Leaders often create teams of people with different skills and expertise to solve complex problems. For example, companies create cross-functional teams for launching new products bringing together engineers and marketers who each have different information. Law enforcement agencies bring together multi-agency teams for criminal investigations bringing together personnel who have access to different types of information about suspects or circumstances. These problems are called “distributed information problems” because the information required to resolve the question at hand is not shared by all members but rather is distributed across different team members. Although it is quite simple, in theory, to explain to team members that they just need to share information with each other, the more information that is shared the better the solution that emerges for these types of problems. Yet, decades of research has shown that this advice may be simple– but certainly not easy.
At a recent training with the leadership of the Metro DC Police Department, Professor of the Practice Rebecca Heino and I talked about distributed information problems and the seemingly irrelevant factors that prevent people from sharing information with each other. We call these barriers to critical conversations—the conversations are critical because the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions can run strong. Two pernicious barriers explored in this training were: identity threats and cascading emotions.
Identity threats occur because all conversations are simultaneously two processes—a way to convey information and a way to establish (or affirm or alter) the relationship between the parties in the conversation. Therefore, when parties disagree with each other, one or both parties’ self-image can be diminished—this could be particularly acute if one people have different organizational status. Knowing this, lower status parties often do not question the information shared by higher-status parties and hence the lower status party’s information does not get shared with the group.
Cascading emotions ensue from the contagious nature of emotional displays. People in critical conversations need to evaluate their “emotional footprint”. How might their behavior make others feel and how might it affect others from sharing important, unique information?
Several strategies can help leaders overcome these problems and master the art of critical conversations. First, leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence. Specific exercises can help you to interpret your own emotional footprint and think of alternate ways to interpret upsetting situations. Second, leaders must know the difference between: light listening, dialogue listening, and empathetic listening. Empathetic listening requires an inquiring mindset and the ability to paraphrase others’ messages. You can improve your own empathetic listening by taking time to prepare yourself mentally for being a good listener. Clear your calendar 15 minutes before the meeting for the energy this activity will require. During the session be aware of how your body language either invites or hinders open conversation. Emotional competence and empathetic listening are skills every leader can and should master.
Catherine Tinsley, Professor of Management, McDonough School of Business
Academic Director, Executive Masters in Leadership Program
Faculty Director, Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute