My colleague Gordon White and I have been diving deeper and deeper into the world of leadership, conflict, organizations and teams. There is much overlap and complexity and what can help is to think systemically.
Thinking systemically about conflict, as a leader, is a core skill for those wanting to transform conflict from something toxic and destructive to something growthful and healing.
Thinking systemically means pulling back and not being lost in the weeds of what is being presented to you. As with most things, the learning starts with awareness.
As a leader, one of the most common conflict leverage points is when an employee comes to you with a concern about someone else. Here are some common ways to respond which are not particularly effective. I’ve also included an alternative for each one:
What Not To Do:
1 – Tell the person this is gossip and you don’t gossip
This response virtually guarantees you will NOT get to a productive place. Chances are very good the conflict will go underground, fester and probably flare up somewhere else and with even more ferocity. Presumably, this is not what you want as a leader. Gossip is something we all do (see my thesis “Dirty Little Secrets” for more details). It’s not gossip that is the problem, but how it is managed. As leaders, gossip can inform you of hidden problems or forewarn you of situations that could turn into problems. What you do with the gossip is what matters.
2 – Tell the person you will take care of it
Oftentimes, when people are upset enough to come talk to their manager about someone else, they have been stewing on things for a while. They can come to you with some emotion in their voice and a resignation that they have tried everything and now don’t know what else to do. It is very tempting at this point to be the avenging angel for this person. However, the old adage “there are two sides to every story” is of the utmost importance in conflict. There are in fact multiple perspectives! If you can start to see yourself as a leader-mediator, this is a core capacity to hone: holding multitude of perspectives. Remember that whatever this one person is saying makes perfect, logical sense from their perspective. And the other person will have an equally coherent perspective. Keep your curiosity open and intact, as logical as the one perspective may sound.
3 – Go and talk with the other person immediately
Another temptation is for you to take on the problem as your monkey on your back and go talk with the other person as soon as one party says something to you. The person putting forth the complaint will often say: “Well, I tried everything and it hasn’t worked.” Or “I’m afraid of what could happen, I can’t deal with it.” Or, an old favourite: “That’s why you get paid the big bucks – you deal with it!” To complicate things further, there are important ethical, legislative and Human Resource requirements and expectations that you as a leader take responsibility for conflict in your workplace and deal with it. However, too many times, leaders end up playing amateur police officer, going to the other party with a fist full of accusations. What’s important, whether you do decide to talk with the other party or not, is to ensure the conflict will be dealt with and to be clear on the facts. Have you taken the time to ask the first person exactly what the situation and behaviours and incidents are? It’s too easy to hear an inflammatory word like “disrespect” and not stop to ask what actually was said or done that this person has named disrespectful. Having majoring in English Literature in University, and then doing post-graduate work in Applied Linguistics, I am very aware of the power of words to confound and confuse or clarify and enlighten. Many times, when the step is taken to slow down and clarify what the specific behaviours and incidences were, new clarity about what can be done next arises.
4 – Tell the person to deal with it themselves
Saying you expect the other person to deal with it themselves, can seem like another logical possibility. Why not? Well, this person would not have come to you if they knew how to go deal with it themselves. If you tell them that, they may receive it as a message that they can’t ask you for help. So what does that mean for you? This is where your role as a mediator leader/conflict coach is also important. It might be that they need some help clarifying and finding their motivation. Some well-placed questions to help them think through the possible risks and benefits of having the conversation, both from their and from the other person’s perspective, could be very impactful. They might need help figuring out how to start the conversation or how to make it more meaningful than it’s been to date. Most of us need help with those difficult conversations, not to be told to deal with it ourselves.
5 – Ignore it
Lastly, what about just leaving it? Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill philosophy? As many conflict-competent leaders have learned, often the hard way, leaving conflict alone doesn’t make it go away. Conflict has a way of hiding out, biding its time and then popping up elsewhere. So what are you to do? When someone first comes to you, see your responsibility to help move that conflict to a new, more productive place. Your first obligation, then, is to clarify what exactly happened. What is the situation, beyond the generalizations, the blaming words, the loaded language? When someone says they think they were “bullied” – what did the other person actually do that led to this person concluding that it was bullying? If the person says they were disrespected, once again, what were the situations, the incidences, the facts? You have an obligation and a responsibility as a leader to “investigate” when an employee brings you information and their perspective. What does it mean to investigate, however? Choosing to ask questions that help clarify the facts helps everyone get more clear what they actually have in front of them and it helps you get more clear on what you can do to be of most help.
I hope these 5 common traps help you avoid them and choose another pathway instead! Keep tuned for more surprises from Gordon White and I in the months ahead!
“Listening to both sides of a story will convince you that there is more to a story than both sides.” … Frank Tyger