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Archive for November, 2010

Collaboration: It’s All in the Conflict Management

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Recently, I worked with a leadership team within a marketing support group at a consumer goods company.  Among their objectives was the desire to increase collaboration on the team.  As with many teams, theirs is pulled in various directions and is called upon to serve a variety of clients.  To add to their challenges, most of the team is spread out among several floors in their headquarters building, while some team members work virtually.  So, in any given day, the 30 or so team members are in different places, serving different clients, and have different goals.  Sound familiar?  Anyway, the team leaders really believe that collaboration will help improve the quality of the solutions they provide to clients.  For example, Team A serving Client A creates a solution that would help Client B, but Team B doesn’t have any idea this new solution exists.  (This scenario might also sound familier to you.)  It’s not hard to see that collaboration would probably improve results.  And, it might make the team feel more “connected”.  The challenge is not getting people motivated to collaborate, it’s getting people motivated to deal with conflict that might be prohibiting collaboration.

A March 2005 HBR article that I recently came across helped me crystallize my thinking about the challenges of this particular team, and for that matter, most any team seeking to improve collaboration.  Instead of taking action to boost communications, enhance teamwork, and cross-pollinate, try looking for conflicts that make collaboration difficult or impossible.  (I don’t have to point out that I still think there’s value in communications, teamwork and cross-pollination, right?)  As leaders, we need to think about what we can do to smooth the way for our team.  Sometimes, that means “clearing” the way.  And conflict can be a huge obstacle.  So, where to begin?

  1. Be willing to look at conflict as constructive.  As Patrick Lencioni argues in his great teamwork tome The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, conflict is nothing more than a difference of opinion.  Generally speaking, conflict gets a bad rap.  We tend to believe that all conflict is bad, when the way people deal with the conflict is more likely what’s “bad”.  Conflict can highlight alternative perspectives, reveal underlying flaws, and create a catalyst for change.  It can be a good thing and needs to be recognized accordingly.
  2. Accept that there is conflict in your organization.  This is hard for a lot of leaders to do.  Not many people like to admit that there is conflict.  (See item #1 for the reason why.)  But, where there are people and relationships, there is conflict.  So, instead of fighting it or insisting it doesn’t exist, go with the flow (so to speak) and let there be a place for conflict.
  3. Create a “safe zone” for conflict.  Outside of just acknowledging that conflict exists, you need to create a culture where conflict is allowed and where individuals have the tools and time to sort things through.  What does your team see when you are faced with conflict.  Do they see you react, avoid or blame?  Or, do they see you listen, acknowledge different opionions, and seek to find common ground?  Your role modeling is the first step in creating culture.  Beyond that, you’d be well served to develop some ground rules (or “norms” as Lencioni calls them) for how to deal with conflict.
  4. Invite your team to participate.  When you do create conflict ground rules or norms, invite your team to weigh in on how they’d like the environment to look or feel when conflict arises.  They’ll be more likely to practice the norms if they’re a part of developing them.  At the very least, when conflict arises, invite the team (or key stakeholders) into the resolution process.  Managing conflict takes practice, and naturally, can be a little messy.  The more your team participates in it, the better equipped they’lll be to handle it.

I think most individuals want to collaborate with others and understand the value of collaboration toward achieving great results.  But, as human beings, we all tend to let conflict get in the way of our best intentions.  So, help your team out by cultivating an environment where conflict is not a bad thing and giving them the tools to deal with it when it does arise.

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Posted In: Leadership, Organizational Culture, Strengths

Accountability – It’s a Point of View

Monday, November 8th, 2010

In my book, there is never a time when personal accountability doesn’t matter.  It’s powerful in times of good and bad.  And, I think it’s the fuel for a high performing, collaborative team.  Imagine if everyone came to the game everyday asking things like: “What can I do to make a difference today?”  Accountability breeds accountability.  It’s REALLY hard to be a schlub when everyone around you is cranking to get things done and figure out how to do things more effectively.

Accountability starts with a point of view that you do, in fact, have the power to make a difference.  People with a point of view of personal accountability tend to look for improvement opportunities and problems that need to be solved.  These are the people who ask themselves:

  • What’s my role in this circumstance?
  • What can I do differently to influence a positive outcome?
  • What clues did I miss?
  • What risks did I avoid to take that might have improved the results?
  • What practices or habits of mine get in the way of achieving the best possible results?

It takes a lot of courage to be accountable, and accountability can be a lonely country.  That’s why it’s important for leaders to create a culture where accountability is valued and rewarded.  In this type of culture, people are encouraged to ask the tough questions and are rewarded for discovering new approaches to old problems.  To create more accountability in the workplace:

  1. Take a pulse check on the levels of accountability.  Is yours a “just do it” environment where people make things happen?  Or, is it more common for people to point fingers and blame others?  Depending on how accountable your culture is, start taking actions to ratchet things up – either from bad to good, or from good to great.
  2. Be a role model.  Your actions speak volumes and show people the way to be accountable.  Do people see you being accountable or do they see a victim of circumstance?
  3. Cultivate accountability.  Look around and see what you can do to clear obstacles that keep people from being accountable.  Eliminate policies, practices or belief systems that don’t support accountability at all levels.
  4. Empower others.  Make sure people have the authority and tools to make decisions (and act upon them) that are in the best interest of the organization.

Accountability can make a big difference, even when taken in baby steps.  Give it a try and see what happens.  Here’s a closing thought from someone with bigger chops on the subject than mine:  “Make every decision as if you owned the whole company.”  Robert M. Townsend,  American Economist and Professor at MIT.

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Posted In: Leadership, Organizational Culture, Uncategorized

Thinking Critically, A Much-Needed Skill

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Seth Godin, author of Linchpin, recently posted something on his blog about the importance of thinking critically . . . professionally, personally, politically, and otherwise.  I couldn’t agree more and have begun to challenge myself to think more critically about lots of things, especially things I believe I know a lot about.  (I hate to admit it, but when I believe myself to be an expert on something it’s probably a good time to bone up on the subject.)  I’m writing about this because I think it’s a skill in the workplace that is underused and, quite often, undervalued.

Let’s start with the definition of “critical thinking”.  After finding a few definitions that I thought were really complex, I landed on this:  purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do.  I liked three words here because I think they are the key to making really great decisions as a result of critical thinking:  purposeful, reflective, and judgment.  First, critical thinking is purposeful.  To me, purposeful means that there is intention to discover, uncover, learn, shift and see things from various viewpoints.  When someone purposefully thinks about a subject, they are, in effect, peeling back layers to reveal something beneath.  Second, critical thinking is reflective.  In my view, reflective means that there is a commitment to ruminating on new discoveries and learning.  Reflecting is taking the time to turn an idea around over and over to look at all its facets.  Third, critical thinking is making a judgment.  Of-course, one must draw a conclusion from the reflection.  But, it’s important to note here that judgment must come AFTER purposefulness and reflection.  Judgment without purpose and reflection is not critical thinking.  It’s plain and simple judging.  Therein lies the problem with lots of decisions I see being made (and sadly, have made myself from time to time.)

Decision making skills are really important in the workplace, particularly for leaders.  Certainly, decisiveness is often valued in the workplace.  But sometimes decisiveness is influenced by short-term agendas when it should be influenced by long-term payoffs.  Granted, sometimes a decision just needs to be made because there’s a burning issue to be extinguished.  But, after the fire, what kind of analysis is conducted to fix the problem that caused the fire in the first place?  And, what if there isn’t anything burning that requires a snap decision?  What can we do to think more critically and ensure that our decisions best serve the organization’s vision and mission?

  • Find evidence.  Avoid heresay.  Get to the bottom of things yourself.
  • Ask questions.  LOTS of questions.
  • Get information from a variety of sources.  Don’t just consult the inner circle and the usual suspects.
  • Be willing to recognize a problem.  In other words, call it what it is!
  • Table (or toss) information that isn’t relevent to your issue and prioritize what is.
  • Notice and recognize unstated assumptions and values.  Is there something people aren’t saying that you should know more about?
  • Suspend your own beliefs and assumptions in order to clear the way for new possibilities.

More than anything, I believe critical thinking takes discipline.  All of the actions listed above require discipline, and practice.  Some of them require courage because when you’re in the heat of a problem, it can feel a little uncomfortable to say, “Hold on, we need to ask some questions, prioritize information, and suspend beliefs and assumptions.”  That’s why I believe leadership role modeling and support in the culture is necessary to make critical thinking valued in the workplace.

What do you think?

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Posted In: Leadership, Organizational Culture