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

Dealing with Diversity, Authentically.

I asked several people what immediately comes to mind when they hear the word diversity used in the context of an organization. As expected, most people do not have a favorable view of the word. The word carries significant baggage with a definite element of mistrust and hidden agendas. To  begin a trust-based conversation on diversity, it would be helpful to ask deeper questions than those typically discussed.

  1. Why is diversity important to our organization? Are we interested in deepening our empathy and understanding towards others who are different, or are we creating the potential to divide groups and create an atmosphere of confrontation?
  2. If we seek to be a diverse organization, have we consciously hired individuals who value others from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different ethnic and cultural heritages?
  3. Do the most senior members of the leadership team demonstrate a real interest in diversity, or has it been delegated to a function that keeps the ‘compliance-police’ satisfied? In other words, do the senior leaders hide behind political-correctness or are they out-in-front, in seeking to realize the benefits of a diverse organization.
  4. If in seeking to become a diverse organization, is their true acknowledgement and acceptance that, everyone has biases and prejudices learned early in life, and people carry around feelings left over from what they learned in their families as children. True diversity will not be achieved if individuals cannot express themselves freely (respectfully) without fearing punishment or ostracism.
  5. Are the key decision makers, as well as any stakeholders, able to articulate comfortably the value of diversity? Do they understand that true diversity is not the same as meeting quotas, and can express views that demonstrate an understanding that diversity is about empathy and tolerance for different perspectives?
  6. How do we ensure that any diversity initiative does not compromise the mission and values of the organization? That is to say, how do we apply equal rigor in improving all areas to the area of diversity, knowing that most organizations take the ‘low-road,’ and end up with mere compliance?
  7. Does your leadership team and staff members reflect diversity in all its forms? If not, how likely is it that your clients, constituents, or students will come from diverse backgrounds? If the organization desires to reach a more diverse audience, the organization must have diverse voices advocating for that organization.
  8. How do we measure diversity in a qualitative way? Has/is diversity impacting decision making, or does the diversity only represent a quantitative value with little to no impact on the organization at large?
  9. How does an organization intentionally bring diverse voices to the table, when the typical voices at the table are those who by way of legacy and success typically occupy those seats? With an increasingly diverse world comes different views of success, which implies that many long held traditional views are no longer the only of most popular view. How does an organization seek out all generations, genders, socio-economic, races — including the burgeoning group of bi-racial children, and other groups to inform the conversations that shape our organizations?
  10. If we are to experience success in becoming a more diverse organization, it will require everyone to adopt a mindset of openness to learning, and a commitment to suspending judgement. Discussing diversity can become quickly charged because of the emotional learning attached to our already held views. To participate in a productive discussion requires humility, deep listening skills, and the ability to communicate with sensitivity and empathy for others deeply held views.

    Two human head silhouettes with cogs and gears

    Two human head silhouettes with cogs and gears

The Balanced and Authentic Life

Scan 4

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”  Oscar Wilde

I was recently asked to present a talk on the subjects of authentic living, and living a balanced life. As I typically do, I’ll look through articles and books I have read previously and also search for current articles on the same topics. I was quite surprised to find how seldom the word authenticity appeared in business and psychological literature. It appears that most of what we are reading is pushing us to do more, rather than be more. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us are struggling to find balance. Or even more unfortunate, many of us are completely out of balance, having become almost entirely focused on doing, rather than being. So how do we regain our focus, and start on the journey to getting back to being authentic people who live balanced lives?

Becoming an authentic person really requires us to adopt a holistic view of ourselves. Authors Bob Rosen and Kathie RossIn have developed The Healthy Leader Model, which is an excellent framework for pursuing authentic living. As you can see from their model, there is so much more to us than we often acknowledge. We are so much kinder to ourselves and others when we look to develop ourselves holistically. As the business investor extraordinaire Warren Buffet says, “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do”.

The Healthy Leader Model

The Healthy Leader Model

I remember the first time I heard someone say, ‘I need to be more productive.‘ The phrase may sound like a call to live responsibly, but subtly I think our performance based culture has robbed us of what it means to be authentically human. I know I’m not the first to make this observation; we are human beings, which means we cannot be defined only by what we do. It is far more important for our own well-being to find out who we are, not just what we do, and live our lives informed by that perspective. Easier said than done you say! The late Warren Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, University of Southern California says in his book, On Becoming A Leader, “If knowing yourself and being yourself were as easy to do as to talk about, there wouldn’t be nearly so many people walking around in borrowed postures, spouting secondhand ideas, trying desperately to fit in rather than to stand out.” My work with my clients is helping them identify what is most important to them, and to become more of who they are, so that they can make the maximum contribution in every area of their life.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. He asks us to think about how many people we know who really enjoy what they do and are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past, and look to the future with confidence. Probably, not very many! In Simon Sinek’s  TED-talk, Why Leaders Eat Last, I believe the following statement captures the heart of the problem for many of us business people; “In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so they can survive.” This truly begs the question, how can we humans be happy if at the end of the day we are hurting others and ourselves? Put another way, why are we not doing more to help ourselves and others? Sound too touchy-feely? It should, and that’s because our bodies and brains have been designed to do things that make us feel good.

Our bodies contain certain chemicals which are there for the sole purpose of our survival and making us feel good. Again I fear, that many of the activities of our lives; work and relationships, are actually depleting and do not enhance our human experience. You probably have heard of  some of these biological chemicals:

  • Endorphins – the chemical released in the body which reduces pain.
  • Dopamine – regulates movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.
  • Serotonin – the chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance, and that a deficit of serotonin leads to depression.
  • Oxytocin – the chemical released in our body when we feel trust, love, safety and empathy in the presence of a person whom your body senses is safe, as well as enabling feelings of  bonding.

The reason for discussing these chemicals is to remind us that we are so much more than what we do, and so much more about who we are and how we are wired biologically and neurologically. I think we have to ask ourselves on a regular basis the important question, are the activities of work, family, and friends allowing us to experience those “happy-chemicals”?

Have you ever thought about the connection between working in a healthy environment and the impact it has on your psychological and physical health? According to a recent study by Stanford Graduate School of Business, workplace stress — such as long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance, contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs! According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the authors of the study, “When people like their lives, and that includes work life, they will do a better job of taking care of themselves. When they don’t like their lives, they don’t.” To paraphrase, when we don’t like our jobs, our lives and our health fall apart!

Recently I had the opportunity to have lunch with a former associate I’ll call Jim, and inquired as to how he felt he was doing in his career. Sadly, I heard what many of my colleagues and friends seem to be experiencing; their bosses are either unable to talk about development and growth opportunities, or worse, their bosses show no interest in their associates careers. Author and consultant Patrick Lencioni calls this “abdication management.” The most troubling part of Jim’s situation is that he is a millennial and has only been in the workplace for a few years, and has already grown cynical towards management. I encouraged Jim to talk with others about his interests and even do a little soul-searching, and begin defining his values, purpose, and goals in life. As I said earlier, if we find ourselves going through the motions (only doing), including “punching-the-clock” at work, we are not  going to be effective in our jobs, and we will never feel those life-giving happy chemicals which are so fundamental to our human experience. We need to be in environments which support and allow us to be fully human.

My own journey to authenticity has not been easy. I can think of many occasions where people have misjudged my motives, questioned my actions, but this will always be the result of living a life where you are not thinking so much about what others think of you, but asking yourself, am I being honest and true with myself? It is in this place where our relationships with others move to a different level, and ultimately we begin to experience the kind of life that is centered on life-giving activities, rather than life-depleting activities.  Just this week over lunch with a friend, we talked at about a tragic event in this person’s life — the anniversary falling on this Mothering Sunday. Our friendship could be seen as quite unlikely, because on paper we couldn’t be more different; different ethnicity, thirty-plus age difference, different nationalities. We have become close friends because of the intentional authenticity on both our parts. As we talked about this event, my friend was moved to tears and neither one of us felt any embarrassment, but rather experienced those feelings of empathy, love and connection. As Brendon Bouchard author of The Motivation Manifesto says so eloquently, “We learn that the more we are true to ourselves, the more we can connect and contribute to the world. We find that the more free and spontaneous and authentic we become, the more our motivation and aliveness returns and the more others are attracted to us and want to be around us. I’m reminded and encouraged to embrace the words of the musical artist Sting, “Be yourself no matter what they say.”

The Power of Intention

IntentionYou may recall this saying from Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” What I have found to be true for many of us, is that we may have goals and aspirations, but we often miss the opportunities to be intentional in many areas of our lives — especially in our professional and interpersonal relationships. When I use the word intentional, think of words like deliberate, calculated, conscious, purposeful, which are all words of action and purpose. I think what Yogi Berra is saying is, living a life without intention, is a life lived without purpose or direction. As an executive and life coach, one of my objectives is to help my clients articulate their goals, priorities, and the vision they have for their organization or their lives. This is where the power of intention becomes palpable and tangible. Until we begin writing down our goals and priorities, we are in ‘wish’ mode, (it’s a start); but once we can see these goals in black and white, or we can talk them through with another person, we have moved to the mindset of intentionality.

Here are some suggestions to get you started on the road to discovering the Power of Intention:

  • Ask yourself with complete honesty if you have or are making a difference in the world! This question need not overwhelm you; you are taking the time to reflect on yourself and how you are caring first for yourself, and secondly, how you are impacting those around you. My personal journey into coaching is a result of such personal reflection. I frequently receive  a calls from colleagues, clients, and friends beginning with these words, ‘You are first person I want to share this with…”When those around you want to share their successes with you, you have become someone they trust and someone they consider a cheerleader and a believer in you! Similarly, if you regularly receive kind words and compliments from those around you, take note of this — it is a reflection of how you make others feel about themselves. Corporations and organizations everywhere could stand to promote behaviors and practices that foster cultures where people are encouraged to make a difference.
  • Write down a list of your priorities and identify if how you are spending your time matches those priorities. Last summer I attempted to ride my son’s single speed bike up a steep hill by Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, CA. It became painfully apparent to me that I wasn’t in any kind of physical condition to achieve this goal. I decided at that time that I needed to do something about that. So upon returning from our vacation, I purchased my own single speed bicycle and have made it an almost daily activity to ride my bike for about ten minutes around my neighborhood. One year later, I was able to navigate to the top of that same steep hill in Newport Beach from Pacific Coast Highway with success. I became aware, that if my health and fitness were incredibly important to me, then I had to become intentional about making exercise a priority.
  • Resolve to begin living life with a new sense of purpose. Another way to say this is, get to know your true self. As Robert S. Kaplan of Harvard Business School says of staying true to oneself as a leader, “ A business career is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve adopted a leadership style that doesn’t suit your skills, values, and personality, you’ll wear down”. This hopefully rings true for all of us professionally and personally. When I work with clients, we engage in a Socratic dialog — a back-and-forth discussion which leads to ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ moments. You can begin this journey yourself by taking personality assessments such as discprofile.com or strengths assessments like strengthfinder.com. You may want to go further to understand and test ihhp.com your emotional intelligence quotient. The power of intention, as it relates to your personal development will serve as jet-fuel in both living a life of purpose and getting to know your true self. Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a short paper (50 pages) titled People Strategies – People at the Strategic Center. As I look back over the topics I covered, I realize that this was more of journal or personal manifesto of how I wanted to lead the teams I managed, build a culture of high performance and teamwork, mentoring and coaching, employee engagement, and developing people and leaders. During this process, it became crystal clear to me what I stood for and believed to be most important to me professionally and personally. Recently I struck up a relationship with an internationally recognized keynote speaker and author, as I was curious about the revolutionary concepts this person presented. A few months into this relationship I shared the aforementioned document with this individual and they wrote the following in response; ”I hope your organization recognizes what they have in you. I have met hundreds of executives in my career and few demonstrate the courage and integrity that comes through so loud and clear in our conversations and you’re writing. Thank you for sharing David!”Reading those words right now serves as reminder to me to continue to live a life of intentional purpose, and being true to oneself!

This installment on the Power of Intention reflects an analysis of any individual who has lived their lives as difference-makers. They have made a difference, perhaps changed the world, because they were people of intention.

Be Nice – It’s Good For Business, And It’s Good For You

“Being nice doesn’t necessarily mean you’re weak. You can be nice and strong at the same time. Thats a character trait we need more…” Shelley Moore Capito

It is truly unfortunate that many of our workplaces are not “nice” places to work. By nice, I simply mean, places where people treat others with the dignity, kindness, and respect deserving of all humans. What is even more unfortunate than the dearth of nice work places is the lacking expectation that our places of work can be “hubs of happiness”! And if you think that being nice is somehow Pollyanna thinking, being nice can change your brain! Did you know that doing nice things for others boosts your serotonin? Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that gives us the feeling of satisfaction and well-being.

I realize that readers from the four generations in the workplace; Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y or Millennials may respond very differently to what I’m about to say. Those of us from Generation X (born between 1965-1980) have been heavily influenced by a wide range of cultural and political shifts as well as technology, which has greatly affected our expectations at work. My generation, and the following Millennial Generation (born between 1981-2000) are particularly concerned with the work environment and work life balance. Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) and Traditionalists (born between 1900-1945), are typically less concerned with the environment due to their concerns with adult children, retirement and other concerns related to aging. That said, many executives who are primarily from Traditionalist and Baby Boomers generations recognize that the workforce is primarily comprised on Gen-X and Gen-Y.

I believe that if you and I want to work in a nice environment, then I must be the first to commit to being nice. We can only do this if and when we take steps towards self-development and personal reflection. As the greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our life. As another philosopher, Santayana, observed, “He who does not remember the past is condemned to repeat it.” I agree with Socrates in theory and in practice. My own personal decision to pursue my present career is a result of many years of reflection on who I am at my very core, and then making a conscious decision to change course, and focus on leadership development and organizational culture. It’s probably good for me to acknowledge that I am on a personal mission to change our expectations of what is possible in the workplace. If you can take Socrates’ advice, you can begin creating a new reality, starting with you, by being nice to others and yourself. As uncommon as it is, one realizes quickly that being “nice” is germane to and essential to human nature. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

There is a very tangible effect on the workplace when being nice (respect) is not a core operating value. A recent article states,“Study after study points to unhappy employees, leading lives of unproductivity, which hurts profits. Gallup recently estimated that symptons of employee unhappiness — high absenteeism, chronic turnover, quality control issues, lost productivity, cost companies an eye-popping $550 billion a year! So does it pay to be nice? Emphatically yes! The firms listed in the 100 Best Places To Work in America, have out-performed their industry peers in annual stock market growth by two to three percentage points. In the movie Horrible Bosses, one of the characters advises the new executive on the block that,“the key to success is taking sh#$ from everyone.”Sadly, I do believe this advice to be the implicit if not explicit belief of many. I however, take great exception to this kind of thinking and sincerely discourage anyone who currently believes this lie. The real key to success is learning how to build harmonious relationships, engaging in acts of kindness which are both centered on others and yourself. This final point is directed toward management, to whom I sincerely hope will allow your intellect, imagination and emotions to be engaged by my following comments. Our places of work were never intended to be run by “the antichrist,” as one boss was affectionately described. If you haven’t noticed, expectations of managers in the 21st century have changed from what you may see in television shows such as Madmen. Most recently Zappos eliminated the management layer all together! Managers are expected to be leaders and leaders genuinely care about their employees, and are concerned with their employees happiness. Research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania by psychologist Martin Seligman, found that there are five key areas that contribute to human happiness – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.  It is commonly thought today that enlightened leaders are participative, encouraging and focused on their employees development. Leadership involves counseling  or “people-development” skills. To see transformation in the managerial role from tyrant to teacher, managers need to be taught how to adopt approaches that will make them effective counselors.

In conclusion, we are all responsible for improving our work environment. I fear many of us have stopped caring, partly because we are continually disappointed by many in leadership positions. I am deeply empathetic to those who feel this way, however, I fully embrace Max De Pree, founder of Herman Millers’ challenge; “ In the end it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining who we are.”