MESSAGE FROM THE AUTHORS
this article we continue our discussion of the building blocks
for vital organizations.
case you're going to be in the Ohio area November 4, Rob will
be conducting a workshop on leadership for the Council
for Ethics in Economics. For details or to register, contact
the council at 614-221-8661.
always, your feedback and comments on this newsletter are
welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building Blocks for a Vital Organization, Part III
Be Clear about Conflict Resolution
Vital organizations need workable conflict resolution mechanisms,
which include escalation processes. Suppose that you and I
have a disagreement about the way something should (or shouldn’t)
be done. We can’t resolve it. Is there a clear policy
that spells out where we should turn? If the policy says we
go to Dan, and Dan sides with you, and I’m still convinced
you’re wrong, is there a “next step”? Is
there a cut-off point – a Supreme Court of sorts? Do
we both know what that cut-off point is (and do we understand
the implications of pushing our disagreement up to that extreme)?
“If your cut-off points, or escalation points, are
not written down, then at a minimum, they must be clearly
articulated and clearly understood by all in the organization.”
Diane Hessan, a well-known expert on the internal transfer
of intellectual capital, and, most recently, CEO of Communispace
Corporation, agrees that the buck has to stop somewhere, but
added these cautionary words for the last person on the trail:
two people come to you with an issue they can’t resolve,
I do think it’s too paternalistic to put them in a room
and say ‘you go work it out.’ But at the same
time, if you solve the problem for them, then the next time
it happens, you’ll have to go and solve it again. I
try to coach them through it – especially if we’re
talking about a conflict between two managers. I try to talk
to them about why they’re better off if they solve it.
I’ve even said to a manager ‘If you can’t
work it out, would you like me to have someone else direct
your group?’ I didn’t mean it as a threat. What
I was trying to do was to have that person recognize the possibility
that many people aren’t happy in leadership roles. Leadership
is about creating current leaders, not just future ones. And
helping people learn to resolve conflicts – or helping
them realize that they don’t want to be in the position
of resolving a conflict beyond a certain level – is
part of being a leader. I say to people ‘You have to
help me lead.’ This is not about me as Mommy coming
into the office. It’s what I need from people if the
organization is going to move forward.”
senior vice president we once knew at Digitas has many times
through the course of her career taken on roles that have
placed her at the fulcrum of conflict-laden decisions. She
has had to use a variety of conflict-resolution mechanisms
– some of them implicit, such as the use of moral suasion
(“I’ll owe you one next time”), and some
of them explicit, such as “If you don’t like it,
go to the CEO,” (knowing full well that that person
will back her up).
can’t resist including Rob’s favorite “escalation
process” story here. When Rob was the resource allocation
partner in a strategy consulting firm, responsible for assigning
project teams, he reported to the head of the strategy practice,
Fred Sturdivant. At one of their first meetings, Fred said
“If anyone, partner, manager, or associate, gives you
a hard time about their assignment, I’ll be the court
of last resort. You can always tell them to come to me. So
if they say ‘Well, I’m unhappy and I’m going
talk to Fred about this,” you go ahead and say “That’s
fine; please do.” Then he leaned forward and said: “But
just so you know, I will back you up on your decisions every
Fred was modeling an essential behavior of trusted leadership.
He was delegating, and trusting Rob to make good decisions.
He was also giving him the confidence he needed to go and
make those decisions. Still, Rob had to be smart enough not
to play that card. He knew enough not to say "Yeah, go
to Fred. I know he’ll back me up. He told me so."
But Fred trusted him to be smart enough to play that right
your cut-off points, or escalation points, are not written
down, then at a minimum, they must be clearly articulated
and clearly understood by all in the organization. What’s
more, it’s important that people throughout the organization
understand that there is no penalty for escalating an issue.
Sometimes, designated “tie-breakers” scold, or
take a “why can’t you work this out” attitude,
when approached by people in need of a mediator. When you’re
setting up your conflict resolution processes, it’s
important to provide the requisite coaching for the people
who are going to be on the receiving-end. It’s also
important for individuals to know what issues they are expected
to resolve among themselves.
tuned for our October issue, when we discuss building block
If you have something to say about organizational vitality
let us know.
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