrates these relationship patterns.  For healthy relationships, and therefore, a healthy environment to exist in an organization, people within the organization must at least be reflective in their conversations and open to others' feelings.  At the healthiest organizations, people seek common ground during conversations, and they listen to others with a sense of caring and understanding.

Getting back to Shelly; our relationship had become toxic as neither of us was reflective when talking, and there was little concern for how each other felt.  Our relationship was not healthy enough for me to comment on her appearance.  Through the manifestation of Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance, Shelly's perception of me at the time was threat-driven, which pushed her into distress.  If this conversation-relationship pattern spread in the company, then the organization's effective environment also would be toxic.

Really, neither Shelly nor I had the appropriate behavior to support a healthy relationship.  If either of us had modified our behavior, we could have shifted our relationship into the healthy range.  That's the key lesson about conversations, i.e., we can intentionally manage them.  In the training program, we teach participants how that is done.  With intentionality, we can convert a toxic environment into one that is healthy by managing conversations.

Behaviors

The funny thing about behavior is that it is never neutral in its effect.  It's always observable by others, and that makes its interpretation subject to the biases mentioned above.  Observed behavior sparks our emotions, and either takes others up by igniting their passion, trust, and happiness, or takes them down through sadness, shame, fear, and disgust.

Behavior is always causing a reaction.  As a result, it's more of an input to what occurs than the consequence of any specific occurrence.  When we observe the behaviors of others that are consistent with our beliefs about what is good in people, we will tend to trust them. The opposite is also true.  Without trust in an organization, a healthy environment can't exist.  In fact, trust breeds success for individuals as well as vibrancy and viability for an organization.

Among the many behaviors manifested in an organization, there are three that can have a profoundly positive effect on trust: self-awareness, compassion, and versatility.  These are described below:

Self-awareness

is the ability to understand your moods and emotions and recognize the impact that these have on others. Self-aware people listen to others objectively and suspend judgment tied to their own values and beliefs.  They are conscious of verbal and non-verbal influencers and are less likely to fall victim to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.

Compassion

is the ability to understand the emotional makeup of others and to treat them according to their emotional needs. It's actually a rational decision-making process that considers happiness, thriving, and suffering.  Compassionate people "feel for" others but do not necessarily experience their emotions.

Versatility

is the ability to leverage both masculine and feminine thinking. Most people tend to sense and solve problems from either an archetypally masculine or feminine frame of mind. Masculine sensibility is objective and emphasizes facts and logic, while feminine sensibility emphasizes feelings and intuition.  Masculine and feminine perspectives are both useful regardless of our gender; however, unconscious bias often leads to one point of view being overlooked.   Versatile leaders transcend stereotypes and unconscious biases by factoring in facts and feelings into deliberations. Versatility improves cross-gender communication and results in more balanced, inclusive, and satisfying solutions.

It's the amalgamation of these three behaviors that creates an invisible force in an organization that shapes a healthy environment.  Isn't it now readily apparent why my comment to Shelly went awry?  If she and I were a bit more self-aware, compassionate towards each other, and versatile in our problem solving, the entire incident would have never occurred.

For many people, these three behaviors do not come naturally or were not nurtured over a lifetime of experiences.  During the training program, we use neuroscience to teach how the deliberative part of the brain can rewire the parts that are reflexive.  In other words, a person can train themselves to make these behaviors occur automatically.  It takes a lot of practice, a belief in one's potential, a broad focus on all aspects of life, and a person’s willingness to take ownership of their behaviors.