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Stanford's Back in London

Summary of YLD's 2nd Leadership Workshop

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Stanford campus

As I saw on Twitter that the second edition of the Leadership Series of YLD and Stanford University's GSB will be taking place and that I’ll be in London this week for the Digital Transformation Conference anyway, the decision was quickly made. Again I would like to summarise the event and share my key learnings with you.

In case you have missed the article about the first workshops in July this year, I can only recommend catching up; it was a blast. The workshops covered topics such as collective wisdom, fast decision-making, collaboration, and motivation.

Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world. Stanford Graduate School of Business

Francis J. Flynn, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford, led the workshops focusing on how to improve communication on the way to scale leadership excellence. Since I enjoyed the content and form the last time, I was even more excited. The discussions in working groups, during breaks and closing drinks, were used again to actively network, exchange experiences, and get to know each other better. This time it was much less intimidating, because of many familiar faces from several companies. Even bumped into former Brandwatch colleagues, which delighted me particularly. In the following, I summarise the day by picking out the key elements.

Communicate Effectively

As varied as the topic of effective communication is, so were the learnings. In one way or another, communication the cornerstone of our daily lives. It is much more than just what we communicate verbally. It is what we convey with our body language and our actions, such as listening carefully. It is also how all this is perceived by others. This is where the trouble starts. Leaders are often criticised for two things: not listening enough and under-communicating. Even if communicating, then often still not properly. It may seem inauthentic, miss the point, and thus does not leave a long-lasting impression. So, how can we communicate more consciously and effectively? How do we manage to achieve what we want to accomplish through our daily communication?

Cognitive Biases

Both cognitive biases, curse of knowledge and illusion of transparency, try to explain why people tend to communicate too little. The former one describes that when communicating with others, one unknowingly assumes that others have the necessary background knowledge to understand the subject. It is often evident in inexperienced people trying to teach others: "if it's obvious to me, why should I explain it to you?".

The second bias means to clearly overestimate the tendency of the degree to which others know one's personal mental state. Or the other way around, we overestimate ourselves when it comes to knowing others' mental states. Both biases are linked to each other and require that we become aware of something: The sender and recipient of a message can differ significantly in terms of culture, language, professional background, current mood, and much more. This can lead not only to misunderstandings but also to incomprehension. For this reason, it is essential to become aware of this and to provide sufficient context for a position using the small word 'because'.

Communication Modelling

However, not communicating properly or missing the point is a problem of its own, which can be tackled with basic principles as well as systematic modelling. Both are intended to help deal with the limitation of the audience's perception.

Modelling means to be authentic, to act in an observable way so that others take note of it, as well as appropriate repetition. This may seem like more than communication, but as mentioned earlier, people don't just focus on what we say. At the same time, there is a lot more to consider. For example, simple repetition is not enough to remain in memory; several modalities should be used, such as video/audio, graphics, or demos. This is especially important if we want to convince our audience of something.

A prime example is Steve Jobs' iMac presentation in 1998, in which even more basic principles are applied. In summary: strong, multi-modal contrast to alternatives — also the contrast of simplicity vs. complexity has great weight —, objective evidence of the contrast to be demonstrated, as well as the Holy Grail: the singular focus. Steve Jobs did this as follows, among other things. The clear message to convey is the incredible speed compared to competing systems. Contrast is created by charts, demonstrations with video and audio, the colour of the hardware, length of the product name, and in many other ways. The video is definitely worth a closer look!

London panorama It was my 1st flight over London — still not my photo though

Encouragement & Discouragement

I just mentioned that sometimes it's about convincing someone of something. So it is to encourage or discourage specific behaviour. It is important to know that people are more likely to comply with requests that are consistent with the behavior of others. In short, we are sheep. And sheep follow sheep. This can be utilised to rephrase statements in a way that increases the chances of successfully change others' behaviour. The message itself is essentially the same; only the perspective varies.

Often the attempt is made to influence our behaviour in a particular direction by combining momentum and popularity or by comparing us relative to the norm. How many times do we read 'fastest-growing' or 'above-average'? Surprisingly often! For a good reason, because we love to compare ourselves with others. The more conclusive, in other words, the more specific the comparison is, the better.

To illustrate how to discourage undesired behaviour, I would like to introduce the well-known example of the Petrified Forest. Several tons of wood were stolen by visitors yearly. To prevent this, signs were placed at the entrances stating that many visitors were taking wood, causing damage to the national park and that this should be stopped. All the more wood was taken as a result. Why? Well, this representation of the case gave the impression that stealing wood was the norm.

A fatal mistake. An amended version of the sign, though, reduced the theft by a multiple. It stated that the majority did not steal anything and thus preserved the national park. Note, if we want to discourage, it helps to turn the tables, emphasise the deviant behaviour and thereby change the perspective. However, if we want to encourage specific behaviour, it helps to point out that it is exactly what the norm does. Keep in mind, sheep follow sheep, not lemmings. In case you're wondering where lemmings suddenly come from: the more similar the norm is to us, the more we feel tempted to follow.

Diffusion of Responsibility

The last topic of the first workshop went in a slightly different direction and dealt with the socio-psychological phenomenon of responsibility diffusion. It means, the more people are present, the less likely it is that they will take responsibility for something. This is simply based on the assumption that either others are responsible or have already done it. Therefore, it occurs when we broadcast messages to a group.

There are basically two ways to prevent this. First, to reduce broadcasting and increase individual accountability by selecting people or specifying the needed role. The narrower the potential target group, the smaller the effect. Second, the choice of medium. A face-to-face chat significantly reduces the phenomenon compared to an email.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw

Build Strong Relationships

Relationships impact not only our private lives but also the professional ones. In any position, including leadership, healthy relationships matter and are even more critical when we depend on people who are not subordinate to us. However, this does not mean that it is easy to achieve, because as we have learned, we perceive ourselves and others differently. In the following, let's look at the negative effect of information asymmetry and how we can cultivate healthy relationships.

Let's be honest, most people see themselves as rational, and I'm sure everyone sees a reason in their actions. But this is just the personal point of view and not that of others. We do not know what information, concerns, and fears the opposite has or in which situation one is. It is an asymmetry of information that leads to misunderstanding and can severely shatter or even prevent relationships from developing. For this reason, it is necessary to become aware of a person's unique perspective but also to invest in the relationship. It can be broken down into the following three parts:

  1. Respect
    Stop reacting and anticipate instead. This changes the present focus to a prospective one. It also implies being authentic and reminds me of the Yiddish expression 'Mensch', which means having integrity and respecting others.

  2. Rapport
    One has to get to know the other person; comprehensively. Besides personal needs, it is important to explore the past and personal views. How did the person get where he or she is today, in particular, what previous jobs and most importantly, what successes has the person experienced? How does the person see oneself, others, and the world in general?

  3. Resources
    It's about resources. I said at the beginning that we need to invest in relationships. Until now, it has been mainly time resources. But there is much more we can give our counterparts. Offering help with certain tasks, improving the position or the social relations of the other person in the organisation, or increasing one's sense of self-worth. While the first one is relatively easy to realise, it also has the least impact. With self-esteem, it is the other way round.

To conclude this topic, I’d like to dive briefly into ‘36 questions to increase closeness’ based on work by Arthur Aron et al. It is a set of questions in a certain order that helps to overcome the barriers of getting to know each other by using 'reciprocal self-disclosure'. In other words, personal information is being revealed increasingly. Because everyone answers each question, but another one starts in each turn, we open up relatively quickly. It cultivates a relationship of trust by focusing on vulnerability, confidentiality, reciprocity, specificity, and authenticity. In fact, surprisingly many of the couples with whom this has been done originally are married today. We have tried a subset, and I'd say that Alberto and I get along amazingly well with each other.

36 Questions of Closeness

Get Others to Say 'Yes'

It is not only executives that are confronted by people who disagree with a decision. Thus, it is fundamental to be able to influence others and solve conflicts. In preparation for the session, we were asked to watch the film '12 Angry Men' which is loaded with great actors and lessons to be learned. Watching this film under the aspect of persuasion, you will notice some tactics that Henry Fonda uses to persuade the other jurors to the opposite. Now let's take a closer look at these and their pitfalls.

Basic Approaches

  1. Identify Allies
    It is useful to find allies, particularly when you are outnumbered. People who belong to the other camp, but are relatively easy to change their minds include those who are sympathetic and have some similarities to you. But also those who are not really convinced of their opinion and hesitate. A little hint: in the movie, it's juror #9.

  2. Frame Dissent
    Camps are not necessarily black or white. Just because the opposing camp claims something, our goal is not necessarily to convince them otherwise. Sometimes, it is enough to make them doubt their opinion. Therefore, it is important to present your position clearly from the beginning and to offer it as an additional, possibly non-obvious option. It is not a question of attacking the majority, but of finding a new common opponent, if possible, by questioning the issue as such.

  3. Show Them Up
    Showing someone up, in other words embarrassing someone, sounds unfair and unpleasant. It should be clear to everyone that this will most likely harm the relationship. Even though it can be very effective to steer someone in such a way that the others show themselves up, it should be avoided as much as possible, especially as a leader.

  4. Make Them Listen
    Making someone listen may sound trivial, but usually, we can't get it done by just being loud and overpowering everyone else. In fact, the chances are higher if we stay calm and polite, bring up rational and good arguments, and above all if we don't pursue a personal agenda, but noticeably have the common interests in mind. Don't be a hippo with a big mouth and little ears, rather a smart fennec fox.

  5. Emotional Contrast
    In contrast to the rational state, however, it is occasionally useful to show emotions in a controlled way to give special attention to a topic. What is crucial, however, is that we quickly switch back to the rational state, the amplitude is appropriately selected, and it still remains professional. Also, the emotion must fit the situation. In the film are two scenes in which this becomes evident. Do you find them?

From Behaviour to Attitude

The usual approach is to change the opposite's attitude first, hoping that the actions follow automatically. In fact, the other way is much easier: trying to get commitment through certain behaviour. Once we have committed to something, it is more likely that we will agree to requests consistent with it. It's like having a foot in the door.

Naturally, salespeople are experts in this field. The Four Walls technique, for example, tries to box the actual target with a series of questions, so that the counterpart no longer has many choices. Or in the film, when he asks his fellows to help him with his demonstration, that was their commitment.

Push vs. Pull

The last principle I would like to introduce in this context is the difference between pulling and pushing. Pulling is when we try to attract the other party by looking for common ground and defining visions. We try to build bridges between the two camps by listening and actively participating. These methods are recommended as a minority member. As a majority member, the techniques of the push principle are preferred. The aim is either to convince the opponent by making proposals. Or, to enforce a position with incentives and weight of expectations on the minority.

Fighting cranes

Become Effective Negotiators

The last session of the day was kicked off with a short role-play in which an acquisition was negotiated. It quickly became obvious what the typical causes are for not achieving the best deal and for one party, if not both, to be dissatisfied. In the following, mistakes, basic steps, and more sophisticated techniques will be examined. Particular emphasis is on the three components of a deal: relationship, deal, and interaction.

Basic Approaches

Prior to starting the actual negotiations, we should be clear or find out what the alternative is for both sides if we cannot reach an agreement. This can help to assess bargaining power and understand both parties' risks.

The same applies to understand the importance of the issues to be negotiated. For this reason, it is important to ask the right questions or do detailed research before making an offer. Of course, it is the same for ourselves, because only with knowing both, we can identify the real issues that need to be negotiated, or where the same interests exist.

The final basic principle is to look for opportunities to create more value. In general, we don't get what we don't ask for. However, we do not have to get involved only with a single negotiating partner. If, in theory, several parties can offer the same or similar services, it makes sense to increase the pool. So, we don't have just one alternative plan, and our bargaining power tends to increase. Also, it is important never to negotiate individual issues, but always to offer packages. This not only tells us what our counterpart is aiming for but also keeps us more flexible.

Every interpersonal interaction, no matter the context, no matter the scale, is a negotiation. Max H. Bazerman

Compromising vs. Integrative Bargaining

In many cases, compromises are sought to avoid hard negotiations. But, honestly, who is really happy with compromises? It doesn't get us the best results. The 'Orange Quarrel' illustrates this clearly. In this story, which derives from Fisher and Ury's famous book on negotiations, two siblings quarrel over an orange. Solving the problem with a compromise would mean that everyone gets half the orange.

The actual interests of both persons were not taken into account. Thus, one person wants the peel of an orange for a cake recipe, the other wanted to eat the orange. This makes it quite easy to achieve 100% satisfaction for both sides. Win-Win. The approach of principled negotiation clarifies that one party does not have to lose for the other to gain. Instead, we should — as mentioned above — become aware of each party's interests and motivations to find new collaborative solutions.

Sandbagging & Turning Tables

Earlier I mentioned that also the relationship between the negotiating partners is an important aspect and should not be underestimated, especially in the case of long-term contacts. Therefore, the following technique should be used carefully, as it can ruin relationships if the other party discovers it.

Sandbagging is a strategy in which the own position is intentionally lowered to achieve results that are greater-than-anticipated. In the context of negotiations, this can take a treacherous course: both want the same thing, but the opposite party thinks one has conceded, so they give one something else on top. Now it should also be obvious why this can negatively impact the relationship: the other person is simply being fooled.

Felix Heck


In contrast to the topics of the first workshops, I haven't really dealt yet with these ones. As a result, the lessons learned were even more exciting and intensive than before. Once again, I became aware that this is something I have to work on. That's why I can only recommend it to everyone, no matter if you are a senior/aspiring manager or not, to participate next time. The articles only touch on the immediate learnings, since some insights probably take some time to emerge.

For me personally, the excursion into the world of communication was exciting, primarily due to the socio-psychological aspects. It shows once again how important it is to deal with organisational behaviour and to become aware of our species' limitations and peculiarities as well as how easily we can be manipulated. A day full of unique insights and opportunities. Can't wait to put the learned into practice and embrace it.

How about you? Do some phenomena look familiar to you? Which learned principles would you like to apply first? Looking forward to your thoughts.

Enjoy the Advent season.


I would like to heartily thank Nuno Job, YLD, and Francis for bringing Stanford back to London and without whom the day would not have been possible. A special thank you goes to Fábio Oliveira. I appreciate not only sharing experiences, progress, and achievements but especially his valuable advice and help.

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