We’ve all seen those posters that say, “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten.” The more leadership coaching I do with leaders, the more truth I see in this statement. A large part of the work that I centers around conflict situations in the workplace that are not too far from the schoolyard spats of yesteryear. The good news is that with a few simple tools these destructive, hurtful and unproductive relationships can be transformed into the most fruitful alliances.
Sarah is a senior executive at a large Canadian communications company. As one of the top six people in her organization, the competition is fierce and the stakes are high. Although she has always been a top performer, she came to me for some coaching when she realized that the toxic political situation was starting to impact not only her ability to do her job well, but her overall levels of engagement, too.
Sarah had one peer in particular that she consistently found herself in conflict with. Sarah felt that no matter what the issue, David would always take the opposite stance and fight with her to prove his point. It was not only frustrating, but also impacting how she could do her job, as there was no opportunity for collaboration, sharing of information, best practices or resources. The cost of this toxic situation was high.
We got to work right away and prepared her to have one of the toughest conversations of her life. She booked a lunch with David and let him know that she wanted to address some of their outstanding issues at that time. He agreed to meet and it was time to prepare. Here are some of the tools that we worked on before her meeting:
1 – Watch your assumptions. Sarah realized that she had built up a whole list of assumptions about David that were not serving her well. She assumed he was combative, didn’t like her, trying to make her life miserable, not concerned about the company’s performance, and on the list went. We challenged her to examine each of these assumptions and consider alternative truths. No matter what you assume, you will gather evidence to prove yourself right. During her conversation she shared some of her assumptions about David with him and in so doing, opened the door for some very constructive dialogue.
2 – Don’t gossip. In an attempt to deal with the toxicity of the situation, Susan would often vent to her close confidantes. We challenged her to say nothing about David that she wasn’t prepared to say to David.
3 – Set an intention for the conversation. It was important that Susan approached the conversation with David from the right intention in order to shift the dynamics between the two of them. She shared her intention with David when they sat down, which was “to bridge the gap between them for the sake of a more constructive, productive working relationship.”
4 – Prepare yourself. In preparation for what she was going to say, I asked her to answer the following four questions, which I learned from a wise friend of mine who lived for many years on an Ashram in India:
“Is it true?”
“Is it necessary?”
“Is it the right time?”
“Is it kind?”
5 – Construct the conversation. One of my favourite tools in dealing with conflict situations is a book by Susan Scott, called Fierce Conversations. In it, she outlines a model that Susan followed in preparing for her meeting:
6. Learn your lessons. Every person enters our lives for a reason. Conflict situations are the greatest opportunities to learn important lessons and reflect on areas that need work. We had Susan reflect on which of her values she was not honouring in her relationship with David and had her get curious about what his perspective might be. In so doing, she improved not only her self-awareness but also her empathy towards a perceived “enemy.”
7. Look for common ground. At the end of the conversation, it was obvious that both Susan and David were fiercely committed to getting the top results for the organization. Now that they had sat down and reached greater mutual understanding by following some of these tools, they realized that they were not too far apart. They agreed to stop fighting and start looking for opportunities to support each other. They set up regular check-ins to make sure that their teams were collaborating and sharing resources. By getting over their personal issues they were able to focus on their shared commitment to doing great work.
8. Walk the talk. When Susan returned to her desk, she made sure to follow up on issues with her team that David had shared. She told her team that there was a new dynamic in place with David’s team and they were all expected to contribute.
The end result was that Susan and David became great allies and – almost – friends. They supported each other in meetings, jointly chaired certain committees and shared information freely. The even more interesting outcome occurred as they saw several of their direct reports, who had previously been combative, following suit and repairing damaged relationships throughout the ranks.
In any time of conflict there is great opportunity for growth. By approaching a tough conversation with a positive intention, some constructive tools and a willingness to get messy before things improve, it is entirely possible to not only repair a damaged relationship, but to create a deep, lasting alliance.