02/21/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

About Leadership: The Discomfort Index

When the temperature goes up, and the humidity does too, we get pretty uncomfortable. To measure this, meteorologists developed the temperature-humidity index, also known as the Discomfort Index. Now, as we know, discomfort can have very different effects -- it depends on the person, the context, and of course the level.

Then again, what is very uncomfortable in Minneapolis or London might be just normal weather in Miami or Houston. So there is something about what makes you uncomfortable based around your upbringing and (air) conditioning.

Some people become more productive when they are uncomfortable. I had a roommate in graduate school, John Lyford, who, on a really hot day, when most people just didn't want to move, would go out and play 18 holes of golf. In other cases, what appears to be productivity is really just rushing through a job to get it done quickly and relieve the pressure the boss is applying.

There is often a certain level of discomfort which increases productivity, but if you go beyond it productivity falls off abruptly. So the skilful leader takes risks with discomfort, but keeps the door open so he can take the temperature back down again.

If 10 of us are sitting around in a room discussing a problem, and if they are my own team, I need to know who will become a better contributor to the meeting if I make him uncomfortable about his contributions, or his behavior, or his attitude, and whose contributions will diminish if I do this. As a leader I need to be sensitive to who will respond well to being made uncomfortable in front of his peers, and who will only respond to a quiet word outside the meeting. This is a key part of the competency to build best teams.

Dick Balzer, a long-time BP consultant, and probably the most skillful person I have ever seen at reading the room, uses this to perfection. In a session of any size, he seems to know just who to push in front of others, and who should be going for a walk around the grounds with him during a break. And he knows that for the same person, sometimes the former, sometimes the latter is appropriate.

But discomfort comes in many forms. I was doing a warm-up icebreaker session for a group of about 15 BP senior managers once, and suggested that they put all their papers and notebooks on the floor, and close their eyes. About half thought this was great, and responded at once. Of the remaining ones, some put down their books but kept their eyes open, and a couple were quite willing to close their eyes but not let go of their notebooks. Did it make any sense to insist? No, of course not (though I needed some prompting from Dick Balzer, who was in the room, to realize that). The session would not be more useful for anyone if they were uncomfortable because I had taken away their security blanket, so let them keep it. As simple as that: when appropriate, it is more useful to make a suggestion than to give an order.

All this seems pretty simple, but like a lot of simple things, it is hard to achieve. When we have a team that we work with week in and week out, we usually get to know what the most effective tool is. But managing a meeting, sometimes with people being encountered for the first time, sometimes with people from the company you encounter only occasionally, is much more difficult. Yet if you are going to get the most out of the 'team', figuring out what the optimum discomfort index is for each individual's performance, and for the room as a whole, is a great skill to learn and practice.

About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?