Conflict in the workplace cannot be avoided — it’s the leaders job to deal with it!

Let’s face it, if you put two people together in any given situation, the likelihood that conflict may arise is extremely high. What is conflict? Conflict is disagreement, but contrary to popular belief conflict does not necessarily involve fighting. Conflict exists in any situation where facts, desires or fears pull or push participants against each other or in divergent directions.

Conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace. When it occurs, however, there is a tendency for morale to be lowered, an increase in absenteeism and decreased productivity. It has been estimated that managers spend at least 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflicts — causing lowered office performance.

One reason there is so much conflict in the workplace is primarily because most people simply haven’t learned how to resolve conflict before it turns into fighting, or more often than not, try to avoid conflict at all cost. This is why we have so many ‘elephants in the room’ which grow and fester. The problem with this is everyone is expending massive amounts of energy trying to avoid these ‘landmines’ and find themselves feeling they are treading on ‘eggshells’, avoiding bosses and peers, ignoring a colleagues bad behavior or poor performance, and seemingly are unable to have productive and fruitful conversations.

I have seen up-close and personal numerous situations where the absence of conflict resolution has led to disastrous outcomes and many wasted hours of employees time and energy. I was made aware of a manager who on a daily basis would appear to be involved in a negative interaction with either a peer or her manager. On one occasion, she took it upon herself to barge into a closed door meeting with her boss who was having a private (skip level) meeting with her employee. She demanded to know from her boss why he was meeting with her employee — even though there was a company wide initiative encouraging skip level meetings, in order to break down communication bottlenecks within management. Neither the manager’s boss or the employee confronted the situation, but avoided the conflict because of either the shock of what had happened, or just not wanting to appear to be a part of the problem. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a contentious situation?

I’d like to provide three steps to moving you and your workplace, and even your home, to working through conflict. I believe this approach may get you the results that may have eluded you to date:

  • Engage both parties in an empathic way. This is, recognizing that both parties have been affected on an emotional level — they may be angry, bitter, wounded, fearful, even disgusted by the other person. If individuals are unable to express and label their emotions (how they’ve been impacted), they will not be able to move onto working through solutions. There is often a danger in these situations to expect people to “act” like professionals. Unfortunately, this approach never works, because what makes us human is our ability to feel and express a very wide range of emotions. Ultimately, when both parties acknowledge the other persons feelings, they can begin to the next step.
  • Allow both parties to explain their version of the events. Sounds incredibly simple. But it is because of misunderstanding — in the first place, that conflict has arisen. When I conduct a mediation session or coaching an individual through a challenging situation, it is without fail, that the parties have a different understanding of what has transpired. And if the conflict has risen to the level to require mediation, then there is significant misunderstanding on many levels. Often times, it can be very difficult to have individuals clearly articulate the events without creeping back into misunderstanding. The ability to listen deeply to both parties and understand how each individual has contributed to the conflict will enable you to identify potential solutions.
  • Create a psychologically safe environment for the individuals. When conflict arises, it will always have an impact on trust between people. It is staggering to me how many times this critical factor is overlooked. Again, the workplace can often feel cold and inhumane when we fail to recognize how allowing conflict to exist amongst co-workers on a daily basis is damaging, if not traumatic, to an individual’s psyche. In a recent study at Google, they found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful. As leaders and managers, it is our job to protect people from work environments that are dysfunctional. We dare not abdicate our mandate to create environments where people can thrive, lest we expose our associates to emotional trauma, anxiety and stress.

So when the conflict inevitably arises, follow these three steps and you will minimize the negative impact of conflict at work.

Advice to My High School Self

If someone had told me back in high school that one day I would be sharing my life experiences with business professionals, or a group of soon to be graduating high school seniors, I would have responded that that would be highly unlikely. In high school I didn’t think enough about the impact I could have on those around me or the world. This is a letter I am writing to you about the life lessons you will learn in the near future.

1. Understand the importance of knowing yourself and your personal values. Many are not given the opportunity to pursue their passions in life. Either we are told very early in life that we should have certain interests, certain friends, we should attend certain schools or universities, we should have an interest in a particular profession. You will be told, either overtly or implicitly, that your choices aren’t perhaps the best idea — that they are not the typical and known path. I am not eschewing listening to others. It is a wonderful thing to receive guidance and advice from family and friends. No one, however, will know you better than you know yourself! Hold fast to your values and let the knowledge of yourself guide your decisions.

2. Life is unpredictable. What I want to communicate is the fact that you will experience adversity, setbacks and even direct opposition. Do not be afraid of experiencing the realities of life. Wrestling through setbacks and opposition produces individuals who are able to cope with life when it doesn’t go as planned. Don’t complain or wallow in disappointment or self-pity when this happens, know that these seeming setbacks are shaping and building your character.

3. Ask yourself, what are you doing for others, and what impact are you having on those around you? Are you a force for good? Be authentic, caring deeply about people, while creating a climate where people are cared for, understood, supported and challenged. What you do matters and deeply affects others. Be intentional about your actions and words.

As I look back over my life, there are a few things I believe that have made me into the person I am today and define success for me. Knowing myself — separating who I am and who I want to be from what the world thinks I am and wants me to be — allowed me to define success on my own terms. Taking time to cultivate healthy relationships allowed me to have true friends, who supported me on the path toward success. Lastly, asking myself what I can do for others and what impact I had on those around me enabled me to help others reach success. Keep this in mind, “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.”

See you in the future!

Your future self

This post was adapted from David Llewelyn Samuels keynote address at Flintridge Prep Senior Horizons Retreat

Putting People First

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” —Peter Drucker

Coaching with empathy means putting people first.  Leaders who coach have a responsibility to guide and care for those they lead, remembering each individual has unique experiences and value to contribute.

Along the path of business and revenue goals it is easy for leaders to lose sight of their people. Has empathy been thrown out the window of your lowest performing employee’s review? Do you seek to understand the context of your team, leading to authentic understanding of team dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses?

Leaders have the power to influence the mental and physical health of employees as well. This influence greatly impacts an employee’s level of engagement and commitment to a job. Interpersonal relationships with leaders carry weight, affecting the entire being of an individual. Bob Sutton, of Good Boss, Bad Boss states, “Having a good boss decreases your chances of getting a heart attack.”  Leaders illicit performance on both micro and macro levels. When leaders are putting people first, they are creating a workspace where humanity and concern for employees is the actual walk, not just the talk.

When coaching, articulate employee strengths while addressing liabilities. Be sure, however, to not do this in a punitive way. Instead, approach these topics in a manner that is reflective of constructive criticism and empathy. Dr. Helen Weiss gives practical coaching advice, through the acronym E.M.P.A.T.H.Y, on how to do just so:

Eye contact: Usually the first indication we have been noticed by someone (although culturally this may vary). Individuals want to be seen; understood; appreciated. Eye gaze is the first step toward communicating that another individual has been seen.

Muscle/facial expression: Our faces are a roadmap of human emotions. How do our faces express needs/wants/warning.

Posture: Posture signals if we are approachable or not.

Affect: Affect orients ourselves to the emotional experience of a person as it is the expressed emotion of an individual.

Tone-of-voice: Tonality is emotionally activated. A crack in the voice of someone who is about to cry; the edge in an angry voice.

Hearing the whole person: Understanding the context in which others live. Keep curiosity open until we understand.

Your response: People absorb the feelings of others. Our inner experience and feelings mirrors those of others, because that is what is required for authentic, interpersonal interaction.

While employing the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. technique, also practice a deeper level of listening by removing assumptions and listening carefully. Respond thoughtfully by uncovering answers through inquiry, openness and exploration. Ask employees and individuals what else they could do/who else is affected by the situation/and what else occurs to them. Lastly, resist imposing personal solutions. While personal solutions have an appropriate time and place, coaching is about helping to empower individuals to come to a conclusion.

Finally, when coaching employees through empathetic leadership employ the artful critique. Daniel Goleman states, “The artful critique focuses on what a person has done and can do rather than reading a mark of character into a job poorly done.” To do this:

  • Be specific, focusing on what was done well, done poorly, and how it can be changed, while avoiding generalizations.
  • Offer a solution through useful feedback, pointing out a way to fix the problem, and letting employees know you want to see them succeed.
  • Be present as critique and praise is most effective face-to-face and in private.
  • Be sensitive through attuning into the impact of what you are saying and how it will be received.
  • Realize the difference between power over and power with. This is the perspective of having power over them versus having an integrative, collaborative power with each other.

Brene Brown reminds us, “empathy is a choice where we have to dig in ourselves and choose to feel something to connect with the individual.” How can you develop an empathic approach?

A Different Kind of New Year’s Resolution – Discover Yourself in 2017

Over the holidays I took some time to reflect on some of the highlights of 2016. One of those highlights was a conversation with my son, a senior in high school, on the topic of self discovery, identity, and self-actualization. I was a little surprised by how much he had thought about who he’s becoming, and how clear he was about his personal ideology and identity. During our conversation, I realized that he was essentially quoting the famous Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

In my coaching practice, it is very common to discuss the leadership challenges of running an organization, managing teams, and developing individuals. It is equally common for me to ask questions that get at intrinsic motivation, personal values and purpose. When I think about new years resolutions, I believe that we have good intentions, but we may be approaching these things without reflecting on the deeper principles behind them. What do I mean by this? As I talked to various people about their new resolutions, it became clear to me that almost all of them fell into two categories; do less, or do more! For example: drink less, exercise more; spend less money, save more money; less soda, more tea; less ungratefulness, more gratitude; less worrying, more hoping.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing more noble things and less ignoble things, but I question if these resolutions are too superficial? Is there something more primal to get after with our resolutions? I’d like to suggest a different approach, and that approach is to begin the process of self-discovery in 2017. Self discovery means many things. It means finding your purpose in life (we all have a purpose), it means digging into your childhood and revealing the experiences that shaped you…good and bad. It means realizing what your beliefs are and then living by them. Or as the American English Dictionary defines it, “ a becoming aware of one’s true potential, character, motives, etc.”

I’d like to suggest that the journey of self-discovery will be far more rewarding than the short-term resolutions (they do have their place), and ultimately will lead you to a) greater self-actualization — the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities; and b) greater self-awareness — the capacity for introspection and ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. To embark on this journey, you must think holistically about yourself by asking the following:

  1. Who do I see when I look in the mirror? Do you see someone that is comfortable with looking in the mirror and accepting what you see? Warts and all? What’s important here is that we are not in denial about who we are and can show empathy for our own selves as we journey through this life. I’d suggest taking an inventory of your physical, emotional and spiritual health. If we don’t feel good in our bodies (barring a medical condition) then it can be expected that not much else will truly feel good. If we are plagued by anxiety, anger, frustration, and disappointment, then we will not be living to our full potential. From a spiritual perspective, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, “One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.”
  2. Are the relationships with your family and friends life-giving or life-draining? I’m particularly drawn to individuals who aren’t afraid to distance themselves from people who show little desire to better themselves. I am not suggesting or promoting arrogance or prideful behavior, but rather, developing an awareness of healthy and unhealthy relationships. As Warren Bennis states in On Becoming a Leader, “We cannot change the circumstances of our childhoods, much less improve them at this late date, but we can recall them honestly, reflect on them, understand them, and thereby overcome their influence on us.” I can’t emphasize the importance of cultivating a circle of friends who are equally invested in their personal growth and yours. If you want to become all that you want to be in 2017, those closest to you will either support your journey or hinder it!
  3. Does your work have meaning beyond your title and salary? If I am honest about my own career aspirations, I can say that for many years, my motivation was to make more money and reach to a level in an organization which others would envy. But as Dan Pink, author of Drive reminds us, “We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we are clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice — doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.

Having begun the journey of self-discovery many years ago, I fully embraced Socrates famous saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And as Warren Bennis states, “Until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes.” So I encourage you to discover your authentic and true self this year, because the more we know about ourselves and our world, the freer we are to achieve everything we are capable of achieving.

The Importance of Developing Emotional Intelligence

When you walk into a room – can you read it?  How well can you gauge the perceptions, feelings, emotions, needs of those around you? As an individual, are you self and socially aware, sensing need around you, while harnessing an empathetic approach?  These all are key qualities of Emotional Intelligence.  

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was made popular by Daniel Goleman and is rising in both personal and professional capacities.  According to World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, Emotional Intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020.  So what is EQ and why does it matter?       

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand, express, and manage emotions, while developing and maintaining good social relationships, and thinking clearly under pressure.  Developed EQ is important and desirable because it is the foundation of teachable and team-focused attitudes.  Emotionally Intelligent individuals share seven qualities that make them effective leaders and valuable employees:   

Emotionally Intelligent employees are/have:

  1. Better able to handle pressure
  2. Increased level to understand and cooperate with others
  3. Good Listeners
  4. Are Open to Feedback
  5. More Empathetic Toward Others
  6. Set an Excellent Example for Others: Ability to not be flustered
  7. Make More Thoughtful and Thorough Decisions

In a recent workshop, a high-level participant stated she looked for these qualities in new-hires because she can teach them how to use Excel and develop a budget fairly quickly.  She could not, however, spend the time teaching new hires how to be empathetic, teachable, and team-players.  Please do not misunderstand, emotional intelligence is something to be cultivated, but cultivation takes time and self-awareness.  If an employer can hire someone with a developed EQ over an individual without one, they will be saving time and bringing an immediate and strong asset to the team.   

At the core of EQ is self-awareness.  To be emotionally intelligent we need to be able to be critically self-reflective.  In essence, we cannot avoid who we are, but we can develop who we are. Developing who we are begins with self-awareness and is comprised of 3 competencies:

  1. Emotional Self-Awareness: Able to read and understand your own emotions; recognize personal emotions impact on work performance and relationships; able to conceptualize how we impact others.
  2. Accurate Self-Assessment: Knowing strengths and limitations of the self.
  3. Self-confidence: Where you have a positive and strong sense of one’s self-worth

Practically speaking, if you find yourself saying, “this person is clueless”  you have successfully found an individual void of self-awareness.  To avoid being “that guy” ask yourself: “Are there things I don’t like about myself? Things I can change about myself?” In doing so, you have begun the journey of self-awareness.

Cultural Empathy – An expansive and authentic view on diversity

It’s been almost three months since I gave this talk to a group of educators and school board trustees. Since that time, there have been several new stories that have firmly placed in our collective faces the reality that we in the US have a major issue with diversity. My talk does not speak directly to any of the issues, but I believe I get at the heart of the problem, and that is what I call “cultural empathy” — our individual ability and desire to understand the perspective of someone who is different from ourselves.

Recently I was chatting with some parents and friends and I mentioned that I was working with a local school on their diversity initiatives. Both individuals seemed to flinch when I said the word diversity. Now, I wasn’t surprised by their reaction. I took this as the perfect opportunity to engage in a conversation rather than assume that their views and mine were incompatible. After a two hour conversation I sincerely believe that we both understood more about each others experiences and challenges navigating conversations about diversity.

What happened in this situation? I intentionally chose to suspend any judgements I had about this couples views on the topic. I believe that one of the major barriers to achieving authentic diversity in any organization is our human propensity to judge others. Our judgements can also make us draw incorrect conclusions about others.Harvard University social psychology professor, Ellen Langer, has studied the relationship between people’s stereotypes of themselves (not others) and their performance. All of us are mindlessly prone to believe stereotypes of ourselves unless we question them.How much more must we believe stereotypes about others, who we don’t know?

What if we could develop the ability to suspend all judgement and become better listeners, especially when we are discussing topics with folks that may have a different perspective? Unfortunately, the word diversity seems to carry significant baggage for certain groups. For others, it is their calling card to address perceived and real inequality or exclusion.This is the first step we have to consciously take — suspend judgement — if we want to engage in an authentic conversation about diversity.

The second step we have to take if we want to engage in a discussion about diversity, is to clearly articulate why we believe diversity is important to your organization. Studies like the recent study by McKinsey & Company, and others by the Gallup Organization, that consistently find that diverse teams out-perform non-diverse teams, from a gender and ethnic perspective.

The July/August 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review was devoted to the topic of diversity. Their research finds compelling evidence for organizations to take a measured and thoughtful approach to their diversity programs. Intel CEO shares his motivation for building a diverse organization — “I have two daughters. They are both technically bright. I want them to come into a workplace that is better than the way the workplace is today.” His view is the opposite of some organizations where the senior leaders have explicitly delegated this topic to the Diversity and Inclusion department. These leaders do not or cannot articulate a vision of diversity themselves, much less the value diversity brings to their organization. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is, are we genuinely interested in deepening our empathy and understanding towards others who are different from us, or do our diversity efforts have the potential to divide groups and create an atmosphere of exclusion? I think we would all agree that on an individual basis, extending empathy and understanding towards everyone, listening respectfully to points of views that are different from our own, will strengthen and bolster any community. Developing a community that expresses cultural empathy and understanding for different perspectives is a value an organization must hold highly, to achieve authentic diversity.

Another obstacle to achieving authentic diversity in our organizations is our own individual unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are created and reinforced by our environments and experiences. Our mind is constantly processing information, oftentimes without our conscious awareness. When we are moving fast or lack all the data, our unconscious biases fill in the gaps. The reasons we struggle and flounder with topics like diversity is because we fail to make it personal. We reduce these things to “initiatives”. Now, I believe we need to start somewhere, so I understand the need for such and initiatives and affinity groups — but if these initiatives or groups do not challenge us to look at the world through the eyes of others,  then I’d emphatically state that these groups do not promote authentic diversity! We all need to challenge our assumptions about what diversity looks like.If you have a desire for your organization to embrace authentic diversity, you will need to consider that it will take time.

I suggested the following three steps to for anyone who is serious about exploring the idea of cultural empathy, vis-a-vis, authentic diversity:

  1. Write down an experience in your life that has shaped your views on diversity. It isn’t until we reflect thoughtfully on how our experiences have shaped our views that we can begin to articulate our own views authentically. I recently took Flintridge Prep’s administrative council through this exercise. Everyone shared their stories with the group. What became apparent was that every individual had in some way experienced being misunderstood and had had the feeling of being on the outside. After the meeting, several of the members expressed to me that they had worked with some of the individuals for over 15 years, and felt that they really got know some of their peers for the first time.
  2. Secondly, challenge yourself to identify your own unconscious bias and how and where it shows up in your own life.The simple act of writing a few words, sentences, or paragraphs everyday can have a profound and instant effect on your life for the better. If you don’t already journal, I would recommend this practice to enable you understand yourself better.
  3. Third, begin looking for opportunities to build an authentic relationship with someone who doesn’t look like you. I empathize with you if this idea doesn’t sound particularly appealing. However, it is only when we intentionally seek out others who are different to ourselves that we begin to learn about other peoples stories, experiences and perspectives. Said differently, it is highly unlikely that any one of us will develop any sort of empathy for others who are different, if we remain in essentially homogenous vs heterogeneous circles.

I’m reminded of the words of the 1st century Roman philosopher, Cicero’s words,

“ All I can do is to urge you to put friendship ahead of all other human concerns, for there is nothing so suited to man’s nature, nothing that can mean so much to him, whether in good times or in bad… I am inclined to think that with the exception of wisdom, the gods have given nothing finer to men than this.”

Authentic diversity is a beautiful thing,because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We all crave to be understood for who we are and our unique stories; none of us want to be labeled — we are so much more complex and nuanced than labels allow. Real, authentic diversity happens one relationship at a time – I hope that all of us will lean into and embrace the beauty and benefits of cultural empathy and authentic diversity at work and beyond.