The Value Perspective Podcast episode – with Ian Leslie
Hi everyone. This week our guest on The Value Perspective podcast is Ian Leslie. Ian started his career in advertising but now writes and presents about human behaviour, including psychology, culture, tech and business, for publications like the New Statesman, the Economist, the Guardian and the FT. Most recently, he wrote a book called Conflicted: Why Arguments are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together. He is also the author of the Substack, The Ruffian, where he covers everything from politics to decision-making.
Juan Torres Rodriquez and Nick Kirrage were delighted to chat with Ian about some of the topics covered in his book, including why being passive aggressive is the worst behaviour with no positive outcome, the power of humour in dealing with conflict, low-context versus high-context societies, devil’s advocates and their weaknesses, and the answer to the question on all our minds – what is the most important rule to dealing with conflict? Enjoy!
Chapter headings for Ian Leslie on The Value Perspective Podcast
Please click on the link below to jump straight to a chapter
* The corrosive nature of passive aggression
* ‘High-context v ‘low context’ interactions
* Creating ‘good conflict’ environments
* Artificial ‘devil’s advocates’ lack power
* The first rule of dealing with conflict
* Book recommendation and one big mistake
JTR: Ian Leslie, welcome to The Value Perspective podcast. It is a pleasure to have you here. How are you?
IL: I am very well, thank you. It is a pleasure to be here.
JTR: For those who don’t know you or, perhaps, who follow your Substack but are not aware of the books you have written, please can provide us with a little bit of an introduction?
IL: Sure. I am a writer of non-fiction books, which tend to be about human behaviour, and I am also a journalist. I write for the New Statesman, the Economist, the FT – and my first career was in advertising. I spent a long time working in advertising and marketing strategy, then became a professional writer about 10 or 15 years ago and, since then, I have published three books.
The first one was about lying; the second one was about the trait of curiosity, why it is valuable and how to cultivate it; and the third one, which is the one we are mostly going to talk about – I think – is about disagreement and conflict and how to have better disagreements and more productive conflicts. In each book, I tend to take an aspect of human behaviour, look at it in the round and try and work out what we are getting wrong about it or how to see it differently.
Then I explore it with experts from lots of different fields. Some are academic experts – psychologists, sociologists and so on – and some are practitioners – so people who are involved in or practise this aspect of behaviour or this trait in different ways in their work. And I try and draw together all the different themes I have explored and put it into an entertaining package for the reader. So that is kind of the balance of my work – I write, I give talks on the themes of my books and I have a newsletter called The Ruffian and I still do consultancy of various kinds. It is a motley collection of things but they kind of all cohere, if you squint!
JTR: The content of your newsletter, which comes in the form of a Substack, is interesting and diverse but I am curious – how did you came up with the name ‘The Ruffian’? It sounds a bit shady!
IL: Yes, it is a bit of an odd name. In a way, I sort of wish I hadn’t chosen it, but in another way, I am weirdly proud of it. But it is basically a bad pun. When I started the newsletter, I thought, this is going to be a space where I can try out unformed ideas where I don’t necessarily want any editorial input. So I am not going to run it past a magazine editor or a book editor – I am just going to try some stuff out here and have a dialogue with my readers and so on. So I thought, well, if it is about rough ideas and it is by Ian Leslie, maybe it’s the ‘Rough Ian’ – it really is as cheap a gag as that!
But the newsletter has gone really well – people seem to like it – and so I am sort of oddly fond of it now. And I take comfort from the fact – and Ruffian readers will know this because I quite often write about them – that my favourite band The Beatles also had a terrible name. I mean, ‘The Beatles’ is just a terrible brand name, right? I mean, nobody would choose it! If you were to say, OK, what’s a great name for the greatest band on earth – you wouldn’t choose this silly name.
Basically it is a bad pun – a bit like ‘The Ruffian’. They were fans of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and they thought, oh, the crickets, what’s another insect? Beetles. And then John says, well, why don’t we put in an ‘A’ and then it’s like a pun on ‘beat music’. And it’s ‘ The Beatles’, right, guys? And they were like, yeah, OK, John. So they end up with this really silly name and, you know, before they are famous, anybody who hears about The Beatles – promoters, record label people – they’re like, what is that name? That is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.
And they would have to explain it to people – but then the weird thing is, once people had had it explained to them, it kind of bonded them to the group, because it almost felt like you were now part of a secret society where you understood the meaning of ‘The Beatles’. So it actually had this perverse effect where it kind of worked for them. And because I work in branding and advertising, I often think about what makes a good brand name and so on and this is an interesting and salutary story where, actually, names that seem quite bad can actually be really good. So that’s what I am hoping ‘The Ruffian’ is about as well.
JTR: It is a really good name.
The corrosive nature of passive aggression
NK: Let’s shift from your favourite band to one of my favourite TV shows, Seinfeld, and kick off there. And we are going to talk about that because you wrote a piece on your Substack called Exit strategies, which looks at how Jerry Seinfeld really disliked conflict and dealt with it during his 10 years recording the sitcom – and, in particular, when he was trying to address any kind of conflict among the cast and crew, about how he believed passive aggression was possibly the worst way to deal with any disagreement. Passive aggression is something you brought up in your book as well and it is something we often see in teams that are not functioning well so could you talk a bit more about that and about what can be done to address it in dysfunctional teams?
IL: Yes – and it is a great way to start this conversation because, in a way, it is at the heart of the book. When I started out thinking about this area of conflict and disagreement, I thought I was going to be writing a book about how to avoid arguments and disagreements – you know, a kind of ‘Can we stop having all these toxic arguments and disagreements in politics and at work and elsewhere and just get along? That kind of thing.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, that’s quite boring – but also, that’s not actually the problem. The problem is we now see, so visibly, so many bad examples of disagreement and conflict – because you see it play out in social media and elsewhere – that we are more uncomfortable than ever with having any kind of disagreement, at work or even at home. I think most of us are somewhat anxious about disagreement – quite a lot of us are quite conflict-averse – and because of this charged cultural and political environment we are in, especially in the workplace, you see people get very nervous about having their disagreements out in the open.
Now, what happens when you have a bunch of talented, opinionated people sitting around a table – theoretically or literally – who will naturally all have different views and different opinions on whatever they are discussing? What happens when they don’t have those disagreements out in the open – when they don’t share them? Do the disagreements go away? No, they don’t. They just become submerged and they go underground into passive aggression, into subtle, unspoken manoeuvring, into more personalised and more implicit forms of conflict.
And that means all the good things about conflict – which is about competition between ideas and opinions – just doesn’t happen. And all the bad side of conflict, which is a stress on relationships, happens but not at a visible level – you can’t really see it, you just kind of feel it. We call it ‘office politics’, right? Office politics is basically passive aggression at scale in an organisation. And so actually, when you avoid disagreements, they don’t go away, they just become corrosive to the team ethos and to the relationships between collaborators.
And this is not just me saying this, right? This is not just from my observation or experience. If you talk to organisational psychologists – to people who study this – they have studied the various different types of conflict and disagreement, ranging from very hostile to not at all hostile. And many of these are said to have their virtues – the experts will say, this kind of conflict is good in this situation, this kind of conflict works here. But the one kind of conflict where they have never found any benefits in any of their studies is passive aggression. It is just a complete zero, right?
And so I think what Seinfeld was saying was, the moment I sense there is some kind of pent-up tension in the team, I would just say straight up – OK, so what’s the problem here? Let’s talk about it. Because if it stays unaired, it just eats away, like dry rot, at the structure of the team. And as I say, not only that, but there is a hidden cost in that you don’t get any of the benefits of open disagreement. In an open disagreement, you get to argue your point, the other people get to argue their point and the decision you’re taking, or the point of view you’re trying to formulate, is much more rigorous as a result of having everything out in the open.
NK: I wanted to explore that a little bit more because it is fascinating. We are going to move on to talk about how to have better conflict and better challenge but clearly, in most situations, we might idealise that as we both want to, or a group wants to, have a more constructive element of challenge because they see the benefits of that. In passive aggression, however, we are in a situation where someone is probably doing that because they are frustrated and they want to wound – there is not necessarily a positive intent. And one of the interesting things about that is a lot of us would recognise passive aggression when it occurs but we are not sure how to call that out or how to deal with it. So is there a general way to do that or is any effective response specific to people and situations? What do you do about passive aggression when you see it in a context?
IL: Well, that is a big question and we could answer it in different ways. I won’t attempt to give you all the answers but will just say one or two things about it. One of them is – at a cultural level, rather than just an individual level – there are things you can do to ‘set the rules’, explicitly and implicitly, of disagreement and conflict. So, as leaders, you can say explicitly – and don’t underestimate, by the way, the value of stating things very plainly – we value positively phrased but open disagreement on this team, right? We place a great value on conflict and disagreement – we believe that is how we get smarter.
So if you have points of view, have disagreements – especially if you are more junior and you disagree with someone more senior, by the way; we can get into questions of hierarchy but that is often where disagreements get squashed – we want to hear them aired. And then you practice it – you model it, right? As a leader, you should be modelling that kind of approach to disagreement – both with your peers and then up and down the hierarchy in front of everyone. And you should be showing them you can have open, and sometimes pretty passionate, disagreements with people without actually falling out with whomever you’re arguing with. You could do it in a kind of positive and fun way sometimes but it certainly should not be a kind of horrible, stressful, dangerous thing to do – and it is, frankly, in a lot of organisations.
I’ll quickly tell you about a friend of mine – just because she was telling me about this recently. She joined Netflix at a senior level from – well, I won’t name the organisation but it’s one that is kind of well-known for its very English, passive-aggressive culture, where people are very polite to each other all the time. And Netflix – because Reed Hastings is very big on ‘open conflict’ – is the opposite, right? They encourage you explicitly and implicitly to have all your arguments and your disagreements and your debates out on the table.
And I asked her what was it like – you know, was it uncomfortable to go from that culture to the Netflix one? And she said, yes, it was – for about a week. I would send an email or make a presentation and people would say, well, I don’t agree with that – and sometimes the most junior people in the room would say, I think that’s wrong. But she went on to say, after you get over that hump, it’s incredibly liberating – relaxing, actually – because you can see all the disagreements. They’re visible to you – they’re in the room, right?
People say, this is why that’s going to fail or this is why that’s a bad decision – and then you can consider them, right? You will ignore some of them – you might ignore all of them and go and do what you were originally planning – but you know what the objections are. Whereas, at my former organisation, I would give my point of view and everyone would go, yes, very good, excellent – but I knew that, the moment I left the room, they would be whispering in corridors or whatever and kind of undermining me! So what seems like a stressful idea – where everybody is vigorously disagreeing with each other – is actually relaxing because you can see what is really going on.
‘High-context v ‘low context’ interactions
JTR: That is a great segue into my next question. Very early on in your latest book, Conflicted, you discuss conflict in terms of ‘high context’ and ‘low context’ cultures – how Eastern cultures tend to be more on the ‘low’ side of context, Western cultures more on the ‘high’ side and how, to a certain extent, social media has made things worse when it goes to extremes. So please could you explain what context is and the difference between ‘high’ and ‘low’?
IL: It is actually the other way around from the way you put it – which, by the way, is completely understandable because I mix them up all the time, or at least I have to think carefully as I am saying it. So high and low context is a distinction that anthropologists apply to countries and regions – but actually you can apply it inside a country or inside an organisation because high context or low context interactions happen all the time in different ways, right?
Still, the country comparisons are probably easier to understand so let’s start there. A high context culture is one in which much of what you say is determined by the norms and traditions of that culture and where the communication is quite implicit and oblique. So, for example, a Westerner attending a Japanese meeting may not understand a lot of what is going on because a lot of the points of view will not be expressed directly – and direct disagreement in particular is frowned upon. People can hint at things or, you know, raise an eyebrow and everybody kind of gets it because a lot of stuff that is unsaid is just set by the norms and traditions of the people in the room.
In a low context culture, where you can have more diverse groups of people – and low context cultures are kind of America and the UK and the Anglosphere, generally – you have to spell things out a lot more. They are a lot more explicit, there tends to be a lot more talking – just a lot more verbiage, a lot more words are used. Everybody is expected to speak their mind, right? It’s a more kind of individualistic culture.
Again, this is all relative because we all know that does not always happen, for reasons we’ll get on to. Still, just relative to Asian cultures, it is more individualistic, people are at least expected to say what they think and therefore there is more ‘dry tinder’ for disagreement – simply because there are more differing opinions on display and being articulated and therefore more clashing of different viewpoints.
Now, I think this is a really interesting distinction because then you can apply it, as I say, to different environments and different contexts and you can look at different types of meeting or different types of media. A face-to-face meeting, say, is pretty high context because I am in the room with you, I can hear what you’re saying but I can also get a sense of you as a person and I can see your body language. You just have kind of an intuitive sense for that person’s presence.
At the other end of the scale, a discussion over WhatsApp, say, is very low context – and on social media there is almost zero context because often you are interacting with people and you have no idea even who they are, right? So all you have are the words and, in fact, often all you have is just the disagreement – the thing you’re disagreeing about. And that is why it often breaks down – because you don’t have that kind of wider context of the person’s background and their lifestyle and their experiences and so on that you get when either you are in the same culture or at least if you are in the same room.
And the big kind of global story here is that the whole world is becoming more low context, right? Whether it’s China or America or wherever, everyone is moving in this direction because of the media we are using. The internet is low context, by definition – the communication tools we use tend to be low context. A Zoom call is higher context than an email but lower context than a face-to-face meeting. And then, just culturally and economically, we are moving into more diverse groups – everyone is moving to cities; cities are full of people from different backgrounds, different religions ... we are just more diverse in every way, as everyone knows.
And that just means you cannot rely on these shared norms and traditions to do all the communicating for you – we have to spell things out, everyone is expected to have their own view, we are egalitarian in terms of who gets to speak, or we try to be. And therefore, there is just a huge amount more disagreement and a huge amount of conflict, right? So the world is kind of moving in that direction but, at the same time, nobody has prepared us for it.
JTR: Thank you very much for the clarification – I totally got them the wrong way round! When I was reading about this in your book, one thing that came to mind in the context of dealing with conflict, better communication and team dynamics in a work environment, is the question of working from home versus coming back to the office after the pandemic. And something I had never thought about here is how much more difficult it is to understand cues from a colleague and deal with any conflict when you are working from home relative to interacting with that person in a working environment.
IL: I think that’s right. You just have less context to work with – even on a Zoom call. There are so many cues we unconsciously pick up on when we are ‘in the room’ – as I say, you get a much stronger feel for the person or the people you’re talking to, when you are in their physical presence. And even things like just the small second or microsecond delay in speech has an effect in terms of how we are interacting – it tends to just kind of make things a little bit more formal.
And so there is less kind of crossfire and less kind of talking over and interrupting each other – which in some ways is good, right? Because if there is too much interrupting, a meeting just becomes babble as people get talked over a lot and so on. But the downside is Zoom calls tend to be a little bit more formal and a bit more regimented. You know, one person talks at a time and I think, in those situations, it’s less easy to have really good, creative, passionate debates and dialogues.
Creating ‘good conflict’ environments
NK: I am now really conscious about interrupting you with another question! Still, if we are moving to a more low context, ‘say it how you see it’, call-it-out kind of environment, where conflict is more out in the open, it begs the question of how we create environments where we can have good conflict – you know, a psychologically safe environment. What do we need to do to create the kind of melting pot that facilitates positive, constructive disagreement, rather than a much more negative interpretation?
IL: There are things you can do, as I say, at the organisational or the cultural level, and things you can do at the interpersonal level – you know, skills we can all practise as individuals – and in the book, I talk at both those levels. But, in broad terms, what you’re aiming to do in the workplace is just to create a culture in which open disagreement is seen as something positive and to be welcomed – and that when you’re disagreeing with somebody strongly or even openly and there is a sense of confrontation, that’s not seen as a sign of disrespect.
It is actually the opposite – I am disagreeing with you because I respect you, because I want to hear you come back with a better argument. Or, you know, between us we’ll create a third point of view or decision that is better than the one either of us have come up with, right? That is the best way to think about it. It should be thought about as ultimately a kind of creative act. With a really good disagreement, you’re coming up with something new – you’re not just accepting one person’s view or the other’s. There is lots more to say about that – but that is the broad aim you’re looking for.
And then, at the interpersonal level, it’s about understanding a bit about the psychology that’s in play and that, in any conversation, there are two channels of communication going on. One is called the ‘content level’, which is the explicit thing we are discussing – the thing we are disagreeing about, right? And the second one is the ‘relationship level’, which is unspoken and implicit. That is more, what does this person think about me? And what do I think about them? Am I getting the respect or affection or whatever it may be I deserve from this person? Does this person see me in the way I want to be seen?
Now, when debate and dialogue and disagreements go wrong, it is usually because there is some sort of unspoken conflict at that relationship level that hasn’t been settled. That derails the content conversation and it actually becomes an irrational or angry or toxic or just sullen and passive-aggressive conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. So as an individual, when you find yourself in that situation of bad disagreement, you should ask yourself, what’s the problem at the relationship level here? And is there something I can do to fix it? Often it’s because the other person is feeling insecure. Sometimes it’s you – you have to think about yourself as well – but often it is because somebody in the room is feeling defensive and, if you can do your best to remove the reason for that person’s defensiveness, you’ll often find that disagreement goes a lot better.
NK: It is fascinating. I read a book recently, called Humble Inquiry, which talks a bit about this and the Reed Hastings Netflix book, No Rules Rules, talks a lot about this as well – you know, the first step is coming out and saying the thing you disagree about but the second thing, which is as important, is working out a way to do it with positive intent. And so the person you’re disagreeing with understands that positive intent because, the reality is, you can tell someone the most flattering thing in the world but if they think your intent is not positive, they will consider your motives impure – they will think you are sycophantic, a bit painful ... what does that person want? Whereas someone can tell you something very difficult, very troubling and very hard to hear but, if you believe their intent is positive, then you take that in the right way. So it is interesting to hear you talk about personal relationships being incredibly important. Is that something where it is about how you give the feedback in terms of yourself? Or do you have to tailor the way you interact to the person you are speaking to? Is it more important to think about the person receiving it or you as the person giving it?
IL: Oh, good question. I think it is both but understanding what is going on in your head and in your heart, in these situations, is really going to help you manage the other people in the room as well. Doing some analysis on yourself – a bit of self-awareness – helps you analyse what is going on with other people. So actually – just noticing what happens to you when somebody disagrees with you, right? Notice that you feel a little bit tenser physically. Mentally, notice that you start to almost narrow your focus so you are just focusing on – how can I prove that I’m right now?
NK: It is like ‘fight or flight’.
IL: Yes – it literally is a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. We are not evolved to disagree well – we’re basically evolved either to collaborate or to prepare for a physical fight! We grew up in very high context groups – you know, either hunter-gatherer groups or larger but culturally homogenous communities, where everybody knew their role and everybody knew what was expected and we all shared the same gods and the same beliefs and so on.
It is relatively recently in human history that we have had this idea that everybody has a different view about everything and that therefore argument and disagreement are kind of necessary – just physiologically, in terms of our evolved behaviour, we’re not ready for this. So just notice what happens to you when you’re in a disagreement – you get a little tense and you start to kind of ‘tunnel’ ... psychologists call it ‘tunnelling’ when you’re just focusing on one thing. And often that one thing is, how can I make myself look good in this disagreement? Or how can I avoid losing face? How can I avoid being humiliated, right? None of which is good for an intelligent, open, productive, creative conversation.
Once you have noticed that happening to yourself, you will have some insight into why that person is acting irrationally or being sullen or being really difficult. And then the next step is to say, well, how can I help manage them? Maybe I need to stroke their ego or – and you don’t have to be dishonest, by the way – maybe I just need to honestly tell them you really respect them or you think their work in this area is actually second to none. And that is why I want to have this argument with you – because I think you’re the foremost expert on whatever it is, right?
You’re just trying to settle them and say, look – I respect you, I like you and that is why I am having this conversation with you. And it’s not going to work with everyone, because some people are just really, really difficult and some people just have high anxiety about disagreements and so on. But there are often things you can do to make even the most difficult disagreement go better than it is.
JTR: In your book, you say one tool that can help ease a tense situation or conflict is the use of humour. In fact, you mention an anecdote about The Beatles meeting their new manager at Abbey Road Studios and George Harrison making a jokey comment about the guy’s tie – and something that could have ended in conflict was resolved by making someone laugh. But humour does not come naturally to everyone – plus anyone who does use humour needs to be able to read the room very well or else the comment can be taken so amiss it could make the situation even worse – would you agree with that?
IL: Yes. I mean, humour or making jokes is not a tool that is not going to solve every problem, right? And, as you suggest, some people are going to be more comfortable with it than others. So it should be just one of many tools in your armoury to help make difficult conversations go better – but it can be a useful one. The essential reason being that, whatever tool you use, what you’re always doing is trying to find some sort of common ground beyond the thing you’re disagreeing about.
So when you have a disagreement, and it’s not going well, it will go better if you have a strong intuitive sense that there are other things you agree on, right? Ideally, that is ‘We all agree this team has a common objective and we are all contributing to it’ – your ideal workplace culture is ‘We are going to go really hard on this disagreement because we all know we have the same goal here’. But it doesn’t always feel like that: not all workplace cultures – or the culture in the room – are always like that. So there are other things you can do.
And, when people find something to laugh about and everyone is genuinely laughing – and in a nice way – there is a sense of shared experience, right? Oh, that’s funny, I can see you laughing, I can feel you laughing and you can feel me laughing – it is a bonding thing. There is a study in my book of the teams of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, whose discussions led to the Oslo Accords, which is probably the nearest the two sides have ever got to an agreement in the last whatever it is – 50 years.
There are lots of lessons to draw from what happened there but one of them is how they spent a lot of time together before they got into the real details of the negotiation – getting to know each other, telling each other jokes and funny stories and just discovering they had a shared sense of humour. And, of course, why should humour be important to a negotiation about land and rights and so on? It’s not – but the human aspect of this is always present, right? We are not just talking about the thing we are talking about. There is always this relationship aspect as well – and humour is human and a way to bond people together.
Artificial ‘devil’s advocates’ lack power
NK: Something we have talked about on this podcast with other people is conflict taking the form of a kind of devil’s advocate position or what we sometimes think of as ‘red teaming’. There are situations within finance where we actively need to try and take the other side of an argument but, more generally, it can become a bit of a habit where you simply take the devil’s advocate position every time. I know, you have a view that, as a tool, that can be quite crude or there are times where it is not particularly helpful while other times it might be more so. Can you expand on your view on this?
IL: Yeah, it’s really interesting and, when I go and talk to businesses or organisations about how to have better or more productive conflicts and debates and disagreements and so on in their teams, this comes up a lot. And I have a slightly double-edged feeling on the subject. One is that it can be useful, if you feel your team is really in agreement about something and you’re just a little bit wary. You think, well, we are agreeing too much so I’m going to pick someone – maybe it’s you, maybe it’s someone else – to really think about the other side here. And kind of do a devil’s advocate approach.
To me, that is better than nothing or everyone just going along with something – because you haven’t really interrogated your opinion or decision until you have had the argument out. However, it is not ideal because, ideally, the disagreements should be authentic and genuinely felt. And there have been some interesting studies on this, which I cite in the book, where sometimes the ‘devil’s advocate’ – in inverted commas – was somebody who had been instructed to take a particular point of view they didn’t really hold. And in other cases, the person really did hold the point of view and they were arguing against the consensus in the room.
And it was always more productive and more persuasive when the person genuinely did hold a point of view. Partly because you probably make a better case if you feel it honestly and passionately but also because the others in the room can see there is something at stake here – this person is kind of taking a personal risk and putting themselves on the line. And they kind of respect that – that actually makes them think a little bit harder about what they are saying and what they are doing. So yes – it’s better than nothing to play devil’s advocate mechanically and artificially but, ideally, you want to be bringing out each person’s individual point of view and so it should be an authentic activity.
NK: That is really interesting and it is something we have explored and tinkered with on our team – you know, we are trying to make investment cases for various stocks and companies and usually there is a very natural sense that we have different perspectives and we like to pull the argument in different directions. Occasionally, though, you end up in a situation where there is a lot of confirmation bias going on – a lot of consensus that something seems like a good idea. In these instances, where we have tried to inject an artificial red-team or devil’s advocate element, with one of us playing that role, it has not been particularly convincing in terms of being a genuine challenge. And we have found it much more effective to go outside of our team – even where we are not so sure about the way the analysis is going to be done – in order to find someone who is a genuine advocate for a different position, and use that to challenge us, because you end up with a better form of conflict or challenge there.
IL: Yes, that is an even better approach. This is slightly different but it reminds me of the Warren Buffett approach where, when he is deciding whether or not to make an acquisition – and obviously the investment bankers are all for it because they make money on the deal going through – he will hire an outside expert to argue against the deal. And he also gives the guy a bonus on the deal not going through! So he is careful to balance the incentives and it becomes a much more powerful debate.
The first rule of dealing with conflict
JTR: There is an American investor called Howard Marks, who is quite famous because he has been successful but also because, about 30 years ago, he started writing memos to his clients. And eventually he realised he kept repeating the line ‘This is the most important thing’ – but usually in reference to a number of different ideas. So he compiled a book – called The Most Important Thing – which is 15 or so ideas that are very important in the context of investing. I know my next question is a bit cheeky because, while your book offers a list of rules for how to deal with conflict, I wanted to ask if there is one rule you feel trumps all the others.
IL: I think there is – and I have touched on it, unsurprisingly as we have been talking. It is to connect – or as I think I have it as the first rule in the book: ‘First connect’. And that means – if you can – before you get to the actual substance of the disagreement, try and make some sort of connection to the person. Try and find some shared ground, try and find some human connection – just settle the relationship level. But sequence it that way as the conflict often comes about because people move straight to the disagreement before they have actually tried to make a connection and settle the relationship side of things. And I just saw this come up again and again, which is why I thought it was probably the most important rule.
So let me just quickly summarise some of the situations. As you know, in the book, I talked to people who have very intense, conflict-ridden conversations for a living – I talked to terrorist negotiators, I talked to hostage negotiators, I talked to divorce mediators, I talked to therapists and so on and this comes up again and again. So hostage negotiators, for instance, are trained not to launch straight into a negotiation. They don’t say, right, OK, how are we going to get these guys out?
They pick up the phone and they spend a few minutes just saying, hey, look, I just want to say, we all think you’re doing a really good job here. You’ve been dealing with this very professionally, you’re calm and we’re just really impressed with the way you’ve handled this. And only then do they say, OK, so what are we going to do? And that first stage is really important because the person on the other end of the line is feeling incredibly anxious and threatened and will kick back the moment they start to feel like somebody’s trying to dominate them. So if you can just lower their defences, then they are much more open to the negotiation.
Similarly, divorce mediators will always start with a point of common ground. They will say, OK, before we get into this, can we just agree that what’s important here is the kids’ future? And sometimes, the couple won’t even agree on that – one partner might say, well, they don’t care about the kids future! One divorce mediator said to me, sometimes I have to say, look, can we just agree we are in this room now? And he said, even that works, right? It’s kind of ridiculous but, as Henry Kissinger put it, you start with the areas of agreement and you move to the areas of disagreement. So you start with what you agree on – or you just start with a conversation about our lives or about our families – there are lots of different ways to approach it. But the basic principle is, find some sort of connection before you get into the topic.
JTR: That’s really interesting. I have to say, my favourite anecdote from your book was the one on how Nelson Mandela allowed his adversary to save face and how he turned him around – that was so powerful. I just went straight to Amazon and bought his biography, which I had not read even though it had been on my list for forever. That was absolutely incredible.
IL: Well, I’m glad you said that. That’s probably my favourite story – certainly one of my favourite stories – in the book. It’s great. And, for those who are interested, the book I drew this story from is Knowing Mandela by John Carlin. It’s a nice short book and it really is about ‘knowing Mandela’ because Carlin was a journalist who got to know him as he was kind of coming out of prison and then going on to become president of South Africa. And Mandela was, among other things, just a brilliant, intuitive psychologist – he really got people and understood what made them tick. He understood what they were scared of and what they hoped for and he was just really good at putting people at ease before he got into the tough stuff of negotiation. So I would of course say, read my book but, if you can get hold of John Carlin’s book, that’s also good read.
Book recommendation and one big mistake
JTR: That’s fantastic. Ian, we are coming to the end of our session and we always ask our guests two signature questions. First, for a book recommendation – and you can recommend one of your own books, if you like – and, second, for an example of a poor outcome to a decision that was identifiably down to bad process and not bad luck.
IL: Well, I won’t recommend one of my books – I mean, obviously I do recommend all of them! But we have talked at length about my work so I’ll recommend somebody else’s. There is a book called The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us about Being Alive, by Brian Christian, which came out about 10 years ago now. It is about the rise of AI and machine learning, and how to respond to that, and basically the author frames it all in just the most inspiring way.
He basically says, look, we should see this as a challenge – what’s happening is these machines are raising the bar for us to be more human, right? They’re taking away all the routine and algorithmic aspects of our lives and of our thinking – and so how can we get better at thinking and behaving more creatively, more curiously, more unpredictably and less algorithmically? Brian Christian is really interesting because he is a computer scientist and also a philosopher and a poet so he has this broad range from the science to the humanities. And it is the best book about the challenge of AI and machine learning that I have read.
JTR: Interesting – and the example of a poor outcome?
IL: Oh, yes. There are so many at the moment I didn’t know where to start! I don’t know much about the actual decision-making process here, because I don’t think many people do, but let’s go with the decision by FIFA – was it FIFA? Anyway, the football authorities – to try and launch a European Super League, a year or 18 months ago before quickly having to backtrack when there was a revolt from football fans, saying, actually, we like our domestic leagues and we don’t want that.
I thought that was, first of all, evidence of just a terrible decision-making programme. I don’t know what it was but it was so flatly wrong because they hadn’t given any thought to how it would be received by fans or by politicians in various countries and so on. It just failed really dismally. But the thing that really struck me about it was, it felt like a very Zoom-y decision. It felt like the kind of idea where it all sort of makes sense but they didn’t have a very strong intuition or they couldn’t read the various rooms, if you see what I mean?
Like, you can draw a diagram of how this thing is going to work and you can kind of do a PowerPoint presentation on the logic. But I think, if you’re making these big decisions that involve emotions and sentiments – which obviously football does – then you can’t just do it in that kind of logical, analytical way. You need to have more of a feeling – and I think you’re only going to get that feeling or that sense of what’s going on when you’re with actual people in actual rooms. That’s just my impression of why that went wrong.
NK: That is a really interesting one because it makes me think of a subject we could maybe try and find a way to explore more on the pod at a future date. And that is an instance where something needs to be kept secret or needs to be done in a small group of people in order to keep it quiet – it might be a military decision or a big financial decision or a deal or the Super League idea. But you then run the risk of there being a horrible echo chamber and you are not getting a diversity of thought because you have to keep it among a small group. So, when decisions have to be kept in small groups, how do you inject the diversity so you don’t end up with exactly the situation you just highlighted, Ian, which is – the second it was released – everyone knew it was a terrible idea and it was going to die on its feet. There are certain instance where you are constrained in those ways so how do you address that?
IL: Yes, that’s almost another conversation and a fascinating one. It is a really good question – that kind of trade-off between secrecy and viewpoint diversity and how do you manage that?
JTR: Ian Leslie, thank you very much for coming on to The Value Perspective podcast.
IL: Oh, I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for the conversation.
NK: Fantastic. Thank you.
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value
I joined Schroders in January 2017 as a member of the Global Value Investment team and manage Emerging Market Value. Prior to joining Schroders I worked for the Global Emerging Markets value and income funds at Pictet Asset Management with responsibility over different sectors, among those Consumer, Telecoms and Utilities. Before joining Pictet, I was a member of the Customs Solution Group at HOLT Credit Suisse.
Co-head Global Value Team
I joined Schroders in 2001, initially working as part of the Pan European research team providing insight and analysis on a broad range of sectors from Transport and Aerospace to Mining and Chemicals. In 2010, Kevin and I took over management of the team's flagship UK value fund seeking to offer income and capital growth. I manage the UK Income, UK Recovery, Global Income and Global Recovery funds.
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