To be a leader today in almost any organization means you are daily, if not hourly, bombarded with problems and challenges that don’t have clear-cut “right” answers. Or, even more confounding, there are many “right” answers, depending on your perspective. Such challenges include meeting contradictory needs (for example, tending to your “stars” while building the team as a whole), delivering quarterly results while investing for the future, maintaining consistent standards and policies while accommodating unique customer requirements, or staying focused on results while adhering to your company’s purpose and values. The list goes on and on. In the face of these complex contradictions, many leaders choose to deny them and just “get the job done.” But like Marley’s ghost, unresolved and unacknowledged issues keep reappearing. And as leaders ignore or deny them, conflicts begin to emerge, positions solidify, and resolution becomes increasingly difficult.
Just to be clear: I am not talking about conflict as it refers to disagreement over how to make a decision in which the facts point to a clear outcome, or personal disputes in which one or the other party feels slighted or bruised. Rather, I am referring to those disagreements which emerge in teams or organizations due to how a potential course of action is defined, often in “either/or” terms. By not recognizing the difference between a problem and a paradox, leaders unintentionally generate conflict. This results in both parties adopting a win/lose stance because the problem has not been framed effectively. By not acknowledging the paradox and encouraging “both/and,” not “either/or,” behavior from the outset, paradoxes such as, “How do we maintain global consistency while encouraging local customization?” can easily devolve into conflict, tension, and disputes. And when conflict rages, leaders often attempt to “solve” it by adopting lose/lose compromise solutions in which no one is happy.
In my 30+ years of work as a leadership executive and coach for Fortune 500 companies, as well as through interviews with 100 CEOs and top leaders, I’ve identified five effective ways to successfully manage conflict when faced with paradox:
- Acknowledge the Paradox: In my work, I’ve often discovered teams feel a palpable sense of relief in just recognizing that they are actually all on the same side—it’s the paradox they must figure out how to manage together.
- Acknowledge Each Other’s Views: When people feel their point of view is being ignored, they become entrenched in their positions. As basic as this problem may seem, people get surprisingly angry when they believe nobody cares enough to hear them out. When leaders spend time listening, they show that they care; this can quickly defuse a situation and allow both sides to be more thoughtful and adaptive.
- Invoke the Customer: Given that everyone’s purpose is to create value for customers, invoking customers and their unmet needs can put everyone’s gripes and grudges in a new light. While this can be done in a variety of ways, the most effective is often meeting with customers—getting customers and people from non-marketing/sales functions in the same room. Many company insiders have probably never met a customer face-to-face. Those feuding can then better see their joint goals, and set partisan issues aside.
- Start at the Point of Agreement: Instead of having the same old argument 100 different ways, seek confirmation where you can find it, in a team purpose or a particular organizational goal. People need to back up and look for more basic areas of agreement—typically, related to a larger purpose. If the team can agree on “where we’re headed,” it can have a more effective discussion on “how we’ll get there.”
- Remember Your Purpose: Teams and individuals in conflict often disagree about tactics and options because they’ve lost focus on what’s really important—the company or team’s overall mission or purpose. Keeping purpose in front helps people “pull up” from the issues and align on what really matters.
By understanding different viewpoints and then aligning through customer insights and the organization’s higher purpose, people can successfully resolve conflict and come together around meaningful and impactful answers.
David Dotlich is the chairman and CEO of Pivot, a strategic leadership boutique that develops corporate strategy and executive development programs for Fortune 500 companies such as Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, GSK, Nike, Microsoft, KKR, Aetna, Best Buy, DPDHL, AbbVie, Ericsson, and many others. Named one of the Top 50 Coaches in the United States, Dr. Dotlich is former executive vice president of Honeywell International, founder and former president of CDR International and Delta Executive Learning Center, and former president of Mercer Delta Consulting. Visit David at Pivot Leadership and follow him @pivotleadership for additional leadership advice and ideas.
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