Tired of conflict that doesn’t get you anywhere? Hats on!

Lee was “pissed of”, as he described it in one of our coaching sessions. His colleague Whitney had, for the third time, stalled when it came to handing over the project lead to him. She was trying to hold him back. At least that was his perspective. “She is such a competitive bitch.” Lee’s emotions were clearly riding high!

While conflict at work is a common experience for most of us, few of us are masters when it comes to managing it. Conflict in and of itself is not as bad as reputation has it. It is conflict that is based on personal agendas that is destructive, and often leads to a downward spiral in relations which can negatively impact the bottom line. Healthy conflict, on the other hand, is focused on differences in ideas and is often the fuel to innovation and to finding creative solutions to challenges. When we refer to winning teams, we mean teams that are individually made up of very different personalities and experiences which collectively ‘cover’ all bases. They respect and welcome their respective differences in personality and in ways of thinking. Yet, from a more practical point of view, even if teams appreciate their different strengths, creating a constructive dialog can still be a challenge.

To steer clear of arguments that may derail, and to foster forward thinking around “what can be”, we often use Edward de Bono ‘s “Six Thinking Hats” methodology with our clients. As opposed to confrontational thinking, where different parties take different point of views, this method encourages ‘parallel thinking’ where at any given moment in the conversation each person is looking in the same direction. The benefit of parallel thinking is that the intelligence and experience of all parties is leveraged in each direction. As part of this process, individual egos are left behind, and it is no longer about being ‘right’ or winning arguments. The only ‘showing off’ in evidence is when individuals wish to contribute as many ideas as possible under any given hat.

For simplicity reasons, De Bono chose different colored hats to distinguish the six distinct ways of thinking:

White Hat. This hat is all about being neutral and objective and looks for the facts and figures.

Red Hat. This hat fosters the emotional lens, focused on feelings and gut instincts.

Black Hat. This hat encourages cautious and careful thinking, exploring potentially risky aspects of an idea.

Yellow Hat. This hat is all about looking at the glass half full, adopting a positive and hopeful outlook.

Green Hat. This hat is all about creativity, new ideas and innovation.

Blue Hat.  This hat is about perspective, defining the challenge. It functions somewhat like the conductor of an orchestra and designs a ‘thinking process’ that facilitates optimal results and an agenda for action.

So back to Lee: as his coach, I began to leverage this technique to resolve his conflict with Whitney. At the beginning of our coaching session he had been wearing the red hat. After venting for about 3 minutes, he was ready to switch to the blue hatWhat was it that he wanted to achieve ultimately when it came to the current situation? And what did he, as a result, need to have at the end of our session?  Lee did not hesitate:“I want to have a plan of action as to how to resolve this conflict and to decide what to do about the project lead, whether I should still push for it or not.”

We moved forward by me asking Lee to wear the red hat for another 60 seconds, but this time to try and to see the situation emotionally from Whitney’s perspective: How might she be feeling? What may make giving up the project lead difficult for her? It was not easy for Lee to make this shift, but he made a concerted effort to put himself in Whitney’s shoes and came up with some possibilities.

The white hat was next: What were the facts? What did he know about Whitney’s motivation for not handing over the project lead so far? What didn’t he know and need to find out? Who else was involved in the project and how were they impacting the current situation? How could he get the information that he needed to answer some of these questions?

Next, Lee chose the green hat to come up with some out-of-the-box, creative solutions to the current dilemma.  As it is often beneficial to have both thinker and listener wear the green hat at the same time, I joined in on his creative brainstorming moment: What novel approaches could he take to gain the project lead? And when he had the lead, what were some new ways of doing things that would make the project more successful when it came to generating new clients? What were some of the alternatives to the current project?

We moved on to the yellow hatWhat might these ideas give him when it came to accelerating his career? How could he make these suggestions reality? How had he managed similar situations successfully in the past and how could that inform his plan of action today? What resources could he draw on to reach his objectives?

As a species seeking ‘survival’, we are hard wired to look for potential problems and threats. It was a natural choice for Lee to choose the black hat next. He was concerned about the downside of some of these ideas that had emerged: What were some of the risks of any given suggestion that seemed worth pursuing? Did this suggestion fit the company policy and strategy? Were there sufficient resources? Who or what might get in the way? How could he plan for these situations?

At the end of our session I asked Lee to come back to the blue hat and assume a helicopter perspective: Did he get what he needed from this session? What were the insights from today? What was he going to do next? And how would he know that he was moving in the right direction? Who would hold him accountable?

As Lee shared in one of our later meetings, using the six thinking hats had allowed him to become more focused in his thinking (check out our blog on multi-tasking!) and more capable at effectively navigating interactions with his peers. As a result, less time was needed for arguments. Lee was now officially the new project lead and was already using the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ when it came to running meetings with his new team.

Intrigued to try this out yourself?

Here a few suggestions that can help make this a successful experience for you:

  • Use a skilled facilitator, coach or leader who oversees the process
  • Know that hats are not descriptions of people but of modes of thinking
  • Start and end the process with the blue hat
  • Keep each hat segment brief (about 2-3 minutes with some flex time built in)
  • Refer, during a session, to the hats by their color and never by their function

And if you feel like you want or need to know more before getting started, consider buying the original book by De Bono.

And remember that sometimes to succeed in moving on, you need to take your hats off!