Getting to Yes: Simple Leadership

January 4, 2016

It is sometimes the simplest ideas that bring about real culture change in organizations.

Three simple questions. Three simple answers. The result is a harbinger of everything important to employers. It’s very simple to create a respectful workplace if you boil it down to this: if you can get one hundred percent of your employees to answer three questions with “yes” every single day, you will have a workplace where employees are engaged, they are productive, they are self-correcting (because they are giving and getting honest feedback) and they are showing up and staying with your organization. What are these magical questions?
Does my employer value me?
• Do the people I work with and for treat me fairly and humanely?
• Does my work matter?
Of course, the converse is true. If only some of your employees say “yes,” the rest are saying “no.” Negative answers to these questions bring about behavior, attitudes and performance issues that take time, energy and emotional investment away from the organization’s mission.
If it’s that easy, why is it so hard to find employees who love what they do? Because we focus on too many metrics, we make organizations unnecessarily complicated, and we don’t measure leaders on the happiness and engagement of their employees. If, instead of complex performance matrices or numerical fictions, we simply told leaders that they would be evaluated, rewarded and compensated on how many “yesses” they got to these three questions, how would they be spending their time? Teaching, coaching, praising, guiding, communicating and collaborating. Try it. Put these questions on your wall and every day ask yourself, “How can I get my people to yes?” Challenge other leaders to do the same. If the experience of one of my clients is indicative, your people will notice the difference immediately. In three months of “getting to yes,” theft was reduced, productivity improved, conflict was handled at a lower level, attendance improved and injuries were reduced. Supervisors began to post their ideas for getting their employees to “yes.” No complicated training, no lectures. Three simple questions, one big payoff.


Impasse. Logjam. Intractable Conflict.

July 26, 2011

The political stalemate in Washington, as disheartening as it is, provides a good opportunity to think about the conflicts that lead to claims, and the challenges of investigating claims when individuals have staked out a position/set of beliefs that seem completely contrary to one or more coworkers or supervisors who have equally powerful perspectives/beliefs. Particularly in allegations of hostile environment or systemic discrimination, parties have spent a long time talking themselves (and likely others) into their perspectives. They become inflamed by suggestions that there might be another way to see things, and should you insist that they try, they often fold you into those they view as “the other side.”

Several years ago, I investigated the work environment in a large nonprofit organization. After several complaints emerged of discrimination based on national origin/ethnicity/religion, they asked me to conduct an inquiry. Each and every one of the complainants was credible, and pointed out actions of management and supervisors, coworkers and even clients that they felt showed animus. Some had been disciplined in ways they felt were unfair. Others “knew” of incidents that supported their view that the organization was toxic. In one case, a complainant had been accused of misusing a piece of equipment, and pointed out that his majority coworker had used the equipment in the exact same manner with impunity. A second described a supervisor repeatedly calling attention to his protected class, making him feel uncomfortable. Because the 8 complainants had come together and shared their data prior to complaining, they felt absolutely certain that their data set was legitimate. The organization was poisoned with racism from the very top.

Speaking with management was equally challenging. For every specific incident, there was a different perspective. The equipment usage had not been the same, and the documents showed that this was the case. The supervisor who referred to protected class was concerned about the employee’s constant accusations of racism and had asked what could be done to diminish that perception. The employees were “plotting,” “jumping on the bandwagon,” and “were the real discriminators.” There was no basis for the complaints, and that was that.

As an investigator, we are stuck with facts, and it was with great regret that I stuck to my role and reported that while some incidents reported were accurate, many others were disputed fairly and by evidence. Those are the days when being an investigator is frustrating, because through the process of listening to the stories and sentiments of all of the parties involved, it became clear that the question before the organization was not just the legal one regarding the weight of the evidence, but the organizational challenge as to how the organization would move forward.

That gets me back to intractable, or seemingly intractable conflicts, and the valuable perspective that interest based conflict management brings to the table. My two “bibles” that have informed and supported my work in this area are Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury and The Mediation Process by Christopher Moore. According to the first, to resolve a conflict,”…each party must…percieve that the continued existence of the other is both necessary and desirable from the point of view of his own self interest.” The second uses the Circle of Conflict to divide conflict into several categories; data conflicts, relationship conflicts, values conflicts, procedural conflicts.Moore’s circle of conflict Moore stresses that data conflicts– simple differences in data –say I thought our meeting was at 3, and you thought it was 2 — can easily become procedural conflicts –you never give me the right information–and then relationships conflicts –you set me up to miss the meeting. To make resolving workplace conflicts effective, it is important to work at the “bottom” of the circle — focusing on data differences, procedural differences and substantive differences, and by getting these worked through, to develop the trust it will take to begin to resolve relationship conflicts.

In workplace conflicts, two inevitable interests are present; for employees and managers, to receive satisfaction and remuneration for their work. For the organization, to get the work done so the organization can meet its goals. Beyond that, there are many more interests, such as (for employees) fairness, dignity, safety, boundaries and (for employers) having policies obeyed, getting good performance, shareholder value, profitability or mission. Identifying and finding common ground in these interests can form the basis for some powerful dialogue, some healing, and some new respect. There can be civility between “warring factions.” I know, because I have facilitated these meetings. Not to say it is easy. These interventions are time consuming, they are often emotionally intense, they require caucusing to reduce defensiveness and strict ground rules to keep the process afloat. Nevertheless, this type of arduous process of listening for interests and finding common ground may present the only sustainable resolution to the polarization and destruction of two or more groups with profoundly different realities. Absent that, there will simply be more eruptions of conflict fed by the sense that the concerns of all were not taken seriously, and those things wanted — have not resulted. The goal is to move away from what people “want” to what their interests are, and focusing on creating a road map to make sure those interests stay front and center. I for instance, have seen seemingly impossible conflicts softened by having participants describe what being “respected” would look like or feel like. Or to have people passionately speak to the importance of their work in their life, and how events have affected them. At the bottom line, finding what we have in common and exploring shared interests humanizes the process in a way that rights-based or position-based resolution cannot.

It seems that at work and in Washington if you can get past what people ‘want” in order to win, and get to what their shared interests are, in order to go forward together, there is a far greater chance of enduring, principled solutions. Unfortunately, to get there, we need to find ways to get past the legal fictions of “right” and “wrong,” and find our way to shared interests.


Tragedy, Civility and the Workplace

January 11, 2011

I can’t help thinking that the tragic shooting of public servants and innocent bystanders in Arizona must be turned from so dark a moment to a catalyst for something positive . With pundits and politicians arguing about a madman’s motives and either casting or deflecting blame, let it be sufficient to say that turning our attention to how we speak to one another can’t do any harm.

It has been a constant theme in my work of late to have employees discuss their concerns about political discussions in the workplace. When describing prohibited conduct, including protected class harassment, I am frequently asked about individuals who foist their views on others, who name call those without shared beliefs, or who attempt to rile up those with views different from theirs. I am asked if this is ‘harassment’ and must respond that it is not usually unlawful harassment (unless there are offensive protected-class related comments), but it certainly disrupts the workplace. With great frequency, the follow-on question is whether people should discuss politics at work.

How are we to answer this question? I tend to reflexively turn to the model that places politics in the “values” column, with the conventional wisdom being that discussing values in the workplace is risky — predominantly because if one’s values differ from a coworker’s it might be difficult to reconcile the opposing viewpoints sufficiently to continue to work together with good will. This is why we don’t have casual conversations about, say, abortion, or the existence or non-existence of heaven or hell; too often, an opposing belief creates personal animus that can sabotage effective workplace relationships.
Values, Attitudes, Behavior

Certainly there are legions of advisers who agree that discussing politics at work is divisive. Others note the geometric effect that social media has on creating complexity in workplace debates about politics.. They are right. Discussing politics at work is…well, impolitic, and risky.

I wonder, however, if the evolving workplace might someday provide a tonic to the tone of today’s political discourse. If we think about it, the workplace is uniquely bounded by policy, rule and culture. Good employers expect employees to value diversity and to behave respectfully and civilly in order to ensure high performance. These organizations have been working hard to let people bring their differences to work. In these places, conflict is managed maturely and well. Perhaps it is in those workplaces we will ultimately find the model for the rest of America; the America that understands that alignment of purpose does not mean agreement on strategy, and that different voices make for a great chorus.

It’s a challenge; if you and I work together, respect one another, trust one another and have much in common, perhaps we can resolve to have a discussion about our differences in a civil, respectful manner. Perhaps the workplace provides us a forum to listen to understand rather than to persuade. In other words, if all is going well, we are at our best in the workplace. We are hopefully surrounded by people who we value. Maybe it is at the workplace where we appreciate the contribution someone is making that we can hear views different from our own and recognize that not everyone who disagrees with us has to be one of the vilified “others.”

Is this idealistic? Absolutely, but as a consultant who spends time with organizations at their darkest hours as well as during their brightest days, I find the capacity to listen without judgment, hear diverse perspectives, learn to live with those who see the world differently and embrace conflict as energy to be harnessed leads to organizations that excel in every respect. What a wonderful possibility it is that the workplace could be a model for the larger society, and in turn become even a better place to make a contribution. It is certainly worth considering.


The Diminishing Value of Apology: Changing the Script of Conflict Resolution

March 18, 2010

“I am sorry. What I did is wrong. I take full responsibility.” These words have been echoing through the media as one public figure after another goes through the now-ritualized public apology, often for behavior that might, in a previous time, been deemed private. The statements more often than not lack authenticity, as though pulled from a grand script of remorse, as though the words somehow will move forgiveness forward, as though they are the formula to exoneration. The more these words are uttered, the more cliche they become, and the less value they are likely to have in bringing about true resolution of the problems being apologized for.

Workplace apologies are needed. In years past,people whose work life had been disrupted by the misconduct of others were often looking to regain what they’d had before the misconduct. “I just want things to go back the way they were,” was a familiar plea by those who’d been wronged by others. In those cases, the remedy was sometimes a facilitated dialogue and a sincere apology, and, with managerial fingers crossed, life could possibly go back to normal with proper monitoring and coaching. Read the rest of this entry »


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