The Gift Of Conflict

In preparation for a workshop with a group of executives on “Managing Conflict,” I developed the following “Five Steps To Managing Conflict:”

Step 1.

Understand the nature of conflict and its importance in our lives.

Three Premises About Conflict:

  • Without conflict, you aren’t growing. We don’t grow without the challenges that emerge from conflict.
  • Without conflict, you are stagnant. If everyone were the same, most people would be redundant. Diversity and the resulting conflict is necessary.
  • Without conflict, life isn’t interesting. Have you ever seen a movie or read a novel without conflict?

… But we all need to get better at dealing with it constructively. We need to redefine how we think about it. Conflict is not “good” or “bad.” What makes it either constructive or destructive, is how it is dealt with.

Conflict is a gift – when you face it, work through it, and learn from it with the support from others.

Anger opens the door to conflict, as long as you keep it honest and respectful.

Anger: An honest and respectful dissatisfied  emotional response to a person or situation with the intent to bring either resolution or protection.

Inappropriate expressions of anger

  • Violence: The exertion of power with the intent to injure or abuse.
  • Bullying: A discriminatory act of force or coercion with the intent to be superior, involving a perceived imbalance of power.
  • Rage: Misdirected, dishonest, unbridled anger.

Because of their early exposure to some of these inappropriate uses of conflict, most people either withdraw from it or use it destructively. Either response will not help you use conflict productively.

Step 2.

Clarify Expectations and Accountabilities. Clearly defined expectations and accountabilities early on do a lot to prevent conflict, especially if you agree upon a process for talking about disagreements when you get off track – before you get off track.

Step 3.

Deal With Conflict Immediately – Before It Becomes Infected. I love Nelson Mandela’s definition of resentment: “Taking poison in the hopes that your enemy will die.”  Talk about your disagreements  up front, before they fester into something much worse.

Step 4.

Seek first to resolve the anger in the other, then between you. If you are in a disagreement with a person, clarify their interests and needs before focusing on your own interests and needs. Find common ground on interests, and stay away from positions. Communicate!

Step 5.

Reach for a shared meaning if there is respect and goodwill between you. Assuming there is respect and goodwill in a relationship, here’s my formula for reaching what I call a “shared meaning”:

  1. Person A speaks for self, using “I” statements.  No blame. Personal responsibility for feelings and needs.
  2. Person B repeats back what they heard Person A say.
  3. Person A fills in any missing pieces.
  4. Person B repeats back what they heard Person A say until  Person A says they feel understood.
  5. Person A then expresses a statement of need (expectation) from Person B. (“I need…”).
  6. Person B repeats back what they heard until Person A feels understood
  7. The process is then reversed, with Person B speaking for self, using “I” statements, etc.

In summary, conflict is a gift, but we need to develop the muscles of learning to embrace and resolve it effectively so as not to have it destroy us.

On Staying Connected As A Leader

Recently I was inspired by an executive who was participating in one of my leadership programs. Several years ago, he arrived to lead a division within his organization and found out there were eighty-four offices spread throughout the area within his stewardship. “For the first year,” he said to me, “I made it a goal to visit everyone office. I spent about three quarters of the year travelling that first year, and although I missed my goal by six offices, I have since had the chance to meet with every team in the division.”

“What did you talk about?” I asked.

“No agenda; just a connection. That was all that was important. Everyone wants to be acknowledged, listened to, and connected with. We all need to feel that somehow we belong. I intimidated many of the teams because they had never had their divisional leader show up in their office. This just made me realize that I need to do this more. Most of them loosened up and talked about their families, their goals, and their life’s priorities. I received suggestions about how to make the organization better and had a chance to share my values and vision. It was all about making the connection, showing that I cared, and making some deposits in the trust account. It’s not rocket science. You just have to make creating connections a priority.”

How do you connect with those you serve? How do you build trust? How are you staying connected as a leader?

Protecting Your Employee Talent: New Challenges For Organizations

As the economy turns, how do you protect your employee talent asset? After eighteen months of layoffs, wage freezes and increased workloads, employees are feeling tired and disheartened, ready to jump ship for better opportunities.

According to a recent survey by Right Management Inc, six in ten employees intend to pursue new job opportunities somewhere else in 2010, and another 21 percent say “maybe” and are already networking toward it.

This is a time you have to be conscious of and commit to re-earning trust. Even your engaged workers are aware of opportunities elsewhere, and your best employees are mobile. People are always attracted by career development opportunities, attaining work/life balance, or working for a creative culture. If leadership doesn’t provide these things, then workers will seek them elsewhere.

Although there is a sense of entitlement with these demands, the good news is that this pressure can push our organizations to be better places to work.

How are smart employers going to inspire workers to stay and be engaged? By being in touch with employees. Here are a few ways to establish and rebuild trust.

Pay attention to your top performers – those that you want to keep – and don’t take them for granted:

  • Provide meaningful work. Restate the organization’s vision and how the contribution of these leaders – regardless of their position – is connected to the overall organizational goals.
  • Seek their input on how they feel about their job, management, and the organization itself.
  • Find out what they need to move from being worried to being completely engaged. Listen carefully to their ideas for making this a better place.
  • Support them to determine their future goals and highest aspirations; what matters most to them, and provide action plans to help them reach those goals.
  • Help them take on responsibilities that are aligned with their talents and passion.
    Recognize your key people. Make it a point to let them know how much they are valued and how much value they bring.

Be transparent:

  • Share corporate and financial information at monthly meetings.
  • Have “up close and personal” sessions, giving staff company news and updates, and allow time to field questions on any topic, from the organization’s growth to peoples’ vacation plans.
  • Let people know where you stand and why decisions are being made – enlist their input.
  • Get your key employees involved in critical decisions and discussions wherever possible. Help them feel they are a part of something and are needed to succeed.

Ramp up your commitment to mentoring, and ensure that people are getting the support they need to succeed, grow, and develop pride.

Expose your best employees to senior leadership through opportunities for mentoring.

Consider job rotations to give employees experience in other areas.

Allow high-potential workers to handle special projects or work on high-potential accounts.

Support your best people in taking risks.

Reconsider rewards.

If your company was forced to implement pay cuts or a wage freeze that you can’t afford to reinstate, find other ways to compensate staff: days off, flexible working hours, or even product discounts. Get to know what motivates individuals, and do what you can to show your commitment to them.

Remember that your best people are the ones that can always get a job anywhere, but if they trust you to have their best interests at heart, they will be committed to the organization. More than anything, people want to belong and contribute to something that is lasting. The payoff is that as you see signs of life in the economy, you will see signs of life in your employees. It is inspiring to have people wanting to step up, rather than step out.

Employee Engagement Surveys Are Not The Whole Story

I’m not against employee engagement surveys. I’m just not in favor or our over-reliance on them for an accurate picture of what’s really going in a culture. Reading your employee engagement surveys is like reading a newspaper or watching the news. It’s interesting, but it’s not the whole picture.

It’s a small spectrum of what’s happening. You get a sense of what’s going on, but you always have to go further if you want an accurate picture. There are very reputable organizations, like Hewitt Associates for example, that help provide a rigorous outside perspective of  your culture. Here are some suggestions for getting a more accurate, complete temperature reading of your culture:

  1. Don’t rely on surveys alone to do the job. You also have to get out of your office, wander around, and be in touch with people. Ask people how they’re doing. Ask people what they need. And then listen to what they’re saying. If you use the excuse that “people aren’t honest with you when you do that,” that’s a good indication you haven’t been out of your office enough to build trust. Tom Peters had it right three decades ago when he wrote “In Search of Excellence.” Leaders need to be out of their office about 50% of the time or they just aren’t leading.
  2. Shorten your surveys. People are getting surveyed out. I’ve seen employees answer inaccurately because they are angry about having to do so many surveys! Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne ( is designing employee engagement and 360 Feedback surveys that take three minutes to complete. I believe that you can get pretty much all the information you need in about three minutes. Dr. Welborne might just be on to something.
  3. You don’t have to survey everyone to get an accurate picture. Television ratings are not determined by calling every single person watching TV. Pick a good cross section of people to survey and give people a break. Switch it up so you aren’t addressing the same people every time you hand out a survey.
  4. Never ask a question about something you don’t know how to fix and/or you aren’t prepared to fix. Every survey question implies a promise that  you are going to take action based on the answers you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. I like Mark Murphy’s (Leadership IQ) experiment as an example of how this works. Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Then ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

What’s your experience with employee engagement surveys? I’m open for learning.

Engagement Flows From Personal Values

Over the years, my colleagues and I have spent considerable energy and time helping leaders create an aligned culture by clarifying their organizational values. We lead off-site retreats, creating corporate value statements and developing processes for getting those values into the hearts of their employees. But this is not what inspires commitment and engagement.

It’s personal values that matter most when it comes to employee engagement. People don’t put their hearts into anything until they believe in it. Clarity of personal values is the force that makes the difference in an individual’s level of commitment to an organization. Think about your own experience. When, in your career, were you most engaged? Was it when you were clear about the values of the organization you worked for, or when you were clear about your own personal values?

If you are committed to engage people with their hearts, clarifying organizational values is a waste of time unless you get to what matters to them as a person.

In retreats and workshops, I now focus more on helping leaders clarify their employee’s personal values than on clarifying organizational values. While both are important, you have to get to people’s personal values if you want to get to what engages them. Commitment is a matter of alignment between personal and organizational values. You have to get to both sides of the equation.

Employee Engagement In Economic Uncertainty

The recent economic slowdown has created great uncertainty for businesses and, adding to the pressure, are the debates regarding how much oil and gas companies will be affected and in what way. What we can be certain about is that employers that consciously manage their work culture and employee engagement during times of uncertainty will position themselves to take advantages of opportunities in the face of obstacles.Why is it business critical for organizations to invest in a great work culture, especially now?

Demographics alone point to a continued trend of labor shortages due to an aging workforce, especially in in-demand occupations.

Many oil companies have long service employees whose experience is deep technically and broad in terms of institutional knowledge and intelligence. Many of these long-term employees will be eligible to retire soon, and statistics show us that as a population ages we see increases in short term vs. long term employment. It is more important than ever for oil companies to have a strong workplace culture to both attract, retain and engage employees to transition their knowledge and experience to the next generation of workers.

Additionally, Statistics Canada stated that in 2011, the percentage of working-age Canadians in the labour force is expected to peak. In other words, beginning in 2012, the number of workers leaving the labour force is already exceeding the number of new entrants and labour shortages continues to be an on-going concern. This trend is expected to continue. Employees, especially those in in-demand occupations, will continue to have choice. Employers need to evaluate the long-term risks associated with an aging workforce, recognizing that the skills and experience they need in the future may not be readily available.

In times of slowing economies, the mantra of leading employers becomes how to stabilize and engage employees in a highly proactive, productive way. The practices of attraction, retention, engagement and how employers manage their culture and employees still apply.

In our experience, there are several shifts in emphasis that will ensure success:

Engaged employees see themselves as “owners” not “tenants or renters” of an organization.

Employers who are dedicated to employee engagement provide them with a framework of accountability, so they know not only ‘what’ they are expected to do but ‘how’ (what behaviors will get them there). Employers who foster a culture of personal responsibility where employees feel a part of the whole (“we” vs “they”) during times of stress can leverage collective intelligence to work through real work challenges.

Engage employees to make the best use of their skills and abilities.

Many employers make the mistake of assuming employees will be happy with just having a job vs. utilizing their strengths in the right job. Keeping people busy is not synonymous with real engagement and productivity.

Engage employees to realize future success – use the wisdom of the many over the ideas of a few.

Involve employees in problem solving to address current business challenges. This approach goes hand in hand with the theme of open communication as employers need to be open about current business challenges in order to be successful in this engagement strategy. It ultimately provides employees a sense of control over their own future and the future of the company. The leading edge employer who adopts this approach will not only attract and retain the best employees but will become highly productive and well positioned for future opportunities when others are struggling to survive.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Timely, consistent communication of what employers know and especially what they don’t know, removes the ‘cloak of secrecy’ and creates an environment of trust, so that employees are confident that leaders will provide the truth. In the absence of open transparent information employees will draw their own conclusions, often fearing the worst.

Effective communication in times of uncertainty is not just about making timely announcements or the distribution of information. Genuine two-way communication that leads to productive employee engagement and mutual trust has a grassroots “water cooler” conversational quality to it. It is about listening, not surveying, paying attention, not getting attention. In many ways, employee engagement is less about the information you provide and more about what you draw out of your employees.

Employee engagement is also about managing the work culture and environment.

Uncertainty is stressful. When people are stressed, they can feel threatened, which often results in behaviors that counter a productive workforce.  Therefore, it is important for organizations to be vigilant in reinforcing a mutually respectful workplace during times of uncertainty.
Most companies have spent the last few years trying to find ways to become the “Culture of Choice” and retain and leverage the best in their talent pool. Economic downturns always test employers in this quest.  Now more than ever is the time to implement an employee engagement and productivity strategy.

Irvine & Associates Inc. provides training and consulting solutions to assist employers with employee engagement by creating a vibrant accountable culture resulting in delivery of real time business results.