Imagine that you re part of an overworked, stressed-out management team that s sitting around a table large enough to double as an airport runway, discussing what it ll take to finish a development project. The phone rings. The quality manager picks it up, carries on a heated discussion, and then slams the phone back onto its cradle.
It s final assembly. The software we just completed is giving them fits, she says with a look typically associated with the act of biting the head off a chicken.
Oh great! The software is glitchy! shouts the vice president of development.
Within seconds the entire leadership team is complaining about the unorthodox, selfish, weird software testers. Then they arise as one and start marching toward the testing department. Since you ve worked with this team for only a month, you aren t sure what s going on.
As the team members hustle down the hallway, the operations manager explains that the software is supposed to be tested and retested before it s sent on to final assembly. Otherwise, it often causes problems, and expensive ones at that.
The stupid gear heads only have to run a simple testing package. That way they can catch problems early on and we never send software on to final assembly, where it can cause costly delays.
Why didn t they run the tests? you ask.
That s what we re about to find out, answers the senior VP as the vein on his forehead swells to the size of a mop handle. He and the other leaders charge down the hall like a band of white- collar vigilantes, and you think to yourself, This is about to turn ugly.
Obviously, this group has a checkered history with the people it s about to accost. The managers are feeling morally superior and are about to create a nasty scene. Of course, in many companies, confrontations may not get that heated. The tone may be softer, the language less brutal, and the threats more veiled (less punitive folks rely on cold stares, sarcasm, and pointed humor), but the results are probably the same. Employees fail to deliver on a promise, and the bosses jump to a conclusion and jump hard.
What makes these crucial confrontations interesting is that the underlying cause doesn t really matter. If leaders start out with strong emotions, believing that they are on the moral high road, the interaction is likely to turn out badly for everyone regardless of the underlying cause.
The scene continues as the managers rush in like so many deputies preparing for a lynching. They catch the programmers checking out a cool new Web site with a free game download and then do what one might expect: They snarl at the guilty testers, call them unflattering names , threaten them with discipline, curse them, and pretty much throw a group hissy fit.
This ugly battle rages until the information technology manager, who just walked into the building, hears about what s happening to his people and rallies to the testers. A full-fledged shouting match ensues. It s not long before the IT manager is accusing the rest of the management team of treating the programmers with disrespect, making false accusations, and using offensive language.
The managers are now so angry that they could spit. They ve caught the weasels red-handed ”they really had messed up ”and their colleague, the IT manager, has the nerve to be pointing at the management team. Has the world gone completely mad? It takes days for this incident to settle down, and everyone ends up with egg on his or her face. Everyone.
We used to call the first 30 seconds of a crucial confrontation the hazardous half minute because the overall climate and eventual results are often set in place in seconds. We were wrong. The climate isn t set in the first 30 seconds; it just becomes visible in that time frame. We establish the climate the moment we assume that the other person is guilty and begin feeling angry and morally superior. It takes only a moment to send a crucial confrontation down the wrong track, and it all takes place inside our heads. Here s what this looks like:
Another person does something, and, as a result, we re propelled to action. Here s the path we take: We see what that person did and then tell ourselves a story about why he or she did it, which leads to a feeling, which leads to our own actions. If the story is unflattering and the feeling is anger, adrenaline kicks in. Under the influence of adrenaline , blood leaves our brains to help support our genetically engineered response of fight or flight, and we end up thinking with the brain of a reptile. We say and do dim-witted things.
Under these circumstances we come to some of the most ignorant conclusions imaginable. For instance, a fellow comes home from a long road trip and is feeling amorous, but his wife isn t. Soon he s pacing around and muttering to himself. Finally, here s the plan his blood-starved brain comes up with: I ve got it. I ll try to woo her with a sarcastic comment or two. Oddly enough, insensitive sarcasm doesn t seem to do anything to soften his wife s mood.
Consider the software development leaders. First came the observation: The software isn t working. Next came the story:
The testers didn t run the final tests because they don t like doing them; in fact, they live in their own little world and don t care what happens to others. Then came the feeling of anger, followed by a fierce and futile attack. This entire path to action ”the jump from observation, to story, to feeling, to action ”takes but a moment and sets the tone for everything that follows .