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Communication Tools for Your Leadership Team with Peter Cullen

Updated: Nov 18, 2019


Would you say that avoidance is your main tactic when it comes to conflict?


Well, that was the strategy of Peter Cullen, former Chief Privacy Strategist at Microsoft, as well.


Peter came to us when he was working at Microsoft because he saw the value of learning more about the Beauty of Conflict.


He knew that even large, ever-changing companies like Microsoft benefit from slowing down to get teams aligned and that effective teams, teams that knew how to communicate- even in times of conflict- were high performing teams.


So today he's sharing with us his impetus for bringing us in to teach more about the Beauty of Conflict and how his and his team's experiences with conflict have changed.


We are just so excited about this conversation with Peter, we hope you will find some value from the stories and lessons he shares. And if you do, please share with us, we’d love to know how the podcast and others’ stories are helping you!


Listen on Apple Podcast | Stitcher | Spotify

CrisMarie: Well, we are excited to have Peter Cullen here with us today and Peter, when we were working with him, was a general manager at the Microsoft Corporation, and he was head of Trustworthy Computing. He’s since gone on to do many other things, but Peter we want to welcome you here today to talk to us about the Beauty of Conflict.


Peter Cullen: Thank you. Great to be with you.


CrisMarie: Now can you tell us about your role, and the team, and the unique aspect your team played at the Microsoft Corporation?


Peter Cullen: Yeah, it was, I think unique to Microsoft, but I suspect is something that lots of organizations experience, and that is that I ran eight teams that each individually you were responsible for strategic direction of the company, but had to manage by influence, they didn't really have direct authority and this caused a couple of interesting challenges for them.


One was that the leaders of this organization saw pain points in the three to five year old horizon and they became kind of frustrated that it was difficult for the organization to see the same respect of pain points. So for them, it created internal conflicts as well, and that probably bubbled over into their dealings with other teams who they were trying to not only do certain things but to compete for all the other priorities that those teams had to do that. So there was I'll call it at least a two dimensional opportunity for conflict to get created.


CrisMarie: So Peter, just even say what your team like, what was the mission of Trustworthy Computing and how were you trying to help the customers at Microsoft as well as then influence the teams within Microsoft.


Peter Cullen: Trustworthy Computing, the formation of it was Bill Gates back in 2003 realized that for, I'll call the full potential of computing to be realized, it had to be viewed as trustworthy, had to be secure, private- then came to also include things like accessibility and all sorts of other geopolitical types of issues, but his view or his vision at that point was not just that Microsoft had to be viewed as trustworthy. But that computing, in general, had to be trustworthy. In other words, it was important that everybody everything down the computing stack acted in a way that promotes trust or trustworthiness.


So you can think about, kind of an example, of even making something accessible by default for somebody with a physical disability it requires not just the different parts of Microsoft from the operating system to the application, like Office for example or Xbox, but it required,, the content providers if you're watching a movie then whether it was, closed caption or whether it was able to identify an image and play a verbal or an audio recant for somebody with a visual disability, all of this stuff had to be integrated to be viewed as trustworthy and credible.


So, my team worked with responding to what was either external risks and/or external environmental expectations and work to kind of help Microsoft develop the technology that met that standard.


CrisMarie: Okay, so if somebody was having a hard time you wanted to make all the providers that built software for Microsoft make it accessible for somebody who couldn't see, or couldn't hear, or had a physical disability.


Peter Cullen: So if you can think about in today's world we all have a phone which is really not really a phone. It's a platform, it is a one button application, but you think about all the other apps that we use just in the small simple area of accessibility. They all have to work in sync, otherwise it's a bad experience or somebody can't get access to it. And that that scenario extends to how secure the data is and how private the technology is actually functioning relative to the sensitivity of people's personal information.


CrisMarie: Mmm, okay. Did you have a question, Susan?


Susan: I was just thinking about because I know on a big level security and protection in that trustworthy piece trying to keep the data safe and stuff that gets a lot of press and time, especially these days, but I imagine because of some of the populations that you may be working with that aren't- there may only be a small percentage of people that this is going to impact, but because it's such a vital and critical role that these people have access, because of a disability or some other issues, you've really got to be able to influence people.


The rest of the business may not be that big a deal, but I would imagine that would be where you might bump between departments in Microsoft. Like, Office 365 has got to be secure. That security and data piece, I can get that one, but maybe somebody on that team is frustrated that they have to actually do something because of a one or two percent of the population. I imagine that's a whole other issue.


Peter Cullen: Well, accessibility is a perfect example of that. So the team that ran that often ran into this perception of well, okay, I know it's important that we have it, but relative to all my priorities it is only one or two percent of the population.


But if you start to think about that same technology for somebody with a physical, visual disability is the same technology that enables the increasingly aging population, suddenly the market potential changes. And if you add on to that the mainstreaming of students and technology into the classroom where we no longer have special ed or special classes, all kids with all abilities are put together. And now the technology really does tell us to enable that full suite of things.


So it starts to then say well, it actually affects the public sector procurement policy, that if you can't provide technology that you're selling to a school district well, then you’re just not going to sell that, so there's a real, we'll call it, the broadening of audience, but also quite frankly a revenue situation.


But what I observed with all of my leaders was they had this incredible ability to see the world in this complexity, yet were stymied or frustrated by not being able to get the rest of the world to see that, which, as I mentioned, sort of created a lot of internal conflicts.


Susan: Yeah, I can imagine.


CrisMarie: When you did bring us in, way back when what was the impetus? Like what was happening? And what were you struggling with? What was the situation?


Peter Cullen: There were actually two core challenges. One is, based on some of the work I've done previously, I’m just a huge believer that effective teams were high performing teams. And not only did these eight specific business units having to effectively team with other parts of the company, they actually have to team with each other. Because the same solution that was going to solve part of the accessibility problem was actually being developed in another one of the business units around policy development or risk management.


So, when you think of your own world of sphere as a vertical and don't necessarily realize both the power of a team of other people or the necessity of it, you nicely avoid conflict.


But of course, the minute that you have to work together, asking people to stop and do more work to make that effective. So I mean I think about a high performing team in that context is both a breath and a depth problem. That was the original goal of bringing the two of you.


CrisMarie: It is true when people, like if I can just work in my little silo, it looks very efficient, but I miss all the synergies across with my peers, and the larger impact we can have. It's almost like a racecar that has to slow down around the turns to go fast on the straightaways. People are so resistant to slowing down to get aligned, horizontally on the team, but when they do they can have such a greater impact.


Peter Cullen: Oh my goodness. Yes, and at a place like Microsoft I think part of this is cultural and it stems from the old software engineering credence “take no dependencies.” When you’re managing by influence and your success is determined upon that you just have to do things in a fundamentally different way- both create tension in a way, but then manage the other side of that, which at times can be conflict.


CrisMarie: Mhm. Yeah. Now what was your perspective on conflict prior to bringing us in?


Peter Cullen: To be frank and honest about it, it was avoidance. I'm just a nice Canadian and we apologize for everything and personally, this is kind of where I had a huge realization too, is that my normal way of doing things is, when something gets really real, I'm tense about it.


I tend to move away from it and avoid it, keep quiet, as opposed to saying something that might communicate actually how frustrated or how emotional I am about things. So I think I probably subconsciously did that personally, but I suspect that by extension, I just started-when you start from the premise that everybody needs to just gets along, then you don't see both the power of conflict, but also quite frankly, the need to manage it, because left unchecked, conflict can turn pretty ugly pretty quickly.


CrisMarie: Hmm. Yeah goes underground, people talk about each other rather than to each other. Yeah.


Susan: For you, after you had done some work with us. I mean, what were these key takeaways that you got then and maybe still apply for yourself?


Peter Cullen: The largest one was the interconnectedness of some of the skills that you helped us with.


So even the basic one of storytelling or reacting to a story is a way of early conflict management, and I don't think I would have thought about it that way until we'd done that work with you.


So, in other words, checking out this story is a great way to stop individuals from doing what they normally do, which is I see data, I process data, and I make up stuff about that data and often it's off if it's a negative story. Well, I'm going to make up negative stuff, which then feeds the cycle of conflict, and I hadn't really thought about the cross-application of some of the skills that you helped us with, but that's one that immediately comes to mind.


CrisMarie: I think we don't recognize that when we experience something we're always creating stories, and we tend to think our stories our right, so we wouldn't think to check them out, because of course I'm right. That means you don't respect me. And so I'm going to treat you that way as opposed to saying, "Hey, I want to check was it your intention to disrespect me or not", whatever the issue is or to interrupt my assumption and find out is the story I'm telling myself actually what's happening over there with you?


Peter Cullen: Well, I don't think I actually really thought about in this concrete terms until this conversation, but in a way that discipline of checking that assumption, even as individuals, in a way, it's a conflict interrupter with an audience of one.


Susan: Yeah, because we can spend a lot of time making that, being very self-righteous or suffering in our story, because we've never checked it out. So when we go to, wait a minute, what is the story I'm telling myself?Is it true? Is it absolutely true? And those are great ways to interrupt it inside of myself and then to take it to the next level and actually go check it out with another person.


CrisMarie: It is a game-changer.


Peter Cullen: It also seems that, I'm speaking personally, but I'm imagining that other people are like this, but our patterns are influenced by some of our personal relationships as well. And for me, I would get very, very frustrated with, for example, a frustrating conversation with elderly parents, but would bury that feeling. So in a way I'm adding to that internal conflicts and I'm aware that I'm consciously choosing not to check out that story, but in a strange sort of way that's just exasperated internal conflict.

So, if that's going on for me in some of my personal relationships the chances are that I'm going to be less effective at practicing that in maybe less intense or less emotional conversations at work, but left unchecked they can turn pretty emotional pretty quickly.


Susan: Yeah, yeah.


CrisMarie: Well, especially if you're repressing what you're feeling with, I'm imagining with your aging parents. There's a frustration and that energy is building up and it's got to come out somewhere. So no wonder, if you then take that energy to work, it's gonna- a little match could ignite it. Somebody's gonna get it.


Peter Cullen: Yeah, if I think back to this, the handful of situations that cause me the most internal personal pain, in a work environment they were invariably ones where I did not stop and do that kind of check on the assumption, and it left it spinning and either I inadvertently said something that I didn't mean and just caused more conflict or I repressed it and it was a damaging impact on the relationship, which in some cases that still remains.


Susan: So was there any particular, I know one of the things that stood out for me in working with you guys was how, I mean one thing your team really could kind of do is have great, intellectual debate about something and I remember at times it would be, I would be like maybe you guys are all agreeing. We aren’t really sure. Do you remember that?


Peter Cullen: Oh my goodness, yeah, I was blessed with people that were not afraid to speak up.


Susan: Yeah. And so sometimes it was hard to know was everybody, at what point do you stop that and say how bought in our you. And I think we did introduce you guys to the thumbs thing, thumbs up means you're all in, thumbs to the side, thumbs down, and I think that was a pretty important tool for you because I think sometimes your team you may not have known where they were in full agreement with you or not.


Peter Cullen: Oh, yeah, it was the other passive aggressive and sometimes not even very passive.


Yeah, it's true and I do recall that the one situation you're talking about where surprise, surprise my leadership team was not in full agreement. And that's when you've got, I learned a very valuable lesson there that you've really only, when it's in front of the rest of your large group and they're all watching this trainwreck happen with some amount of glee, but you've got a couple of options where you can either accelerate the train wreck, which is certainly some might know that's not conflict avoidance, or you say wow, I just have to make a deliberate choice, in some respects, conflict avoidance right now and take it offline.


And I remember that situation of having to make that choice on the fly, without even being totally aware of it. So bringing some of that maybe conflict avoidance at that time was a good thing.


I think being aware of the situation is probably the most important thing that's a very, very difficult thing for people to do when in a heightened emotional state.


Susan: My memory, though, for that event Peter was, there you were and it really was like you were confronted by some of your own team members challenging what you thought you guys had all agreed on.


CrisMarie: I just want to set up the scene for the people listening.

So we had worked with your leadership team, had come up with some organizational clarity, and there you were a team of eight or so of you rolling, maybe nine of you, rolling out the clarity in front of the entire organization, which was pretty big. And everybody, the whole leadership team was at this and it is before we taught you the thumbs up, thumbs sideways, and thumbs down, and one of your team members, when you went to say something, was like “I disagree”. I don't think that's our purpose or, I think it was the core purpose, and it was a showstopper for all of us. So I just wanted to set that stage.


Susan: What I wanted to comment on was you were saying you went to you're conflict avoidance, I would have said my memory of you was that you were actually willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge, wait a minute, this was not what I was expecting. I see we are not aligned yet.


So I actually remember you being more real and actually in that vulnerability got like okay, I guess we're going to have to have these conversations right here and now and in some respects that required a great deal of curiosity on your part to be willing to kind of stand in that feeling of like whoa, this is not what I thought was going to happen.

And I think had a pretty powerful impact in the long run in terms of the buy-in that you got, not just from, probably more from the organization at that point, because the conversation became pretty real right there.


Peter Cullen: You're right absolutely, and I think that kind of macro point on that is that one of the things that I came to become more aware of was that a conflict management tool can be something like showing your vulnerability, the proverbial dog lies on his back your show its belly and look at him.


I think that's really healthy in a way, but I think it did send a very powerful message to the rest of the org was, hey, we're watching a conflict take place right in front of us. We got front-row seats so that then, and it's actually okay to be open and vulnerable and to say “hey, things aren't quite the way that presumably it was planned to be and that's okay. It's okay to be open.”


Susan: Yeah. Yeah.


CrisMarie: And I think you did get input from the larger organization then we re-met with the leadership team. And when you did roll it out there was a lot more, because the whole organization had been a part of that initial discussion, I think there was a lot more buy-in. And you did get clear when we really did hash out the different opinions when we met more deeply with the leadership team.


Peter Cullen: It's interesting. You should remember or you reminded me that we did the thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down stuff afterward because in some respects it would have been super to have had that beforehand for the simple reason that that one little episode, although not intended the way it ended up, I mean it cost us a significant amount of time and effort to have to kind of redraw that, so by not getting alignment, not having the tools to get alignment and/or deal with any conflict it created a pretty substantial amount of unnecessary work


CrisMarie: I think this happens to leaders all the time, because I think what happened is we were going to have like a pre-meeting before the organization, but there was, I think leaders tend to assume, we got nods, we've got people on board. And a lot of times as people marinate on things, or maybe they didn't feel brave enough to say it in the meeting because they just hadn't had enough time and it kind of percolates, and then squirts out. So I think this is important.


Sometimes we think we're being efficient when we're like, okay, let's just go ahead and have the meeting and talk about this clarity versus really we want to make sure we're all on board, is there anything else? Because I think that just slowing down a little bit more, creating that alignment because it's clear if you don't it can create a lot more rework in the long run.


Susan: I think the key piece here too is it, especially with the team that's pretty good at debate and talking about ideas, to really do that thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down, because anything less than that it can sound like they're agreeing, but that actually makes you fully you're either all-in, only partially in, or not in at all and it's very visible in each person.


CrisMarie: It is pretty quick too, then you can go to okay, why is your thumb sideways? We got to talk and folks got really good about doing that after, tell me where I'm wrong Peter.


Peter Cullen: You're right, but it took practice, because in a strange sort of way that thumbs up, thumbs sideways, and thumbs down forces a declaration. And that caused some uncomfortableness for some of my leaders at some points in time that it's sort of shit or get off the pot type of situation. It's so very powerful.


Let’s imagine that in this case that one of my leaders has decided to not speak up like he did at that meeting, the rest of the audience sees that anyway, so if it's not a hundred percent alignment and there's some nonverbal indication that I'm not saying but I'm really not totally on board. That’s in a lot of respects actually more damaging.


CrisMarie: Yeah, I agree because it's kind of goes underground and then it's talked about behind closed doors. People are interpreting it and it, yeah, I mean that, I think that's why-so as adults we don't necessarily need to get our way, but we do need to speak up and feel heard and considered and at least he was in that very public forum willing to say he disagreed so that things could get cleared up.


Susan: Yeah.


Peter Cullen: But it also gave, if I remember correctly, it also gave license for other members of the group that were in this case seeing it for the first time and were having a little challenge to it to also to speak up. So it was alright and overall it was a great output I think.


CrisMarie: Although painful ride.


So Peter, do you notice a difference between how you deal with conflict at home versus at work, like with your spouse or your parents versus how you show up at the office?


Peter Cullen: I am much more likely to take an avoidance approach with things, but this is kind of more at when something is really creating internal conflict for me.

What I've learned is that it's often a conflict with values and those are really difficult I think to resolve. So yeah, I definitely tend to avoid values-based conflicts at home. My experience, and fortunately there hasn't been too many of them, but when I have a really escalating conflict and have had an escalating conflict with somebody at work, it's usually about a values taste thing.


So then maybe that's there's a hierarchy of conflict or experience that you would, but for me anyways, personally values ones are the toughest ones for me to resolve personally, let alone to take some action against it.


Susan: Well, I think in that type in those situations where it's a value-based difference.

We do a lot of work with couples as well as within business arenas and a lot of times when something comes up that's at the core of someone's values or differences in values, the thing we found is if there's a way to sort of step back and just ask the question, “why is this so important to me right now” and also be willing to step back and really listen so why is this so important to you and not stay at that level of right/wrong.

And weather in the difference of the value, but to actually dive underneath- I see we have a fundamental difference, but I am curious why what you're saying is so important to you and tell me more, and we found that's the best way through.


Peter Cullen: I think you're right and my own experience with this is that having observed others that values are so core to me, but they're also very difficult to get clear on what the values are and be articulate, put it out there. And if I think people have gone to the work and effort, almost describe in as if you were communicating what one's values are, it becomes much easier to identify when there's a conflict situation with those values, but when you haven't described them to yourself with clarity I think that that's when you more likely get that, oh my goodness, this is an emotional train wreck.


And those can happen at work. Yeah, really particularly when it comes to a way that people either are or perceived to have been treated.


Susan: For sure, and I think stepping in if someone can, this is why we actually like sometimes to have, we encourage leaders not to tell people to take that offline, because sometimes it never gets resolved, but the other thing is if people have really deep emotional stuff around something that's coming up they're really not going to resolve that.


And sometimes the team can hold, someone on the team can be able to ask that question, “why is this so important to you” and help me figure out, how can we support you? Realigning because often when two people who are at odds can hear each other talk about why it's so important, something can shift.


CrisMarie: It's about connecting at a deeper human level that really if you slow it down, and not try to get to a solution, and if there's a third, somebody else like the team can hold a container, and somebody can reflect back, “Well, this is what I hear you saying Peter” and “it sounds like this is why it's so important to you and Fred or Mary.” “This is what I hear you saying and underneath that, it seems like this is really what's going on.”

Because you're right Peter, when you bump into those situations where you're like, “I just can't believe this person”, it usually is hard for me to articulate why I think they are so utterly wrong, because it is hitting one of my values that I may not even know. I think it's just that's the way things should be in the world. How could this person be so different than me?


Peter Cullen: Oh and I think it also can tend to create conversation at a level down the stack as well that we're going to argue about words, argue about the intent of a sentence, when what's really underlying this is a core kind of conflict with values? Now you're ending up having conflict about something which really isn't the point of the conflict.


CrisMarie: Well, it definitely is getting underneath, because that's the only way you can actually see each other as two humans versus that top layer, which really is not what the conflict is about at all, I think that's what you're saying.


Peter Cullen: Yes. Absolutely, in an ideal state, it requires kind of both being aware of what's going on, but also being a somewhat dispassionate observer about what's going on. Because if you're a dispassionate observer, then you extend a greater chance of saying wait a sec, there is something going on here and I want to check that out a little bit, instead of a much more damaging level of conflict, which is more difficult to recover from.


CrisMarie: Yeah, well Peter this is delightful. Are there any final words, what's the number one piece of advice you would give other leaders in organizations dealing with their teams and conflict?


Peter Cullen: I think about the suite of tools that you were able to help us with our team and then thinking about applying them.

They really, in my team situation where they really had to kind of manage by influence, you want to have a whole breadth of tools in your arsenal to make sure the conflict doesn't get to escalated, because in a case where you are having to manage from afar or manage by influence, if you get to a point of escalated conflict that sometimes creates an irreparable damage and your odds of getting that group to do something for you are less.


I think in almost all cases in business now we’re increasingly being asked to manage horizontally, not just vertically, these sorts of skills and developing them within perhaps the proximity of a closer team becomes invaluable in terms of applying them to your extended teams where you may not have that intimacy or that frequency of communication, yet you to rely on them to collectively get the job done. And to avoid conflict, but also make sure that you deal with it. Because I think that healthy conflict exposed in a productive way can actually eliminate some fantastic breakthrough results.


CrisMarie: Excellent. Well, thank you so much Peter. This has been great. Well, that was fun to talk to Peter again. It has been a long time. They were one of the, I mean it was over a decade ago that we worked with them. So it was terrific.


Susan: It was kind of neat to remember so many moments in that and some of the key takeaways from today's session, I thought, was that one, when we were talking about the situation where they were rolling out their clarity in front of the entire organization and the person who raised their hand to say they didn't agree was actually on the team itself. I think that was a very major moment and could have been a disaster. Fortunately, as Peter said, he handled it quite well.


It also brought home to us, because clearly we hadn't brought this up with the thumbs up tool in terms of making sure you have a commitment on a team, they were great debaters. They could spend all sorts of times talking about something and it was easy to walk out of a meeting not really sure- did they agree or disagree and what exactly did they commit to.


CrisMarie: Also, I mean they had the two days and we were encouraging them. Well, let's just have a short meeting just to make sure we're all aligned. Oh, no, we've got it. And I think so many times we think we're all aligned and just to slow down that a little bit to make sure before you announce.


Susan: Well, I thought what Peter said was quite insightful, that when you do that thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down you really are revealing yourself and it can be difficult because there is no way out, it's an all-in commitment. You have to declare and sometimes that's not really what people are comfortable doing and I think that's true.


CrisMarie: And just to give you a little bit more descriptions on the thumbs tool. It's the idea that with a team, when they make a decision, that even if I disagreed when we make the decision my words and actions are aligned with that decision when we walk out the door, so I'm not undermining it saying “oh, well, we have to do this because of them.”


I'm taking ownership of that decision. And one way to do that is everybody that agrees you do thumbs up, if you've got some reservations you do thumbs sideways, or if you're like, no way, you do thumbs down. And then when people declare you go and ask the people that are thumbs down and thumbs sideways like what's going on? So you can target your discussions to the people that have the most dissenting.


Susan: And it doesn't mean that you all have to- it's not consensus- because at the end of the day, it's like “will you fully buy-in” is really the question. Can you commit to this and if you can, it's much better to speak up and have that conversation together and figure out how you're going to move that then to have that somebody walk away and undermine it.


CrisMarie: And the other tool he talked about, which we have a whole chapter in the book The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage is to check out your story.


And that is a really simple concrete tool to get in the habit of doing so that you don't believe these stories and then create divisions between people because you'll just keep reinforcing your own story and you have no idea if that's actually happening for the other person.


Susan: And finally the piece that I think kind of goes across both when we're talking to business leaders, and you'll find out later when we're talking two couples, the types of conflicts that are usually the most difficult and uncomfortable and painful are the ones where there are differences in values. And when that comes up it can be very emotional and it can be very tricky.


But one thing we found that's really powerful is to stop talking and just stay in that right/wrong place and get to some sort of, or solve the problem, and step back and get curious about why this person, why their position is so important to them. What's really going on. And to you sometimes even ask myself, wow, I have a lot of energy about this. Why is it so important to me?


That question and that exploration of question without trying to just get to a solution is very powerful, especially when dealing with values-based issues.


CrisMarie: Yeah, and it's about not rushing to the solution but really slowing down and taking the time to investigate that.

Okay. Well, this is delightful.


Susan: Yes. Take care. Bye.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke


Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn.

Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It!

Pre-order their new book The Beauty of Conflict for Couples: Igniting Passion, Intimacy, and Connection in Your Relationship.


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