Stop using “VUCA” as your excuse

This post is adapted from “Clarity First: How Smart Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance by Karen Martin. Copyright 2018 McGraw-Hill Education. Reprinted with permission from McGraw-Hill Education. All rights reserved.

The term VUCA is thrown around a lot today. The acronym, introduced by the US Army War College in the 1990s to describe the conditions it faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and is now a term heard in corporate boardrooms, executive strategy sessions and among management consultants. It is increasingly mentioned as a business condition that requires a different leadership approach.

Here’s the problem: I hear far too many people use the term in a hand-wringing, shoulder-shrugging way, as though they’re being held hostage by conditions over which they have no control. Some use it as an excuse for not setting their sights higher, not stretching farther, not working harder to retain or regain market share and not striving for excellence.

VUCA becomes an excuse for settling for less.

Such defeatist thinking can negatively affect product development decisions, annual business plans and strategy. I’m fairly certain that’s not how the Army War College intended it, but that’s how some in business are using it.

So, what is the antidote to the negatives of VUCA thinking? Clarity. With clarity, leaders can exhibit more control than they realize over the four VUCA “realities.”

Here’s how:

Volatility is the toughest one to control and to see coming, but when leaders are clear about internal and external conditions it is easier to recognize volatility on its way and respond accordingly.

Uncertainty is likewise a reality of business, but, again, far too many leaders assume that uncertainty is universal rather than taking the time to get clear on as many elements as they can.

Complexity, for its part, creates an opportunity to simplify, as most complex situations and concepts can be broken down, clarified and successfully addressed.

Ambiguity is the one “reality” that doesn’t belong in the acronym at all, since ambiguity is a man- made condition that exists within the other three. Nothing that’s ambiguous needs to remain so.

So really, we live in a VUC world.

Clarity enables higher productivity, better decision making, more effective and timely problem-solving, more relevant action and better relationships -- all of which lead to higher levels of performance for both the individual and the organization. Clarity thrills customers, increases profits and lowers costs. It also creates deep employment engagement and builds trust between leadership and the people who deliver value to the customer.

Yes, VUC may be here to stay, but clarity allows leaders and organizations to successfully navigate this reality. Rather that accepting ambiguity as a new norm, organizations need to develop an intolerance for ambiguity. When an organization creates clarity around its purpose, priorities, processes, performance and how it goes about solving problems, organizational drag is reversed and all parties win.


Karen Martin is the president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc. and a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. Her latest book, Clarity First, is her most provocative to date. It diagnoses the ubiquitous business management and leadership problems that lack of clarity produces and outlines specific actions to improve performance.

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How to know when to keep pushing

Recently, I was out driving on the highway during a rainstorm. I signaled right and started to switch lanes. The problem was, due to low visibility, I failed to see a van that was moving into the same space. Its tail swiped the front side of my car.

For the next few days, I drove around with increased hesitation. Before turning, I would double and triple check. My driving speeds were down a few miles per hour. In general, I was more cautious. After a while, however, I was back to my New York driver self, navigating the streets with (semi) reckless abandon.

It’s common for people who experience a setback to be more cautious the next time. The problem is, many folks will often view a single failure as an indictment on past efforts and will not try again. For example, they make many sales calls that don’t convert. Or they produce a product, service or program that they believe will sell and get almost no response. So, they quickly throw in the towel and give up.

While there is merit to failing fast, which encourages us to quickly identify when an approach won’t work and move on before investing large quantities of time, capital and other resources, we also need to be able to persevere in the face of adversity and try again when the situation calls for it.

In “Think and Grow Rich,” author Napoleon Hill tells the story of a man who traveled from his home in Maryland to Colorado in pursuit of gold.

After weeks of labor, he was rewarded by the discovery of the shining ore. He needed machinery to bring the ore to the surface. Quietly, he covered up the mine, retraced his footsteps to his home, and told his relatives and a few neighbors of the “strike.” They got together money for the needed machinery and had it shipped. He and his nephew went back to work the mine.

The first car of ore was mined and shipped to a smelter. The returns proved they had one of the richest mines in Colorado! A few more cars of that ore would clear the debts. Then would come the big profits.

Down went the drills. Up went the miners’ hopes. Suddenly, the vein of gold ore disappeared. They drilled on, desperately trying to pick up the vein again, all to no avail. Finally, they decided to quit.

They sold the machinery to a junk man for a few hundred dollars and took the train back home. The junk man called in a mining engineer to look at the mine and do a little calculating. The engineer advised that the project had failed because the miners were not familiar with fault lines. His calculations showed that the vein would be found just three feet from where the others had stopped drilling.

That is exactly where it was found.

The junk man took millions of dollars in ore from the mine, because he knew enough to seek expert counsel before giving up.

The question is, how do we know whether we need to buckle down and give it another go or when it’s time to cut our losses and move on?

Here are some questions that can help add clarity:

  1. Do you offer a product people are willing to pay for? If you’ve done your research and people said that they would pay for what you’re making/selling, then you may be closer to succeeding than your initial sales indicate. Try to determine what prevented them from stepping forward the first time and adjust your approach accordingly.
  2. Are you making progress? Use the business goals that you set and measure your progress. The benchmarks you set for your venture should give you an idea of your progress.
  3. Are you, or can you be, better than your competition? You don’t have to be much better. Just 1 or 2% will suffice. And it can be in your service as much as your product.
  4. Have you cultivated diehard fans? If you can’t even get a small group of people to love your product, there is almost no chance that your business will succeed.
  5. How passionate are you about your business? Without passion, you will most likely fail. If you are not getting pleasure out of your business, it may be time to try something else. No matter how much you love your business, there will be ups and downs. Passion helps you get over the downs, and there are many.
  6. Is your business relationships-based? The more that your product or service depends on how much trust people need to have in what you’re offering, the longer it will typically take for you to gain traction. 
  7. How would you advise someone else? It’s often much easier to look at your situation objectively when you take a step back and remove the emotional triggers, such as how much time, effort and emotion you’ve already invested.
  8. Is it in you? Much of success is based on your capacity to push ahead. If you don’t have the skills required, can you build the team that does? If you don’t have the right connections, can you hustle to open the right doors?

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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How often do you tap into your high school/college/etc. alumni networks to create business opportunities?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from over 240,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

How often do you tap into your high school/college/etc. alumni networks to create business opportunities?

  • All the time: 3%
  • Occasionally: 14%
  • Infrequently: 32%
  • Never: 50%

Your network is bigger than you realize. Take a look at where you are in your career. Now think about all those folks you went to high school, undergrad or grad school with. They’re probably at similar spots in their careers. That’s a big, untapped network for selling your services or products, finding new customers, finding new partners and suppliers and looking for new jobs. Social platforms like LinkedIn make it easier than ever to reconnect with these folks. We all know cold calling is awful. Why not reach out to a lead that is warmer than a cold call and see what happens? You never know where that next meaningful business relationship will come from. Don’t ignore a big asset already at your disposal for finding it.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

Phrases that turn bold ideas into action

Are you looking to help your team launch innovative ideas? Then listen up. Your efforts to help them might actually be diminishing their creative brilliance, one “helpful” suggestion at a time.

Branding expert Sally Hogshead wrote about this phenomenon when describing how well-meaning people pose the biggest threat to a team’s boldest ideas. Innovative ideas can get pecked apart, one simple “tweak” at a time, says Hogshead.

In her early career as a marketing copywriter, Hogshead found that unique ideas weren’t usually rejected outright, but rather, were “pecked apart” as if a flock of ducks had descended onto the conference room table. These “seemingly innocent tweaks gradually remove the unique defining features” of your idea, writes Hogshead.

If you’re looking for creativity and innovation, some ideas that your folks bring you will be downright wacky. Completely unworkable. But within that nascent thought, there’s a concept -- perhaps just a kernel -- that could bring your team a much-needed breakthrough.

When first presented with an outlandish idea, adopt a curious mindset. As business consultant Chery Gegelman reminds us, curiosity is just as important as what a leader “knows.”

Gegelman, who leads “conversation safari” workshops that bring together people of opposing viewpoints to learn together, writes that leaders who prize curiosity over knowledge, “uncover root causes, solve bigger problems and make a greater difference” in their workplace.

So how can you avoid overzealous tweaking? Here are nine phrases that help move bold ideas along.

  1. Tell me more.

  2. That’s a bold idea. What sparked it?

  3. Wow, your idea has taken me by surprise. Can I think on it overnight and get back to you?

  4. I see a lot of possibility in this idea. What do you think is the next step for evaluating its promise?

  5. This concept has a lot of ideas wrapped into it. One of the strongest is _______. How can we build on that idea to move forward?

  6. Thanks for getting the ball rolling on this idea. Who can help you make this vision to become a reality?

  7. I appreciate that you are really stretching the boundaries with this idea. Where do you think we go from here?

  8. If we were to try this idea, what are the barriers? How can we work through (or prevent) the barriers from happening?

  9. I'd love to learn more! Show me how this could work.

When someone presents you with a big idea, don’t be a big duck and peck it to death in the name of “tweaking” it to play it safe. Instead, get genuinely curious and ask questions that expand the idea’s potential. Even if the idea doesn’t come to fruition, your team will see that you support their innovations and are willing to give them the needed incubation time for an idea’s promise to show itself.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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Development plan or development planning? There is a difference

If your organization is like most, you’re likely seeing less attention paid to development planning.

It’s understandable. Leaders face time challenges like never before. Teams are increasingly distributed across geographies, making connections complex. The general sentiment that employees should own their own development frequently leads managers to a sensibility that’s too hands-off. And self-service/on-demand learning models increasingly leave development to the system, often taking managers out of the mix.

Unfortunately, this reduced focus on development planning comes at a cost. When leaders don’t commit the time and energy to engage with others, they not only sub-optimize professional and career growth; they also compromise the following:

  • Employee engagement and satisfaction that comes along with development;
  • Chance to strategically develop critical skills and capacities while building organizational bench strength;
  • Retention of talent and bottom-line business results.

But the problem may not be what you think. Many managers routinely generate development plans -- some with meticulous precision and according to the processes, systems and schedules outlined by their organizations. In fact, there are plenty of development plans out there but not as much development planning.

In a world where we routinely turn nouns into verbs (we Google this, we Uber there), we’ve done the exact opposite with development planning. It’s a verb that we too frequently turn into a static noun. So, it’s time to return to the act of helping others grow versus focusing myopically on the form. It’s time to put the "ning" back in development planning.

What does good development planning look like?

Development planning that moves the needle is not a one-and-done event; it’s an ongoing process of reflection and refinement that leaders and employees engage in over time. And one of the tools that this process generates (and iterates) is the development plan itself. But the magic and value lie not with the plan but with the planning process -- the relationship and conversation that continually clarify goals, strengths, interests and values in service of employee growth.

If you dare to take this on, you might find the following planning framework helpful. Helping others engage in meaningful development involves facilitating reflection and refinement of thinking that is:

  • Documented. Putting it in writing signals that this is significant and that you both are taking it seriously. It acts as a reminder to you and the employee and helps to drive follow-up. Write it on paper or online so you can treat it as the living, breathing and changeable tool that it is.
  • Agile. Development plans today must be flexible and responsive to the complex and everchanging environment within with they operate. That means identifying and pursuing multiple goals concurrently. It means figuring out where one development strategy might advance multiple goals and leveraging the synergies of related actions.
  • Relevant (to employee goals and the needs of the organization). Frequently development becomes activity for activity’s sake. For it to be valuable, however, it must be intimately connected to what matters most to employees -- where they want to go and what they want to do. Creating a link to individual goals is essential. But development is a two-way street. So, making sure that the learning also contributes to the organizational big pictures ensures greater support.
  • Energizing. The only plan that has a chance of being implemented over time is one that genuinely speaks to the employee. Are they excited about moving forward? Is the next step engaging? When the going gets tough, it’s this level of energy that will sustain focus and momentum.

Daring to engage with others around their development in this way requires reflection, refinement, and recognition over time – something that can only happen through a genuine commitment to others and a commitment to ongoing conversation and exchange. And when leaders do this, the verb and act of planning creates unbeatable relationships and results that dramatically exceed what’s possible with just a noun – the plan.


Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. magazine's top 100 leadership speakers, Winkle Giulioni is the co-author of the bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want” (the 2nd edition will be released January 2019), a respected speaker on a variety of topics and a regular contributor to many business publications.

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What you know can hurt you

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year and again in 2018. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and newsletters for small businesses and marketers and advertisers.

All kinds of people post opinions on social media: Men and women, old and young, athletes and actors, liberals and conservatives, management and staff. Despite the incredible diversity such an arrangement spawns, they all have something in common: they’re right in their own eyes. It’s like how people believe nobody else on the road knows how to drive as well as they do -- especially in the rain. Each of us has, shall we say, unreasonable confidence in our own opinions.

It’s true in business as well. How many corporate leaders have you heard remark, “Boy, is my strategy stupid!” or “The way my competitors outsmart me is impressive!” Business, like social media and the interstate, is full of people soaked in confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret events in conformity with our own brilliant view of the world. How many times have you patted your own company’s strategy on the back while scoffing at your competitor’s? I know I have.  

But when you consider that over the course of an average year nearly one in eight companies sees its revenue decline, and that over the course of an average decade more than half of all companies stall, something doesn’t add up. No CEO has ever called a staff meeting and said, “We’re planning to take it in the shorts this year.” Yet company after company does.

Here’s a shocker: Your brilliance might not be so brilliant, your insights might not be so insightful and your plans might not be foolproof.  Unlike in social media (where you may never have to come to terms with your misguided thinking), believing your business strategy is correct doesn’t make it so. The marketplace makes that judgment, and it’s a hard teacher.

A plan is never wrong until it is. Nobody is ever mistaken until they are. Doing business is less like emoting on Twitter and more like driving in the rain; no matter how well you think you can maneuver, you can’t fight physics. Sometimes your tires skid. Sometimes you misjudge the distance of the car in front of you. Sometimes it’s just your turn to hit the wall.

With that humble admonition, here are three tips to help keep your company from becoming a statistic.

Broaden your conception of competition. Ever hear of Gump’s? It was a storied, 157-year-old San Francisco department store that recently declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. It’s not hard to imagine why, given the intense retail disruption that has claimed household names like Sears and Toys ‘R Us. But get this: Gump’s actually reported in its court filing that because it specializes in one-of-a-kind items it didn’t have any real direct competitors. Hmm.

These days, everybody is competing with everybody. Five years ago, who would have put Netflix and Apple in the same category? Yet here they are, each spending billions to capture the elusive video entertainment consumer. McDonald’s is feeling the effects of HelloFresh, Walgreens is now competing with Amazon (who isn’t?) and Walmart is about to make life miserable for car dealers everywhere. Competition isn't what it used to be. You have to look for it everywhere.

Question every assumption. Every assumption. Start with your business and marketing plans but don’t stop there. Go all the way up to your vision and mission statements. Re-examine every sentence. Challenge every word. Why did you put it that way? What does it mean? How may its interpretation have changed since you last looked at it? How may the world have changed around it?

There’s a reason why creative destruction rarely happens from within an industry: Current industry players are invested in the status quo -- literally and figuratively. If you’re not careful, you could achieve your mission and still be disrupted out of existence.  Get ahead of the game by checking your assumptions the way you would proofread your resume: Read what you’ve written backwards. Stop on every word. Resist the temptation to skip the fine print. If you don’t, you may indeed be proofing your resume soon.

Embrace naysayers.  Years ago I wrote a piece entitled "When to fire your ad agency," and I made the point that beyond obvious reasons (lying, cheating, stealing) there’s one overriding question you should ask yourself: “Has my agency stopped challenging me?” The same question could (and should) be asked of your management team, your advisors, your board of directors and even the person behind the bleary eyes you see in the mirror each morning.

I’m not suggesting your staff and advisors challenge your authority; I am suggesting that you make clear to them that part of their job description is to challenge your thinking. It doesn’t mean their ideas and opinions will always be right; it means that another perspective is always worth considering. Of course, the difficult thing about being challenged is that it’s, well, challenging. But it sure beats groupthink.

Broaden your conception of competition. Question every assumption. Embrace naysayers. These ideas are in no way exhaustive, and they’re certainly not foolproof. But they can go a long way in helping you understand where you may be off-base or missing something, and they can help prevent your company from getting left behind. I have found them quite helpful, and I believe you will too.

Of course, I could be wrong.

4 ways to relinquish (some) control and help your team thrive

When my wife and I started our company, there wasn’t a job we didn’t do, whether answering the phone or shipping the product. But as the business thrived, we realized we couldn’t do everything on our own. Unfortunately, relinquishing control is one of my greatest challenges.

This is partly due to my love of the business and desire to be involved in every aspect of it. But if I’m completely honest, part of the problem is that it’s hard to trust someone else to love and care for our product and customers as much as I do.

If you hire hard-working, reliable team members who are excited about learning, you have to be confident that they’ll get the job done right, though. For example, our first shipping manager took extra time to make everything look perfect and get our products to customers safe and sound. Her extensive bubble-wrapping might not have been ideal from a productivity standpoint, but it was more important to me that I could trust her to care about our customers as much as I did. What a relief!

Being confident that your team members can do their jobs well — and trusting them to do so — is one of the best things you can do in terms of career and business growth. If you try to do everything yourself, you will burn out and drop the ball — and usually at the worst possible moment.

So how can you abandon micromanagement and maximize your team’s productivity and effectiveness? These four tips will help you get started:

1. Don’t be afraid of mistakes

If a person never makes a mistake, he or she probably isn’t trying new things or reaching outside his or her comfort zone. On the other hand, when someone does screw up, he or she has to own it, learn from it, and move on — and as the leader, you have to be able to do that, too.

If delegating isn’t your strong suit, start by giving away work that won’t harm the business if a mistake is made. This is a great way to let team members grow in their skills while you focus on more important tasks. If and when someone does make a mistake in a lower-impact area, you can work with that person to improve so he or she can eventually take on more integral areas of the business.

When we started our business, we had a college student helping part-time in the warehouse, and she was eager to take on more responsibility. She would come in early, stay late, and do whatever needed to be done. As the company grew, she became a full-time employee and then took over shipping. She later transitioned to sales and then became our national trainer. Over time — because she was given incremental opportunities to take on new challenges — she has become someone who understands our entire business from the ground up.

2. Don’t rush the hiring process

I like everyone I meet. After an interview, I’m ready to hire on the spot. But if you’re going to work on relinquishing control of your business, you have to take care to hire people you can really trust.

Do your homework, and make sure an applicant’s qualifications match the job and that he or she will fit well into your business’s culture. When applicants demonstrate that they will do their best work, be honest about mistakes, and do everything they can to not repeat those mistakes, that’s the time to take the leap and make them a part of your team.

We were once in need of a sales assistant, and the girlfriend of one of our key employees answered the ad. We really liked her but were nervous about hiring her because if it didn't work out, we didn't want that to affect their relationship or our relationship with her boyfriend. We interviewed her multiple times, but, more importantly, we interviewed at least 10 other qualified candidates. But we kept coming back to her. That was almost five years ago, and she and that other employee are married and still working for us.

3. Be kind to customers and vendors

I’ve never lost it with a customer, but I can’t say the same about vendors. When a vendor misses an important delivery, it can ruin my day. But I know I won’t get very far by yelling. It’s better to calmly work to find a solution. If you can’t keep your cool and stay respectful, you will lose clients and vendors and damage your reputation.

In the book “What's the Secret? To Providing a World-Class Customer Experience,” author John DiJulius III writes about some companies that provide legendary service, including the Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom, and Disney. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of great customer service can tell you what a treat it is — and how much that person is looking forward to engaging with that company again. So no matter how frustrated you get, be kind and give both your customers and your vendors the benefit of the doubt in every situation.

4. Figure out what really needs your attention

Don’t operate like a FIFO (first in, first out). Rather, you should prioritize your work, which allows you to do important tasks first and delay tasks that can wait or hand them off to someone else.

Like David Allen wrote in his book “Getting Things Done,” “If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.” If you don’t organize your task list and figure out what takes priority — and what actually needs to be done by you specifically — you’ll lose focus on what’s important.

When we started our business, we didn't have a budget for a lot of marketing materials and design, so I taught myself how to use Quark and Adobe Creative Suite. I fumbled through, but as we grew, we realized we needed a full-time graphic designer. I was concerned at first because I liked the reward of designing things, but right away, I realized that the product was a million times better with a trained designer on our team. I also realized that I was wasting my own precious time doing something that someone else can do faster and better.

Ultimately, you must choose between growth and control. Micromanaging your team can hurt the business, lead to burnout, and be a disservice to your employees who are striving to improve and help. But with a little self-awareness and a few good strategies, even the most tightly wound managers can learn to relinquish control and trust their team to succeed.


Jesse Werner is a founder of Whish, a comprehensive skincare brand that's dedicated to the discovery of powerful natural ingredients that enable intelligent choices for your skin. Whish is on a constant quest to create natural products that actually work. All Whish products are made with organic ingredients and are free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, DEA, and TEA.

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What is your approach to negotiating with vendors?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from over 240,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

When you have a high performer whose performance starts dropping, how do you handle it?

  • I treat them like true partners and make sure we both have acceptable outcomes: 55%
  • I partner on some things but drive a hard bargain on others: 37%
  • I almost always drive a hard bargain but let them win occasionally:  2%
  • I always drive them down as much as possible. They're replaceable: 5%

A little bit of honey… The majority of you look to partner with your vendors. That can be a very productive approach because the vendor will be more willing to make concessions, find new opportunities for mutual benefit, and put your interests first if they feel you’re taking care of them and considering their interests. If you’re in the “hard bargain” group, consider if that approach is getting you the best outcome. On the face of it you may save a few dollars but in the long term, that vendor won’t go out of their way for your business. All the extra effort they put in will go toward clients who treat them like partners. The next time you’re thinking about driving that bargain to win a few dollars, consider the long-term impacts on what that vendor will or won’t do for you down the road and ask yourself if it’s really worth that short-term savings.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

Easy ways to resolve small conflicts

Many interactions create some sort of conflict. The inner conflict we all face is whether or not to address the issue. For example, if you are inconvenienced by a stranger, do you bring it up or let it go?  When it’s a colleague behaving rudely, do you ignore it, fight fire with fire or initiate a difficult conversation? When do you initiate a difficult conversation? When do you speak up? When do you just let it go?

This post is about the small conflicts we all face regularly and three simple tools to address the situations with the least amount of drama.

Small inconveniences

In today’s world, many people are self-absorbed and unaware of how their unconscious habits inconvenience others around them. Whether it’s having to listen to someone loudly talk on their cell phone while you eat dinner or a person butts in line when you were there first, there are all kinds of small irritations and inconveniences we all experience.

It’s often not worth the potential fight to bring it up, but there is a fun alternative that can be effective.

What to do: Use humor. If the situation is impersonal and nonthreatening, you can use humor to bring forth some awareness.  For example, when I travel I seem to attract people carrying backpacks who seem oblivious that their backpack has entered my personal space. When standing in line at airports or train stations, I have been pelted by more backpacks than I care to count. I used to get angry, but now I just use humor.

How to do it: While waiting in line for a cruise ship, a man’s backpack kept hitting me on the shoulder, and he kept backing up nonetheless. I tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, then said, “Hey, I think your backpack wants to make friends with me.”  His wife cracked up, and he removed the backpack. His choice to remove the backpack indicated to me that he wasn’t intending to be rude -- he was simply unaware.

Rude behavior

A stranger butts in line at the grocery store or movie theatre. Rude. Did he do it on purpose? It doesn’t matter. All you really want is to keep your place in line.

What to do: Confirm understanding. When you confirm understanding you are simply asking the other person if they were aware of the “rules” or the standards. For example, you don’t talk on a cell phone at the movies, and you don’t butt in line at a restaurant.

How to do it: Say to the fellow who butted in line, “Did you realize there’s a line?” Then pause. It will be uncomfortable, but don’t rush to the rescue with a giggle or another phrase. Simply let him respond. Most of the time he will say, “No, I’m sorry.” (He will most likely say he’s sorry even if he did it on purpose.) Either way, your mission is accomplished: sending him to the back of the line.

Discounting behavior

There are dozens of discounting behaviors -- metamessages that communicate some level of disrespect. For example, a colleague rolls his eyes when you speak up in a meeting. The metamessage with eye-rolling and sarcasm is to one-up the other person in some form, whether it be status, intelligence or relevance. 

What to do: You don’t need to be intimidated, nor do you need to become aggressive. What you do need is a way to bring the elephant into the room gently. Simply check perceptions.

How to do it: To check the perception, you have to first identify the observable behavior. Next, you share how you perceived their behavior. It goes something like this: “Kim, I noticed you rolled your eyes when I said that. That makes me think you either disagree with me or you think what I said is irrelevant.” 

Allow a long pregnant pause for Kim to respond.

If Kim is aware, you’ll hear something like, “Yes. I disagree. Thanks for opening it up for discussion." You’ll more likely hear something like, “Oh, you are just being sensitive,” or “It’s just your imagination.”

No worries. The real intention is not to get Kim to admit to being dismissive. The intention is to get Kim to stop eye-rolling and discounting. Shining the light on Kim’s behavior resolves the issue at least 80% of the time.

Communication tool box

Conflict is inevitable both in your personal and professional life. When human interaction seems difficult, we generally resort to predictable patterns. The go-to for most of us is avoidance. The problem is that avoidance often leads to unspoken resentments, and unspoken resentments are a blow-up waiting for the right moment.  Having a set of easy-to-use tools in the communication tool box equips us to resolve the conflict without a lot of drama.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018).  Download "The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversation Drives Results" Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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Failure can be the beginning of something special

Personal defeats can bring on feelings of giving up, especially if we have invested ourselves totally.

The challenge is what to do next. First is to analyze what went wrong. Consider mistakes you made and why there were made. By understanding the problem you can come to a solution.

Tony Robbins once wrote, “I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustrations were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.”

Knowing that “failure and frustrations” are part of life is fundamental to deciding to make the best of what happens next.

It requires faith in yourself, a faith in your ability to learn from the past and face the future.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. Global Gurus ranked him No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership and communication, among SmartBrief's more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.