Conflict in the workplace absorbs a lot of time and energy, yet most leaders prove unskilled in this arena. This is not a function of lack of positive intention or effort, rather from using strategies that focus externally instead of internally. Unless leaders shift their subconscious assumptions that drive their conscious behavior, any attempts for change prove difficult to apply to various contexts.
The strategy shared in this article is simple and profound, and also requires self-mastery. It applies to any situation, from a scuffle on an airplane to M&A negotiations to the Middle East “peace” process. Here are two examples with the outline of the strategy following suit.
Situation One: From Naples to SF
On a flight from Naples to San Francisco, a passenger flying with her young child is annoyed by the sleeve of my client’s jacket, which touches and apparently agitates her skin. Over the course of the flight’s first hour, both become increasingly irritated and annoyed with each other’s exchange of unpleasant micro-glances and tit-for-tat behavior.
My client decided to turn things around. Using her mounting anger as a call to attention, she realized that this interaction was headed into a negative spiral that would end badly. Knowing that she wanted to read calmly on the flight instead of feeling irked, she decided to take action. Instead of outsourcing her power to the stewardess, who has hierarchical power on an airplane, she took the lead to create peace. Upon seeing her neighbor’s general harried state about the plane delays and her young daughter’s restlessness, my client concluded that the jacket was not the “real” problem and that something else was going on. She decided to influence (not control) the situation to create peace by stowing her jacket as an act of goodwill, and then asking the passenger if she needed anything or if there was something she could do for her. The tone between them immediately softened and after a few minutes of chatty exchange, the passenger fell asleep, as did her child and my client could get back to her reading, in peace. It’s a small interaction, but we all know how small interactions can escalate into disproportionate arguments or even wars.
Situation Two: A cross-functional team project
On a project team put together to make a company acquisition, exchanges between people in the business development, finance and legal teams become tense. Each team has different priorities and crises, amidst everyone’s agreement to an M&A timeline that was fast-approaching and legally-binding. The VP of Business Development (Mary) was not getting the finally tweaks she needed from the finance and legal teams and her meeting with the company CEO and prospect acquisition executives was imminent.
Mary noticed her frustration and anxiety growing and took those as signals to take action. She identified the outcome she wanted, which was to get the deal signed on time, while maintaining positive relationships with her current and soon-to-be new colleagues. She dropped the judgements she had about herself (“Did I get the timeline wrong?” Should I have been more prepared?”…) and those she had of her colleagues (“they’re always in a crisis mode;” “they don’t care about my deadlines”…), in order to create space for a positive outcome. She knows that judgements against herself or others block her ability to influence in any situation. When her judgements dropped away, she felt compassionate for her colleagues and went to see them to offer help. The way she interacted with them allowed for a positive dialogue, which was even evident on everyone’s shoulders as they relaxed for a few minutes to focus on Mary’s issue at hand. After some brainstorming to prioritize everyone’s different priorities, Mary left her colleagues with a finalized business case and the latest legal contract, ready to close the acquisition. After a successful meeting with the newly acquired company’s executive team, Mary went back to her colleagues with a bottle of champagne for a small celebration as a symbol of their collective success.
These two examples are simple, yet common enough to provide a plethora of opportunities to actively invest in irritation or peace. The strategy used in both examples pivots around the act of dropping judgements. This is a new concept in the fast-moving organizational world, as judgements are often equated to critical thinking or making good judgments. There’s a distinction:
- being judgmental = a way of being with pre-determined thoughts such as “people who are late to meetings are unprofessional” or “I’m not (really) good enough to be a VP in an MNC”
- judging or critical thinking = a way of being with in-the-moment analysis of data, information, experience, situations, etc.
Here’s the strategy:
- Notice your emotions — they’re signals for change, especially those that tend to create negative experiences such as anger, frustration, resentment and the like
- Choose the end result you want
- Drop judgements of yourself and others, as well as for conflict — judging conflict as “bad” or “dangerous” undermines your ability to transform it into a positive outcome; you cannot influence anyone/anything you judge
- Create the space for a positive outcome
- if possible, remove the irritant as an act of goodwill
- move toward the other person(s) — ask them how they’re feeling; what they need; offer help
- notice your feelings and those of other(s) — have they shifted?
- celebrate, if possible
- I have the power to influence (vs control) the situation
- I hold my power vs outsource it to someone in position power (stewardess, CEO, etc.)
- I can choose the way I feel
- I can create and lead in any situation — regardless of others’ behavior
- I can rise above the muck (petty details, what “seems” true on the surface)
- I can create a win-win solution, without sacrificing my peace or anyone else’s
The assumptions that lie under the strategy include:
Consider trying this new approach to realize its powerful effectiveness in transforming any conflict situation into a peaceful, win-win exchange. It will keep you in a leadership position, instead of reverting to reacting to new information or events that occur, expanding your influence and credibility. By mastering this strategy and using it in every situation, you’ll create a life that feels calm, in-control and energy-generating.[Image from Freepik]