I often get asked to come and help an organisation or business when they are going through a conflict crisis. 

The wheels are falling off, and they ring me to help them get through the crisis. 

After being briefed by the leader, the first thing I do is meet with all of the parties for a confidential venting session.  This helps them to get clarity about the issues and to get some stuff off their chest. 

One of the questions I always ask in these venting sessions is who is the boss? It sounds like a silly question.  Surely the leader who engaged me is the boss – but the reality is that often a completely different person is deemed to be the boss of the office or workplace. 

Sometimes two people are vying for the position of leader/boss. 

What this tells me is: 

  1. There is not a lot of clarity about vision, roles and responsibilities and expectations; and
  2. Someone has stepped into the void.  If the leader is not leading effectively, someone else will step up and lead.  If two people try to fill this void, then there can be war. 

Every organisation needs to have a boss or leader.  An orchestra needs a conductor; a beehive needs a queen bee; dogs need a pack leader.  

One of the roles of leadership is to make everyone feel safe; safety comes from knowing where you stand, knowing where you are going and knowing who you go to when there is a problem. 

Every organisation needs structure, rules and most importantly, an effective leader. 

 

I have been working out. I had a bit of a break from really working out over the last few months due to a mix of work and family commitments. But this is bad form for me and I realised that I had to get fit again – really fit. 

So I started doing group exercise and really pushing myself. 

Oh, the pain!  I have had sore legs, arms, glutes, quads etc… You know you’re alive after you work out. 

Working out is the process of working a muscle until it “tears” or “gets exhausted” and the muscle then needs to repair and then the muscle gets stronger.  

You can’t truly fit without putting all of your muscles under stress.  No pain, no gain. 

The same is true of your conflict muscles. 

Most of us are so conflict-averse that we avoid conflict like the plague.  So what that means is that we tolerate behaviour that is rude or inappropriate; we say yes when we are thinking no; we are compliant so that we don’t rock the boat.  As a result, we complain about other people, we feel bad about ourselves for not taking action and sometimes our health is negatively affected because we are so stressed about the behaviour of others. 

Conflict is just information that there is a problem. When we put it on the table and talk about it, then we have some chance of resolving the issues and making a change.  

So I think that dealing with conflict when it arises is like working out.  It’s uncomfortable initially but over time the muscle gets used to working in that way and it gets easier and easier. 

Being assertive, looking out for ourselves, speaking up and expressing our concerns or providing feedback is good for your soul and your physical and mental health. 

So don’t be scared of your team “working their conflict muscle” – in fact, I say you should encourage it.  It’s not as scary as you think. 

 

The other day I was having a chat with my Uber driver. He was an electrical engineer who was on a student visa from India so that he could improve his employment position by studying project management.  He had completed his studies and wanted to get some work experience here in Adelaide before he returned to his home town in 2021. This would give him the best opportunity once he returned home to India. 

I asked him whether he wanted to stay in Adelaide?  He said no.  He thought the social life in his village in India was better. There are only a thousand people in his village and they have a better social life.  Fair enough I said. 

I asked him about the differences between Adelaide and the cities and villages in India.  He said that he has a very good life in India except for the corruption. He said that in Australia if you go to the police, you know that they will obey the laws. He said he couldn’t necessarily feel that police in his country would be so reliable. He said corruption is rife in India and this is why it can be unsafe. 

We all yearn for freedom. But the thing that makes Australia such a free country is that we have and obey the rules (most of the time).  If we have a problem, we call the police to step in and enforce the rules. We feel confident that we are safe because the rules are usually followed. 

Workplaces are the same.  Your team feel safe when they know that the rules will be followed; when there are no surprises; when people are required by the leadership to meet certain social and workplace standards. 

Next time someone comes to you to complain about something that is unfair, don’t get grumpy or annoyed. They are coming to you, as the boss, to ensure that the rules will be followed so that they can feel safe. 

Go well. 

An all too common scenario: two good friends go into business together. They create a company, the split the costs, and they excitedly work out what they are going to sell, how they are going to price their product and who is going to take responsibility for the various tasks — all good.

Until something goes wrong.

In the enthusiasm of starting the business, it feels like nothing could ever go wrong. There is no consideration for the exit strategy; there is no dispute resolution process planned.

So they struggle on because there is no process to deal with problems. But resentment builds and builds.  One person feels that the other person has mistreated them; one person thinks that they are contributing more than the other person, that they are being taken advantage of and their friendship wanes, and they start talking about the other person behind their back. They start avoiding the other person.

They are no longer friends. They are business partners; resentful business partners who feel stuck in a business they now regret.

What to do?

Remember what brought you together in the first place. You are friends; you like each other. So treat the other person as though you care about them.

Ask them what they want. Ask them what they need. Listen to them.

Stop telling them off and looking for all the bad things you see them doing. Get curious about what is going on for them.

Think about how you might have contributed to the issues.

And if you struggle with having that conversation get someone independent to help you have that conversation.

Don’t go on and on hating each other and hating your business.

Take action. Do something. Have a difficult conversation.

Love them. Reconnect. Talk.

I have recently been involved in assisting two parties who engaged in a physical fight that occurred on the work site during working hours to come together, work through their difference and find a way to be able to work together again.

This is a remarkable situation.  Not because the parties engaged in a physical fight at work; which I admit is not a good situation at all. No, what is remarkable about this situation is the manner in which it has been managed by senior management.

It is remarkable that these two staff members were not sacked on the spot. That is what I know would usually happen.

But the employer recognised that these two people need a second chance. They recognise that there were other issues at play in this situation that impacted on what happened in that moment.

I am so grateful to management for taking this approach. I am so grateful that these two good people get an opportunity to right the wrongs and move forward.

Imagine what would have happened to these two people and their families and friends if they had been sacked on the spot.  Just imagine:

  1. Their relationship would never have been salvaged. Chances are they would have blamed each other until the end of time for the fact that they got sacked.
  2. They both potentially may have had to deal with long-term mental health issues. I already know that the incident was so traumatic for both of them that they have had their mental health rocked.  
  3. Their families would have to deal with the long-term fall out of the loss of employment; the impact their sacking would have on them getting future employment and the impact of possibly deteriorating mental health.

Instead, they can work through their relationship issues, work through their mental health issues and learn some lessons from what happened and make some changes so that this never happens again.

Photo by Kayla Harris on Unsplash

I constantly hear from leaders and other parents that their staff or teenage children won’t tell them anything. (I mention both leaders and parents of teenagers in the same sentence because the way to manage this issue is the same for both groups.)

You know that there is a problem but when you ask that perennial question “what’s wrong?” the answer is always an emphatic “nothing”.

So you get agitated by this answer. Of course there is something wrong. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

So you press on. “Come on, I know there is something wrong. Tell me, I might be able to help.” Deafening silence.

You start to feel angry. You might have a bit of a passive aggressive moment where you say “OK, well don’t tell me” and you punish them with the silent treatment.  Two can play at this game.

They won’t tell you anything because they don’t think it is safe to tell you. Simple. They may be wrong, but in their mind, after weighing up all the evidence, they have decided not to tell you.

As leaders and parents, we have a responsibility to create a safe environment for our team or our children to tell us information. We are in a much better position to lead if we know what is going on.  And as parents we usually need to know what is going on.

But no-one is going to tell us anything if they think that you are going to be critical, explode, use it against them or suffer.  We must create an environment where people feel comfortable to tell us things; remembering that most people feel really embarrassed when they stuff up or when things go wrong.

So how do you make a safe environment for people to tell you what is going on?  

  1. Listen

You listen, you empathise, you ask questions and you show that you care. You do not need to make any decisions at this time; you are just in the moment. Listening and being with them. They feel valued by your presence in this moment. They feel that they can trust you because the moment is about them; not you.

And remember, we do not make mistakes on purpose. We usually want to please people and do the right thing. But we’re also human, things will happen, we might want to please the wrong person, we may get distracted and make a mistake, we might be in the wrong the job, a whole host of things that happen.  If someone makes a mistakes, they didn’t do it to annoy you. It’s not personal.

2. Manage your emotions

On many occasions the thing that is causing your team member or teenager to be so down and worried is because they have made a mistake or they have seen something that shouldn’t have happened.  

This is information you need to know, so you can help fix the problem. The reason they can’t tell you is because they think you are going to lose control of your emotions in that moment, that you are going to get angry or seek to punish them.

If you feel yourself feeling angry and getting agitated, take some really deep breaths.  Your feelings are just that – feelings. You don’t have to impose them on someone else. They are your response to the information. They are not facts; they are feelings. Don’t let them dominate the moment.

3. Don’t try and fix the problem straight away

Chances are you can’t fix the problem straight away, so don’t try to.  If you do tend to get overwhelmed with emotion, chances are you will make a decision that is based on emotion and not fact.

Thank the person for sharing the information with you.  Tell them that it’s going to be okay; that there will be a way to deal with the issue. Ask them to come up with some ways in which they could deal with the situation; what could we do next. Help them take responsibility for whatever has happened without punishing them. In most situations, you do not have to “fix it” in that moment. So don’t.  

4. Sleep on it

When in doubt, say everything will be clearer tomorrow – because it will be. Let’s discuss this further tomorrow when we’ve had some time to think about it.  After you’ve had a good sleep you will be better able to think about the problem (if there is a problem) instead of reacting to the problem. Tomorrow you are less likely to fly off the handle or yell.

The issue will still need to be addressed. There will be no magic wand but after a good night’s sleep and maybe a long walk, you will both be able to revisit the conversation in a calmer state and then you can deal with it.  

Chances are you won’t feel the urgent need to punish the next day.

Chances are you will have a better understanding of what was going on and why the problem happened in the first place because you were listening and you were being curious.  This will help you and your team member or teenager to avoid this problem happening in the future.

Chances are that if you apply this approach every time there is a problem, your staff or your teenager is likely to tell you next time there is a problem.

There is a terrific game that most of us play that is based on revenge.

One person does us wrong by accidentally setting us up, or showing up our failings in front of our peers or blaming us for them feeling bad. And then we get them back with similar or worse behaviour.

Someone told me about an office they worked in where the staff found the management to be particularly disinterested and unsupportive; so when the photocopier ran out of paper every day by mid afternoon, no-one was prepared to refill it and they would all sit at their desks doing nothing until the end of the day because they couldn’t print off their work schedules etc.

They say revenge is sweet; but it is also really expensive.

Think of the cost to a company whose staff deliberately go slow or work to rule just to get back someone in middle management. What opportunities do companies miss out on when staff won’t tell anyone their great ideas because they don’t feel valued?

How much does it cost in legal fees if a revenge situation gets out of hand and one of the parties goes out on worker’s compensation?

How do you stop revenge? How do you stop human nature?

You deal with inappropriate behaviour the minute you see it. You model best practice and you speak directly to people who are unhappy. You are curious. You are empathetic. You ask what’s happening here; you say “you seem to be behaving in a manner that is not in your or the companies’ best interest. Help me understand what the problem is.”  You don’t jump to assumptions and you give your staff your full attention whilst you work out what is going on. And then you take action. You don’t ignore the problem. You deal with it immediately.

The sweet taste of revenge in business can be very sour. Don’t let it happen to you.

I recently spent a couple of days with a team that has been through a lot.  

They got a new CEO in November 2017.  Then their head office has been moved from Canberra to Melbourne.  There have been a number of redundancies in Canberra as a result and then a handful of new staff employed in recent months.  To top it off they had to pull off a major event last month with some very new staff who are still getting their head around the corporate knowledge.

They have done really well. They are positive and keen and enthusiastic; but there are still wounds to heal, bridges to build and grief to deal with.

But a team can bear so much.

A new CEO brings about change. Change of approach, management style and priorities.

But a change of head office is huge. When things go wrong, and they will, there will many of the old guard fondly remembering the good old days.

We had to, as a team, honour the old days. Acknowledge the achievements of the past; recognise that we are here today because of all of the work that has gone before.

So we did two significant activities:

1) We created a time-line which the team created together; recognising key events and dates. The old guard got to explain what had gone before; to educate the newbies; to be sentimental. Their were long and detailed discussions where the team recognised the enormity of the achievements to date and how important it is to honour their history. They made a decision to get a timeline designed to be used as art for both their offices. Something that united them.

2) The Canberra team (the old guard) and the Melbourne team (the newbies) had separate meeting to work out what they wanted to tell the other group. They then met and shared important information. The Canberra team shared how painful the changes had been; how upset they had been. They wanted the Newbies to know that just because someone had been made redundant didn’t mean that they had done anything wrong and that many of them were still friends. They said they held the bulk of the corporate knowledge and they are keen to share it but the Newbies need to ask for information because they can’t know what they need to know when.  The Newbies said that they wanted to be a team; that they respected the corporate knowledge of the Canberra team; that they want to find ways to keep communication open and to socialise and to develop their relationships.

It was a truly beautiful moment in a two day workshop. There was real connection and healing. They were truly a team in that moment.

Grief is real; it is painful and it needs to be acknowledged and discussed to ensure there is healing.

 

Sometimes I doubt myself.

Sometimes when I am in a group situation we are faced with a difficult problem to solve.  We start discussing it and I start mulling over some possible solutions. I am just thinking about what I would do next in this difficult situation and make a suggestion and then… bang – someone has come up with the solution which is the exact opposite to what I was about to propose and there are nods of agreement around the table and I think, “yeah, they’re right; they know more than me” and I go along with the flow.

I don’t speak up. I quietly accept the status quo and think judgmental thoughts about the person who came up with the response that we are now all following.

Why do I do that? Why don’t I trust what I know more and speak up at the time that people are looking for answers?

I and many others in the group get intimidated by the group bias. We just fall into line.

It is very common for the loudest and quickest voice in the room to dominate the decision making process. They often make a decision on behalf of the group or the team; everyone becomes deflated and we all go along with the flow. It’s often easier not to argue with the dominant person. It becomes the norm.

It doesn’t make them right. It doesn’t mean they have all the answers. It just means that they are often the loudest and they say what they want to say very quickly.

Some of us need time to process the information. We need time to analyse the situation and come up with a solution.

As leaders we need to find ways to give everyone a voice. We need to give the quiet and considerate people in the group an opportunity to respond. We often miss out on so much valuable insight and wisdom when we let first noisy response dominate our thinking.

There are many ways to do this. For example,

  • you can ask your team to silently brainstorm for a few minutes and then discuss their answers in pairs before putting all of the options on the table.
  • Give people prior notice of the issues so that they can come to the meeting prepared.
  • Use software, like Powernoodle, to get people to brainstorm and vote on important decisions without the group bias influencing the decision making process.

As I often say to my clients; do you want a good decision or a fast decision. They’re not usually of the same quality Sometimes slowing everything down will result in a better outcome for everyone.

 

Are you a scary boss?

I once worked in a solicitor’s office as a secretary.  Most of the lawyers were great. We’d chat about life, family and football as we made our morning coffee; they’d go out of their way to talk to the secretaries at Friday night drinks.  Sometimes they might even take some of us out for lunch or throw us a special breakfast.

But there was one lawyer, one of the partners, who locked himself in his room all day every day. He would come out to give his secretary work and then hurry back in to his office. We didn’t know him.

What we did know was that he was intolerant of mistakes, had a very short fuse, that he didn’t seem to have a sense of humour and as a result we were all a bit scared of him.

Sometimes in the lift he would say hello or smile at you if you accidentally established eye contact; but that I don’t recall having many conversations with him.

I was a baby back then, in my early 20s. I was easily intimidated by stern older men with big impressive law degrees.

I truly wanted to do well, but I always made more mistakes when I typed up his documents than anyone else’s because I did every task with sense of dread.

I’m sure he was brilliant. I am sure that he meant no harm and that his work was very important to him. I recognised that he had a lot of responsibility in the firm to ensure that his clients were properly serviced.

But one of the things he seemed to miss was that if he wanted us to do well, to not make mistakes, to bring our best game then he needed to have a relationship with us so that he wasn’t so scary. If he had a better relationship with us then he might have trusted us more and relaxed a little. If we had had a relationship we could have gone to him and asked if he could slow down a bit when he was dictating. But we were too scared to have that conversation.

So it ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. He appeared to doubt our abilities, to care more about his clients than his staff, and he criticised us for making mistakes. We rewarded his lack of trust in us by making lots of mistakes and creating additional work for him.

What’s your relationship with your staff?