The good news is there's something practical you can do if you're a frontline leader. Ask for mentoring. See if you can get your boss to agree to speak with you on a scheduled basis to discuss your decision-making. Be humble and make the case that you're looking out for the good of the organization. This is easy if you admire your boss and more difficult if you don't. The very fact that you asked will elevate your boss's awareness and will help you form a better relationship and understand things from their viewpoint. If your boss is growth oriented, they will be happy you asked. This keeps the door open when you start to have problems. These days, transparency is not really a choice; it's a given. You'll either choose transparency up front or be exposed later. When you let your boss know what you're up to, you'll never be accused of hiding information.
For more seasoned leaders, my advice is this: know how to identify red flags that conflict is brewing. Become aware of small complaints, resentments, blame, noncompliance, and other negative vibes that indicate something's wrong. Don't brush off complaints and negativity as someone's character flaw. Instead, interpret these behaviors as a sign that a conversation needs to happen. Learn how to initiate inquisitive conversations to uncover what's really going on. If you see yourself as a "hands off" leader, my suggestion is to become a bit more hands on so that you aren't caught off guard when things blow up. The biggest concern is "I don't want to micro- manage." There's a wide gap between having a light touch, having a hands-on approach, and micromanaging. It's your responsibility to know how things are being managed when you're in charge. This requires you to get honest about the way you handle conflict because, ultimately, you're a role model in the organization. If you admit that you aren't that confident or competent when it comes to conflict, that's perfectly OK. Don't judge yourself. The truth will set you free! You can grab some skills and understanding now and make learning your own choice, or you will be forced to learn later. And when learning is forced, you'll spend hours consuming content that may not help you the way you need to be helped.
We live in a litigious society, and my belief is that we could significantly reduce workplace lawsuits if we knew how to build trust and create a culture of inclusion, curiosity, and camaraderie. Mismanaging conflict creates lack of clarity, and where there's lack of clarity, there are negative experiences, and when people feel discounted, retaliated against, or excluded, there will be division and misunderstandings that waste time and take years to repair, if ever. The conversation avoided today is the lawsuit three years later.
I'm not suggesting that the reason to get better at conflict is to avoid lawsuits or work the system. My message is that if the system needs to be changed, we are the system. The change starts with me. The change starts with you—how you think, how you behave, and how you courageously address and manage conflict. As leaders, we need to stop looking for all of the answers on the outside of ourselves and, instead, become the change we seek to end sexism, prejudice, injustice, and inequality. The part we can most easily control and change is ourselves. It benefits us personally to nurture relationships so that work is both enjoyable and productive. In addition, it makes business sense to be able to identify and manage conflict before it gets out of hand.
Here's the unfortunate reality: once your organization perceives they are at risk due to leadership mismanagement, it'll become mandatory to watch hours of sensitivity training or other video presentations, not necessarily for the purpose of leadership growth, or because it's a good idea, but instead for the purpose of proving that the organization cares and that they take the problems seriously. Even though there's some good training out there, it might not help you build better relationships and give you exercises to become better at self-regulation. The standard trainings might give you insights but not help you to learn why people do what they do, and this type of training most likely won't give you a blueprint for initiating difficult conversations.
This book will.
The Opportunity for All Leaders
We are living in exciting yet volatile times. There are many global issues affecting us all, and let's face it, many of us are uncomfortable engaging in conversations about important issues of gender equality, political division, social justice, racial tensions, and human rights. As I write this, we are in the second wave of experiencing COVID-19, a devastating pandemic affecting the entire globe. We should know by now that what affects one of us affects us all. Instead, we see division, conversations about conspiracy, political agendas, and fear about other people's intentions. What does this have to do with the workplace? These issues are so profound and expansive, and our access to connectivity through the internet is allowing unchecked controversy that's now leaking into every crack and crevice of the workplace. People are divided, and they don't know how to disentangle from the heat of conflict. Leaders have an opportunity to be a force for division or a force for unity, a channel for confusion or a catalyst for clarity.
Social Media: A Snapshot of Conflict to Come
Amid the pandemic, I saw a post from a social media influencer and business entrepreneur, a seven-figure businesswoman with a massive following. The context on her social media thread was clearly about COVID-19, but many, including me, thought the message was unclear. Others thought they knew exactly what she intended.
This entrepreneurial thought leader posted a beautiful picture of herself with a concerned look on her face, and the copy said, "Me hoping more humans wake up soon, otherwise this perma-fear clown town will never end, and our children's future freedoms will never be the same."