“Who’s the rat?”
I recently saw a movie about a heist that ended badly. When facing a catastrophic series of events blowing their plan into pieces, the group of thieves — supposedly “best buddies” — began to tear each other apart.
There must have been an informant within the team, selling them out. It was the only explanation they could come up with. And so obviously, they started pointing fingers (and later on, guns) at each other.
The team had already done several “jobs” and knew each other quite well, but when they faced this incredible challenge — none of this seemed to matter. Suddenly, some past events resurfaced. Old grudges, bitterness and resentment fueled and intensified the heated conflict.
It turns out that none of them was a traitor. The explanation was just outside of their predictions — one of them had been followed unwittingly.
The film does a great job displaying group dynamics and how the thieves get caught in a downward spiral, ultimately leading to deadly conclusions.
Without reaching such dreadful consequences, all teams have faced situations where they jump to conclusions. We draw conclusions based on what we know and we are oblivious of external factors at play.
In the heat of the moment, team members can be blindsided and fall prey to different cognitive biases, such as the hostile attribution bias.
This bias leads us to misinterpret others’ benign behaviours as personal attacks. For example, we see two colleagues laughing at the other end of the room, and we believe they are making fun of us rather than sharing a fun anecdote from their last weekend. Or, in the case of our criminals, the phone call made by one of the partners was obviously to tip off someone.
Mark Gerzon, a mediation expert, explained in Harvard Business Review that one of the solutions is to take some mental and physical distance from the issue at hand.
Mentally, a good reflex is asking yourself what you feel now. The trick is that instead of answering “I’m X” like “I’m angry”, you need to add the verb “feel”. Then “I’m not angry — I feel angry”. You are not the emotion. You feel the emotion. And so you can use your words to create some distance and reduce the situation’s emotional intensity.
If you have the possibility, also try to create some physical distance. Not only does it generate space, but it also gives you time to diffuse the tension and think more clearly (and differently) about the situation. Studies show that going for a walk can trigger our divergent thinking, allowing us to think “outside the box” and imagine other scenarios that could have led to this difficult situation.
However, if you are trapped in a warehouse with your three partners in crime, waiting to be shot down by an enraged mafia mob, you might not have the luxury to walk away. More realistically — you can be confronted with situations where you and your team cannot create distance with the issue at hand — like being in a meeting with a displeased customer.
In this case, Gerzon advocates for slowing down the conversation. We should refrain from objecting or proving our point. Instead, we should listen and ask if we understood their concerns correctly by rephrasing what they just said.
You could begin your sentence with: “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understood this right, you said…” and then repeat what you have been told. It shows that you acknowledge their point of view and make a deliberate effort to take it on board.
Finally, find and reinstate the common ground. Is there something, a goal, a value, or a belief each team member shares? Use it as a symbol everyone can rally to. If one of the thieves had pointed out that they were all in danger and fighting for their life, it could have shifted their focus from blaming to cooperating again — even if only temporarily.
So remember, if the team starts blaming each other (asking, “Who’s the rat?”), create mental and physical distance, slow the conversation, and rally everyone to the common ground.
I hope you enjoy readind this one and please share it with someone that would enjoy it too.
To your success,
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