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?
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“You are a total idiot! No one in their right mind thinks that way.”
The conversation coming from the group at the far end of the coffee shop had kept getting louder and louder. Everyone knew they were talking about immigration.
The “idiot” fellow had shared that immigrants deserved compassion. From the spirited debate and name-calling his words produced, it was obvious he was in the minority.
I’d recently been involved in a similar but way less passionate discussion regarding leadership, i.e., that my conversation partner believed the best ones kicked butt and took names. I believe the best leaders practice tough empathy, that they’re both tough and tender.
Why are caring and connection so threatening?
Time for research.
I looked into emotion, fear, love, neuroscience, psychology, leadership, and change management.
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. 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 is unsafe about caring?
Expressing love 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.
Fear and love aren’t forever either/or choices, though. We really need them both, no matter what we’re doing in life, love, and leadership.
Sometimes we need a warm heart; others times a cool head. Sometimes we need the boot in the bottom, other times it’s warm hug. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, choosing not to be ugly towards those who see things differently.
How do we learn to not default to fear but rather to first seek to understand and then do what’s right for the situation?
I found these words from Umair Haque, author, economist, 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 and my colleague and I.
In those situations, no one was getting through to anyone. No heads or hearts were being changed. All we all were doing was making noise. Rattling our sabers of fear, certainly not extending compassion or empathy.
To find the sweet spot of respect without defaulting to either fear or love, it’s necessary to:
- 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 reaction chain of goodness.
Image credit before quote added: Pixabay
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The thought that popped into my mind was unexpected.
All I had to do to resolve my problems with the plant that continued to vex me was to toss it into the compost bin. No longer would I have to deal with the spindly, frustrating thing that wilted in the sun, refused to grow in the shade, and sent out shoots that withered and died.
While that was a fast solution, it didn’t feel right.
What held me back from pitching the plant was the memory of the beautiful flower it bore the day I received it. I imagined a glorious mass of those blossoms spilling over the side of its container. That was a sight that would make me, and others, smile.
Thinking of not giving up on the possibility of having those incredible blossoms prompted me think of David, a long ago boss.
David had enticed me to move across six states to take a new job with a new company, working for him. Hubby and I had packed up all our worldly goods and moved 1,227 miles to a place with “new” everything.
I wasn’t effective right away. Given all the newness, I needed a couple of months to find my footing and flourish in my job, so it was a good thing David didn’t give up on me. As he told me later, “I knew you’d find your way. You just needed a little time.”
David was a rare breed of leader—the nurturing kind.
Not nurturing in the sense of cosseting, indulging, or over-protecting. Rather, David supported and encouraged his team on one hand and pushed us relentlessly toward rigorous goals on the other.
He had that paradoxical both/and leadership thing nailed. He excelled in giving people the space to grow, experiment with new processes, gain new skills, and build capacity. He demanded results but also gain us room to fail and learn.
He inspired us to better ourselves so we could better the company.
The main reason for leading is to help other people win. ~Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner
7 opposites wise and effective leaders manage
They delegate and guide.
They empower employees who have the right skills to do the right work at the right time. They check in periodically to assure all is well, answer questions, or remove barriers.
They hold people accountable and create freedom.
Having the latitiude to create, take risks, and disrupt the status quo is a precious gift. However, this gift comes with strings: responsibility and accountability. These leaders know, and teach others, that they must deal with the consequences, intended and otherwise, and see things through. There’s no walking away when the going gets tough or pointing the finger of blame at someone else.
They dream and do.
They know that work can’t always be like a spreadsheet that contains the perfect formula that always tallies perfectly. Nurturing leaders make room, and time, for dreaming, for feeling, for connecting. They encourage creativity, imagination, fun, laughter, and sometimes a little silliness.
They champion and oppose.
Sometimes the right answer is yes, other times it’s no. Nurturing leaders don’t back away from saying no. They also have the backs of those on their team.
They celebrate success and allow failure.
Giving an employee permission to fail and then learn from failure is the one of greatest gifts a leader can grant. The lessons of success may be superficial, not so with failure. Failure brings alignment to our heads, hearts, and hands. It helps us see the value in leading with our hearts and managing with our heads.
They foster the individual and sustain the collective.
Some activities can be all about “I.” Some things must be about “we.” Nurturing leaders know when to flex between the team and the individual.
They pull back and push forward.
They understand that innovation is good; and so is honoring stability. Nurturing, thoughtful leaders find the sweet spot in allowing just the right level of disruption that keeps things current, fresh, and relevant without creating chaos.
Do those being served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous? ~Robert Greenleaf
Leadership is about managing opposites, things like delivering results and helping people connect. Connecting is about supporting. Supporting is about being brave enough as a leader to flex your nurturing muscle so others can flex theirs and learn to make a difference.
Image source before quote added: Pixabay
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If I look back at my career from the perspective of bosses who delivered results and built relationships, there weren’t a lot of them. One hand is all I need to count the bosses who knew how to lead with their hearts and manage with their heads. Wow.
I owe a lot to those men and women. Those incomparable individuals encouraged me to learn, take risks, be kind, be curious, and to border my comfort zone with elastic, not concrete. They made me a better person.
All of those individuals shared a few talents like being good at planning, organizing, directing, giving orders, assigning work, and watching the numbers. A few were genius-like standouts.
For all my bosses, I respected the fact that they were my boss, in control of my paycheck and continued employment.
I had a few bosses I couldn’t respect as a person because, to me, they lacked character. They were self-centered, cruel, only interested in the numbers. They saw my purpose as making them look good, nothing more.
With them, my head was absolutely in the game, my heart not so much.
At the other end of the continuum was a small handful of bosses I followed with all my heart because they were extraordinary people who inspired and motivated me.
What set them apart?
Getting the heart part of leadership right
They managed with their heads and led with their hearts.
I respected their knowledge and was motivated by their vision.
They showed us how the work we did fit into the big picture. They let us know we mattered. We knew we were more than a cog in the wheel or a means to an end.
I thrived in the space and time they gave us to grow.
They taught me how to equally value results, the bottom line, connection, and relationships. They pushed for quantity but never at the expense of quality. They were role models for caring about tomorrow, the end of the quarter, and ten years from now. They asked us if we needed help and were having fun. They valued traditions and still encouraged us to be innovative and creative.
I soaked up their lessons on how to manage the opposing tensions workplaces are so full of, things like balancing bottom-up and top-down decision-making or knowing when to centralize or decentralize to maintain efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness.
I was engaged because they asked us what we thought, what we wanted, and they listened.
They nurtured, demanded, praised, and corrected. They knew when to be rigid in enforcing the rules and when to flex them.
They understood that “we” is more powerful than “me.”
They found a way to bridge the simplicity and complexity of leveraging diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective.
I learned it was OK to be vulnerable, to care, and to have both confidence and humility.
They showed us that admitting to being wrong and making mistakes came with the job because being popular for the wrong reasons isn’t important but being respected is. They served the greater good, not their ego. They always valued people, principles, and profits equally. They never surrendered mission to margin because ethics, honesty, integrity, and character mattered all the time.
Character is the indelible mark that determines the only true value of all people and all their work. ~Orison Swett Marden, author and founder of SUCCESS magazine
Genuine leaders manage with their head and lead with their heart. They’re pros at the “science” part of the job, knowing the technical, operational, financial, regulatory, and process components of their job stone cold.
But they don’t stop there.
They ace the “art” of leadership—the people and character part. This heart focus is what sets them apart and makes them special.
I try every day to emulate their practices by balancing logic and emotion, meaning and money, results and relationships, taking charge and taking care. I succeed some days, fail on others.
On the days in which I fail, I pick myself up (usually with a special someone’s head and heart-balanced help) and pledge to do better tomorrow.
Image source before quote: Pixabay
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If you knew a replacement part would add an extra 90 cents in costs and yield only ten cents in warranty savings, would you authorize use of the more expensive part?
Probably not. Managers would crunch the numbers and find the spending increase unjustified since only a correlation exists between the increased costs and accident prevention.
If you ran Starbucks, would you have made the decision to close 8,000 stores, put 175,000 employees through racial bias training, and forego an estimated $16.7 million in lost sales?
Both/and or either/or?
The leadership team at GM focused on costs in making their decisions.
Those at Starbucks measured both costs and benefit (which has yet to be determined)—they practiced the business of business as BOTH watching the bottom line AND doing the right thing.
Some are passionate that the sole responsibility of business is making money. Others say business should measure a triple bottom line, focusing on environmental and social dimensions as well as financial ones.
Friedman’s focus on economics is measured by profit and loss, which is fairly clear-cut and unambiguous. Elkington’s push for the triple bottom line is more complicated. As he says, “success or failure on sustainability goals cannot be measured only in terms of profit and loss. It must also be measured in terms of the wellbeing of billions of people and the health of our planet.”
Friedman’s approach can work with mostly an either/or style of thinking; Elkington’s requires the use of both/and paradoxical thinking. Either/or thinking is less complicated and more explicit. Both/and paradoxical thinking is more involved and requires deeper analysis.
Managing a paradox requires managing conflicting yet complementary forces, dynamics like cost and benefit, results and relationship, competition and collaboration, and so on.
Today’s successful business leaders will be those who are most flexible of mind. An ability to embrace new ideas, routinely challenge old ones, and live with paradox will be the effective leader’s premier trait. Further, the challenge is for a lifetime. New truths will not emerge easily. Leaders will have to guide the ship while simultaneously putting everything up for grabs, which is in itself a fundamental paradox. ~Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos
4 ways to be a better thinker
In “Learning to Thrive on Paradox,” Peter Stroh and Wynne Miller outline four ways to manage a paradox, all of which require moving beyond the simplicity of either/or thinking. Here’s how they describe the four methods:
“Managers must continuously brainstorm the question: “How can two incompatible values be true?” For example, increasing quality in the long run requires a short-term investment; therefore, improving quality costs money while it saves money.”
“Managers must strive to create conditions that allow simultaneously for the emergence of contradictions through creative tension. Examples are loosely coupled structures, controlled entrepreneurship, and conservative innovation. The idea is to make personal values explicit by inquiring into both the positive and negative qualities of two seemingly contradictory paradigms and to develop a synergistic solution or a synthesis.”
- Expanding the construct space and time of a paradox
“When profits are down, managers tighten controls, and when sales are up and profits are soaring, managers increase responsiveness to customers. Thus, current market conditions require that managers simultaneously use belt-tightening and creative responses. Similarly, expanding the time frame should help managers optimize the management of paradoxes by concentrating on aligning short term with long term goals.”
- Neither/nor thinking or choosing a third option.
“Paradoxically, this way of thinking replaces “both/and” by focusing on the outcome instead of the choice. Should management base its product development decisions on existing organizational technologies or on customer needs? Sometimes companies understand what will best serve customers before the customers know it themselves. In these cases, technology pushes the company. The paradoxical forces of both “technology push” and “market pull” help drive the company along the road.”
Either/or thinking will always have a place in our management practices. However, it shouldn’t be the default method for critical thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving.
The art of managing and leading organizations today lies in embracing incompatible forces, rather than choosing between them. Organizational leaders must learn to deal with ambiguity and paradoxes through a new mindset; one that combines and optimizes rather than splits apart and differentiates. ~Alan T. Belasen, management professor SUNY
Businesses fail when they over-invest in what is at the expense of what could be. ~Gary Hamel, Professor, consultant, and Director of the Innovation Lab
Ready to expand your styles of thinking repertoire and make better decisions?
Image credit before quote: Pixabay
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Feeling like everyone but you is being promoted? Wondering why your team has lost its spark? Questioning how few people at work are interested in your ideas and opinions? Perhaps it’s time for a leadership practice checkup to assess how good you are at managing opposities.
Professor and author Michael D. Watkins offers seven topics for leaders to take into account as they assess their leadership practices. These methods require maintaining an equilibrium between analytical thinking and conceptual mindsets—a fundamental necessity for leading as well as managing effectively. If your career growth and influence are stalled out, reflect on your answers to these seven questions.
- Are you working as a specialist or a generalist?
Vikram Mansharamani notes that “the future may belong to the generalist.” A fast-moving, quickly changing business environment requires the ability to deal with a broad range of uncertainty. “Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations (which are more prevalent today than ever before).”
- Are you thinking like an analyst or an integrator?
Successful leaders see a wide range of possibility. Strategy advisers Michael Sales and Anika Savage say that these individuals know “how to honor and weave together the thoughts and feelings of others with their own into a line of principled action.”
- Are you functioning as a tactician or as a strategist?
Big picture leaders get out of the day-to-day weeds so they can follow Peter Drucker’s advice for strategic planning: formulate the strategy, implement it, monitor results, and make adjustments.
- Are you engaged as a bricklayer or as an architect?
Leaders assure that “strategy, structure, operating models, and skill bases fit together effectively and efficiently, and harness this understanding to make needed organizational changes,” notes Watkins.
- Are you focused on being a problem-solver or an agenda setter?
Effective leaders know when to step back from being hands-on, aiming instead for shaping the long-term vision. Research from James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner reveals “being for forward-thinking — envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future — is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from nonleaders.”
- Do you see yourself as a warrior or a diplomat?
Responding with tact and grace is the hallmark of a humble, win-win oriented leader who has learned to transcend ego. Individuals who have mastered the art and science of functioning this way are author Jim Collins describes as Level 5 leaders: “a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless.”
- Do you position yourself in a cast member or leading role?
Everyone can be a leader even if they aren’t the in-charge leader. All it takes is a mix of daring, compassion, accountability, and a dollop of guts. Being overly meek and blending into the background doesn’t drive results or build engagement.
Savvy leaders recognize that all the combinations Watkins lists may be applicable in any given set of circumstances, ignoring the “or” and correctly applying what Collins calls the “power of the AND.” These smart leaders embrace possibility with openness, practice inclusion without judgment, turn dreams into reality, and inspire others to do the same.
Image credit (before quote): Pixabay
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