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The negotiator. By Louise Druce

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It’s human nature to try to avoid confrontation but unhappy staff can feel like psychological hostages trying to secure a release from the company if they don’t bring problems out in the open. Louise Druce asks psychologist and veteran hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser how conflict management can help improve retention rates.


They’re not two professions you would normally put together but being a business leader is a lot like being a hostage negotiator: to earn employees respect and get them to deliver, good bosses will build a bond with their staff – even the most awkward people – and try to understand where they are coming from to resolve any conflicts in the office.

However, what you see more often than not in the workplace, says George Kohlrieser, are leaders who are not trained in how to conduct open, honest dialogue. They are afraid that by giving ground they will be seen as weak rather than authoritative and people won’t want to follow them. In fact, the opposite is true.

And he should know. As a veteran hostage negotiator and professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at the Institute for Management Development, Kohlrieser has witnessed first hand the foibles and fortes of both roles. “To create good dialogue you have to bring up and deal with differences, and we don’t have enough good training models to do that or don’t take the time to deal with conflict,” he emphasises.

“In the past, leadership was simply about telling people what to do – command and control – but now employees want something different. They want to be partners and feel engaged, and leaders need to be able to handle that.”

George Kohlrieser

“In the past, leadership was simply about telling people what to do – command and control – but now employees want something different. They want to be partners and feel engaged, and leaders need to be able to handle that. But many feel threatened and see it as a sign of weakness if they have to engage in negotiation to help understand why someone might be upset.”

Another aspect compounding the problem, he says, is that often leaders are so wrapped up in themselves they fail to appreciate the stresses their employees are under or that their staff may feel threatened by changes or the demands made upon them. The result is a workforce who feel upset, discouraged, rejected and disappointed, and no one to talk to about it.

Left to fester, these negative feelings can surface in other, more damaging ways to the company. Emotional detachment, disconnected people, a don’t care attitude and cynicism can all be symptoms of what Kohlrieser terms as being a psychological hostage who feels paralysed and unable to challenge others. It can even lead to sabotage and passive-aggressive behaviour, he cautions, poor customer service, constant mistakes and a downhill slide in the quality of work and the way people work together.

“In the end, it leads to underperformance and failure because people feel the only way they can handle the conflict is to withdraw or detach,” Kohlrieser says.

Table talk

He likens conflict management to putting the fish on the table – an analogy stemming from the practices of fisherman in Sicily. Leave the fish under the table and it will rot and start to smell. But if you put the fish on the table and bond in the messy task of cleaning it up, you’ll be rewarded with a great fish dinner. “What leaders don’t see is that there is a benefit to conflict management,” he explains. “It’s about getting the issues on the table in a transparent way and engaging in a bonding process and dialogue to find a solution.

“Through social dialogue and conflict management, 95 percent of hostage takers will give up their hostages and come out knowing that they are going to prison. Leaders have to learn those kinds of skills and that means rewiring their brains to think that conflict can be a positive thing. It is a constructive path with great benefits at the end.”

Of course, Kohlrieser isn’t encouraging open warfare in the office. In his book Hostage at the Table: How leaders can overcome conflict, influence others, and raise performance, he discusses in-depth some of the tactics bosses can use to manage conflict, as multiple strategies have to be used to approach despondent workers.

The basic principles include creating and maintaining a bond with your ‘adversary’ through common goals, opening up dialogue and avoiding hostile or aggressive behaviour, raising difficult issues, trying to understand the root cause of the conflict (which may be masked by other issues or egos), reciprocity and empathy (what you give out you get back), and, finally, the ability to nurture a relationship once it has been established.

“Through social dialogue and conflict management, 95 percent of hostage takers will give up their hostages and come out knowing that they are going to prison. Leaders have to learn those kinds of skills and that means rewiring their brains to think that conflict can be a positive thing.”

George Kohlrieser

Managed well, conflict can drive change, help people become more innovative and create a stronger team with improved performance. Handled badly though, it can undermine teams and damage mutual respect, alignment, engagement and trust. That’s why Kohlrieser believes it is important that bosses themselves feel supported by HR. “It’s essential for them to have a clear picture and ideas in their mind,” he stresses. “A boss needs someone to talk to as a sort of coach who can help show them how to think about conflict. It’s not about telling them what to do, it’s about creating a secure base from where you can see the opportunities.

“The brain is designed to look for danger and pain,” he continues. “We have so many people in organisations who do nothing but look at where the next hammer is going to fall – the next disappointment, the next frustration – then conflict becomes part of that danger to avoid. About 85 percent of people are acting in ways within the organisation that are not designed to win, they’re designed to avoid losing, so they are not pushing to the edges of their potential. If there is a secure base, people feel safe, cared about and engaged with.”

To retain key staff, he believes bosses need to be inspirational and not afraid to ask questions. But also, when trying to determine what employees want, they need to be honest and say no if they can’t deliver instead of making empty promises to appease staff or diffuse the situation. “People will see the benefits of being tough to bring out the best in people if you talk about it,” Kohlrieser adds.

“If your boss is positive, inspiring, engages in dialogue, discussion and conflict management, staff will find themselves emotionally engaged. But the vast majority of bosses at deeper levels of the organisation do not have that frame of mind or a secure base to switch off the negative. It’s easier because then you can’t be disappointed again. It’s a choice of being cynical or positive that makes us become a hostage.”

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