Three reasons why CEOs should heed Marshall Rosenberg’s advice on meeting needs


Marshall Rosenberg

Marshall Rosenberg is famous for his work on nonviolent communication. He died in 2015. Commentators have wondered why he wasn’t more famous than he was. Not that he wasn’t famous. His book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life is a best seller. He was a renowned international peacemaker and mediator, and he received several awards for his work.

His book does not feature on the main “Best Business Books Ever” lists on Google. His peace-making and mediating were not high profile, nor were the organisations that honoured him with awards. Marshall was clearly not a self-publicist. Perhaps this explains why CEOs don’t quote him as often as they do Jim Collins, Jack Welch or Warren Buffet. Here are three reasons why they should.

First, his advice on getting needs met is invaluable to leaders. He might have been even more famous had he renamed his book  “How to get what you need?” That’s his core message. “If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met”, he says. So what? Unresolved conflict, which is bad for your business, is invariably about unmet needs which are not expressed.

Unresolved conflict within boards, teams and joint ventures abound. They are deeply damaging. I know this from my work with clients. I have developed a simple grid, which I call The Relationship Grid, to help clients track their key relationships. I ask them to “RAG” each relationship on a regular basis. On any given day, each leader I know has at least one “Red”, a few “Ambers” and the rest are “Green”. Getting the Reds and the Ambers to Green is the challenge. Marshall’s advice may help.

Second, CEOs should note his distinction between need and strategy. Needs are about feelings. Strategy is about action. He tells the story of the couple who had given up on their marriage. “I need to get out of this marriage,” the husband said. This statement was a strategy, not a need. Rosenberg advised them to connect with needs they could meet without ending the marriage. The husband needed more appreciation, and the wife more closeness. They arrived at a set of agreements that satisfied their needs.

In business, this scenario is also achievable. I have used this technique on many occasions by facilitating  “soft contracts” between board members. One CEO client was a self-confessed micro manager. One of his directors was a not so self-confessed “shoulder wiper” i.e. he would never take responsibility for mistakes. Consequently, they both wound each other up and the rest of the Board.

The Board needed the CEO to micro-manage less and the “shoulder wiper” to own up more. I facilitated a soft contract between the two, with the rest of the Board as witnesses, to change their behaviour by a minimum of 10%. That is, the CEO would micro-manage ten times less out of every hundred actions and the “shoulder wiper” would “own up” ten times more.

We also legislated for the breach i.e. what would happen if they broke the deal? A simple “call out” process was agreed.  Nothing was written down. I came back after six weeks to review progress.

The CEO reported that he was meddling twenty times less – not just ten (competitive or what?); that his team were happier and that he had more time. All these came as no surprise. What interested me was what he was going to do with the time released from meddling, and we worked on that.

The third reason CEOs should heed Marshall Rosenberg is his views on “freeing ourselves from old programming”. By this, he means our conditioning. The most powerful from our parents. My micro-managing client was intellectually aware that his behaviour came from the fact that he was never allowed to fail as a child. He understood the impact of this conditioning. If you don’t allow children to fail, they will trust no one, least of all themselves. But changing this is easier said than done.

Rosenberg proposes a “literacy of needs” as an antidote to conditioning by becoming, merely, conscious of it. All mindfulness experts agree that this is the first step in behavioural change. Many CEOs behave unconsciously. Once they become aware, something shifts for them.

Then they can articulate their needs. Needs are feelings, not actions. “When Joe Bloggs does not take responsibility for his team, I panic because I (desperately) need to succeed, and I depend on him”. Those are feelings. “I, therefore, micro-manage him.” That’s an action.

But that move doesn’t help Joe Bloggs. In fact, he feels worse.  “When things go wrong, I panic because I need reassurance that I’m not the bad guy, and therefore I blame others”. It was likely that shame dominated his formative years.

Rosenberg’s formula is: “When a, I feel b, because I’m needing c and therefore I would like d.” So, instead of micromanaging him, the CEO could reassure the director that he just needs the problems fixed; his need is not to blame him. In turn, the director could take more ownership knowing that his need not to feel ashamed would be helped by the CEO doing his job: which is to create an environment in which people thrive.

Ciaran Fenton

September 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335


For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

The 7 Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs – A One Day Workshop at the IOD, London

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