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Transforming Aggression into Creative Problem Solving by Margaret J. Wheatley and Geoff Crinean


Organizations today suffer from a severe disability when it comes to solving problems. In virtually every organization, regardless of mission and function, people are frustrated by problems that seem unsolvable. Attempts to resolve a problem often result in unintended consequences that dwarf the original. Relationships worsen as people harden into opposing positions, each side insisting on its own solution, unwilling to consider alternatives. Too many problem-solving sessions become battlegrounds where decisions are made based on power rather than intelligence.

Consider the language used to describe problem-solving. We “attack the problem,” “tackle the issue,” “take a stab at it,” “wrestle it to the ground,” “get on top of it.” If colleagues argue with us, we complain that they “shot down our idea,” “took pot shots at us,” “used us for target practice,” or that “we got killed.” In the face of opposition, we “back down,” “retreat,” or “regroup.” (Occasionally, we use gentler metaphors–we may “float an idea” or test it to see “if it has legs,” but that approach is comparatively rare.) Such aggressive descriptions of problem solving point to a startling conclusion. We experience problem-solving sessions as war zones, we view competing ideas as enemies, and we use problems as weapons to blame and defeat opposition forces. No wonder we can’t come up with real lasting solutions!

Healthy alternatives to this aggressive approach to problem-solving do exist. But before detailing a five-stage process, let’s observe for a moment the sea of aggressive energy in which we currently swim.

An Aggressive Society

These days, our senses are bombarded with aggression. We are constantly confronted with global images of unending, escalating war and violence. In our personal lives, we encounter angry people cursing into cell phones, watch TV talk shows where guests and audiences intimidate each other verbally and sometimes physically, or attend public meetings that disintegrate into shouting matches. Parents scream from the sidelines of their children’s sports events: “Get aggressive!” Employees are rewarded for aggressive timelines and plans. Dictionaries define aggressive action as hostile, but also positively as assertive, bold, and enterprising.

Aggression destroys relationships. People believe that in order to survive, they must combat the opposition. Fear and anger destroy hope for healthy communities, workgroups, families, and organizations. Relationships fracture, distrust increases, people retreat into self-defense and isolation, paranoia becomes commonplace.

Aggression in Organizations

And organizational aggression is on the rise, mirroring the societal trend. Competition has become increasingly ruthless, with strategies that aim to destroy competitors and achieve total market domination rather than strategies of coexistence within well-defined niches. In many organizations, aggression is a nearly invisible medium that influences decisions and actions. It’s evident in the consistent use of war and sports metaphors. We “bring in the big guns,” “dominate the field,” plan “a sneak attack,” or “rally the troops.” The resurgence of command-and-control leadership is a less obvious but strong form of aggression, where the will of one person is imposed on others with the demand for obedience and compliance.

Increasing aggression is having a profound impact on organizational relationships. Distrust is on the rise, so much so that in one survey, managers reported that the primary reason they attend meetings is because they don’t trust what their colleagues will do in their absence. More employees are retreating into self-protective stances, hoarding resources and information for fear of losing further control of their work. And worker stress levels are at an all-time high. In Canada, one-third of lost work days are from emotional and psychological causes. Similar statistics prevail in England and the United States.

Until we find alternative means to work together without so much aggression, we will continue to experience increasing anger, frustration, impasse, and exhaustion.

Solving Problems Free from Aggression

For eons, humans have struggled to find nondestructive ways of living together. Today, if we are to resolve the serious problems that afflict and impede us, we must find the means to work and live together with less aggression.

To step aside from aggressive responses to problem solving requires a little-used skill: humility. Humility is a brave act–we have to admit that we don’t have the answer. We need more information, more insight. This kind of humility is rare in competitive, embattled organizations and communities, but it is what we need to find real solutions. One wise educator put it this way: “Humility is admitting that I don’t know the whole story. Compassion is recognizing that you don’t know it either.”

Hopefully, humility leads us out of our bunkers to open ground, where we step away from the rigidity of our positions and become a bit curious. We need to be open to the possibility that colleagues and even strangers have information and perspectives that may be of value to us. Only with their input do we stand a chance of seeing this problem in all its complexity. Every perspective, prejudice, and opinion offers more information. Our different positions allow us to see the situation more fully as soon as we realize that we’re all on the same side–that the problem is the problem.

Five Stages to Solving Complex Problems

The five-stage process described here originated from an ancient teaching in Tibet (the “Four Karmas”; see Reginald Ray, Secrets of the Vajra World, Shambhala Press, Boston, 2001). We have brought it forward, modified it, and expanded it based on our experience of working in many large, complex organizations and communities facing intractable problems. This process allows individuals and groups to disengage from aggressive dynamics yet use the passion and energy of all involved to develop greater clarity and insight into truly creative solutions.

For a group to develop a full understanding of a complex problem and know what to do to resolve it, we suggest following five precise activities in sequence:

  1. Cooling, Quieting
  2. Enriching Through Fruitful Opposition
  3. Magnetizing Resources
  4. Precise Destroying
  5. Intelligent Action

These five stages form a cycle; they work developmentally, one stage creating the conditions for the next. This sequence can sometimes be gone through very quickly, or a group might spend a great deal of time in one stage and move rapidly through the next. Each stage has a form associated with it, a shape that provides the appropriate structure for the work at hand. Also, different core behaviors facilitate the inquiry for each stage.

Stage One: Cooling, Quieting

Imagine your most recent experience in a conflicted situation. Most likely, people were arguing their position, not listening, raising their voices, acting out, doing power plays–in essence, acting aggressively. Nothing positive ever results from this escalating conflict, yet participants are stuck in the drama. Now imagine what might have been possible if someone had intervened with a process to lessen the drama, to cool down the situation. This first stage does just that, by using an ancient, pacifying form, the circle.

The circle is the shape that cools, quiets, pacifies (makes peaceful). It is the form of equality, the most common and enduring form of human meeting. Circles have been found from about 500,000 years ago as early human ancestors sat around fires, trying to get warm. The equality of the circle was important even then. Had they sat in a rectangle or any other form, some of them would have frozen!

Even reticent people can realize that their voice is welcome.

To pacify a highly conflicted group, you have to move into a circle (or a number of small circles). As soon as you sit in this form and it becomes clear that everyone will have a chance to speak, things quiet down. Anyone who persists in being dramatic or loud in a circle soon looks like a fool. Circles create soothing space, where even reticent people can realize that their voice is welcome. As the drama drains, people still will speak passionately but with a quieter intensity.

The process is quite straightforward. Start with a question that focuses on people’s personal experience with the issue. Why is this issue important to you? How does this issue affect your work or life? What’s been your experience in trying to resolve this dilemma?

You ask the question and then go around the circle inviting everyone to speak, in turn, and within a limited time period. People who choose not to speak may pass and contribute later if they like. As each person speaks, everyone else is silent, listening as best they can. People may ask questions if they don’t understand something being said, but this is not the time for exchanges or debates. The task is to have each voice heard, for each person to make a contribution to the circle.

This process of listening has many benefits. The first is that as people feel listened to they become better listeners. Listening is a reciprocal process–we become more attentive to others if they have attended to us. We are often surprised when people truly listen to us. Their unexpected acceptance encourages us to listen better.

The second benefit is that listening brings people together. You can see this happening physically in a circle. As people quiet down and get more engaged, they lean in. The circle becomes tighter. The room gets quieter, the volume decreases substantially, yet the intensity of listening is palpable.

And as we listen, we develop greater awareness that each of us is human, struggling with life’s challenges. We may never agree on an issue or share the same values, but as soon as we realize there’s a person behind the position, we become more open to them, less reactive.

The purpose of first quieting, calming, and pacifying is to develop a richer appreciation of the complexity of the problem, using a process that begins to bring people together. Every person has a somewhat different perspective, by virtue of individual differences, and also because we each live in a different part of the organization or community. The world doesn’t look exactly the same to any two people, and the circle provides the form to gather many different perspectives without much judgment or defensiveness.

The core behaviors of this first process are patience and curiosity. We have to be willing to give up our soapboxes and become curious about other perspectives. And we have to be patient–it takes time to go round a circle and give everyone equal time. If we become impatient, it’s an indication that we’re still holding on to our position. We just want to get this over with so we can win using more aggressive approaches. But usually, what’s being said by others begins to awaken our curiosity. We learn things we didn’t know and develop more awareness of how other people are affected by the problem under consideration.

Stage Two: Enriching, Fruitful Opposition

After, the initial process of cooling and quieting, it’s essential to return to the source of the conflict, which is people’s different perspectives and positions. To understand a problem in its complexity, we have to learn much more about it. We achieve this understanding by giving each person or position ample opportunity to explain their reasoning in depth. What’s required here is to amplify the differences as the means to create a fuller, detailed appreciation of the situation or problem. We are seeking to enrich our understanding from the realization that no one person or position has a sufficient picture of what’s going on.

To create this differentiation and depth, it helps to sit around a square table, to literally “take sides.” People need to choose which side they’re on. (More than four sides is fine, as long as it doesn’t go beyond an octagon. And people can switch sides as the process evolves.) You can also do this seated as an audience, with each side presenting from the front. The fact that most public forums use such a form explains why they only increase conflict and entrenched positions. They begin by amplifying differences, rather than quieting and calming the situation. If you begin by taking sides, it’s guaranteed that you will only exacerbate the conflict.

Each side is responsible for developing its position in depth. This is not the time for sloganeering or campaigning. The task is to go deeply into the rationale and logic of each position. It is important to keep the exploration of each side distinct–we are not seeking compromise, blending of views, consensus, or negotiation. Each position has its own logic, and the goal is to develop the unique integrity of each side.

Respect and clear thinking are the core behaviors of this stage. We listen attentively, even to those with whom we profoundly disagree. Such respect is easier now that people have sat in a circle together and developed more rapport and patience. Respect also means that we’re open to the possibility that we’ll hear something useful from our opponents. We are willing to acknowledge that others have insight and wisdom that are useful to the group.

And clear thinking is essential. We move away from emotions (no matter how much we care about the issue) and instead use reason to develop greater clarity about what’s going on. We want to clear away the fog created by our emotional investment in the issue. As each side presents its analysis of the problem, others simply listen. After a while, the inherent complexity of the situation becomes quite evident. Often, people are overwhelmed as they realize just how complex things really are. But this feeling is of great benefit, because it moves people off of their certainty platforms. Confused and overwhelmed, we become open to new interpretations and possibilities. Thus confusion is the necessary precursor for letting go of entrenched positions and moving into creative exploration together.

At the end of this stage of differentiation and taking sides, you’ll notice that people begin to move out of the square or audience form and begin to cluster in messier ways because they want to talk with each other. One paradoxical consequence of exploring differences is that groups emerge at the other end feeling somewhat unified. The boundaries of the different positions have lost their hardness, and people begin to talk together as one cohesive group, wanting to resolve the problem together. This feeling of cohesiveness is an essential prerequisite for Stage Three, when it will be an important means to attract needed resources.

Stage Three: Magnetizing Resources

Each position has its own logic.

In magnetism, only opposites attract. Two magnets will repel each other if the same poles (or energy charge) are brought together. Yet when opposing magnetic poles are brought near each other, they snap together in a strong embrace. The same principle of attraction and rejection is relevant to this stage of problem solving.

After progressing through the stages of cooling and enriching, it is common for people to feel good about working together as a group, to be humbled by the complexity of the issue, and to be energized to move forward in finding a solution. It’s a complex array of predictable emotions. People will be both tired and motivated, confused and confident. However, it’s also common for people at this stage to want to launch into action planning. Taking action relieves us of the oppressive feelings of confusion and overload. We are eager to do anything rather than linger longer in these uncomfortable states.

However, if actions are determined at this stage, generally they will be the wrong ones. We do not yet have a sufficient understanding of the issue’s complexity to know what actions will be useful. If we rush into action prematurely, we run the risk of setting in motion a long chain of unintended consequences. Stage Three takes us deeper into the issue, preventing us from leaping prematurely onto the stage of action.

The form that characterizes the work of Stage Three is a half circle, a very inviting yet humbling symbol. It indicates that however far we’ve come in our understanding of the problem, we’re only halfway there. Our comprehension of what’s going on is still incomplete, and we need more perspectives and information to complete the circle of understanding.

As a result of working well through the first two processes, people approach this stage with more confidence. They have worked well enough together to believe that they can find the resources, information, and support they need. And it’s true that groups at this stage do attract what they need–different and opposing points of view.

Stage Three prevents us from leaping prematurely onto the stage of action.

Generosity is also a core behavior of this stage. We’re no longer working in a reactive, self-protective mode. We’ve developed stronger relationships with colleagues, and have increased our understanding. As our curiosity has grown, as we’ve moved out of our bunkers, it becomes easier to feel open and welcoming. Humbled that we know only half of what we need to know, it’s easier to feel generous, welcoming new viewpoints and uncomfortable information.

To complete the circle of understanding, it is very helpful to sit arrayed along the curve of a half-circle, facing out to the blank, uncompleted circle. There’s something unusual about sitting in this form, staring into a blank space. You can put up flip charts or a white board in the empty half of the circle, but it’s important to keep people focused on the blank space, not on each other. You can also draw a circle on paper that is split down the middle. Fill in one side with a summary of your understanding. Leave the other side blank, to be filled in during this process.

A variety of questions help fill in the blanks:

  • Who else needs to be here?
  • What are we blind to, what can’t we yet see?
  • What additional information and perspectives do we need?

In answering these questions, the group is creating its next piece of work. Whoever is identified as missing has to be invited into the group. Whatever information is lacking has to be researched and brought in for deliberation. Time is required to go find the people, ideas, and resources that have been identified. It is important for the group to set a realistic but efficient time line for this work.

Our willingness to acknowledge that we need other perspectives and experiences makes us more attractive to others. The more sincerely we acknowledge our need for their different views and insights, the more they will be magnetized to join us. As our humility and openness becomes evident, and as our generosity grows, word gets out that we’re a good group to work with. This reputation also helps attract the people we need to complete our circle of understanding.

Stage Four: Precise Destroying

Too many organizations use weapons of mass destruction rather than smart bombs.

Although we live in an aggressive culture, people often recoil from the word destroying. Yet if we look honestly at what’s going on in organizations, destroying is the most common response to problems. And it’s the first response, rather than being the last action after careful consideration of the situation. Too many organizations use weapons of mass destruction rather than smart bombs. These WMDs include sweeping budget cuts, where everything is reduced, rather than intelligent decisions to cut back in specific areas. Or massive layoffs. Or constant reorganizations that obliterate the most recent reorganization. We don’t seem to know how to act with precision; instead we routinely resort to carpet bombing.

Destroying is a necessary function in life. Everything has its season, and all things eventually lose their effectiveness and die. We do as much harm holding on to programs and people beyond their natural life span as we do when we employ massive organizational air strikes. However, destroying comes at the end of the life cycle, not as a first response. Hence it is Stage Four here, coming after deep, thoughtful analysis by a group that is thinking well together. At this stage, precision destroying is necessary to create more capacity for the work going forward. We can see now what precise elements of the situation are impeding movement forward, what specific things need to be let go of as they are no longer necessary or appropriate for the work we must do.

Many different things need to be considered for destruction: outmoded beliefs, inappropriate or harmful values, traditional practices that no longer make sense, habitual behaviors that are dysfunctional, aspects of the culture that impede future direction, programs that have outlived their usefulness, policies that don’t work as intended, specific individuals who refuse to change or who block progress.

At this stage in the problem-solving process, we can be trusted to act with precision and discipline. We no longer react defensively, intent on getting rid of people and things that threaten us. We have a very clear picture of the problem and are able to use this newfound clarity to exercise real discernment. We act as intelligent and insightful contributors rather than as excluded or embattled members of the organization or community. We now are skilled enough to discern those focused acts of destroying that will yield real benefit.

The form for Precision Destroying is the triangle. A triangle is a very stable structure, sitting on a broad base that supports its apex. The group can sit as a triangle, leaving the apex area open, with a flip chart or small white board occupying that narrow point. Or people can draw a triangle and focus on the apex area. The core skills of this stage are discipline and discernment. We are restricted by the triangle to nominate only a small number of things to be destroyed in that narrow apex. We apply laserlike discernment to a very complex situation.

Precision destroying is naturally compassionate. We no longer act from self-defense, striking out at what we think harms us. We’re clear about which things impede solutions, which small elements hold us back or burden us with the past. When we determine what to destroy, we do so from a profound appreciation of the problem. We do not act from fear or anger, but from clarity and compassion.

Stage Five: Intelligent Action

We’ve learned to work with people we once misunderstood, ignored, or feared.

This last stage is the harvest for working through the first four. We are now a cohesive, smart group of people who have developed genuine perspective and depth about the problem under consideration. We have become good systems thinkers because we’ve included so many diverse and contrasting views and information in our analysis. We can’t help but appreciate the dense interconnections and multiple dynamics at play in this situation. We’ve also developed very useful skills in working well together. We’ve become better listeners, become more open and curious, developed new thinking and analytic skills. We’ve also learned to work with people we once misunderstood, ignored, or feared. We’ve become a more intelligent, diverse, inclusive, and confident team, ready to go to work. The core behaviors of this stage are commitment and teamwork. We don’t have to create them or go off to be trained; they are the result of all the work we’ve done to get this far.

The form for this stage is the existing organization. Now is the time to use the processes that people are familiar with: action planning, strategy setting, project planning, budgeting, measurement. These processes have an important role to play. What’s been missing from them in the past is good thinking about how best to apply them. Bored or exhausted, people have used them in rote fashion without insight or intelligence. Or they have been forced to use them in all situations, even those that make no sense. However, now these well-worn and tired processes can be infused with the light of clear thinking and the energy of strong commitment. Newly developed insights can be used to determine which actions, measures, and strategies make the most sense. Empowerment will occur naturally, as people proceed to change and discard existing processes and methods that are dysfunctional or nonsensical.

Prepare for Change

Without aggression, it becomes possible to think well.

It’s important to note that leaders need to be prepared for big change. Once any group has developed this level of insight and rapport, its members cannot be pushed back into small boxes or compliant behavior. With their intelligence awakened, people want to contribute, want to change things, want to make things happen. They will work with existing structures and processes, but they will be altering and adapting them as needed, almost without noticing. Too often, leaders fear a loss of control and attempt to rein in such groups. Their own fear pushes them back into aggressive patterns of command and control. However, the smart leader understands the level of accomplishment attained by this group and the depth of understanding now available. It is time to celebrate the fact that so much commitment and intelligence are now in active use in the organization.

When we can lay down our fear and anger and choose responses other than aggression, we create the conditions for bringing out the best in us humans. Without aggression, it becomes possible to think well, to be curious about differences, and to enjoy each other’s company. Our energy finds new channels in creativity rather than defense. We learn that it is possible to feel passionate about a position without having to resist or outmaneuver those with differing passions.

As we strive to make our organizations and communities work decently in these difficult times, if we are to find true solutions to the problems that afflict us, it is essential that we understand the price we pay for our aggressive methods. If we are to work together more intelligently, we will need to choose processes that evoke our curiosity, humility, generosity, and wisdom. The ultimate benefit is that we learn that it is good, once again, to work together.

Sean Jacobson

I'm Sean, a former HR and business consultant providing you insights into the business world for Leader to Leader.

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