In today’s world of political and social divisiveness, conflict and contention often seem to be the norm. Almost everyday, we see new reports of deadly violence in places that not long ago were considered peaceful and safe. This has sadly included our schools, churches, and places of business.
Because of this, leadership today requires an extra measure of vigilance in being watchful for the symptoms that may signal possible problems. Much has been written about conflict management in business over the years, frankly acknowledging that there will occasionally be heated disagreements that require intervention by leaders. While the counsel offered in those publications has merit, today’s turbulent environment requires an even more proactive role for those who manage and lead others.
There is no simple cure for conflict and contention, but with a heightened attentiveness and sensitivity, leaders can substantially reduce the likelihood that such problems will spin out of control. The following seven mindsets are important in achieving the vigilance required:
Mindset #1: Awareness. You need to get out of your office to observe and discern what is going on in your business. Too often conflicts fester into full blown angry encounters before leaders are ever aware that they are even brewing. Failing to be aware, the leader misses the early opportunity to turn down the heat and facilitate an amenable solution.
Mindset #2: Go to the pain. Our natural human tendency is to hope that problems will go away without intervention. While that would be nice…it’s often naive.
Going to the pain does not mean charging into a situation with all guns blazing. Rather, it means that you greet apparent conflicts with a desire to understand what is happening. You ask questions. You listen. You reserve judgment until you have heard all sides to the disagreement.
Mindset #3: Engage with all stakeholders who have a “dog in the fight.” Initially, it is often best to meet one-on-one with each party, again asking questions, discerning respective positions and emotions. While still reserving judgment, strive to turn down the heat. You probably shouldn’t take sides, instead try to validate each person’s right to disagree with others.
Recognize your role is not to solve the problem, but instead is to facilitate their own problem-solving. In this regard, it is often a good idea to ask them how they perceive their adversary sees the situation, even asking them to share how that person or persons might argue and support their point of view.
The goal here is to get them to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.”
Mindset #4: Express your faith in them to solve the problem without additional intervention. Encourage the various stakeholders to meet together to resolve their differences…without your continued involvement. If they have reservations about doing this, be sure to field those concerns. While most conflicts can be resolved between the combatants, sometimes this simply isn’t possible.
Mindset #5: Eliminate blaming. Blaming others or even blaming situations or circumstances is seldom the foundation for resolving concerns. Especially on those occasions where you must continue to intervene, establish “no blaming” as a cardinal principle. Even if the problem is a function of someone not doing their assigned job, focus most of your attention on the problem and not the person.
The unkindness of blaming is often one of the root causes of violent reactions on the part of the person who feels deeply hurt by the cuts of being blamed. If the conflict is steeped in blame, intervention by a strong leader is essential.
Mindset #6: Follow up. Don’t assume that the problem is dead and buried. Check back with the stakeholders. If the conflict is still festering, gently but firmly re-intervene.
Mindset #7: Adopt an attitude of leadership poise. You must establish yourself as someone who can be trusted to be both objective and compassionate, someone who keeps his or her head when others are losing theirs. You must be approachable; you must be a peacemaker.
Finally, if you feel things are beyond your capability to resolve, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from counselors or even law enforcement.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.