In This Video

Jim’s keynote challenges you to look at yourself through self-critical eyes. Jim discusses skills essential for effective collaboration. In particular, he focuses on achieving success even during difficult interactions. He shows how your own defensiveness is a key factor in resolving conflicts and building collaboration. and shares practical tools designed to help you manage your own defensiveness.

For most of his career, Jim was a Senior Administrative Law Judge for the State of California. He had jurisdiction over public sector disputes in the workplace. He mediated over 1,500 labor disputes, including more school district labor strikes than any other person in the United States. For several years he was a member of a collaboration special task force. They designed and taught collaboration skills to highly conflicted public sector organizations. The project was wildly successful. It helped build trust, reduce conflict and create more collaborative working environments.

Jim is President of RC Group, LLC. He maintains offices in South San Francisco, California, Cuernavaca, Mexico and Stockholm, Sweden. He specializes in building cultures of collaboration within organizations. He also trains other consultants and trainers how to teach collaborative skills.



James Tamm: It’s a pleasure to be here today. Of course, having been a judge most of my life, it’s a pleasure for me to be talking to any group that’s listening to me voluntarily. I’m assuming that you’re all here voluntarily. That’s the story I tell myself. I’m going to stick to it. I want to talk to you today about how you can be much more effective at collaboration but I don’t want to start by talking about collaboration among people. I want to start with a little story about some groups of chickens because believe it or not chickens have an awful lot to teach us about collaboration.

This story takes place at Purdue University, there’s a professor there named Bill Muir. Bill’s a professor of genetics and agriculture in the Department of Animal Sciences, genuinely nice guy. What Bill was doing was looking into the differences between groups of collaborative chickens. These were just chickens that got along well with each other. There were no star performers in their group. They were just nice to each other. In the chicken world, a star performer is the hen that lays the most eggs. The problem with the star performers is that they tend to be much more aggressive animals and so we often see among the chickens what we occasionally see among people in human organizations and that is that the star performers become the stars not by being so good themselves but by suppressing the egg production of the other chickens so they look better and they do this by pecking on them.

Now I call these more aggressive star performers, the red zone chickens as opposed to the more collaborative green zone chickens. These red zone chickens cause a lot of problems for the chicken farmers so they’ve tried a bunch of different strategies to reduce the damage. One thing they tried was to house the birds in individual cages about this big, proved not to be a great strategy because it’s very expensive, it takes millions of cages and there’s also been a lot of other research showing that chickens are much like people in that they tend to live longer, more productive lives if they can live in a social setting rather than isolated in an individual cage or cubicle as the case may be.

That didn’t work. Another strategy they tried is something that’s called trimming their beaks. Now this is a bit of a deceptive term because it gives you the impression that there’s a chicken manicurist out there with a big emery board that’s going up and filing down the sharp point of the beak. What really happens is there’s an employee that has a tool that looks a little bit like a pair of pliers and they literally go up and rip a big chunk of the chicken’s beak right off its head. Also, very expensive, not to mention horribly unpleasant for all the chickens and the employees that are assigned to do that. If you think you have a tough job, imagine if your whole career was built on ripping the beaks off of chickens, not a great career path.

Bill was trying to see if it’s possible to breed collaborative instincts into chickens and if so, what would be the impact of that on their egg production. Over here he had all of his groups of the green zone chickens, the collaborative ones and over here he had all the red zone star performers, the more aggressive ones. From each generation he took the best egg producers to produce the next generation and he did this for a one-year period of time, which is about five generations in the chicken world. At the end of that one-year period the results were pretty dramatic. This is a picture of the green zone chickens. They were healthy and productive. I’ve never been able to tell if a chicken is really happy because they don’t have much of a smile with their beaks but they don’t look unhappy.

Now, the next picture I’m going to show you is what was left of the red zone chickens. I say it’s what was left of the red zone chickens because more than half of the red zone chickens, 54% of them, had been murdered by their colleagues, pecked to death. There’s another picture of the red zone chickens and then back to the green zone chickens. You can see a big difference. Now they say that a picture says a thousand words but if these pictures don’t tell you the whole story, let’s look at the egg production of the green zone chickens. In that one year period of time, it went up 260%, one year. Anybody producing that in a human organization would be quite the superhero. They wouldn’t need a costume last night.

This wasn’t the only thing that they looked at because if you’re a chicken farmer and you’re raising chickens to lay eggs to sell in the marketplace, one of the things you learn on the very first day you go into business is that dead chickens don’t lay eggs. Mortality is also a big deal. In the green zone group, the mortality rate of the chickens dropped by 55% in the very first generation, simply by moving out the more aggressive star performers.

What can we learn from this? I think it’s this. That red zone environments, those environments that are more conflicted, that are more hostile, that are internally competitive versus externally competitive, they produce more red zone behavior. It feeds on itself and can spread through an organization like a virus. Green zone environments that are more supportive and more cooperative and more highly skilled at collaboration, they produce whatever your organization’s equivalent is to more eggs and lower mortality and regardless of the kind of organization that you’re in whether it’s a military unit or a nonprofit or a government or the corporate world, higher education, whatever sector you’re in has ways of measuring the equivalent of more eggs and lower mortality.

Now let me fast forward ahead in the evolutionary scale into organizations involving human beings. Now when we go into an organization today we rarely see one that is pure red zone or pure green zone. In the most hostile red zone conflicted environment, there are people that actually work together well that don’t get defensive, don’t get their buttons pushed, communicate well, do things right. In the most collaborative green zone environment, there are people that have arguments and get their buttons pushed and get defensive and don’t do things right.

This gives you a good flavor for the difference between an organization that is primarily red zone in culture versus one that is green zone in culture. In the red zone, it is low trust and high blame so it’s not a very safe environment to work in so people tend to keep their thoughts and their fears and their feelings to themselves because it’s not very safe to be open. They also tend to withhold what we call their discretionary emotional energy. In other words, when they’re off the clock are they thinking about how to improve things at work? Well, in red zone organizations, typically when they’re off the clock they’re not even thinking about work or if they are, it’s usually how they can outperform a colleague or undermine the boss in some way. They also tend to be very risk-avoidant in red zone organizations because if you try something new and it fails, guess what’s going to happen? Someone’s going to get blamed and so people tend to keep their ideas to themselves.

If you’re in an organization that requires a lot of creativity in order to thrive and you’re operating in the red zone, you’re in deep trouble because red zone organizations are not creative organizations. You have to feel safe enough to fail if you’re going to have a really creative organization. Red zone organizations are not very fun places to work either and so people typically have to be paid more. They have to get locked in to some pension plan in order to keep them there because as soon as they’ll have an opportunity to jump ship, that’s what they’re going to do. They’ll go find a better place to work.

The green zone is almost a mirror image. It’s high trust and low blame so it’s a much safer environment so people are much more open. There’s been a lot of other research done showing that one of the more important things you can do to improve the effectiveness of any organization is generally increase the level of openness within that organization. In the green zone they tend to be more willing to take risks as well because if you’re in a green zone organization and you try something new and it fails the conversation usually has to do with something like what can we learn from that. How can we avoid that in the future?

A great example of this is NASA. I’ve taught collaborative skills at their management program for about 20 years now and I was invited to sit in on what they call the lessons learned meeting after the last shuttle disaster and we heard a lot of people, they’re talking about how here at NASA we say safety is number one. Safety, safety, safety. We drill that into everybody’s head. It’s the most important thing at NASA. Safety, safety, safety. However, we also heard a lot of comments from people saying have you noticed that if you’re a rising star at NASA and you take a job in the safety department, it’s a career killer. We’re saying one thing but we’re doing something else. How do we get the best and the brightest folks at NASA to take those jobs in a safety department and then reward them for doing that. As a result of that kind of an attitude, I think NASA is probably one of the more creative organizations that’s ever been established, certainly, one of the most that I’ve ever worked.

Green zone environments are much nicer places to work and people tend to be internally motivated rather than externally motivated like in the red zone organizations. They’re there because they’re passionate about their work or they enjoy the people that they’re working with. If we know that green zone environments are much more creative, they tend to be nicer places to work, they tend to have lower turnover then the question comes up so what? Does that really make a difference to the bottom line? Yeah, it’s a nicer place to work but does it really matter in the long run?

There were a couple of researchers named Kotter and Heskett, John Kotter, Jim Heskett, They’re both well-respected academics from Harvard, written a bunch of other books as well and they wanted to look into this to see if it made a difference in the corporate world. They did a very broad base study. It lasted 11 years. It was over a period of 11 years. They started with over 200 corporations all listed on the stock exchange so they were big established companies. They were from 22 different industries so it was not industry-specific and they picked corporations that had a clearly identifiable company culture that would either fit into one of these. They call the red zone groups non-enhancing, non-supportive cultures and the green zone companies they called enhancing supporting companies.

Then they track them for an 11-year period looking at a number of different factors. Here are four things they looked at, the net income, the stock price, the difference in revenue and the difference in whether the workforce either expanded or contracted. Now, at your table or just with a partner if you’re sitting up here in front, I would like you to spend two or three minutes and just talk about what do you think the difference was over this 11-year period between the red zone companies and the green zone companies. Do you think the green zone was 20% more, 50%, 100%, whatever? Maybe you think the red zone companies were more. Just talk at your table or to a neighbor here and see what numbers you would come up with and then I’ll show you what the real numbers were and see if you’re surprised.

Okay, focus back up here please. Now let me just see a show of hands. Anybody here think that the red zone organizations outperform the green zone organizations, just raise your hand? All right, there’s a couple. How about of the people that believe the green zone organizations were more productive? Anybody here say it was under 50% more, raise your hand. Under 100% more? Okay, anybody over 100%? 200%? 300%? 400%? All right, see if this surprises you.

Over this 11-year period, the green zone organization’s net income improves 756%, the red zone improved 1%. Stock price in the green zone organization’s up over 800%. Revenue over 500% more than the red zone companies. These are the corporate equivalent to more eggs. The workforce expanded almost 250% in the green zone. That’s the corporate equivalent to lower mortality. Are there exceptions to this? Of course. We’ve all seen red zone supervisors or managers keep rising to the top. Probably most of us have seen or worked in red zone organizations that seem to be surviving well and doing okay. They are the exceptions rather than the rule. There’s been just a ton or research showing that over time in the long run, collaborative cultures outperform more adversarial cultures over and over again.

Now, I want you to go back to these red zone chickens again for a minute. I want you to get a sense of what they feel like. In my role as a judge, I believe that I have mediated more school district labor strikes than any other person in the United States and in just about every single strike that I have ever mediated, by the time we get to the end of that process, every single person involved in that process on both sides of the table, labor and management, every single person knows exactly what these chickens feel like because that is the existence in which they are trapped.

Now, these were not mean people or bad people. These were genuinely good people who were trying their imperfect best to improve the world the best way they know how. I mean they’ve all dedicated their lives to public education. They didn’t lack an interest in collaboration. What they lack was skills. This lack of skills was costing the state of California a huge amount of money not just in judge’s salaries or the cost of courtrooms but primarily in loss productivity.

A small group of us got together. We got some big grants from the Hewitt Foundation and the Stuart Foundation. We did a massive amount of research and we put together program and set out to try to teach the more adversarial red zone organizations how to be more collaborative. We were wildly successful. Beyond our dreams successful and I’ll tell you a little about some of the results in a few minutes.

What we learned from that project is not just limited to public education, it is applicable in any setting that requires collaboration whether that’s a family trying to figure out where to go on vacation or in the corporate world where it has become blindingly obvious that you cannot compete externally if you can’t first collaborate well internally or even in politics where the defensiveness of our current congress probably cost as much as the entire defense budget at the Pentagon or even more importantly for you, in agile teams.

What did we learn from that? Well, we learned that there are five key skills that are pretty essential if what you’re trying to do is build a more collaborative environment or if you simply want to just get better at building collaborative relationships yourself.

I’m going to tell you about all five but I’m going to really concentrate most of the time on a couple of them. You’ll notice that they are both a mindset and a skill set. It is a set of attitudes and a set of competencies that you can learn and practice in a very short period of time and make a huge impact on whatever kind of an organization you’re in almost immediately.

The first one we call collaborative intention. The underlying skill there is having the ability to be able to stay focused on mutual gains in your relationship when your relationship hits one of those speed bumps in the road. When somebody makes a mistake or does something that you don’t understand or it’s unexplainable, can you stay in the green zone and get curious or you go into the red zone and get furious? This red zone/green zone is a little shorthand that we encourage people to start paying attention to. Most of us, if we just quiet our brain for three or four seconds and tune in what’s going on inside our brain and our body, we have a pretty good idea of whether we’re operating in the red zone or the green zone. I mean this is not rocket science although we do teach it at NASA.

It’s pretty easy to do. Simply paying attention to whether you’re operating in the red zone or green zone will make a big difference over time. I’m on the faculty of the International Management Program at the Stockholm School of Economics and every cohort has to go through and do a class project together and several years ago one group took the red zone/green zone as their project. These were all international managers so wherever they were around the world at certain times during the day they had to stop for just a second, notice if they were operating in the red zone, the green zone and then they had to note it down in a little workbook.

They didn’t have to do anything else about it. They didn’t have to try and change it or do anything. They just had to pay attention to it and note it down. Then they gather all this data. When they analyzed it they found that more often than not at the beginning of the project, most of the participants were operating in the red zone. Simply by paying attention several times during the day by the time they got to the end of the project, more often than not, most of them were in the green zone and they were behaving differently. They were behaving much more collaboratively and much more effectively simply by paying attention to whether they were operating the red zone the green zone, what their attitude was.

One of your homework assignments is going to be start noticing whether you’re in the red zone or the green zone and look for patterns there. What I’d like you to do now is either at your table with a group of two or three people or just with a partner up here I would like you to spend three or four minutes talking about what pushes into the red zone or what helps you come back into the green zone. In other words, on certain kind of projects are you always in the red zone? With certain kind of people are you always in the red zone? What helps you come back to the green zone? All right, talk about it, go.

Okay, please wrap that up. Let me tell you about what the other skills were.

The second one we call truthfulness. Now, the key skill here is being able to create an environment where it’s safe enough for people to raise difficult issues and tell the truth. You cannot solve problems if people aren’t willing to raise difficult issues and tell the truth. I told you some good things about NASA. I’ll tell you one negative thing about NASA too. If you read both of the shuttle disaster reports for Columbia and Challenger you would see that the researchers found that there were people at NASA that didn’t feel safe enough to stand up and say, “Hey, we got a problem here, we shouldn’t launch.”

One of my colleagues in the program that I teach at NASA, a fellow named {Gerry Harvey 00:21:33]. He interviewed every single person that was in a room at a company called Morton Thiokol they made the O-Rings that exploded because the temperature was too low on the day of the launch. He interviewed every single person that was in that room. Every single person told him individually that he didn’t think that they should have launched on that day, not one person raised that. They were under so much pressure to get those shuttles up that no one wanted to stand up and say, “Hey, we got a problem here, you shouldn’t launch.”

Now, I noticed on the board that’s out in front, the map out in front with all the pins in it too that there’s a lot of Swedish people here. Are there any people in the audience here from Sweden? Just raise your hand. A few of you still are here.

All right. I spend a lot of time in Sweden and they have an even better example there. The most popular museum in Stockholm, if you ever get to Stockholm I encourage you to go there, is called the Vasa Museum. In 1624, the Swedes were fighting the Danes. Actually, they were fighting everybody. They’re pretty mean back then. They were particularly fighting the Danes. The king wanted the biggest and best battleship that was ever made. The king commissioned the Vasa be built, that’s the name of the ship. As they were building it the king got this great idea. He said this would be an even bigger better battleship if we put another row of cannons on the top deck. Now, the ship builders of today say that the ship builders back in 1624 had to have known with almost 100% certainty that if they put another row of cannons on that top deck that sucker was not going to float because it was top heavy.

The issue was, was it safe enough to tell the king the truth? Obviously, it wasn’t because they put the cannons up there, on its maiden voyage it got about 300 yards offshore and sunk and stayed in the mud for about 300 years until they figured out where it was and figured out how to float it up. Then they floated it over to one of the islands there and built a museum around it and restored part of it so you can see what glory it would look like. It is a fabulous piece of art even if it sucks as a ship. I encourage you to go there.

I always tease them, we have NASA but you have the Vasa. Now, usually a lack of truthfulness in most organizations does not show up as a shuttle disaster or a ship sinking. It’s more like death by a thousand paper cuts. People are late to meetings, they won’t share all the information, they won’t raise all the concerns they have, those kinds of things. It’s just as insidious.

Skill number three we call self-accountability. The key skill here is being able to see what choices are available to you all the time in any given situation and what choices you’re making. I’ve had a lot of people, in fact just about every strike that I’ve ever mediated I’ve heard from both sides, both labor and management, they’ll say your honor they didn’t give us a choice. We had no choice. They made us do it. They forced us into it which is really nonsense.

When we go into an organization if we can get people to change their belief system about how much choice they have. It can be very empowering for that organization. A lot of times people are making choices through non-action thinking that they’re not making choices.

Then the second part of that equation is to get people not only to recognize what choices they have and that they’re making but also be accountable and responsible for all the consequences, both intended and unintended for any choices they do make because I’ve also had a lot of people stand before me and say, “Your honor, you shouldn’t be upset with me because I didn’t mean for that to happen.” It’s like they’re walking around with that little card from the monopoly game to get out of jail card for free they can play. It doesn’t work that way.

All right, skill number four, self-awareness. Here we focused on helping people increase their self-awareness about their own defensiveness. Because if you’re trying to build collaboration or resolve conflicts and somebody starts getting defensive it is like pouring blood in water to a shark. It can just create a feeding frenzy. I’m going to circle back and we’ll come back to that in just a minute and we’ll spend most of the time here today, the rest of the time focused on that one.

The fifth skill is negotiating and problem solving. We got a lot of stuff right when we did this project tin California. One of the things that we got wrong or at least I got wrong was when we went out to road test it, we went out looking for the most dysfunctional, screwed up, highly conflicted organizations we could find to test it in. Since they had so much conflict I felt that if we could just teach them how to negotiate their way through that conflict that that ought to solve the problem for them. What we learned over time was that we could teach people the best negotiating process in the world and if they showed up at the table with a bad attitude or they got defensive when they were sitting at the table they would screw up any system that we could give them, that we could show them, all right.

Now, there’s bound to be some conflict in a long-term working relationship. If you don’t have any conflict in your long-term working relationships it’s probably not as productive a working relationship as it could be. Either that or you’re overly medicated or not paying attention or just blitzed out.

It’s important that you be able to negotiate your way through that conflict but it’s the other four skills that now we spend more time on. It’s the ability to stay in the green zone. It’s the ability to create that safe environment where people can raise difficult issues to be responsible and accountable, to not get defensive. It’s those skills that make the negotiating work. When we work with an organization today and we just see that they’re just teaching negotiating skills we think they’re missing the big part of the solution.

Now, we were fortunate. I’m not going to bore you with a lot of research but I do want to just give you a little bit. We were fortunate that the institute of industrial relations at the University of California, Berkeley came in and they did a before and after study of this project. They’ve looked at a bunch of different factors. They were all very dramatic but a few of them that I love is that the number of people that reported that their working relationships were trustworthy as opposed to untrustworthy jumped by 70%. The number of people who said that they had effective communications as opposed to ineffective communications in their working relationships jumped from 10% up to 60%, a huge increase.

We were able to reduce the amount of measurable conflict, things like unfair labor practice charges, request for mediators, fact finders those kinds of things. Measurable conflict in almost a hundred different organizations by 67% over several years, it saved the state of California a huge amount of money in the cost of conflict.

Then the one slide that I do want to show you, which is some research, I’m really excited about because I just got these numbers about two days ago. They come from two studies, both took take place in Sweden. One was with a company called SEB which is one of the big four banks in Northern Europe and the other is one of the largest restaurant supply, food supply organizations in Sweden Martin & Servera. They have been teaching these skills fairly aggressively in their leadership programs and they wanted to see if it was going to make a difference. They did a before and after study, the researchers did the same in both companies. The averages between both companies, in increase in ability, almost 35% managing differences between people, staying in the green zone over 40%, helping other people stay non-defensive, almost 38%, and getting their own interest met in conflict over 27%.

That’s a big deal that we can see in organizations. These skills are not only having a positive impact on organizations but they can help individuals as well because would it make a difference in your particular situation or on the projects that you’re working on if you could get your interest met almost 30% more often whenever you go into conflict, probably so.

Now, this is all well and good that it can have an impact on organizations. I want you to leave today with a personal takeaway, something that’s going to help you be more effective personally. I want to spend the rest of the time we have here exploring what I believe is the biggest killer to collaboration. In my experience, there is nothing that you can do that will help you become more collaborative or more effective at collaboration and resolving conflict more than better managing your own defensiveness.

In almost 25 years as a judge I almost never had to deal with pure legal disputes. People were almost always before me because somebody would start feeling vulnerable and when they would feel vulnerable then they would get defensive and when we get defensive our thinking becomes rigid, our IQ drops about 20 points and we simply become stupid. Not only are we terrible problem solvers at that point but we invite everybody else in the room to go into the red zone and get defensive and then what you end up with is a whole room filled with red zone people who cannot solve a problem.

Now, in my profession, the technical term for that is litigation. In your profession the technical term for that is software that really sucks. Now, most companies have defense budgets and they have an idea of what that cost. Most countries can report, they usually don’t report it but they can usually tell. Also, every organization, every company, every project, every team also has a defensiveness budget. It’s what defensiveness is costing you. Defensiveness is usually unknown to the people. The cost of that is usually unknown to the people that are caught up in it because they’re not paying attention to it, mostly unconscious stuff. It shows up as things like this. Here is just a few ways that they show up. Longer meetings, more meetings revisiting previous decisions. Have any of you sat in a meeting thinking to yourself didn’t we decide this four times before? Here we are doing the same thing over again. It’s triangulating, people not being as open as need they to be, not telling the truth, hiding mistakes. This is the way this shows up.

What I’d like you to do now, back with your partner or at your table, is take about another five minutes and I want you to talk about how does defensiveness show up on your team, your organization, your business, whatever, it could be your project, whatever you’re focused on right now and what do you think it cost you. All right, take about four or five minutes. Go.

Okay, please focus back here.

It’s as simple as this. If you reduce your defensiveness you increase your ability to solve problems. This is not a complex formula. If we know that we can be much more effective if we stay in the green zone, if we don’t get defensive, if we don’t get our buttons pushed, why don’t we just do that all the time? We know we can be more effective at that.

I would like you to do a little experiment with me that may give you some insight into that. This is a little Zen exercise, all right. I would like you to use all your creativity and empathy to let yourself become one with this piece of paper. Know what it feels like to be this piece of paper, nice and cool to the touch, a few crisp edges, a few sharp corners like some of us have, a few wrinkles like some of us have, some of us more than others.

Now, in just a minute I’m going to ask you all to take a deep breath, we’ll do this all together. As you exhale I would like you to try to just breathe yourself right into this piece of paper and become one with it. All right. Everybody ready? All right, go.

All right, everybody got that now? Now, anybody want to collaborate with me right now? Anybody want to build a relationship with me right now? Maybe, more likely, anybody have any strong red zone, negative thoughts towards me right at the moment? You’ll notice that I’m trying to smooth this out now so you’ll trust me once again. It’s always dangerous doing an exercise that makes the whole group either hate you or fear you or both in this case.

I wanted to do this because I wanted you to see how easily and quickly you can move from the green zone where pretty much everybody was just a minute ago into the red zone. When it happens, it can happen just that fast and when it happens, we don’t have defenses, they have us, they own us and they determine how we see the rest of the world out there, especially the motivations and intentions of other people. The problem is it’s almost all unconscious stuff so most of us don’t even recognize that we’re getting defensive until we’re way defensive and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Here is our premise about defensiveness. Most of us think when we get defensive, someone has done something to us and so we’re defending ourselves against that person. Now, there are times when you need to defend yourself. In fact, one of the important factors in being good at collaboration is being able to set clear boundaries. A lot of people don’t do that so you have to set clear boundaries but that’s not what I’m talking about defending yourself. I’m talking about when you get defensive and a lot of people think that they’re actually defending themselves from someone else when they get defensive but what’s really going on is we are defending ourself from fears inside of us that we don’t want to feel. We behave in a certain way that let us not be aware of those fears. Three biggies that come up all the time, fears about our own significance, our competence and our likeability, three big ones that push us into the red zone very easily. Let me give you an example.

Say I have some concerns about my own competency for doing this presentation today and say, things are going very badly. Maybe I got in really late last night or I was at the party too long and drank too much and a little hangover and I’m forgetting things and not doing a good job and no one is paying attention because everybody is still hangover too. Now, that could cause me a lot of discomfort that I don’t want to feel because believe me, I do not like feeling incompetent. I want to feel competent, right? One of the ways that I could reduce the amount of discomfort that I have is I might start blaming you. After all, you’re not the smartest group I’ve ever worked with. You probably didn’t want to learn anything today anyway. You just wanted to come to this conference and hang out with your nerdy friends and get away from work because you can’t stand what you’re doing.

Now, it might seem like I’m defending myself from a bad audience but what I’m really doing is I’m behaving in a way that lets me not be in touch with those underlying fears. Our defensive behaviors helps us hide our fears from ourselves but unfortunately, that is an awful lot like putting whipped cream on dog poop and I know that’s an ugly metaphor but I’ll bet everybody in the room is going to remember that one when you leave the conference. It may look a little bit better or smell a little bit better but it doesn’t deal with the underlying issue, okay? Now, if you’re behaving defensively, it’s because there’s some fear there but most of us are not sufficiently in tune with that fear that’s inside of us that we can do anything about it until it’s too late.

What can be more helpful for most of us is to start paying attention to our outward behaviors because those outward signs of defensiveness are usually much easier to spot at an earlier point in the process before we get into trouble. If you know what your signs of defensiveness are, they can act as your personalized early warning system and tip you off at an earlier point in the process before it’s too late. For example, I noticed that when I get defensive I start breathing faster, I usually start talking louder and I usually feel very misunderstood.

If I’m in a room and getting some feedback and I noticed that I’m breathing faster, talking louder and feeling very put upon, since I know those were my signs of defensiveness, if I see them happening then the alarm bells can go off, “Ding, ding, ding. Hey, Jim. Pay attention. You’re doing that thing again.” Then, I can take some action. It is worth your while to figure out what your particular signs of defensiveness are and create your own early warning system. Now, you’ll notice when you came in today, either at your table or on these chairs here, there’s a one-page handout and on the back of that handout, there is a list of 50 different signs of defensiveness.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, okay. This is just a list of signs that we saw among ourselves and other workshop participants. If you have some signs of defensiveness that are not on this list, I would encourage you to just write them in down at the bottom but what I’d like you to do is go through this list and put a check mark by each one that applies to you and then after you’ve gone through the whole list once, then I would like you to go back over the list and circle your top three. The three that you are so good at, you could teach at the university level because you really know it well.

If you can’t find any that apply, I suggest you go straight to number 12 which is denial or another great way is to go out in the lobby and call your spouse. Spouses are remarkably willing to help out on this task and usually very accurate too. All right, put a checkmark by each one that applies to you, circle your top three. Okay, in just a second, I’m going to have you turn to one another person and I want you to explain to them your top three and I want you to hear their top three. I know a lot of you are here with colleagues, you might have some concerns about sharing this information. Let me assure you that this is not secret information.

Your colleagues know about your defensiveness better than you do for the most part, all right. Turn to a neighbor, tell him your top three and hear their top three, all right, go.

Now, I ask you to share this for several reasons. One is this is just a helpful reminder that defensiveness is a human condition. That’s going to happen to all of us. It’s not like we can eliminate it, we’re just trying to recognize it earlier and deal with it more effectively. We’re going to get defensive. It doesn’t do you any good to beat yourself up when that happens. Knowing this is a human condition, maybe you can cut yourself a little slack when it happens.

The second reason is it is helpful for you to know and understand the defensive behaviors of your colleagues and for them to know it about you because if you know that one colleague over here, when they get quiet, maybe it means that they’re becoming fearful and defensive and maybe you can assist them, you can help them, all right. Give them some support. Another colleague over here, when they get quiet, maybe it just means that they’re calm and relaxed. It’s good for you to know the difference.

The main reason though I wanted you to share it is I want you to become articulate about what you’re top three signs are because now these top three signs are going to be your best friend because they’re going to be your own personalized early warning system tipping you off at an earlier point in the process that you’re becoming less effective because anytime you’re getting defensive, you are becoming less effective even though you may not feel that, you may feel exactly the opposite. You may feel smarter and more effective but that’s not the case, all right?

It’s important that you know what these top three signs are. It’s important that you know what they look like, what they feel like when you’re doing them. Start paying attention to that and be on the lookout for them. Then, when your early warning system tips you off that you’re getting defensive, what can you do about it? Well, here’s a few things. Number one, acknowledge it to yourself that you’re getting defensive. Now, that may not seem like it’s a big deal but it is a huge first step because if you don’t notice it, you won’t take any other action, you’ll just remain blissfully ignorant and ineffective.

Start noticing it. Now, it won’t always feel safe enough to do this but if you’re with trusted colleagues, I encourage you not only to acknowledge it to yourself but also to your colleagues because they can usually spot something’s going on. They might not quite understand what it is but it can be helpful to let them know and ask for their help. Number two, since there is such a strong biological, physiological basis to defensiveness, anything you can do to slow down your physiology will be helpful to you. Maybe just take a walk around the building, get some fresh air or if you’re stuck in a meeting, maybe take a few deep breaths to just try and relax your body a little bit. Maybe have a visualization in your head about a calm place that you can go to. Slow yourself down.

Number three, pay attention to your self-talk. Self-talk is the little dialogue that you have up in your head and it’s usually the most accurate portrayal of what we’re really thinking and feeling because we don’t sensor it. We don’t sensor it because we’re not going to share it with anybody. It’s just our own little dialogue, all right? The stuff that’s negative can get us into trouble. For example, if you’re going into an important meeting and the little voice you hear up here is saying things like, “This isn’t fair, I’m going to get crushed. I don’t know what I’m doing. They’re going to think I’m an idiot.” Well, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you noticed negative self-talk, try to turn it into something a little less toxic for you, a little less poisonous. You don’t have to try and convince yourself that you’re superman and you can fly but just make it less poisonous, maybe something like, “Yeah, this is an uncomfortable situation but it’s only a 30-minute meeting. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. Let’s go, get it over with.”

Number four, create a personalized action plan. Now, this is going to be different for all of you. You’ll notice on the flipside of that handout, you’ll see an area that looks like this, defensiveness action plan. In the very first three lines there where it says, “When my early warning system tells me I’m getting defensive, in other words, when I notice myself doing.” I want you to write in something that reminds you of what those top three signs were that you just circle just a minute ago. Take a minute and do that right now.

Now, when you get those written in, I’m going to have you working with a partner again and I want you to come up with something, a specific plan, a specific action step that you can take that will help moderate the damage of your defensiveness. Now, this is going to look different for each of you depending upon what your signs are. For example, if your sign is flooding with information to prove a point, maybe your action plan is just to be quiet for 10 or 15 seconds. Just zip it up. That won’t help you if your sign is withdrawal into deadly silence. Then, you’re going to need to ask a question or do something to stay engaged in the conversation. If it’s high charged of energy in the body, maybe just take a few deep breaths or have a relaxing visualization that you can go to. If it’s a sudden drop in IQ, maybe go hide in the restroom for a few minutes to give your brain a few minutes to catch up with the rest of your body.

One woman, her sign was always wanting the last word. She got this image of herself standing at the conference room door throwing in the last word and then slamming the door and it was a way not only of reminding her of what she was doing but it lightened up her mood a little bit. Teased herself. In fact, I think on her visualization, she had a big clown nose on or something like that to make it a little bit funnier for her.

What I’d like you to do now is work with a partner and come up with one or two very specific action steps that are related to whatever your signs of defensiveness are. Do some brainstorming together, take two or three minutes to do that. Go.

Now, if you weren’t able to come up with what you think is a good action plan, come over and see me by the bookstore afterwards and I’ll help you figure something out. Let me just connect a few of the dots before I end. I’ve talked about what defensiveness is and isn’t. It’s us protecting ourselves from fears inside of us, usually, significance, confidence, likeability type issues. Now, what you’ve done is you’ve come up with your own personalized early warning system to tip you off at an earlier point in the process that you’re getting defensive and now you’ve just come up with your action plan.

After you do that, then the next thing, step five here is to start over. This is a recovery model. This is not a model of perfection. We’re all going to get defensive, the key is notice it, take some action and then, let it go. It’s never in your best interest to keep whipping yourself. Cut yourself a little slack about this. Now, when you leave here today, here’s your homework assignment. Start noticing if you’re operating in the red zone or the green zone and start looking for those patterns. If you see any patterns, start writing them down, what tends to push you into the red zone, what helps you come back into the green zone.

Number two, be on the lookout for your signs of defensiveness, your early warning systems, those top three that you circle because if you’re noticing them, if you’re not paying any attention, they’re not going to help you, all right? Be on the lookout for them and then, number three, practice your action plan. You want to practice it so it becomes automatic. If you see this sign of defensiveness, you take this action. See this, do this, see this, do this. You want it automatic because the worst time to be figuring it out how to deal with your defensiveness is when you’re defensive.

Now, if you can do these three things, I promise you, you will dramatically improve your chances of ending up like a green zone person rather than one of those red zone chickens. With that, I thank you very much. I appreciate the time with you and I appreciate you hanging into the very end. Thank you.

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