December 15th, 2017
Good leaders are great at resolving conflict. Great leaders keep conflict from arising in the first place. Here’s how they do it.
In engineering “friction” can be defined as any waste of energy that has been harnessed to produce work. Entrepreneurs grow wealthy by reducing the economic friction between buyers and sellers. In business there is a form of friction that all too often kills plans, wastes energy, and ruins friendships: people fighting with each other.
I’ve investigated my fair share of work place squabbles. I almost never found two-legged villains at the heart of the problem. Instead I discovered hard-working, well intentioned people that had unintentionally allowed a disembodied demon into their midst: Ambiguity.
In one instance a sales department and shipping department were at each other’s throats. Both sides were convinced that they were the victims of a combination of incompetence and evil intentions on the part of the other. After scraping away the rancor, I discovered that the sales department was upset because product was not being shipped “on time.” Shipping was fed up with getting a flood of orders late in the day that they could not possibly ship without working into the night. The real problem was that both sides were operating from entirely different assumptions about what “on time” meant. I quickly brokered an agreement: any order received by shipping before 2:00 PM would ship the same day. Later orders would ship the next. I wrote the new policy down and distributed it. When the ambiguity disappeared so did the problem and the rancor.
I have often argued that a trait that distinguishes great leaders is an ability to creatively use the tension produced by ambiguity. Great leaders don’t live in a black or white world. Instead they love shades of grey. However, this trait is most effective when applied to strategic decisions. It is ambiguity surrounding execution that so often leads to disaster. Business execution is like an intricate, multi-faceted relay race. Ambiguity about who is passing the baton to whom by when almost certainly means that the precious baton will hit the floor and the postmortem recriminations will begin. In business, “crisp execution” is the Holy Grail, and crisp execution relies on eliminating ambiguity.
Again and again I’ve brought warring parties together and patiently heard them out. Then I would politely make a request: “Where’s the paper trail?” In almost every case there was none. All I had to work with were verbal communications based solely on memory, open to an almost infinite variety of contradictory interpretations. This internal friction was usually not the result of either incompetence or bad intentions. It was the result of people operating from entirely different assumptions about their respective responsibilities.
I have developed a tactic to eliminate the problems caused by ambiguity before they can arise. While my memory is still fresh, I summarize in writing everything that was agreed upon in a meeting or phone call and send it to all the participants. I make sure to invite everyone to either “sign off” or get back to me if my summary is either incorrect or incomplete. I also copy everyone not at the meeting that may be affected by our decisions in order to avoid “blindsiding” them further down the road.
We often hear that success is largely a factor of how many friends we make. However, success also depends on how few enemies we make. Clear, written communication has proven remarkably successful at keeping my enemies to a minimum. This discipline also forces me during meetings to focus on negotiating clear, unambiguous, mutually agreed upon action items. This in turn moves the meeting, project or sale along much more quickly.
The vast majority of internal squabbles are leadershipproblems rather than people problems. It is management’s job to make sure that the process by which people enter into agreements is formalized without becoming burdensome. When disputes arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding, it is management’s fault for not having the policies, procedures, and processes in place that prevent such conflicts in the first place.
In our own company, we made it clear that we had zero interest in refereeing “I said, she said” disputes. It was our policy that substantive meetings should always produce an internal “contract;” and that these contracts should be clearly written, mutually agreed upon, and meticulously kept. Staying on top of this process took discipline, but in the long run it paid off handsomely in increased productivity, team work, and perhaps most importantly, morale. Once our people discovered that without the proper documentation their pleas for “justice” would fall on deaf ears, they quickly adapted and disputes were practically non-existent.
The first step to removing crippling ambiguity is overcoming our distaste for writing and learning how to write clearly and unambiguously. A commitment to follow up “soon” is ambiguous. A promise to follow up at 3:00 PM on November 16th is not.
The second step is overcoming the misconception that creating a paper trail is a waste of valuable time. My typical summary takes three minutes to write. These communications not only make things run far more smoothly, but have saved me countless hours in ex post facto conflict resolution.
Step three is overcoming our tendency for using ambiguity as tool for staying off the hook. Ambiguity in business is often connected to our fear of accountability. We resist making clear commitments because someone may hold us accountable if something goes wrong. Much of human interaction, consciously or unconsciously, is an attempt to hold others accountable while avoiding accountability ourselves. We crave wiggle room and plausible deniability. As a result, we often default to ambiguous commitments like “I’ll try” rather than “I’ll do.” Only by courageously embracing accountability in our business and personal lives can the friction of ambiguity be successfully overcome. If you want accountability from others, you must offer it first yourself.
November 10th, 2017
She thinks you’re having a conversation, but you don’t get to speak a word. Something doesn’t go according to plan and you’re the one he blames. Whether it’s a family member, a co-worker or (worse) your boss, highly aggressive and challenging people can turn a perfectly good day into a dramatic experience without any reason. When walking away is not an option, what do you do?
We have all met people who are so prickly and difficult that no one wants to handle them. In most situations, walking away is an option, and you escape with no more than ruffled feathers. But some situations are inescapable. You can wait until the thorny personality is gone and moan “She’s just impossible” to a friend. Far better, though, to begin to develop skills in practical psychology.
First, take responsibility for your part of the interaction. Animosity is created in your own heart. Even the most impossible person had a mother. He was loved by somebody. If you can deal with your own reaction and take responsibility for it, no step is more productive. Detachment is always the best response, because if you can interact without having a reaction, you will be clear-headed enough to make progress in relating to this difficult person. Next, try to name what specifically causes the difficulty. Is the person clinging, controlling, competitive? We all tend to use descriptive words loosely, but it helps to know exactly what is going on.
Photo: Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/Getty Images
Clinging types want to be taken care of and loved. They feel weak and are attracted to stronger people. If desperate, they will cling to anyone.
What doesn’t work: Clinging types cannot be handled with avoidance. They are like Velcro and will stick to you every time you get close. They ignore a polite no, but you can’t use direct rejection without making an enemy. Neutrality hurts their feelings and makes them feel insecure.
What works: Clinging types can be handled by showing them how to deal with situations on their own. Give them responsibility. Instead of doing what they want, show them how to do it. This works with children, and clinging types are children who have never grown up (which is why they often seem so infantile). If they try the gambit of saying that you do the job so much better, reply that you don’t. The stronger and more capable you act, the more they will cling. Finally, find situations where you can honestly say, “I need your help.” They will either come through or walk away. You will probably be happy either way.
Photo: John Wildgoose/Caiaimage/Getty Images
Controlling types have to be right. There is always an excuse for their behavior (however brutal) and always a reason to blame others. Controlling people are perfectionists and micro-managers. Their capacity to criticize others is endless.
What doesn’t work: Controlling types won’t back down if you show them concrete evidence that you are right and they are wrong. They don’t care about facts, only about being right. If they are perfectionists, you can’t handle them simply by doing a better job. There’s always going to be something to criticize.
What works: Controlling types can be handled by acting unintimidated. At heart, controlling types fear they are inadequate, and they defend against their own insecurity by making other people feel insecure and not good enough. Show you are good enough. When you do a good job, say so and don’t fall for their insistence on constant changes. Be strong and stand up for yourself. Above all, don’t turn an encounter into a contest of who’s right and who’s wrong—you’ll never outplay a controlling type at his or her own game.
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Competitive types have to win. They see all encounters, no matter how trivial, as a contest. Until they win, they won’t let go.
What doesn’t work: Competitive types can’t be pacified by pleading. Any sign of emotion is like a red flag to a bull. They take your tears as a sign of weakness and charge even harder. They want to go in for the kill, even when you beg them not to. If you stand your ground and try to win, they will most likely jump ship and abandon you.
What works: Competitive types are handled by letting them win. Until they win, they won’t have a chance to show generosity. Most competitive types want to be generous; it improves their self-image, and competitive types never lose sight of their self-image. If you have a strong disagreement, never show emotion or ask for mercy. Instead, make a reasonable argument. If the discussion is based on facts, competitive types have a way to back down without losing. (For example, instead of saying “I’m too tired to do this. It’s late, and you’re being unfair,” say “I need more research time on this, and I will get it to you faster if I am fresh in the morning.”)
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These people have their say. You can’t shut them up. Mostly you can ignore their contribution, however. They tend to forget what they said very quickly.
What works: If they domineer to the point of suffocating you, stay away. The best strategy—the one used by those who actually love such types and marry them—is to sit back and enjoy the show.
Photo: Henglein and Steets/Cultura/Getty Images
These people are bitter and angry but haven’t dealt with the reality that the source of their anger is internal.
What works: Your only option is generally to put up with them and stay away when you can. Don’t agree with their complaints or try to placate them. They have endless fuel for their bitterness and simmering rage.
Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images
These people are passive-aggressive. They get away with doing wrong to you by hurting themselves in the bargain. If they arrive half an hour late at a restaurant, for example, they had something bad happen to hold them up. The fact that you are the target of the inconvenience is never acknowledged.
What works: The best tactic is to get as angry as you normally would, if called for. Don’t take their victimization as an excuse. If the victim is a “poor me” type without the passive-aggressive side, offer realistic, practical help, rather than sympathy. (For example, if they announce that they might lose their job, say “I can loan you money and give you some job leads,” instead of “That’s awful. You must feel terrible.”)
In the short run, most of the everyday difficult types want somebody to listen and not judge. If you can do that without getting involved, lending your ear for a while is also the decent thing to do. Being a good listener means not arguing, criticizing, offering your own opinion or interrupting. If the other person has a genuine interest in you—most difficult people don’t—he or she will invite you to talk, not simply listen. Yet being a good listener has its limits. As soon as you feel taken advantage of, start exiting. The bottom line with practical psychology is that you know what to fix, what to put up with and what to walk away from.
November 6th, 2017
Confrontation and conflict between people is as old as, well, people. Any time you have humans operating together there are going to be times when people disagree, don’t get on, have differences of opinion or just plain can’t stand each other! So how should conflict be managed in teams?
It is a mistake to think that no conflict means the team is effective. Maybe that is true for some teams, but it is more likely that people are focused on maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, following the team “rules” or staying friendly with others no matter what the cost.
Lots of conflict is unhealthy too. Team members who bicker, run each other down, oppose ideas, power play, compete and freeze each other out are toxic.
Effective teams do have conflicts, but they have methods of resolving it constructively. Conflict is seen as a necessary part of life, disagreements are aired, explained, explored and acknowledged.
So how do you create a team environment where disagreements are constructive?
1 — Have team ground rules or behaviors. These should be developed by the team in a workshop environment and facilitated so all views are heard and the whole team signs off and agrees to “live by the rules.” The rules should include “how we manage conflict respectfully.”
2 — Develop a good balance of praise and challenge. If every idea is challenged by the team eventually people stop bringing ideas. Have an agreement that challenge is about improving or building on the idea, not cutting it down.
3 — Develop coaching skills in the team. A good coach doesn’t say “that idea won’t work,” but rather “who do you think will be most impacted by the proposed change? Do you think our customers are ready for a change of this magnitude?” Testing ideas using coaching skills promotes learning rather than shutting the ideas down.
4 — When disagreements occur, encourage people to air them constructively. If the issue is too great a neutral third party can help work it through.
5 — The leader needs to manage issues between people as they occur. Don’t assume the people will work it out. Team conflict when left to fester detracts from performance, impacts engagement and can lead to serious issues, like bullying claims.
When conflict happens:
On the receiving end of bad workplace behavior? Raise the issue with the person concerned.
If you are suddenly confronted by a colleague who is angry and making a point in public:
Keep your own behavior constructive. Ask them politely to stop the discussion and book a meeting to discuss. This will give them time to calm down and you time to prepare. (If the behavior was extreme and you felt threatened, report it immediately to your manager and/or HR.)
Don’t be afraid to ask for a third party to mediate if you feel that you won’t be able to have a calm and constructive discussion.
In the meeting, listen with an open mind. Stay calm, don’t get either defensive or aggressive. Walk your colleague through these steps:
By keeping your own behavior as positive and constructive as possible you will be working to a resolution, not fueling workplace conflict.
In any workplace conflict there are often two sides. Asking yourself “what contribution am I making to the issue” and being honest in your answer is always a good place to start.
Rosalind Cardinal is The Leadership Alchemist and Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, an Australian consultancy specializing in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organizations. You can interact with Ros, learn more about leadership and management, and download a complimentary copy of her e-guide on leading change at her website.