What IT Leaders Can Learn From Hostage Negotiators

A leadership expert and former hostage negotiator says that business leaders who show that they care about employees will create a safe haven that fosters productivity and creativity

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Thu, October 25, 2012

CIO — Psychologist, former hostage negotiator and professor of leadership at the International Institute for Management Development, George Kohlrieser is the co-author of Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership. He talks about how a respectful, caring workplace produces big innovation gains.

What can leaders learn from hostage negotiators?

As a hostage negotiator, you have to create a relationship with someone you don't necessarily like. And through that relationship, you have to help the person change his mind, convince him to give up weapons and come out, knowing he will probably go to prison. Hostage negotiators have a 95 percent success rate because of the way it's done.

Leaders have to be able to show some caring. So does a hostage negotiator. You do this authentically. It's not manipulation. You do it by being interested in the well-being of that person, working toward common, incremental goals. If I have someone in front of me who's an absolute jerk, I have to remember what my role is and what our common goal is. Be immune to criticism. De-escalate their tension so they will cooperate with you.

Why does this approach work?

The idea comes from evolutionary psychology, where we know that the human brain looks for pain and danger in the world, to survive. When a child has a good caretaker and is safe, the child goes out to explore and comes back for protection, energy and comfort. Then he goes out again. That phenomenon remains throughout life. You need secure bases until the day you die.

How caring should a leader be?

The more the better, within boundaries. It's how you show interest and concern, how you do small things for the people around you. In customer service, you know when you're dealing with a bureaucrat who is cold and detached, as opposed to someone responsive. Leaders often say, "I don't have time to care." But they're creating a huge, huge problem for themselves. What I'm talking about is engagement. You deal with people respectfully. You can be tough but respectful.

How do you measure the level of caring you've already built?

Measure the engagement of employees. If your immediate boss is caring and gives respect and interest in a variety of ways, then you feel engaged. Engagement is directly linked to productivity. Organizations that measure engagement of over 65 percent are going to make it. If you're under that, you're in big trouble. Caring doesn't mean you're soft or a pushover.

What's the link between caring and innovation?

When a leader creates that trusting environment, the organization opens itself to innovation and creativity, as opposed to being defensive and looking over the shoulder. The kind of caring you provide dares people to challenge themselves and do things they'd never dare to do if they didn't have safety.

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