George Kohlrieser: An interview by Bob Morris

Kohlrieser, GeorgeGeorge Kohlrieser is an organizational and clinical psychologist. He is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD and consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Alcan, Amer Sports, Barclays Global Investors, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, IBM, IFC, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, Nestlé, Nokia, Roche, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, and Toyota. He is also a Police Psychologist and Hostage Negotiator focusing on aggression management and hostage negotiations. He has worked in over 100 countries spanning five continents.

Kohlrieser is Director of the High Performance Leadership (HPL) Program, an intense six-day IMD program for experienced senior leaders and the Advanced High Performance Leadership (AHPL) for former HPL participants. He completed his doctorate at Ohio State University where he wrote his dissertation on cardio vascular recovery of law enforcement leaders following high stress situations. His research has made significant contributions to understanding the role self-mastery and social dialogue has in helping leaders sustain high performance through life long learning.

He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, adjunct faculty member of Union Graduate School, Antioch, Ohio, adjunct faculty member of Fielding Institute San Francisco, California, adjunct faculty member of Zagreb University, Croatia. He is past president of the International Transactional Analysis Association, San Francisco, California and is also a member of the Society of International Business Fellows (SIBF). He has consulted for the BBC, CNN, ABC, and CBS and his work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, and other leading newspapers and magazines.

He is author of the internationally bestselling book, Hostage At The Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, and, more recently, co-author of Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership with Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe.

Here is my interview of him.

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Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, the resistance to change is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Your thoughts?

Kohlrieser: This is a very interesting and challenging point. In fact, research shows that people do not naturally resist change – they resist the fear of the unknown and the pain of the change. The human brain actually thrives on curiosity, innovation, new learning, challenge and change to create new neurons until the day we die. This has come to be known as brain plasticity. Followers with a secure base leader will be empowered to successfully navigate the uncertainty, ambiguity, and other unknowns associated with change. James O’Toole is correct: most people are hostages to the “ideology of comfort” and to the status quo. They do not dare themselves to do something new or different. The challenge for leaders is to build trust that enables them to drive change. If leaders are not driving change, they are not really leading. We must dispel the myth that people naturally resist change – it is simply not true.

Morris: Looking ahead what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face?

Kohlrieser: The greatest challenge I see is the “paradox of caring” – being able to both care and also dare followers, teams and organizations to achieve their full potential and to be true innovators. How do leaders show enough caring and bonding, even with difficult people and those they don’t like? Giving regular feedback and conveying hard truths unlock the door to the highest levels of performance. Successful leaders challenge their people by inspiring them and building trust, not by coercion, control or threats.

Leaders must drive change. Without change organizations wither and die. Leaders who don’t drive change put their companies in grave danger. The challenge facing leaders is to explain the benefits that change will bring. I use the term “secure base leader” to describe someone who gives a sense of safety as well as the inspiration and energy to encourage followers to explore and take risk. In other words, you must care enough to encourage daring by shutting down the defensive nature of the brain and invite the mind’s eye to seek opportunity and possibility. This combination is crucial, and it’s why my new book about unleashing astonishing potential is called Care to Dare.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Kohlrieser: It comes down to focus and trust. Secure base leaders, referred to in my books, always look for underdeveloped talents and turn delegation into opportunities to stretch people. This means they have to trust people to learn, develop and possibly to fail. Letting go of control is often the most difficult thing for an executive to do. After all, their experience means they often assume they know how to do things better, which may or may not be true. Give people a secure base leader and they will achieve amazing things – delegating is one form of stretching another person to show what they can do. The executive must always be standing behind as a secure base. A good example is flight training. There is a moment when the flight instructor must relinquish the flight controls to the trainee.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Hostage at the Table?

Kohlrieser: I have been held hostage four times. Early in my career it became clear that hostage negotiators have to establish a relationship with a very unlikeable, even despicable person. They must engage in a dialogue under high pressure and influence the hostage taker to give up their weapons and their hostages knowing that they will likely go to prison. The success rate of hostage negotiators doing this work is an extraordinary 95 per cent. When I described what hostage negotiators do to the executives and other professionals I work with at my IMD High Performance Leadership Program, they wanted to know if the secret of hostage negotiation can be applied to situations when one is being held a psychological hostage.

It is one thing to be a hostage with a gun to your head; it is another to be held hostage by a boss, spouse, situation or yourself. People wanted to know how hostage negotiations applied to everyday situations. So the “hostage” metaphor is a highly empowering concept that I wanted to describe in the book based on theory and actual stories. The fact is even when physically a hostage, you don’t need to feel a hostage. The techniques used to gain freedom in a hostage situation can be used by all of us in everyday life. Warren Bennis and Dan Goleman, my two wonderful mentors, colleagues and friends, encouraged me to formulate these ideas into a book, and I was honored to have Warren Bennis include it in his Leadership series.

Morris: Obviously, much of the material in the book seems to be based on what you learned from your extensive experience as a police psychologist and hostage negotiator. What were the most valuable lessons learned from that experience?

Kohlrieser: I have learned a number of lessons in my 40-year career. The most powerful lessons for me have been:

1. The power of bonding and the impact dialogue can have on an adversary, a hostage taker, or a person threatening violence

2. The paradox of caring. Hostage negotiation succeeds because the hostage taker feels genuine care, interest and concern from the hostage negotiator.

3. The power of focusing on the goal and not on the danger or the problem. When facing a gun, the brain will naturally focus on the weapon unless you train your brain to focus on the person and the goal.

4. The power of language, dialogue and of asking questions.

5. Making concessions within a negotiation.

6. The power of loss in motivating people and in driving violence, especially hostage taking. There is always a loss that precedes a hostage-taking situation.

Morris: How does “seeing with the Mind’s Eye differ significantly with other modes of perception?

Kohlrieser: The Mind’s Eye is a concept in neuroscience, and it influences where you place your focus. The brain is hardwired to look for danger and potential pain in order to avoid it. It’s a natural survival instinct. However, every event that happens in our lives can be viewed in either a negative and positive light. While most people focus on danger, we can make the choice to focus on the positive, on opportunity. This is what I call the “playing to win” mindset. High-performing people in sports, arts and business do not allow their mind to focus on the negative. They are able to maintain a positive state of mind and focus on the goal and the benefit of the outcome. They are not a hostage to their fears.

Morris: I was (and remain) especially interested in your discussion of eight stages of grief (Pages 49-56), a subject about which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross also has much of value to say, notably in On Death and Dying (1969) as she explains five rather than eight stages.

Kohlrieser: Elisabeth was my teacher, mentor and eventually friend. I will always be grateful to her for what she taught me about the role of grief in people’s lives. Grieving is not just related to death or a major personal loss. Grieving can happen every time there is a break in a bond – a separation, a disappointment, a frustration or other negative emotional experiences. While Elisabeth used five stages because she primarily focused on people who were dying, I expanded them into the nine stages because my primary focus is on grief in everyday life, both personal and organizational. For me, the key questions are: Do you live focusing on regret and/ or guilt or do you live with full joy, re-bonding with people, goals and the joy of life? Have you gotten over painful incidents to fully reconnect to live your dreams?

Morris: What are the most common manifestations of what you characterize as “broken bonding”?

Kohlrieser: Bonding is often broken and, as a result, people become hostages to themselves, to others or to circumstances. There are seven main manifestations of broken bonding: psychosomatic illness, violence, addiction, depression, burnout, stress reactions, and finally organizational conflict.

Morris: What are the greatest barriers to dialogue?

Kohlrieser: The greatest barriers to dialogue are talking too much, overdetailing, not listening, and failing to ask questions with genuine curiosity. These blocks stop a flow of dialogue and therefore rupture the bonding process and inhibit mutual exchange. Dialogue is a powerful combination of listening and talking to discover a greater truth.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Care to Dare?

Kohlrieser: After the success of Hostage at the Table, the two questions I was most frequently asked were: “What is a Secure Base?” and “Why is it so important to be a Secure Base Leader?” Having worked with John Bowlby, the originator of the secure base concept, I decided to focus my research on this topic. Together with Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe, I undertook research to explore the role of secure bases in the lives of the executives and leaders with whom I was working at IMD. We analyzed interviews with over a thousand senior executives from all over the world. The findings formed the basis for the nine characteristics of a secure base leader. What also became clear was the major role of trust in secure base relationships and in high performance.

Gallup’s research showed extraordinary levels of disengagement in the workplace. To have an engaged workforce, it became clear that the immediate boss had to form a bond with employees. It also was clear that an entire company could be a secure base to its employees, customers and suppliers. The challenge is that the caring has a tough side, for example, delivering difficult feedback and establishing boundaries. The best leaders, doctors, teachers and parents are tough in the feedback they deliver while it is clear that they care. I always ask: “How caring should a leader be?” The answer is that they need to be 100 per cent caring in order to ask people to step out of their comfort zones and fulfill their potential. This is what I call the paradox of caring.

Leading is about harnessing the energy of the people around you and inspiring them towards a common goal. Secure base leadership unleashes the full potential of the individual, the team, and the organization, and it ultimately makes the world a better place.

Every member of the team must dare himself or herself beyond the status quo. The motto every leader should have is one suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

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George cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His home page

His IMD faculty page

His Amazon page

IMD “Big Think” interview

YouTube videos

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