I had an interesting lunch experience today. I was sitting in the terminal of an unnamed international airport, and sitting next to me were 3 airline executives having lunch and having a conversation. As I ate, I couldn’t help but listen to their conversation, as they spoke loudly and were sitting about 1 meter from my table.
If you are a leader, there will be times that you will have to deal with and engage in conflict.
These 3 men were engaged. One of the three was obviously the boss. One was a very unhappy employee, and the other was trying to be a supportive employee. Their conversation went on for about 45 minutes and it moved back and forth between some harsh words given by the unhappy employee, and some affirmation and apologies given by the supportive employee. The boss was trying to address each of them, and while I didn’t understand the scope and real topic of the conflict, I was challenged as I watched them engage, as I listened to their words and as I read their body language. It was a textbook learning experience.
Patrick Lencioni writes in his books “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage”, about conflict.
He talks about the “conflict continuum where we find “artificial harmony” on one end, and “mean-spirited attacks” on the other end. He talks about how most conflict falls to one or the other side, but he encourages us to find a balance. In this balance, conflict can be productive, can be healthy, can be helpful and can bring a team together.
The guys I was sitting next to bounced back and forth between “artificial harmony” and “mean-spirited attacks” for the entire 45 minutes, and the boss finally ended the conversation, and the employee that was doing the attacking asked forgiveness and they stood up and left without really solving anything.
I thought back to meetings I have been a part of where conflict wasn’t productive or helpful, but it was actually hurtful to relationships and to our organization.
Here are some things you can do that will help you manage healthy conflict:
#1) No Personal Attacks
The “attacker” today actually said to the “supporter”: “You’re too young to know what you’re saying”. This is demeaning, it has nothing to do with the conflict, and it’s a personal attack. Avoid this! Don’t do this!
#2) Get The Whole Picture
There are always multiple sides to an issue. Learn to listen more than you speak. Get the full story. You don’t have to dominate the conversation to be persuasive. There’s a difference between passionately sharing your perspective and bullying and forcing your opinion. Healthy conflict lets everyone speak and participate.
#3) Don’t Rush To A Conclusion
Take your time. Think about it. Get all the information. Look at different perspectives. Put yourselves in others shoes. Conflicts don’t have to be WON. What’s best for the organization?
#4) Value Relationships
If you cross a line, admit it and ask for forgiveness. Don’t let your ego or pride drive you.
#5) Don’t Avoid Addressing The Conflict
Conflict can’t be ignored. Don’t procrastinate. If you’re the leader, deal with it. Help your team to address it in a healthy way. It will not go away on its own.
I have no ideas what happened to the guys sitting at the table next to me. I do know that based on how they addressed the conflict, there was no way it was going to be solved. I hope they were able to work through it in a productive way.
How do you handle conflict? How do you engage in conflict? What can you do better?