I’m fond of author Marcus Buckingham’s description of managing as chess and leadership as checkers. Great managers need to know the individualized behaviours and needs of their team members to be effective, analogous to chess. Leaders, on the other hand, need to set out some common themes so those individuals can move uniformly to victory, like checkers game pieces.
But when my leadership learning peer group was discussing the polarization they are seeing in today’s workplace, I felt that duality wasn’t sufficient. It’s also vital today to understand the various combinations of people jousting – or even at war with each other – in your workplace, and deftly work with each faction to reduce the heat and move ahead. The game of Risk comes to mind, but that’s about combat and conquest. Probably better is Warp ‘n Woof, the little-known game from Family Pastimes in which the rules require you to co-operate with the other players to avoid knocking each other off the board. Collaboration and communication are key.
I’m not convinced that today’s polarization is unique. I remember the battles in workplaces over smoking that were at least as fierce as today’s workplace skirmishes over masks and vaccine mandates. Grievances over gender and identity have been prominent for four decades. Departmental rivalries are an age-old issue. And fairness over matters like front-line workers facing the risk of daily exposure to the coronavirus while their knowledge worker colleagues sit safely at their homes or in a well-ventilated office have also had antecedents, notably between blue- and white-collar workers.
But the intensity may well be growing. And the willingness – even eagerness – to announce grievances seems to have escalated. It comes wrapped in self-righteousness. Author Mike Robbins separates being opinionated and having convictions from self-righteousness, which pushes others away because we have stopped listening. “When we hold an opinion with self-righteousness, whether we express it or not, we’re coming from a place of being right. And if I’m right about something and you don’t agree with me, what does that make you?” he writes on his blog.
One obvious strategy is to bring people from various conflicting groups together to solve problems, whether those be related to the issues of disagreement or on other topics. Individually, they might rediscover what they liked about each other before tensions arose or what they would have liked if they transcended perceptions.
It also allows them to learn where they agree on the contentious matters. Studies of polarization by Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Julia Minson and colleagues found people generally overestimated disagreement and were pleasantly surprised by the amount of agreement.
Executive education classes she runs with Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino worked with leaders to find points of agreement with people who hold opposing views. “They don’t have a great time doing it, but they become better informed and are often struck by sound logic and admirable values behind their counterparts’ positions,” the professors write in Harvard Business Review.
They highlight the importance of teaching people to be open-minded. Obviously this has to be done over time, subtly, not announcing grandiose Open Minded 101 classes. Indeed, a difficulty is that people assume they are open-minded and objective. But when the chance arises in meetings or conversations you can casually encourage them to carefully consider the reasons others hold contrary views. Prod them to view information through the eyes of its endorser. Build that open-mindedness.
Consider arranging conflict resolution seminars; most people feel weak on that skill and might welcome the training. The professors cite a learning and development director at a pharmaceutical company who held such sessions: “We teach participants to not get stuck on their views and to be curious about others’ perspectives. We ask them not to assume but to ask so that they can learn why a colleague sees things differently.”
Introduce the learning triangle into your culture. It consists of three steps: Ask a person you are disagreeing with about their views, listen to the answer, and restate it in your own words to make sure you understand it correctly. This nudges people to check whether their assumptions about the reasons for someone’s beliefs are anchored in reality, not in biases.
Business psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg calls what we are experiencing “the Big Split,” the latest in a sequence of psychological pandemic phases. “Splitting is a mental defence mechanism which allows us to tolerate difficult and even unbearable emotions by resorting to black-or-white thinking. We identify others as either heroes or villains, good or bad, ‘with us’ or ‘against us.’ This frees us from the burden of having to face our own shortcomings and missteps, while allowing us to cast our opponents as purely and fully bad, instead of looking for nuance and common ground,” she writes in Harvard Business Review.
We expected a collective sigh of relief and a joyful reunion when the impact of the coronavirus eased. Crisis management would no longer be required. But instead, she says, managers are being thrust into conflict management. She urges you to start by examining your own triggers – what is likely to make you split from others? Next, spot splitting behaviour in your teams and intervene. She points to one manager who has increased the number of meetings, but shortened them to help people bond again.
You need to bring people together. Help them to see the bigger picture for your organization. Build mutual support in as many ways you can. Improve your own conflict management skills, because this may not be a passing phase, she warns.
You need to be skillful at chess, checkers, and Warp ‘n Woof.
- Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath says we can take three lessons away from the disastrous launch of CNN+: Launching a venture because it suits your needs without meeting the needs of a customer is usually fatally flawed. Making big splashy investments before testing the underlying assumptions is expensive and often disastrous. Looking to consultants to confirm what you desperately want to be true is self-deceptive.
- Diversity consultant Ruchika Tulshyan draws two lessons from the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. First, like President Joe Biden, leaders must clearly name who is missing from the organization – in that case, a female Black Justice. Then when you find people to fill that hole, you must expect pushback from those who feel threatened and have your candidate’s back.
- The directors who make the most contributions to boards are those who ask the best questions, being precise, specific and dogged with those queries, says Tom Manning, a veteran board member.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and CanCom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.
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