The following blog post is from IIRP President Dr. John Bailie's website Leading Conflict: How to Fight at Work, a series of articles about how leaders can improve relationships to help their organizations thrive.
It’s tempting to believe that conflict in relationships is a complicated topic. Complicated is actually easy. A complicated problem implies a lower bar for success. We expect less measurable positive outcomes.
When a problem with another person is seen as complicated we have many reasons to think about it some more, delay action and hesitate to say what we are really thinking. Why be hasty? After all, it’s complicated.
However, the vast majority of interpersonal conflicts, whether at work or in our personal lives, are not inherently complicated. They are often painful to face and endure, but that’s not the same thing as being complicated.
One great secret about coaching and mentoring leaders in their interpersonal relationships is that the vast majority of questions arise again, and again, and again. It’s mainly the setting and personalities that change. Here’s an example.
An organizational leader contacted me to ask for help. She was seeking advice on how to talk to a colleague whom she knew was undermining several new initiatives in their organization.
This colleague was not openly debating or disagreeing with my client. Instead, she was encouraging factions in the staff to passively resist. Everyone knew what was happening, but no one was talking openly about it.
My client wanted advice on how to handle this complicated situation.
I asked her what the most important issue was for her regarding all that was happening. She said that their organization was at a crossroads. They were not yet in crisis, but the general business trends were not positive. They could not continue doing business as usual. In large part, she was hired to help right the ship. The resistance inspired by this staff member put the organization’s recovery in serious jeopardy.
I asked her what the hardest thing was for her about this. She said the hardest thing was that these new plans had been developed collaboratively through lots of engagement with staff. She was open to debate and discussion, but she was frustrated that a small group of staff refused to discuss their concerns openly. They would nod their heads in meetings and then resist and gossip in private.
I asked her how all of this was impacting her personally. She felt angry and afraid.
She was angry that this staff member was purposely working to undermine her authority by playing on her vulnerabilities as a new leader. She was afraid that the new organizational direction would fail, not because of the merits of the plan, but because of interpersonal dysfunction that she didn’t know how to address.
I ended by asking, “So how can I help?”
She responded, “Well, this is so complicated. I know I need to confront this staff member, but what do I say?”
I suggested, “How about you tell her everything you just told me?”
She just stared at me for a few seconds. Then, she said with some hesitation, “Well, I guess I could, but… I mean… that’s not going to go over well.”
I asked her what that meant.
She said, “Isn’t that just going to make her more upset? She can be kind of volatile.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but people are upset already aren’t they?”
“Yes. I suppose so. I’m just concerned about the fallout of confronting her so directly. I’m not sure how she’ll handle that.”
“OK. What’s the likely worst-case scenario if she doesn’t handle it well?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe she’d just quit.”
“And how would you feel if that happened?”
After a thoughtful pause, she said firmly, “Relieved.”
We processed some more, but we mainly discussed her plan to say what she was really thinking, how to set new expectations and what support she would need. She did confront this staff member. My client enlisted a few other people in the organization to share how this staff member's behavior was affecting them as well.
As my client suspected, the staff member was angry and argued at first. Then she cried. Then she said that she had been unhappy in the organization for some time, for personal reasons entirely unrelated to my client. She was sad, felt trapped in a job to which she was no longer committed and was taking it out on everyone else.
My client made it clear that the undermining needed to stop, while also offering the staff member support to find a new position elsewhere if that’s what she really wanted. Two months later, the staff member left happily without drama or incident.
A few other staff members who had been part of the highly-resistant faction quietly followed suit over the next year or so. The organization was changing for the better and seeing great success. However, some people simply lacked the desire to change with it. My client helped people to talk about that openly and take personal responsibility for their decisions to stay or go.
It was a turning point for my client as a new leader. She demonstrated both resolve and compassion without compromising her vision and the best interests of her organization.
She initially saw the problem as complex because she was trying to find a way to engage the problem while also avoiding pain, uncomfortable conversations and, to a certain extent, suffering. She was hoping to achieve two contradictory goals at the same time. That generates complexity. On the other hand, stating the truth about what was happening was quite simple. It was hard, but it wasn’t complicated.