For some reason, one type of help I've always been very good at providing is solving emotionally charged issues. I've drafted out the framework I'm using to tackle these so that others can get inspired from it!
A while ago, I was re-reading a passage of Principles by Ray Dalio about using pain to guide decision making and I couldn’t help but make a parallel with how I was solving emotionally charged issues at my company. Ray Dalio acknowledged that feeling pain to a situation is normal and that it can be leveraged to solve problems efficiently by doing an introspection.
Here pain means a mix of anger, sadness, resentment or general uneasiness.
I was skeptical at first as I used to have this idea that running a business should be a very unemotional endeavor where facts and data completely guide the decision making process. However, after having moved more into a management role and less in an engineering role, I’ve come to realize that abstracting away the emotional component of a problem isn’t the most optimal way of solving issues.
A company is composed of people working together. That population of workers (which includes yourself) is made of complex individuals with deep inner life. Workers have fears, preferences, goals, joys, sadness, bad habits, anger and dreams.
Removing the emotions out of a business is oversimplifying the dynamics of the system a lot. At the same time, taking into account all of this interplay of emotions in every decision is a recipe for a headache and endless subjective argumentation. Especially as an organization scales past the first founders.
In this article I will outline an emotional aware management style inspired from Ray Dalio’s Pain Button that I’ve adopted and that showed great results at the current scale of our company. This way of managing takes emotions into consideration, but uses them in a data driven manner to solve organizational problems.
We will first take a look at the place of emotions within an organization and we will make the point that emotions are an integral part of the workplace. We will then develop that intuition into a 4 step problem solving approach with a real example of its application.
The Place of Emotions in an Organization
A human is an emotional being. The structures that deals with emotions are deeply seated at the very center of the human brain.
This place at the center of the brain is important because it is home to some of the oldest structures of the human nervous system. When you compare the evolutionary age of more surface structures like the neocortex, they are as ancient as it gets.
If you compare them to the brains of “simpler” animals like the rat, you will be able to assess that about the same emotional structure can be seen with roughly the same shape. In comparison, other structures like the neocortex are vastly augmented in size.
All of this to say that we didn’t keep all of these emotional structures in the part of the body that is consuming the most energy resources for fun. They are useful and led whatever animals having them to be functional to thrive.
Feeling emotions as an human being is therefore normal and is the expected state. When you are talking to another human being you can also safely assume that they also have a functional emotional system, which means they will also feel emotions.
This state doesn’t change when you are at the workplace. When a situation (good or bad) has been brought to the management’s attention, you can assume that there will be some amount of emotions attached to it.
This means that in most organizations, there will be problems and they will have some amount of emotions attached to them.
What to do with emotions?
Now that we have assessed that yes, there will always be some amount of emotions attached to problems, what should we do with this information?
We have three main choices, really:
- Disregard the emotions completely and make sure that people repress them during problem solving.
- Embrace the emotions and make sure that people always express them in the context of solving problems.
- Acknowledge the emotions, but use them to pragmatically solve problems.
Let’s explore these three options.
The first scenario is theoretically the simplest one. Keep your emotions at home and only think analytically when you are at work. If you feel a negative emotion just repress it, clear your head and then think about the problem in a purely data-driven fashion.
I tried to do this first and it doesn’t work. Its failing because even I, who was aware of what I was trying to achieve, couldn’t do it.
I’m a highly analytical and goal-driven individual. Yet I am feeling all kind of painful emotions on a daily basis. The situations that I face are not necessarily big. However, I can still get these sharp emotions telling me I don’t feel good about them.
I can’t expect my reports to do better if myself, who is more removed from day-to-day problems, feel these pains naturally. This would be a recipe for repressed feelings that would either boil over or deeply undermine productive discussion.
The polar opposite of the first scenario would be to totally embrace them. Encourage people to express them when talking about a problem that they experienced.
In theory it should be all good, people express how they feel and other people understand the emotions felt.
In my experience, this is also not satisfactory. It leads to a big mess of emotions and problems.
Picture this: two people are involved in a problem and both of them are on the opposite ends of it in two different departments. The first person was expecting X to happen, however the other one reported situation Y. That is all it takes for all emotions to take control and go down a path of “it’s always the same thing with your department […] remember that time where you did W when we asked for B […] How hard really it is to do X???“. You can expect a similar reaction from the other end of the problem.
You will invariably find yourself making people roll back their emotions and focus on the first problem to solve and shelve the other ones for later. By doing so, you are repressing some of their emotions to focus on solving only one problem. This is in essence the third situation.
Acknowledge the Emotions and Leverage Them
One useful tool that Ray Dalio implemented for his company Bridgewater was the Pain Button. It’s a simple tool which someone uses when they feel a sharp negative emotion to a situation relating to the company. The goal of the Pain Button is to do an introspection to find the root cause of your negative emotion.
This is a great methodology if everyone in the company is already pain-aware and have this reflex of doing a retrospection when they don’t feel good about something. However, this isn’t the default behavior for most people.
I went on to use this methodology on myself first in order to gain a better understanding of how to best roll some version of it to the rest of the company. What I’ve found myself do over time was to use the uneasiness feeling as a signal to start the problem solving method.
The problem solving approach I’ve used is very similar to the 5 whys analysis in lean methodology. In a nutshell, you ask yourself why something is happening 5 times and you usually get deep enough to remove a root cause problem.
This is important because the first few reasons you come up with are rarely the full picture and solving these surface problem leads to some other manifestation of the same problems appear again.
Using my pain feeling along with root cause analysis have led me to make hundred of small process improvements in my company. All these improvements were aimed at avoiding ever feeling that pain again for this kind of problem. This was done by making sure to clear out the root cause of the troubling issue.
In my case, it got to the point that when something makes me feels any amount of pain, I always start by saying “Great!” in a happy tone. Not to trick myself into being happy, but because I’m genuinely grateful that I can solve some root cause problems today.
This was leveraged using my personal emotions that I’ve felt given the problem I was facing alone. I then started to experiment with using other people’s emotions to solve management problems.
Using People’s Pain to Solve Problems
As both the COO at my company, problems naturally bubble up to me (which is a good thing). Therefore, I deal with painful situations felt by my people every day. This is truly a blessing because I get to see patterns and I am able to triangulate root causes of problems with ease.
What an emotionally charged situation looks like is surprisingly generic:
- One person is emotionally engaged enough to get my attention.
- The other person or group of people are either emotionally engaged or completely unaware of the emotion felt by the first person.
- Blame is implicitly or explicitly put on the other person(s).
- The problem causing the situation looks like a failure on the part of the other person(s).
The last point is important. If a problem doesn’t looks like a failure on the part of someone, there are usually no negative emotions felt towards anyone (assuming you have non malicious employees). As soon as you see blame being put on someone and a situation clearly pointing towards them, it’s high time to start digging!
Isn’t that just making excuse for other employees?
I sometime get a variation of this question when I’m digging deep into an issue. However, from the hundred of investigations I did I’ve seen that there is always an underlying issue behind all failures. Sometime though, the fault is on the employee, but not for the malicious reason that was outlined at the beginning of the investigation.
It happened that this sort of root cause analysis led to someone figuring out that they didn’t really want to do their work and that they wanted to do something else with their lives. This is great, because now both parties are aligned and can help each other in fixing the situation.
In most cases, the problems stem from a lack of process, poor documentation, unclear instructions, misunderstandings, weak alignment, unclear vision, lack of communication or a mix of all these.
How to use that initial emotion to figure out the root problem?
The initial emotion is very important. It means that there is something buried deep that is difficult to see. This results in feeling pain which is targeted towards something which the person having the emosion can see being involved in some ways.
Listening to the first account of the emotion will therefore lead you to triangulate who or what is involved in the problem. It’s important to outline the general target of the negative emotions as this is a thread to follow to go a layer deeper.
I then follow a 4 step process to solves these issues.
Step 0: Acknowledge the problem and the emotion
If you hire great people, you can assume that they are intelligent and acting in good faith. Especially if they are spending a lot of their effort into making their point heard or if they are repeating the same thing over and over again.
The first step is to get the person to lay out their argumentation in a document in a data-driven way. You can assume that their problem is tricky and tangled if the person cannot get their point across verbally.
Here, it is important to acknowledge that both the problem and the emotions have value. If the person is feeling a negative emotion about something as boring as a company process, you can bet that there is something valuable to extract from this particular problem.
This has two beneficial effects:
- It allows people to slow down and to do a retrospection of why they are feeling this way. This calms the heated minds because they know they are heard and that their issue is important.
- It allows to see the other threads and dependencies of this situation.
What I mean by dependencies is the set of reasons that made situation X happen. People are usually aware of one or two levels deep in this chain of reasons why something happened. From my experience though, this is rarely deep enough to find a sustainable solution.
Don’t expect the written argumentation to not be emotionally charged or biased. It’s rare that the argumentation is completely devoid of emotional arguments. This is great, because you will be able to pinpoint more clearly the parts that need more investigation which are usually the ones that are vague and emotional.
Step 1: Understand the other point of view
Once you get a good sense of the main argument for the problem, you need to find who or what the target is and understand that side’s point of view. When emotions are high, there are rarely only one side against nothing. Sometime the side is something blurry like the rest of the mobile development team or clients in North Carolina, but it is still important to get that side point of view to paint a clear picture.
Here two things can happen, either the other side is emotionally engaged with the problem or not.
When the Other Side is Emotionally Engaged: From my experience, if the other side is emotionally engaged you have to be careful to not rush the communication between the two parties because they already have a bias towards their vision of the problem.
If the two side are emotionally engaged in a problem, there is usually a deep process problem in that part of the organization. The people involved in that problem are so tunnel-visioned into their day-to-day issues that they can’t pull back to see the bigger picture. This is where you come in!
Acting as a buffer where information converges to you is usually the best way to get communication back on track. Conducting mini-interviews with all participants and then triangulating everyone point of view in the original person’s document helps a lot the discussion.
By creating an accurate and unbiased account of the problem and laying it all down in a clear and step wise manner, you will facilitate the discussion. You won’t be able to disengage people emotionally by doing this. However, you will be able to channel their emotions more efficiently by refraining them from leading them astray.
You will also be able to figure out what is the emotional state of everyone involved which can further help in the drill down analysis.
If you successfully created this account of events or augmented the initial discussion, you can safely move to step 2!
When the Other Side is Emotionally Disengaged: The other side might be emotionally detached from the problem or even unaware of the other person’s point of view. This can further fuel the negative emotions of the first person because their point of view is falling on deaf ears.
If they are emotionally detached, it often means that there is an information communication problem. Something problematic is seen by one side through different information channels while the other cannot see it for a lack of accurate access to that information.
From experience, the best way to understand why there is a disconnect between these two sides is to facilitate and promote the discussion. Here you don’t act as a buffer, more like a catalyst. By doing so, you will be able to witness first hand a situation where one side is saying “X” while the other side is understanding “B“.
It is striking to see this misalignment happening in real time. By being an external observer you will be able to catch these threads of misunderstanding and develop on them in the next step.
The discussion between the two sides should always be data-driven, meaning backed by factual claims and properly referenced. This should be done for the most part in writing so that a clear argumentation flow can be sculpted.
It’s pretty common that a discussion stemming from an emotionally charged problem takes 8-10 pages to describe properly. Trying to have this discussion synchronously verbally is a sure way to get people emotions up and factual information down.
However, you might still find a few contention points that are too thorny to talk about in writing, these should be discussed in synchronous meeting and untangled to be integrated back into the main document.
After several back and forth you will have a very good account of what the problem looks like at the surface. Your job is not done yet, it actually just started. If you stop at this level, it is almost guaranteed that a similar problem will pop up in the near future.
Step 2: Drill down to root cause
As soon as you have a somewhat exhaustive argumentation about the problem with proper clarification by the other parties, this is where you will need to do the root cause analysis. The point of it is to go through the chain of dependencies that made this problem happen in the first place.
By going through that chain and finding the real source of the problem, you will make sure that this problem or a similar one will never happen again.
It’s very important to concentrate on the emotions felt at the beginning of the analysis and to validate them. They shouldn’t be disregarded because they will be able to guide the discussion towards the real cause of the issue better than any formal discussion.
It will also allow you to know when you have hit something solid because the negative emotions usually recede and either the person is satisfied by where the conflict resolution is going or they are as excited as you that they were able to find the next big improvements.
There are two major pitfalls in this type of analysis. Falling into them will cause the whole process to be inefficient and will cause people to doubt its merit. Being aware of them is important as it can help getting everyone on board with the method.
Focusing on the pain, not the root cause
An issue that can arise throughout the root cause analysis is that you (or the person experiencing pain after a problem) over-focus on the pain. It happens often that the reflex is to try to not feel this pain again by going after work-around or coping mechanism.
This is a bad angle to go for because it will dull the sensation when a similar problem will invariably come back. This is how you can get to the same troubling situation happening over again and no one in a team says anything about it.
The pain is good because it guides you towards meaningful problem resolution. If you lose this receptor for potential solution, you are not better off. The end goal is to fix the situation to not feel this pain again, not only to not feel this pain again.
Not digging deep enough:
Even if you are focusing on finding a solution while being guided by the negative emotions, it is very easy to stop too early. After the second or third level where a seemingly satisfactory solution as been found, it can be tempting to stop digging and roll out the solution.
However, what will end up happening is slightly different manifestations of the same problem will bubble up from time to time. A bit like the root virus mutating to create new variants that can spread throughout your organization.
The painful problem per say doesn’t really matter. In the lifetime of a company or a department there will be an endless stream of problems. The goal is to remove as much current and future sub problems in one go using the pain of one manifestation of the root problem.
Step 3: Solve the Issue and Document
Once you find the root cause of the problem, there are two important steps to undertake:
- Fix the issues, or if it’s too late fix the process to never have this issue again.
- Create a postmortem document to share with the rest of the company.
The first part is obvious because after doing all this detective work, you can’t wait to actually fix something. The second part is less obvious, but is what allows other people in the company to start looking actively for applying this type of emotional problem solving in their daily work.
The amount of problems one single person can solve in any given day is limited. At some point a company reaches a size where it isn’t possible for one person to be the sole fixer. Being able to have multiple people able to at least know that their first emotional reaction is a start to the problem resolution is a huge step forward.
Having this wealth of problems and their resolution allows the amount of problems being fixed in an organization to greatly increase.
I’m a strong believer that to reach any objectives one should be highly data driven. However, disregarding emotions felt by yourself and others is throwing away a useful source of data that can guide you towards optimal problem solving.
We humans are highly emotional beings. Unbridled emotional reactions are almost always detrimental, however when they are coupled with a strong analytical core they can become a major superpower in solving difficult problems.
By acknowledging emotions as a part of life and leveraging them, it makes your organization a more enjoyable place to work in and a more efficient one!
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