Working with troubled youth and coaching leaders is pretty similar.
I’ve done both, and I find it much easier to work with a drug-addicted or gang-involved teenager than with a CEO. Teenagers tend to be pretty blunt and upfront with their opinions, emotions and motivations. Even with the “toughest” kids, once you learn how to get through the thick outer shell, you usually find a whole lot of raw emotion and realness. On the other hand, adults (especially professionals and leaders) typically have much more complicated methods to hide, mask or otherwise obscure what’s really going on inside. It’s checkers vs. chess. Sometimes it’s checkers vs. 3-D underwater chess.
Most people, whether a teenager or an adult, avoid conflict most of the time. This is completely understandable. Most of us don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable.
We want to keep the peace and generally seek to put out interpersonal fires – not walk into them or set them alight.
Even in the world of conflict resolution/management, I have encountered large measures of conflict avoidance. Often, people desire to become peacemakers because they actually fear and dislike conflict – not because they are interested in it. This is also understandable.
The tendency to avoid conflict, or resolve it superficially, has evolved in human relationships for very good reasons. For most of our collective history, we lived in small tribal groups in close quarters, where group collaboration was literally a matter of life and death. If humanity has a super power, it is our ability to cooperate in pursuit of a shared vision. The healthy group dynamics needed to collectively bring down a mammoth are the same ones you need to launch a successful start-up. Same people. Different tasks. And you can’t conduct a successful hunt or build a company if everyone is always fighting. This is true.
However, to build a mammoth hunting party or start-up team, there are a lot of interpersonal issues that need to be sorted out. What role will each of us play? How will leadership be exercised and by whom? Will my experience be valued in this group? Will I have a voice in things here? Do I like and want to spend time with these people? Do I have the necessary skills to be of help? If not, how hard am I willing to work to develop those skills? How much am I willing to personally sacrifice in pursuit of this vision?
The list goes on.
Every group, whether at home or in the workplace, must sort out a similar list of questions. That cannot happen if the group habitually avoids conflict. In fact, the highest performing groups learn that they need group members who are willing to lead conflict – not just manage it or resolve it.
Within the roots of conflict lie the lifeblood of creativity, possibility, self-knowledge and group evolution.
Real conflict, the truly useful kind, is messy, chaotic and can be scary.
Over the course of this year, I’ll be writing a series of articles that will explore these ideas and help you learn to love conflict – and build the skills you need to lead it. Let me know any topics that you would like to see! (Twitter: @JohnBailieIIRP)