My colleagues are not a shy and retiring group. If they need help, I hear about it. If I make a decision they don’t agree with, I hear about it. I hear about it in-person, on the phone, over email, over instant message and over text message. Sometimes I hear feedback from these venues simultaneously! What I seldom get is silence. But, after reading Jean Winegardner’s post about making after-school activities inclusive, I’m going to listen a little more for the silence.
How easy it is to get caught up in what we see as the challenges and pressures of our own lives and lose a little perspective. Or worse still create a false perspective. But then every once in a while, amidst our personal whirlwind something happens to make us stop and reflect on where and who we are. And just maybe to prompt us to re-calibrate ourselves in some way -- to regain lost perspective or recognise a change that’s needed. That catalyst might be something up-close and personal like a relationship issue, something a little further away like a colleague who falls ill, or even something seemingly un-related to us a world away.
Last Friday that catalyst for me was the massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami in Japan. For me -- no doubt like millions of people around the world -- it brought out a range of emotions: shock at its scale; horror at its brutality; sadness for the lives lost; gratitude for my situation and family; amazement at the Japanese people’s resolve and calmness; and of course empathy.
Indeed it’s very often during times of adversity that our identification with and understanding of anothers’ situation grows and we intuitively focus on what brings us together, rather than what separates us. We feel a certain ‘connectedness’. Not only with Japanese communities around the world, but every community -- from the local to the international - to instinctively understand that at this moment we can and must strive to achieve more together.
I’ve been watching a TV series called You Can’t Take it With You in which business guru Sir Gerry Robinson helps bring families together to write their wills. Given the differing values, priorities, perspectives and emotional sensitivity of those involved, it’s unsurprising that -- if not visible, then just below the surface -- there’s always a degree of tension or even conflict amongst family members.
What many of the individuals do -- like so many of us in the workplace -- is try to avoid that tension or conflict altogether, or simply ignore it. If we can’t say something nice, our mothers taught us, don’t say anything at all. Of course, Sir Gerry’s task is to help the families tackle these difficult challenges and decisions. Inevitably, tension or conflict becomes unavoidable, and with it the potential for it to get disagreeable or even destructive.
So what is surprising is just how often he manages to pull off a minor miracle and turn conflict into collaboration. From favouritism, to boys versus girls, to judgments about people’s lifestyles to plain old-fashioned prejudice, Sir Gerry has helped negotiate a way through them all.
The typical strategy says Sir Gerry is to avoid conflict and close down dialogue and discussion (“I’m not prepared to talk about it”). Whilst this approach appears to work for many, stubbornness and inflexibility set in. And when tensions bubble to the surface, people already convinced of the rightness of their view become increasingly polarised around conflicting positions and values. The result he says is ‘destructive conflict’, which is personal, vindictive, and a source of pain.
Other strategies include reducing tensions and stresses by one party simply accommodating the wishes of the other -- a one-sided ‘win-lose’ situation. But this simply glosses over the issue -- something Sir Gerry won’t accept. Another widely accepted means of resolving conflict is to accept that there needs to be give and take on all sides, involving a series of ‘concessions’. A ‘win-some, lose-some’ strategy.
But Sir Gerry believes that when managed properly, conflict can have many positive aspects and even bring about innovative solutions. His ‘constructive conflict’ approach works because those involved have a positive learning experience from the event and see that theirs is not a case of ‘right against wrong’ so much as ‘right against right’. By creating the conditions for each party to both speak and listen he ensures they understand both the what and the why of their differences. By opening up dialogue and sharing and assessing the reasons for the conflict, issues can be clarified which results in more possible alternatives and opportunities to solving the problem. A clear ‘win-win’ strategy.
So how do we manage conflict so that it’s a positive not a negative force? I think it starts with the simple notion that we can disagree without being disagreeable. And that we have to make it “safe” to be different, to take opposite points of view and to disagree. When people know they can stand up and say what they believe without being castigated, guess what? They will!
“Colin is a 20-year-old computer science student living in London with two other students in the year 2020. He enjoys backpacking, sports, music, and gaming. He has a primary digital device (PDD) that keeps him connected 24 hours a day — at home, in transit, at school. He uses it to download and record music, video, and other content, and to keep in touch with his family, friends, and an ever-widening circle of acquaintances. His apartment is equipped with the latest wireless home technology, giving him superfast download speeds of up to 100 Mbps.” Read More »
Last week, I posted a blog called Innovation is key to becoming a ‘people-centric’ business which looked at Inclusion and Diversity from a customer perspective. The article argued that in order to succeed, businesses needed to become “customer centric” – looking at the world from their customers’ perspectives and identifying their customers’ problems and tensions. I’m pleased to see that the post has been very popular and has so far been viewed over 2,000 times! An interesting article in yesterday’s London Evening Standard looked at this idea of customer centricity from a different perspective. Read More »