by Stefano Mastrogiacomo
“Stop with your blah-blah. You got us into this mess, now you fix it.” I once heard a technical manager (visibly angry) announce to his whole team who was struggling fixing a bug.
This was a very unproductive statement if the ultimate goal was to get the problematic code fixed. In her article, “Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness,” Yale School of Management lecturer Emma Seppala explains that making people lose their face or accusing them publicly is one of the worst tactics for getting things back on track. Reprimanding or punishing others may relieve us of (sometimes legitimate) stress and anger, but it will ultimately erode trust in our leadership skills, decreasing team commitment, productivity and ability to innovate along the way.
What’s the better alternative? Empathy. Seppala says the more empathetic the response, the more powerful the results, a sentiment echoed by multiple studies and relevant experts. The secret to real innovation is creating an environment in which team members can talk openly and candidly to each other -- without fear of judgment or reprisals.
Modern taxonomy classifies this as “psychological safety.” Pioneered by Amy Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, her academic works have been put into large-scale practice by Google. (The application followed a gigantic two-year study on team performance called Project Aristotle.)
Building on our own experiences, we designed a tool to help leaders and their teams accelerate the practice of empathy and the application of techniques that build psychologically safer environments. Coined the Nonviolent Requests Guide, the tool can be easily applied in high-stress scenarios, and deal with existing conflict more constructively.
Here’s how it works.
Anger is the expression of unmet needs.
The framework of Nonviolent Communication improves mediation and communication skills, and is built on the foundation of American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who explored the roots of public school violence in the 1960s.
Rosenberg observed that when we lack the emotional skills to describe our discontent, we tend to issue unproductive judgments and criticisms that are perceived as an attack by others. We might say, for example, “You lied to me” or “You’re not accountable,” when what we really want to express is, “I am disappointed because you promised you would deliver this work today.”
In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg states “When we express our needs indirectly using evaluations, interpretations, and images, others are likely to hear criticism. And when people hear anything that sounds like criticism, they tend to invest their energy in self-defense or counterattack.”
How can we adapt the language of nonviolent statements? By incorporating its four aspects:
1. Observations: the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being.
2. Feelings: how we feel in relation to what we observe.
3. Needs: the needs, values, desires, and so forth that create our feelings.
4. Requests: the concrete actions we request to enrich our lives.
By suggesting a structure for nonjudgmental requests, we can express disagreement without making others feel personally attacked, therefore creating an opportunity for empathic dialogue and conflict resolution.
This leaves us with the real question: How should you respond next time you feel upset, panicked, or simply unhappy with your colleagues?
1. Take a moment alone. Step back for a moment before saying anything and apologize for leaving the room if you need to. Recognize, and name as accurately as possible, your current feeling(s) and need(s) (with the help of the right and left checklists of the Nonviolent Requests Guide). These lists, built by the Center for Nonviolent Communication, are invaluable in developing the emotional vocabulary and skills that many of us lack. Repeat to yourself a few times “I feel [feeling], while my need is [need].”
2. Build your nonviolent request. Using the central template, build your nonviolent request. For example, start by saying “When you tell me no just 2 minutes into the presentation, I feel frustrated because we worked six months to get this project off the ground. My need is to contribute to the success of our business. Could you help me understand your decision?” Once confident with your request, prepare by asserting to yourself. "My goal now is to get an answer to my request.”
3. Deliver your request. Deliver your request to your colleague or team with the objective of getting an answer. Listen and then build on the others’ responses. If you sense that negative emotions are still running strong, ask: “Help me understand what makes/for what reason/how …” and watch the power of empathetic, non-violent communication in action. After the interaction ask yourself, "What did I learn from this experience?"
The media portrayed Microsoft as a company plagued by internal fights and inertia when Satya Nadella took over as CEO, in 2014. Both Wall Street and Silicon Valley considered the company on the decline. Microsoft needed a cultural transformation on an organizational level if it was to get the innovation machine rolling again.
Rapidly, Nadella required his top executives to read Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication – in an effort to instill empathetic collaboration. What this signaled was Nadella’s intention to lead the company differently than his predecessors, thus changing Microsoft's reputation as a hive of intense internal competition and conflict. The reading assignment “was the first clear indication that Satya was going to focus on transforming not just the business strategy, but the culture as well,” said Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith.
This move helped Nadella restore more empathetic behaviors and better conflict management, or what he called “learn-it-all” curiosity behaviors. Adopting genuine team learning behaviors – such as talking about errors, asking for help, or sharing information – is essential for innovation teams who want to solve complex problems in today’s fast-moving marketplace. What Nadella did to create that environment was to model the change -- and starting with his top lieutenants, the new, more empathetic culture took hold from there. “He has a hugely proactive and incredibly connected listening [style]. So he’s with you, you can feel it. You can see the body language. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a top executive or a first-line seller, he has exactly the same quality of listening,”
Today, Nadella has a Glassdoor employee approval rate of 98%, and Microsoft’s share price went from USD 40 in 2015 to USD 250 in 2021, for a market cap of 1.93T.
Get your copy of High-Impact Tools for Teams, Wiley, Strategyzer Series, 2021.
Download the Nonviolent Requests Guide for free.
Cover illustration by BlexBolex, other illustrations by Severine Assous, www.illustrissimo.fr
Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. The New York Times Magazine, 26(2016), 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Ibarra, H., & Rattan, A. (2018). Microsoft: instilling a growth mindset. London Business School Review, 29(3), 50-53.
Ibarra, H., & Scoular, A. (2019). The leader as coach. Harvard Business Review, 97(6), 110-119. https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach
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Mastrogiacomo, S., & Osterwalder, A. (2021). High-Impact Tools for Teams: 5 Tools to Align Team Members, Build Trust, and Get Results Fast (Vol. 5). John Wiley & Sons.
McCracken, H. (2017). Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/40457458/satya-nadella-rewrites-microsofts-code
Rosenberg, M. B., & Chopra, D. (2015, 3rd Edition). Nonviolent communication: A language of life: Life-changing tools for healthy relationships. PuddleDancer Press.
Seppala, E. (2015). Why compassion is a better managerial tactic than toughness. Harvard Business Review, 7. https://hbr.org/2015/05/why-compassion-is-a-better-managerial-tactic-than-toughness
Wacker, R., & Dziobek, I. (2018). Preventing empathic distress and social stressors at work through nonviolent communication training: A field study with health professionals. Journal of occupational health psychology, 23(1), 141.