One of the most difficult charges in leadership is getting others to work together in harmony. I am a betting man and willing to wage that interpersonal conflict between employees is one of the major contributors to many sleepless nights—for both the employees and the leader.
Don’t get me wrong, conflict and disagreement, if tackled appropriately, is healthy for organizations. What one doesn’t want is the well-known dysfunction called groupthink, where no one is willing to tackle difficult issues because keeping harmony has become too ingrained in the group. When organizations and teams avoid conflict to maintain harmony, they become stagnant and find it difficult to prevail.
Recently I was reflecting on a situation where two employees held very differing perspectives on a pretty sticky situation. As you know, this is pretty commonplace in organizations. They were both definitely not falling prey to the so-called groupthink, shouting out their own perspectives left and right. The temperature was rising while neither employee would budge and walk in the other’s shoes. To put it bluntly: Both employees were handling the situation and confronting one another inappropriately, adding additional conflict, thus, causing digression.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was gathering my belongings to call it quits for the weekend. Before getting out the door I learned of the disagreement between the two employees and how it was getting pretty heated. I thought to myself, “Should I intervene or trust that they will work the situation out themselves?” I knew that both employees were known for their strong, dominant personalities and this attribute may steer them away from consensus.
So I reflected on the situation “from the balcony,” so to speak. This figure of speech stems from what Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky (2002) described as “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” The authors state:
Few practical ideas are more obvious or more critical than the need to get perspective in the midst of action. Any military officer, for example, knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, even in the “fog of war.” Great athletes can at once play the game and observe it as a whole—as Walt Whitman described it, “being both in and out of the game.” Jesuits call it, “contemplation in action.” Buddhists call it “karma yoga,” or mindfulness. We call this skill “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back in the midst of action and asking, “What’s really going on here?” (52)
As I was taking an aerial perspective viewing the unfolding dynamics, a few thoughts came to mind:
- For one, if they are unable to work the situation out today, then it will fester through the weekend—possibly placing stress on each of their families. This would definitely make for the Monday Morning Blues.
- Secondly, both employees serve on the same team where all members of that team share a common workspace. This not only compromises the effectiveness of the team, but it also makes the work environment uncomfortable for the disputants colleagues. No one enjoys a hostile work place.
- Lastly, everything within an organization is interconnected (e.g., individuals, teams, etc.) and tensions between two employees has the potential to negatively harm the organization as a whole. Every single action, inaction, or interaction has far-reaching consequences, as the flap of a butterfly’s wing ultimately could cause a tornado in a certain location.
I had no choice but to intervene. SO I DID.
On Sunday afternoon I received an e-mail from one of the employees apologizing for his behavior and contained in the e-mail was a note that stated:
Your diplomacy and arbitration skills were eye opening to me. I would strive to be more like you. I don’t know if its a learned thing or innate, but you are very good at what you did on Friday.
This employee’s comment compelled me to write this article. The question I sought to answer is: What is it that I did that worked? As I reflected on the situation, eight essential actions stick out in my mind. They are:
- Remain calm – Tensions, disagreements, and arguments are all uncomfortable. No one enjoys them and they give an uneasy feeling in one’s stomach. The leader must always demonstrate a calm demeanor during these tough times. This, in turn, calms down both parties. If the leader does not hold his or her composure, the conversation will spiral downward—and quickly. A calm appearance can be observed through both verbal and non-verbal cues. In other words, speak and act calmly.
- Use good listening skills (mirroring, paraphrasing, acknowledging, etc.) – This is an obvious one. The leader’s responsibility in conflict resolution is to do a whole lot of listening—not just talking. Oftentimes employees end up in heated debates because of the tendency to try to talk over one another, in the absence of listening skills. When working as a mediator in the midst of conflict, one must facilitate a structured conversation where each party authentically listens to one another.
- Make sure that neither party dominates the conversation – It is essential to establish this practice at the beginning of the conversation. Ensuring that neither party dominates the conversation can take shape through explicit ground rules. The leader must clearly state his or her expectations surrounding the structure of the conversation, allowing for only one person to talk at a time.
- Remain neutral – The leader should always act in an impartial manner, even if one of the argument seems superior over the other. When the leader takes sides it create an them versus me atmosphere, leading to a win-lose situation.
- Help disputants avoid entrenched positions by exploring underlying interests and needs – In this particular instance the argument was deeply ingrained in personal beliefs. Each individual’s line of reasoning made sense when hearing their perspective. Although their beliefs differed, leading to conflict, there were definitely similarities in their interests. The leader has to find those underlying interests and needs.
- Point out the effect of the conflict on performance, others, and/or the organization – In the book, Crucial Confrontations, the authors speak of a concept making the invisible visible. Oftentimes conflict blurs one’s ability to see really think things through. In the example above, the two employees were probably not thinking about their behavior and how it could ultimately have an impression on the team and the organization. They were wrapped up in their own world—so to speak. When conflict is stirring the leader has to continuously seek to get each employee taking a perspective “from the balcony.”
- Help generate multiple alternatives – After all parties have had an opportunity to share their argument, the leader might have additional insights that can add to the conversation. There might be an option that leads to consensus and a win-win outcome. Like I said earlier, each argument stemmed from a set of beliefs, and this can lead to tunnel vision. They are so focused on their own position that they are not thinking divergently.
- Take time to summarize – Summarizing is a great skill that should be used in the conflict resolution arsenal. After each position is stated the leader should summarize what was heard. This might be a time to clarify or emphasize important points. At times it is also appropriate to have each party sum up what the other said. Finally, at the conclusion of the discussion the leader should summarize all agreements, asking everyone if they are willing to hold up their end of the bargain.
I hope this helps! Putting my thoughts to paper sure helped me out.
Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change