A former boss was well-known for his flamboyant language and turns of speech. One of his favorite analogies was to compare a leader’s job in dealing with conflict with being the pooper scooper at the circus.
He’d tell us it was our job to clean up the messes people on our team made.
Even though we frequently rolled our eyes when the boss was on one of his circus rants, his point was a good one. Why? Because usually what we had to smooth over was some sort of conflict. Something that could have been avoided had the situation initially been handled more thoughtfully.
For lots of reason, conflict is a challenge. People struggle to deal with it.
There are those who see conflict as a life-or-death scourge to be stamped out.
Some see differences of thought, opinion, perspective, and experience as deficiencies because they generate conflict.
These are glass half-empty approaches.
Conflict, while often messy. actually presents us with opportunity.
Bernie Mayer, Professor of Dispute Resolution at Creighton University, is a leader in the field of conflict resolution. In his book, The Conflict Paradox, Mayer examines seven polarities we often encounter as we try to make sense of conflict. The polarities are:
Competition and Cooperation
Optimism and Realism
Avoidance and Engagement
Principle and Compromise
Emotions and Logic
Impartiality and Advocacy
Autonomy and Community
As with all polarities, the elements in each pair are but one side of the same coin. While the elements may sound contradictory, both of them are necessary for success and survival over the long-term.
As a team leader, one must realize the paradox that surrounds conflict. The team needs to embrace conflict as a means of generating and evaluating ideas. While at the same time, it must shy away from it to prevent frustration or alienation. The biggest challenge for the team leader is figuring out how to balance these two factors. ~Erich Brockmann, professor
It’s natural to prefer one element over the other. When we encounter a person who prefers the other element, there’s the possibility for conflict since we’re now dealing with a clash of interests. I like competition; you like cooperation. You prefer principle; I prefer compromise
As leaders, it’s our job to help those on our team transcend finger-pointing and right versus wrong arguments. Everyone is right!
So that conflict helps us grow and find the best solution, our job is to:
Steer conflict from dysfunctional to functional, from destructive to constructive, from disregard to respect—all in pursuit of healthy conflict that facilitates innovation and openness.
Assist people in dealing with issues as well as helping them remember the lessons learned in childhood about sharing and handling disappointment because rarely do we get 100 percent of what we want.
Acknowledge inequity and injustice, frame solutions that draw from both poles contributing to the conflict, and assist people to recognize there’s always a greater good that transcends individual wants and wishes.
Weave connection and humanize the difference. “The other” has a name, a face, and feelings, too.
Build an environment where it’s OK to disagree, but it’s not OK to fail to listen and learn, or label “the other” as being wrong.
All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based. ~Henry Clay, 19th century lawyer and stateman
Sometimes the contents of the pooper scooper get heavy and smelly. However, that’s when we—if we want to call ourselves leaders—do our best, and most meaningful, work. Right?
“Oh, come on. It’s just a little white lie. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?”
“Because it’s a lie, and it’s not so little.”
“Dude, you’re never going to get anywhere with that mindset. Sometimes you just have to stretch the truth. Everyone does it.”
Does everyone lie?
Well, kinda. Research about lies and truth doesn’t tell a reassuring story:
Psychologist Robert Feldman has studied lying for more than a decade. His research isn’t reassuring—60% of people lie during a typical 10-minute conversation and that they average two to three lies during that short timeframe.
USC psychologist Jerald Jellison determined that people are lied to about 200 times a day.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that 25 percent of the time, people lied for someone else’s sake.
This (and other) research doesn’t square very well with a survey done by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge authors. They found that the most valued leadership quality is honesty. It led by a mile, signaling that integrity, truthfulness, and authenticity are hallmarks of character-based leaders.
To riff on an old AmEx tag line, honesty, integrity, and authenticiy are attributes no leader should leave home without.
Honesty consists of the unwillingness to lie to others; maturity, which is equally hard to attain, consists of the unwillingness to lie to oneself. ~Sydney J. Harris
If you’re a leader who sees value in truth and honesty, here’s seven things you can do to keep them front and center in leading yourself and others.
7 ways to keep truth front and center
1) Hold yourself and those on your team accountable for full truthfulness instead of what author Ralph Keyes calls “ledger-book” morality.
Ethics are judged on a sliding scale…If we add up truths and lies we’ve told and find more of the former than the latter, we classify ourselves honest…Conceding that his magazine soft-pedaled criticism of advertisers, one publisher concluded, ‘I guess you could say we’re 75 percent honest, which isn’t bad.’~Ralph Keyes
2) Encourage healthy debate and diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective. The most effective leaders encourage differing points of view and are careful not to position those who disagree as being wrong, a loser, or not likeable. They discourage groupthink and refrain from shooting the messenger.
The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.~Niels Bohr
3) Watch for opinions that masquerade as facts, and correct them when they get conflated.
4) Be transparent. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Hidden agendas serve no one well. Own up, not double down on, being wrong.
Leaders who are candid and predictable—they tell everyone the same thing and don’t continually revise their stories—signal to followers that the rules of the game aren’t changing and that decisions won’t be made arbitrarily. Given that assurance, followers become more willing to stick their necks out, make an extra effort, and put themselves on the line to help their leaders achieve goals. ~ James O’Toole and Warren Bennis
5) Make sharing the truth easy to do. Recognize and reward those who have the courage and candor to speak truthfully.
6) Welcome both/andpolarities and manage the interdependent tensions that exist between them. Dr. Jean Lipman-Blumen says leaders must manage overlapping visions, mutual problems, and common goals and the diverse nature of individuals, groups, and organizations. Difference isn’t an untruth; it’s the new normal.
People with different lifestyles and different backgrounds challenge each other more. Diversity creates dissent, and you need that. Without it, you’re not going to get any deep inquiry or breakthroughs. ~ Paul Block, CEO of Merisant
7) Don’t give yourself a hall pass by believing your little lies are OK while those of others are unacceptable. Practice the South African philosophy of “ubuntu.”
[Ubuntu is] the essence of being human…it embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging. ~ Desmond Tutu, social rights activist
Untruths move from the fringe to the mainstream when we allow them to do so. It’s up to us whether or not we allow that to happen.
I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody. ~Lily Tomlin
Just like spring breezes and pollen, conflict is in the air.
Contentious attitudes are everywhere. We find them in the media, in workplaces, in our social media feeds, in the streets, between friends, and at the dinner table. Civility and respect for other’s rights to have their opinions are beginning to feel as outdated as a wall calendar.
A number of people have shared how they’re struggling to stay calm and deal with the friction and discord swirling around them.
I’m struggling with that, too. You?
I’m also struggling with discovering I didn’t know people I thought I knew. It’s been hurtful to be on the receiving end of their unpleasant attacks. Their darkness tugs at some dark spot in me that cries out to respond in kind.
Lessons from a wise man
That feeling isn’t new. I experienced it back when I worked in labor relations and contentious was the flavor of the day, every day.
Joe had been a labor relations attorney longer than I was old and was willing to help me learn the ropes. The first lesson he taught me was how to disagree without being disagreeable; the second was not to make things personal by attacking others.
He believed conflict wasn’t logical or rational but rather emotional and relational. What we think shapes how we feel and act. For many, feelings become facts.
The same issues that lead to protracted conflict (e.g. values, status, and identify), are also the triggers of strong emotions. People who feel ‘unfairly attacked, misunderstood, wronged, or righteously indignant’ are typically overcome with emotion and respond with hostility and aggression. ~Michelle Maiese, Emotions, Beyond Intractability
Joe said only a silly person believed they could solve a conflict based in differences of opinion or perspective. He said people needed to accept that, in those situations, conflict is a fact of life.
Here’s his wise counsel for dealing clashes of interests:
See conflict as something ongoing that needs to be managed; not exterminated like termites.
Aim for a constructive, goal-oriented solution that gives everyone a small win.
Strive for outcomes that improve performance.
Look to advance the greater good; there’s something bigger than all of us out there.
Accept that differences of thought, opinion, and perspective are both healthy and uncomfortable.
Handled without skill, patience, or compassion, conflict can easily become ugly, leaving people frustrated and angry. Don’t go there. Find a way to let respect over-rule self-righteous anger.
Take the high road and be productive, not the low, unproductive one.
That last point about making conflict either productive or unproductive is crucial. Conflict, handled constructively, can be an instrument of growth. Handled unproductively, well, too many of us have experienced unpleasant attacks—that sometime get so bad that relationships and friendships are lost.
Wondering which side of that productive/not productive line you sit on? Imagine you’re a party to a conflict that’s flared up because of differing principles and values. Think about what you would normally do when you feel your needs, interests, or concerns are threatened. Then take a look at the table below.
If more of your actions fall on the left side of the table, take a step back and reflect. It’s likely you’re not letting people feel heard, respected, or free to voice a dissenting opinion. Aren’t those things you’d want people to do for you?
How conflict makes us productive…or not
Refuses to see other’s position
Open to exploring another point of view
Respond with anger or accusations
Respond calmly and respectfully
Acknowledges thoughts or feelings and doesn’t try to justify
Reasons or argues others out of their invalid thoughts and feelings
Approaches issues with facts, not emotions, saying when you do xx in this situation, I feel yy
Withdraws love and compassion
Continues to care and be compassionate
Nonverbal communications (facial expressions; posture; gestures; pace, tone, and intensity of voice) are hostile
Nonverbals are agreeable, pleasant, nonthreatening, and friendly
Focuses on winning and losing
Understands that success is more than a score or coming out on top
Passionately defends individual power and rights
Seeks mutual interests
Dredges up the past
Focuses on the here-and-now and the future
Refuses to let go of any contrary issue
Knows when to pick a battle
Makes it personal
Doesn’t let things become personal
Always goes with the gut; doesn’t see the need to research or seek to understand
Gets the facts from checking multiple sources
Denies being wrong
Shows courage and openness to being wrong
Co-mingles and conflates people and problems
Respects people, attacks the problem
Jumps to conclusions
Gathers additional information before deciding
Intolerant of differences
Refuses to negotiate or compromise
Aims for inclusive consensus
Is eager to escalate, exaggerate, or embellish
Stays level-headed and keeps to the facts
Demands my-way-or-the-highway allegiance
Commits to working together to work it out
Presumes that others will live up to and/or accept their expectations
Gives others room to have their own expectations
Thanks to Joe all those years ago, today, whenever I’m facing a vocal someone who passionately sees things differently than I do and who’s starting to get under my skin because all they can say is that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong, I take a step back and think about their right to think differently.
I have to understand and respect that I’m never going to change someone else. Only they can do that.
I know I can’t control the other person’s response, but I’m in total control of mine.
I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good. ~Peter Cooper, industrialist and philanthropist
“You’re a total idiot! No one in their right mind thinks that way.”
Those words were from a conversation happening at the far end of the coffee shop. A conversatiion that kept getting louder and louder. Everyone in the shop knew the people back there were talking about immigration.
The “idiot” fellow had shared that immigrants deserved compassion. From the ugly debate and name-calling his words produced, it was obvious he was in the minority.
I was recently involved in a similar but less passionate discussion about regarding leadership. My conversation partner believed the best leaders were the ones who kicked butt and took names. I believe the best leaders practice tough empathy because effective leaders are both tough and tender.
My conversation partner was one of many in a long string of people who got worked up about leaders being tender and humane. That’s for wussies was their thinking.
Why are caring and connection so threatening?
Time for research.
I looked into emotion, fear, love, neuroscience, psychology, leadership, and change management.
Not defaulting to fear
Machiavelli’s words about fear—that it was more reliable because it can be “maintained by dread of punishment, which never fails” and that “it was safer to be feared than loved” popped up several places.
Safer. What a fascinating word choice. Machiavelli didn’t say fear was better than love, just safer.
Funny how a single word can unlock a whole new line of pondering—what’s so unsafe about a leader who cares?
A couple of answers popped into mind:
Expressing love does makes us vulnerable. We have to get close; fear can be elicited from a distance.
Detachment doesn’t ask for an emotional investment, empathy does.
Reaching out is harder and riskier than walking away. We put ourselves on the line.
My pushback to these thoughts? Fear and love aren’t forever either/or choices. People need them both.
Sometimes we need a warm heart; others times a cool head. Sometimes we need a boot in our bottom; other times it’s the comforting hug. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, but not be disagreeable towards those who see things differently.
How can we learn to replace defaulting to fear with seeking to understand and doing what’s right for the situation?
I found these words from Umair Haque, author, economist, and Director of the London-based Havas Media Lab that helped me answer that question:
Those who truly wish to be leaders in an age of discontent—not merely its demagogues, bullies, hecklers, and tyrants—will have to turn reject and refuse ruling through fear, and toward leading with love.
Leading through love means overcoming the ever-present temptation to abuse and belittle people, to guilt and shame them, to mock and taunt them — to force them into line.
It means creating the conditions for them to grow into following the principles that you espouse. It means not just arguing tendentiously with nor patronizingly explaining to people things that they are not ready to, equipped to, nor prepared to understand, but putting faith in people — even those who damn you — first, always, everywhere.
Wow. Those are some powerful thoughts on getting right with fear and love.
After reading Umair’s words, I thought about the fellas in the coffee shop as well as my colleague and I.
In those situations, no one was getting through to anyone. No heads or hearts were being changed. All anyone was doing was making noise. Rattling our sabers of fear, certainly not extending compassion or empathy or promoting goodness.
Create a chain reaction of goodness
To find the sweet spot of respect without defaulting to fear, it’s necessary to:
Honor and respect other’s right to think, feel, and act differently.
Accept that we’re not always right.
Not allow evil and hatred to make us numb to what’s good, paraphrasing Henry Adam’s remark that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.
Be mindful when words and phrases like either/or, should, or need to be control our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Assure we’re practicing both logic and emotion as we chart our lives.
My promise to myself? To replace my wagging finger with grace and aim for creating a chain reaction of goodness.
It would be great, wouldn’t it, if chocolate was one of the four food groups?
That’s an idea I’ve suggested (just a wee bit tongue in cheek) for lots of years. Despite my extreme fondness for chocolate, though, I don’t indulge every day. Some days I want a different treat. Why? The joy of variety.
Over a caffe mocha (of course!), a friend and I were discussing the general state of world affairs, which led to talking about success, civility, inclusion, leadership, and respect. My friend and I both worked in corporate America for many years, sometimes at the same company at the same time.
None of our corporate employers were interested in the joy of variety; they were interested in only one flavor—numbers. Reports, meetings, discussions, performance evaluations, etc., centered around the bottom line. We were ambitious, so we conformed and played along in valuing results more than relationships. Today, the memories—and shame—of my complicity haunt me.
If you love chocolate like I do, imagine how frustrating it would be to walk into ice cream parlor after ice cream parlor to find that vanilla was the only flavor sold. If you own an ice cream parlor and love vanilla, imagine how wearisome it would be to have to deal with those people “who can’t get with the program” and keep demanding chocolate.
Don’t these situations parallel what many people encounter when they go to work? The expectation to do things “one way” or else? The pressure to conform or else? The frustration? No wonder employee engagement is at an all-time low.
Having standardized business processes and procedures makes good business sense; otherwise, there’s confusion and chaos. But standardized everything, the one flavor approach from processes to thinking to doing leaves no room for joy of variety (the 31 flavors!) in thought, opinion, perspective, and experience that brings zest to life, love, and leadership.
Being ‘right’ is the easy part. Finding the ‘rightness’ within the opposite point of view is the challenge. ~Barry Johnson, author Polarity Management
One corporate boss was extreme in his preference for numbers and results. I struggled with his unyielding orientation.
As you might imagine, that boss and I had our challenges. While our approaches were different, we had the advantage of liking and respecting each other. Our spirited debates were sometimes epic.
Over time we realized our region was most successful when there was a focus on both results and relationships. Our path of learning to accept “multiple flavors” was a bumpy yet rewarding one filled with lessons, loud voices, and laughter as we learned about our blind spots and tested our tolerance for seeing beyond our own preferences.
5 leadership gifts that keep giving and giving
While that boss and I learned many things, five items made a profound difference in how we approached one other, issues, and those around us.
1) To be mindful about using the word should.Thoughts about what should be introduce personal bias, which reduces open-mindedness, which in turn increases right versus wrong arguments, which leads to reduced opportunity and morale.
2) To replace the word or with “and.”Either/or thinking zaps innovation and inclusion; both/and thinking boosts them. Using “and” expands comfort zones, too. That boss and I discovered that we usually preferred one side of “or” to the other. However, when we considered the big picture, it became easy to see that the words existing on either side of the word or were both equally important over time, like results and relationships.
3) To be curious. Taking Walt Whitman’s advice to be curious, not judgmental, was a game changer. We learned more, reduced bias, and had fun seeing things we would have missed before.
4) To pay attention to our hot buttons. When people or events set us off, we reflected instead of reacting, which made a positive difference in us as leaders and people.
5) To express gratitude and appreciation. We discovered that letting go of being the all-knowing tough guy who’s got everything under control is liberating, that recognizing others is great fun, and that focusing on what we had instead of what we didn’t have lightened the mental and emotional load.
Instead of contradicting each other’s view, the task is to supplement each other’s view in order to see the whole picture. Each of them has key pieces to the puzzle. Paradoxically, opposition becomes resource. ~Barry Johnson, author Polarity Management
Five little big things made all the difference in us becoming “31 flavors” leaders and, more importantly, better people—a gift to ourselves and others that keeps giving.
Toby is struggling to understand why his boss is now unhappy with job performance that once made him happy.
Toby’s employer experienced significant change in the last 18 months including new ownership, new management team, and all new systems. The new owners also want a different style of leadership, one that’s inclusive and flexible.
Toby has worked for the company for 15 years and describes himself as a “get it done” guy. To Toby, his yearend performance review was a disaster. His boss told him future promotions were unlikely because he is too competitive, too logical, too critical, and too focused on results and tradition.
His takeaway from his boss’s feedback? To start looking for a job.
Toby reached out to Aaron, a former colleague, and asked for advice. He was surprised by the advice Aaron gave him. Aaron told him to quit looking for a job and get busy living up to the possibility in what his boss had told him. Say what?
Aaron pointed out that Toby’s boss had used the word too in describing Toby’s performance. The boss hadn’t said that being logical or results-oriented, etc. wasn’t wrong, just that Toby was too logical, too results-oriented, etc. The boss hadn’t said those weren’t the right things to be. He said Toby was just toomuch of them.
Toby had over-used his strengths and turned them into weaknesses. To get back on track, all he needed to do was take a more balanced approach to leading himself and his team.
5 things for Toby to do to keep his strength a strength
When we’re good at something, it’s easy to overuse a skill. Almost any skill that’s overused become a weakness. Toby can “dial back” his preferences to be the inclusive and flexible leader his employer needs him to be. Toby can:
Compete externally and collaborate internally.
Toby likes to win. In his zeal to be first or best, he forgets that his colleagues and employees are on the same team and often treats them like adversaries. Toby can channel his competitiveness by learning to work with, not against, his co-workers and team so together they all can compete externally.
Use curiosity to temper his tendency to be overly critical and judgmental.
In these days when it seems more acceptable to loudly proclaim I’m right and you’re wrong, curiosity has fallen into disuse. Sameness is comfortable and quick, which causes leaders to miss the power and magic in differences of thought, opinion, perspective, and experience.
As many managers do, Toby relies heavily on his experience to quickly make decisions and formulate strategies. He can use a travel trip to learn to be a better leader. Experienced travelers know that there are usually many routes leading to a destination. Someone who opts to take a back roads route still reaches their destination.
To be less critical, Toby can seek to understand by asking questions before acting and judging. Curiosity is a handy tool for expanding comfort zones, controlling bias, and building collaboration (something that can help him with his too competitive thing—people’s input can be melded with what he knows to fashion win/win outcomes).
Seek to improve both economics and engagement.
Toby is a numbers guy. Nothing wrong with that. Where Toby goes wrong, though, in pushing for results is in forgetting that it’s people who make the results happen. Without strong connections that make people feel valued and recognized, workplaces have unhappy employees and lackluster performance. However, when bosses choose to build authentic, caring connections and value both money and meaning, both results and relationships, employees are engaged, performance is strong, and everyone wins.
Maintain the best of the old while embracing innovation.
Aware of Toby’s strong preference for what has always been, his boss encouraged him to envision a tree when he’s faced with something new that triggers his skepticism and resistance. A tree has roots, his boss said, to give it stability and help it stand strong. But the tree grows and takes in the sun because of its new branches and leaves. A tree that fails to grow new branches will be stunted and may become root-bound and die. New growth rooted in tradition, the boss said, is what makes all of us grow and be better. Toby can choose to learn how to take in the new while holding on to traditions and values.
Lead with both a logical mind and an emotional heart.
A line that Toby frequently uses with his team and others is “just give me the facts.” Facts, data, and logic are good, however, they’re not always enough to persuade people to act. That takes emotion. Aaron suggested he lead with his heart and manage with his head, so he can better connect with those around him. Toby can learn to make kindness, compassion, and respect part of his routine leadership practices just as he does with logic, competition, and focusing on the bottom line.
The seat of knowledge is in the head, of wisdom, in the heart. ~William Hazlitt, philosopher and essayist
Over-reliance on a strength isn’t uncommon. Who doesn’t want to showcase what they do well? The tricky part of being an effective leader is getting past the blind spot created when a strength has turned into a weakness. Toby is fortunate to have people in his corner who are willing to coach him in finding a “Goldilocks’ just right” balance.
To receive a better performance review next time (and maybe a promotion), Toby doesn’t have to learn a new skill—all he needs to do is refine and recalibrate the skills he already has.