By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

It is hard to imagine that a conversation can build more effective organisations. However, what we observe time and time again is that individuals and organisations that take the time and develop the capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations actually outperform those competitors who place less of a strategic emphasis on this skill.

To be honest, and also slightly more transparent, I am not talking about an average ‘chatting around the water cooler’ kind of conversation. What I am talking about is when and how we have strategic and reflective conversations. In some management literature, these are referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘robust’ conversations, but I think these terms underestimate the potential benefit these conversations hold.

The ability to have strategic and reflective conversations is one of the most effective ways to engage stakeholders, give role-based feedback and align team members to performance and behavioural expectations. In short, it is probably the most effective way to build a culture of shared accountability within a team or organisation.

However, what we commonly observe is team members, especially managers, running away from these conversations as fast as they possibly can. There are numerous reasons for this behaviour, but most of them fall under one or more of three categories.

Firstly, most people have some degree of conflict aversion. Let’s face it, any normal and sane person, when faced with a choice, is going to choose the option with the least potential for conflict. At the risk of being too psychological, this aversion sometimes originates back in our formative years. It occurs when individuals grow up in a highly conflictual environment which over time reduces their tolerance for further conflict. Paradoxically, it can also occur in individuals who grow up in relatively harmonious environments. This is because, despite the idyllic-ness of a happy and harmonious household, it does not build skills and capacity in having these more challenging conversations.

Secondly, many managers feel under-skilled in the area of conflict management, and it is often for the reasons in the previous paragraph that this area of their development has been avoided or neglected. However, dealing with conflict and having a strategic and reflective conversation are simply skills. And, like any skill, the more you do it, the more you practice it, and the more coaching and support you get on it, the better and more comfortable with it you become.

Thirdly, and finally, some managers feel they do not have the time to have these conversations. I view most things in business from a cost versus benefit standpoint. However, one difference in my version of cost versus benefit is that I believe in viewing an organisation as a holistic system. In other words, we cannot just examine cost versus benefit from a profit or performance viewpoint. We also have to include more intangible costs and benefits. These include such things as levels of trust and engagement of key staff and stakeholders, the morale of team members, the well-being of the individuals within the organisation, the environment and perhaps the planet as a whole. It is only when we can appreciate the cost or benefit to these more intangible and less measurable aspects of our organisation that we can begin to ascertain the real benefit of these conversations.

For example, we have observed on numerous occasions that a one-hour strategic and reflective conversation have a benefit (or return on investment of resources — time, money, personnel) in terms of engagement, role clarity, motivation, performance and ethical behaviour, that far supersedes that initial one hour ‘investment’. Conversely, we have also observed numerous examples, unfortunately in greater numbers than my previous sentence, where the lack of a strategic and reflective conversation has deleterious and sometimes disastrous consequences for an organisation.

The irony is, in our experience, most managers are astute enough to know when one of these conversations needs to occur. The real question is: are they prepared to endure short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of the organisation?

In summary, to build organisational capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations:

  • Support managers and staff to work on their own psychology around their individual conflict aversion and lead by example.
  • Invest in training and skills development programs so that members feel equipped with the required skill set in order to have these conversations.
  • Be disciplined. Develop the discipline to realise that a one-hour conversation, as difficult and challenging as it may be, could potentially save you and/or the organisation a far less desirable outcome.

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

I have just finished watching (again) one of my all-time favourite movies: “Remember the Titans”. In the movie, Denzel Washington plays coach Herman Boone. He is the newly appointed coach of the TC Williams High School football team. The movie is set in 1971, in the era when America was de-segregating the education system and for the first time allowing black and white students to attend the same high school. As such, the football team, much like society at the time, was deeply divided along the lines of race. Black and white players were more concerned with their place on the team, defending what they believed was theirs and reducing the accountability of members of their own race so that they would maintain their place on the team. Needless to say, this created a dysfunctional and conflictual culture and one that would have been highly ineffective on a football field.

While this occurs within the context of a Hollywood movie, unfortunately, this kind of division, divisiveness and territorialism is not that uncommon within the teams we work with. And whilst the severity of this dysfunction is rarely as obvious as within the movie, elements of these dynamics still play out on a regular basis.

From the start of their off-season training camp, coach Boone sets the tone for the team; he makes the purpose of the team clear and explicit – the purpose is to be “perfect” in every aspect of the game. He also sets the culture by holding team members and even fellow coaches accountable to “perfect” culture, as well as personally demonstrating the very culture he is trying to create within his team.

In the final stages of the movie, when the team is behind at half time in the State Championship game, he tells the team that in his eyes they are already perfect, and if they win or lose that game is immaterial. One of the team leaders then speaks on behalf of the team and reminds coach Boone as well as his team mates of the original purpose and goal with which they commenced the season – to be “perfect”. He says that as individuals they are not perfect, but as a team they are still perfect as they are still undefeated and intend to stay that way. At this point, it is clear that the original goal and purpose of the coach, has now become the purpose of the players themselves. As one would expect, the team goes on to win the game and the somewhat predictable Hollywood ending ensues.

But what lessons can we learn from this movie which we can apply to our own teams and organisations?

Firstly, for teams to be effective the purpose must be clearly stated. Also the team leaders need to model and embody that purpose themselves.

Secondly, there needs to be process whereby individuals within the team are aligned to that purpose; they need to buy-in to the purpose so that it becomes their own. Team members will usually not go above and beyond the call, they will not strive for excellence and they will not be able to create high performance workplaces if they are working towards someone else’s purpose or a purpose that they don’t identify with. It is once that purpose becomes their own that truly exceptional teams are created.

Thirdly, there needs to be a strong culture of accountability so that individuals within the team act, think, behave and communicate, etc in a way that’s in service of that purpose. Building individual and team capacity to have “difficult conversations” allows managers and team members to hold themselves, and each other, accountable when actions are not in service and aligned to the stated purpose.

How can you use the lessons from the movie to create/review the purpose of your organisation or team so that it inspires and moves team members towards the creation of a high performance workplace?

For more infomation about True North Learning’s Vision and Purpose Development programs visit http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/vision-and-purpose.php

Be Perfect


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

More often than not, at the heart of conflict lies our perceptions and feelings about power. It is often one’s sense of power (or powerlessness) that compels us to go to war, or to escalate an already existing conflict.

My learning in this area came whilst working in Sri-Lanka in 2007 as a conflict resolution facilitator. I was there with the aim to be a part of the peace process that would end the civil war that had ravaged the country for decades.

As we travelled around the country facilitating various workshops, forums and meetings, I started to see some recurrent themes. Both sides of the conflict, in this case the Government-backed Sinhalese and Tamil Tigers, believed the other side had more power. The Tamils felt oppressed by the socio-economic divide within the country and their lack of political influence. This led them to feel hopeless that the situation would ever change. The Sinhalese lived in fear that a bomb or terrorist attack could occur any place, or at any time. They felt bound by bureaucracy and of having to take actions that were seen to be ethical and legal, whereas the Tamil Tigers could resort to any means eg terrorism to exert their influence.

What became clear in facilitating these forums was that both sides felt powerless relative to the other. Both sides felt marginalised and oppressed by the power of the other. Yet both sides put a brave face on, summoned up the “power” they felt  they did have, and then used that power against the other. In the case of the Sinhalese it was the continuation of a political system that could be viewed as unjust. And in the case of the Tamil Tigers, it was to resort to the unpredictable and fear-inducing tactic of terrorism.

Some of the turning points at these forums, those moments when there was a temporary resolution to the violence, and both sides were on the same page, occurred when we were able to facilitate individuals or group to acknowledge that they were suffering. There is something about the authenticity of suffering, the raw element of human vulnerability, which makes it very difficult to escalate violence. Perhaps it is because in admitting and showing that we are hurting, we make the other side more aware of the impact that their power has on us. And in realising that power, they have less need to exert more power or escalate a conflict. Or perhaps it is because in revealing our vulnerability, we remind the other of their vulnerability, and in that moment we are both the same in that suffering.

So what does this mean for business? One of the best mechanisms to resolve and manage conflict within the workplace is to acknowledge (at least to yourself) the impact that the conflict is having on you. If you can acknowledge it to the party that you’re in conflict with, all the better. In doing this we allow the other side to see that their actions are having an impact and that they have some power. If they continue to feel powerless it is then that they seek additional ways to exert their power and influence such as forming anti-management coalitions, under performing and reducing morale, or in extreme cases litigation (where the intention is to align themselves with a very powerful force – the legal system).

I realise that this flies in the face of most corporate cultures, especially the Australian corporate culture with its sometimes harsh exterior and “She’ll be right mate” attitude. However as leaders and managers perhaps part of our personal and professional development is to find ways to lead that are more authentic and real. And in doing that, be more transparent about how things like workplace conflict impacts us and affects us.

To find out more about how True North Learning works with conflict in organisations visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php

 

 

 

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

Within conflict lies the potential for growth, transformation and learning.

Workplace conflict is a symptom of the need for a change in how people communicate, the values which drive them, or the business model that is used to operate from.

Yet all too often as managers, our own past experience of conflict, a feeling of confusion or lack of skills prevent us from intervening and managing conflict in an effective manner.

The costs of conflict to a team or organisation can be significant.

There are the tangible costs to unaddressed workplace conflict. It is estimated that it costs 65% of a staff member’s annual income to replace them if they leave in a way which is unplanned. The average cost of WorkCover claims associated with grievances is $80,000.

Then there are all of the intangible impacts of unaddressed or poorly handled conflict: low team morale; high staff turnover; workplace bullying and harassment; poor productivity; lack of ownership of outcomes; and, cliques in the workplace. All these jeopardise the current and future profitability and sustainability of the business.

Yet, with a few strategies and skills, conflict can be managed so it provides a powerful impetus for change, learning and innovation. Here are 5 key strategies to effectively address workplace conflict:

  1. Attempt to address conflict as early as possible: There are usually a number of steps and escalation signs before conflict becomes overt, eg a bad mood or “vibe”, poor productivity, office gossip. Generally, the earlier we address the issues the less complicated and destructive the conflict is and the easier it is to manage.
  2. Create a safe and confidential forum for workplace conflict to be resolved: What can undermine the resolution of conflict is if those parties having the conflict don’t feel safe or fear being labelled or scape-goated. Creating a safe and confidential forum and reminding both them and ourselves that their view points and experiences are valid (no matter how diverse it may be) supports the resolution process.
  3. Be aware of the power dynamics within the workplace: One of the biggest causes of workplace conflict is a lack of awareness of power dynamics; for example, the power differential between a manager and staff member. This might make it more difficult for the staff member to speak up in disagreement. If this disagreement “festers” for long enough it can create conflict. The solution is not about making the power differential equal, but more about being aware of it and its potential implications.
  4. Think systemically: While there is usually a personal aspect to workplace conflict there is often a systemic or cultural aspect as well. Think about how open the team or organisational culture is to having honest and direct conversations. Do the leaders model and encourage these behaviours? Is there a formal feedback structure in place to create role clarity and clear expectations? The more we address these cultural and systemic issues the more we reduce the “fertile ground” for conflict to occur.
  5. Build your own capacity to deal with conflict: Most of us hate dealing with conflict, and for most of us this aversion to conflict comes from childhood conditioning and the way conflict was handled (or not handled) by our parents and adult role models. The more we can work with our own issues and find the “talents” that we developed or were forced to develop while growing up, the more capacity we have to address conflict in a proactive and effective manner.

 

To find out more about how True North Learning works with conflict in organisations visit us at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Errol Amerasekera

Very few people feel comfortable in the face conflict! There is something about the intensity of conflict and its unpredictable nature that makes us want to run and hide, and hope that by the time we come out, all will be well in the world again.

Ironically, this is possibly the least favourable strategy when it comes to effectively resolving and managing conflict, but more about this later.

For me personally, my baptism of fire in terms of conflict resolution training was spending time in Sri-Lanka (the land of my heritage) in 2007 working with the ongoing civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri-Lankan government. Conflict work in a war zone is very challenging, especially when the conflict has been so protracted. In a long term conflict there is a high degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and this trauma can lead to people being dissociated or detached from their emotions. When individuals are not connected to their fear, anger, grief, sense of revenge etc, a simple disagreement can turn into a shooting very quickly.

So from a facilitation standpoint there are 2 things you need to do to keep yourself safe as well as get a good outcome. Firstly, you need to notice and then
bring people’s awareness to any signals or signs of escalation. A raised voice, a rolling of the eyes, an accusation that’s just followed by a counter accusation can all be signs that things are about to get out of control. By noticing, framing and bringing the awareness of the conflicted parties to these signals, they don’t go undetected. Hence, people start to build their capacity and skills in noticing the impact and effect their behaviours have on “the other”

Secondly, as we frame these signals, we need to support and encourage the parties to talk about the feelings, beliefs and stories which underlie these
escalation signals. Talking about these signals deepens the understanding of what they mean and why they are there. This is important for both the signal sender as well as the signal receiver.

If conflict has a purpose or a reason for existence, then that reason is perhaps simple. More often than not, conflict is a symptom of the need for a greater and deeper dialogue between the conflicting parties. By supporting this process we are actually addressing the conflict at it causal level.

So back to why hiding in the corner and hoping it will go away is not a preferred strategy when it comes to conflict resolution. This just avoids or prolongs the dialogue. Like any symptom, when the underlying cause is not being addressed it gets exacerbated. But facing conflict in a more direct and proactive manner is way beyond the comfort zone of most people. For me personally, having spent time in a war zone, where if I mess up someone (including me) could get shot, gives me some perspective. This perspective allows me to perceive some yelling, screaming and perhaps even “storming off” as not so frightening. It allows me to stay centred and clear thinking in the midst of heated situations. And this is exactly what is needed in most conflicted situations- someone with a clear and centred head to facilitate and deepen the dialogue between the parties by noticing and bringing to their awareness the subtle feelings, desires, hurts and escalation events, that for the most part, they themselves ignore.

 


Conflict strikes most individuals, teams and organisations at some time. For most it brings about feelings of stress, anger, frustration and so on.  It often results in blocked communication, lack of ability to understand others perspectives and relationship breakdowns. But can conflict be useful? Can it be a solution as well as a problem? The more we can understand the types of conflicts, stages they are at and even underlying causes, the greater our ability to see the benefit in conflict.
Seeing the benefits of conflict can be in part attributed to our ability to manage it. These five tips may give you the ability to manage a conflicting situation enough to see the good that can come out of it.
  1. Attempt to address conflict as early as possible: there are usually a number of steps and escalation signs before conflict becomes overt eg a bad mood or “vibe”, poor productivity, office gossip. Generally the earlier we address the issues the less complicated and destructive conflict is and the easier it is to manage.
  2. Create a safe and confidential forum for workplace conflict to be resolved: what can undermine the resolution of conflict is if those parties having the conflict don’t feel safe or fear being labelled or scape-goated. Creating a safe and confidential forum, and reminding both them and ourselves that their view points and experiences are valid (not matter how diverse it may be) supports the resolution process.
  3. Be aware of the power dynamics within the workplace: one of the biggest causes of workplace conflict is a lack of awareness of power dynamics. For example the power differential between a manager and staff member. This might make it more difficult for the staff member to speak up in disagreement. If this disagreement “festers” for long enough it can create conflict. The solution is not about making the power differential equal, but more about being aware of it and its potential implications.
  4. Think systemically: while there is usually a personal aspect to workplace conflict there is often a systemic or cultural aspect as well. Think about how open the team or organisational culture is to having honest and direct conversations. Does the leadership model and encourage these behaviours? Is there are formal feedback structure in place to create role clarity and clear expectations? The more we address these cultural and systemic issues the more we reduce the “fertile ground” for conflict to occur.
  5. Build your own capacity to deal with conflict: most of us hate dealing with conflict. And for most of us this aversion to conflict comes from childhood conditioning and the way conflict was handled (or not handled) by our parents and adult role models. The more we can work with our own issues and find the “talents” that we developed or were force to develop whilst growing up, the more capacity we have to address conflict in a proactive and effective manner.
To find out more about True North Learning’s conflict management and conflict resolution services click here: http://truenorthlearning.com.au/cultural-alignment/conflict-management.php