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This month's topic: Building Blocks for a Vital Organization, Part III - Be Clear about Conflict Resolution

September 27, 2005      
Topics of Trust and Leadership, from the authors of The Trusted Leader


The Trusted Leader

Previous Issues:

Building Blocks for a Vital Organization, Part II

Building Blocks for a Vital Organization, Part I

Is Your Organization Vital?



Next month's issue: The Building Blocks for a Vital Organization, Part IV


The authors of The Trusted LeaderIn this article we continue our discussion of the building blocks for vital organizations.

In 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.

As always, your feedback and comments on this newsletter are welcome at info@trustedleader.com.

-Rob and Anne-

7 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:

“When 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.”

A 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).

We 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 time.”

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 as well.

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. 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.

Stay tuned for our October issue, when we discuss building block 7, Communicate!

If you have something to say about organizational vitality let us know.

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