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The importance of tone: Leadership

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In your role as leader or manager, you will often find yourself in situations where you have to perform well even when you are not at your best. One truth about effective leadership is that when things go right, you will want to deflect the praise to your team members, but when things go wrong, it’s all your fault. This can put you under constant pressure, and some of your more socially conscious and astute employees might recognize this fact, but most won’t. Nevertheless, employees and supervisors can forgive much when you approach them with the right tone.

You will often find yourself in a position where you need to get your employees energized and motivated to work hard and enthusiastically. One who has adopted the rule-through-fear paradigm will consider this the time to become forceful and aggressive, but this can frequently backfire. Instead, an effective leader uses inspiration and positivity to harness enthusiasm in employees. Lighting a fire isn’t akin to burning down the house so much as shining a light to guide your employees. Here are some suggestions for increasing employees’ enthusiasm:

• Share inspiring quotes, speeches, or ideas. While the movie The Wolf of Wall Street is not a great example of ethical leadership, it does give a good idea of how powerfully inspiration can foster enthusiasm in employees. This is why coaches in professional sports like to give the “Win one for the Gipper” style speeches.
• Use upbeat music to get people going. Music that has a good beat and makes people want to dance also helps to instill enthusiasm and a kind of esprit de corps.
• Celebrate group and individual successes in order to foster a positive and forward-looking morale.

If you’re successfully engaging your employees, it is inevitable that small conflicts will arise. While it might be tempting to see these conflicts as a negative, and in truth if they are allowed to rage out of control they will have negative effects, the fact that people are engaged enough to get angry or tense shows that they are employing their creative energies, and that’s a positive. However, when tempers flare, it takes a calm leader to be the eye of the storm and channel that energy in positive ways or calm it so that employees can function productively. Here are some suggestions:

• Always address conflicts from a place of calm. You may have to take a time out or allow others to take a time out from their own anger. Try to do so from a place of empathy and understanding. Avoid calling out employees in front of others. For example, when two employees are in conflict with each other, send one of them on a break, while you discuss the situation with the other. Be sure and give each employee the chance to tell his or her side of the conflict and make sure you listen more than you talk.
• When you speak to your employees about conflicts, make sure you are specific and that you address the issue in terms of behavior and not in terms of the employee’s character traits.
• Discuss how the conflict affects the rest of your team, but avoid doing so with an accusatory tone.
• Allow employees to give you their understanding of what caused the conflict rather than identifying the cause yourself.
• Additionally, allow employees to suggest solutions for resolving the conflict. If necessary and appropriate, act as a mediator between two employees who have had a conflict with each other. However, when doing so, make sure everyone can address each other from a place of calm.
• Allow everyone involved to agree upon the appropriate action to take in order to restore the peace.
• Most importantly, communicate from a place of mutual respect for all parties involved. Often in the aftermath of a conflict, the parties involved may feel either embarrassment or they may feel resentment towards the other parties involved. Help to restore the sense of mutual respect by treating all parties with the same degree of respect regardless of any perception of their level of fault or culpability in the conflict.

One idea that comes to us from the psychological approach of transactional analysis is that when people interact with each other, they tend to slip into pre-formed scripts based on how they have experienced authority from authority figures when they were children. These scripts can frequently allow people to engage in escalating behaviors that create vicious cycles of conflict. Transactional analysis recognizes three primary styles of behavior in social interactions:

• Child. A person’s need to escape responsibility can cause them to slip into child mode, where they can act dismissive and rebellious. People operating in child mode often dismiss other people’s criticisms and maintain an attitude they are going to do what they want regardless of how others feel.

• Parent. When someone feels a need to assert control over a situation, often in a case where they feel powerless, they may slip into parent mode. From the sound of it, you might think this is an example of where someone has adopted the voice of reason, but more often than not, it is the voice of authority and not a very reasonable authority at that. If you have ever experienced someone talking to you as if you were a child, that person was most likely operating in Parent mode.

• Adult. The ideal mode to operate in is Adult mode. Those who operate from this mode are concerned with reality as it is, rather than disregarding reality like someone might do who is operating in child mode, or trying to control reality like someone operating in parent mode.

If the child, parent, and adult mode behaviors are scripts that people slip into, what keeps people playing their roles, and how can someone slip out of a role. In transactional analysis, there are two types of transactions: complementary and crossed. A complementary transaction means the behavioral modes match up and can continue indefinitely. One person’s child mode evokes another person’s parent mode and things can spiral out of control into perpetual conflict. In order to intervene, one person has to engage in a behavioral mode that doesn’t complement the other’s behavior. This creates a crossed transaction. When a transaction becomes crossed, this destabilises the scripted behaviors, where those involved seek to find a new complementary behavior. Keep in mind that in this scheme, Parent to Child and vice versa is complementary, but so too is Adult to Adult. The way to change the script then is for someone to adopt an Adult mode of behavior. When this turns the transaction from a complementary transaction to a crossed transaction, the other person seeks to find a new equilibrium in a new complementary transaction, so they will in turn also assume the complementary Adult role.

*Prof. Akindotun Merino is a Professor of Psychology and a Mental Health Commissioner in California.
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