Posted on Leadership at Work: June 8, 2009 12:22 PM
Last week in Cairo President Barack Obama stated, "So long as our relationship is defined by differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."
While the speech went into some detail about how the President seeks rapprochement with the Muslim world, this single paragraph laid bare a root cause of the conflict. Neither side trusts the other; those who seek to exploit the distrust emerge as the beneficiaries rather than the populace at large. Not only does that statement provide good insight into U.S.-Islamic world relations, it gives any student of leadership an insight into conflict in the workplace.
Too often opponents take more comfort in the disagreement than in solution because they derive power and influence from discord. Such conflict not only threatens productivity, it creates a terrible work environment that contributes to poor morale, absenteeism and even lower rates of employee retention. Managers cannot allow disagreements to erode into discord. Here are some suggestions for seeking common purpose.
Diagnose the root cause. Find out why co-workers are in conflict with one another. Often the roots of the discord lie in things that occurred long ago. One person may feel slighted because his ideas were rejected by his boss whereas those of a coworker were accepted. Another might feel that he is not receiving his fair share of time and resources to complete a project. Still another may feel overlooked when she did not receive an expected promotion. Such issues when not addressed promptly can fester over time and can breed hostility.
Stay high and dry. If a boss is responsible for problems, he should acknowledge them and apologize. Look for ways to improve the situation through further discussion and dialogue. However, if the roots of discord occurred before you were manager, acknowledge the hurt feelings but do not take sides. In other words, don't swim in the water under the bridge; walk over the bridge. Failure to do so simply allows individuals to wallow in their misery.
Defuse the conflict. Make it clear that cooperation is mandatory. Managers who allow employees to act on grudges are giving the aggrieved more reasons to be disagreeable. Establish a no-tolerance policy for disagreements over people and personalities. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, to that standard.
Find common ground. People in conflict have no difficulty identifying differences; those differences are what fuel their disagreements. The challenge for a manager is to get the conflicting parties to put aside their differences. So, identify common values. For example, both parties will want the company to succeed; that is a common purpose. Make it clear that their discord is destroying that value proposition and insist that they stop it.
Follow through. Just because you have gotten people to stop shouting at each other does not mean they are working together. Continue to monitor the situation. Watch for warning signs among former combatants such as angry expressions, avoided eye contact, and the silent treatment. Affirm individuals' contributions but at the same time, make it clear that cooperation is required.Those who fail to treat co-workers with respect will be removed from the team.
Let me make it clear that discord is different from dissent. Discord is disruptive because it harms individuals and productivity. Dissent can be positive when it causes people to re-examine an idea or an issue; it promotes dialogue. Sometimes dissent will change minds; other times it can re-affirm an intended course of action.
Defining oneself by differences is a zero-sum game; it breeds few winners and mostly losers. Defining an organization by its common purpose leads to trust and ultimately a foundation for achieving sustainable results.