Successful Supervisor 31 – Reducing Conflict

June 18, 2017

Conflict between people is simply part of the human condition. Organizations are a good place to observe conflict because they have all the ingredients that encourage people to bicker.

First of all, people are in close contact for many hours a day. It is a fact that if you put people together for a long period of time, they are going to end up driving each other crazy. It happens like spontaneous combustion at the bottom of a pile of oily rags.

The second condition that encourages conflict is stress. Organizations are constantly under stress to optimize performance of all their resources. The most typical stressor that causes conflict is time.

People tend to overvalue their own contributions and undervalue the contributions of their work mates. It is just the way we are programmed.

I got interested in this topic of conflict a couple years ago and actually wrote a 30 part video series entitled “Surviving the Corporate Jungle.” Each video is only 3 minutes long and each one has an exercise to instill a new habit that can reduce conflict between people. The series was produced by an organization called “Avanoo.”

Here is a link to a free sample of three videos from my series.

In this article, I want to give a few overarching tips that may be most helpful at the supervisor level. The subject is endless, so you may wish to contribute your favorite tips after reading mine.

Appreciate Differences in People

Each person is unique, so what works for one person may not be ideal for others. In addition, we each see the world through glasses that only we can see through.

When we witness another person doing something that does not look or feel right to us, we grit our teeth and instinctively push back, trying to get the other person to see it our way.

I call this phenomenon the “I AM RIGHT” condition, and I have purchased hundreds of three-inch buttons with those words on them. I give them out at all my seminars on trust.

The tip for the supervisor is to recognize that each person is wearing an imaginary I AM RIGHT button all day.Since each individual experiences every facet of organizational life through his or her own paradigm, it is no wonder conflict erupts.

The supervisor can help people recognize that we have no choice but to see things from our perspective, so it is perfectly natural that there will be tension at times. Try to see the other person’s perspective as being valid, and you will reduce conflict.

Go Back to the Sense of Purpose

Even though people may see things from different perspectives, we can usually get along much better if we remind ourselves that we share a common purpose.

We may have different functions, but we are all important parts of the process, and we are all needed to be at our best if the job is to get done well.

The supervisor is the main coach to help people understand the purpose and remember the larger mission when tempers flare about how to do things.

The supervisor paints the vision of the whole organization onto the canvass that represents her part of the whole and makes sure everyone sees that connection. When people recognize that they are all pulling in the same direction, the individual idiosyncrasies don’t have as much power to polarize them.

Build a Culture of Trust and Love

When a group of people trust and love one another, the seeds of conflict have a difficult time taking root. Building a culture is a daily task that never ends, but the task is a joyous one because the end result is a much happier existence, not only for the supervisor, but for everyone on her crew.

Building that kind of culture takes tending and constant effort. First of all, the supervisor must model the right kind of behaviors herself at all times. She must be the source of love and trust between people, even when things get tense.

It is her actions and words that make the difference every day. The most powerful thing a supervisor can do to build that kind of culture is to make the environment safe and not phony.

Eliminate Playing Games

If you observe most stressful groups at work, you can see that much of the time people are playing head games with each other in order to gain advantage. The environment is phony and full of intrigue. The supervisor needs to create a kind of culture that is real, where people are able to disagree without being disagreeable.

Hopefully the organization has a concrete set of values, and the supervisor must adhere to those values in every conversation and action (especially body language).

The workers are there to do a specific job, but that does not mean the atmosphere needs to be heavy. Great teams make the work light and fun, because they support each other and bring each other up. The supervisor needs to understand a great culture begins with her.

Avoid Inter-Group Conflict

Another common problem is that group cohesion can become so strong that silos begin to form. The workers bond together and against another group in the process as the enemy.

You can observe a kind of Civil War going on in many organizations on a daily basis. It is amazing to witness this hostility, because if you go up to the next level the warring groups are really on the same team.

It is up to the supervisor to keep her area from losing this larger perspective. One idea to accomplish this is to share resources with parallel groups. If team members see an unselfish person in their supervisor, then the ability to maintain proper perspective is easier.

These are just a few of the ideas in my series on “Surviving the Corporate Jungle.” For the supervisor, these ideas may seem like a heavy load, but the joys of doing things in an uplifting way makes the work a labor of love.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763


November 6, 2016

I have developed a tool to help people build more trust with others. It consists of a 3” button with the words ‘I AM RIGHT’ on it.

When you first see the button, it looks like it is an invitation to quarrel more with other people. Once you understand the logic behind it, the button is a powerful way to reduce conflict, and it helps leaders create an environment where trust will grow faster.

This article describes the background of the button, how I use it, and how people react to it in my work when I give out a button to all the participants.

The first time I ever saw the ‘I AM RIGHT’ button, it was worn by a fraternity brother of mine who defiantly wanted to remind the rest of the world that his perspective was always the correct one. It was a comical reminder not to cross swords with him.

I forgot about the button for decades, then it struck me that if it was used properly, it could actually change the dynamic in many conflict situations and lead to higher rather than lower trust.

You own your parochial viewpoint and believe that your way of looking at things is right. If another person does not agree with your perspective, that person must be wrong simply because you are convinced that you are right.

This logic is pervasive for leaders, which is why trust is so low in many organizations.

Leaders make decisions, take actions, and make statements all the time. They speak and act based on their own opinions. If an employee expresses an alternate viewpoint, it is human nature to push back, especially since the leader has an implied power advantage over the employee.

So, in most situations when employees make assertions that are not congruent with the way the boss thinks, then they end up feeling put down or punished in some way.

This is where I use the power of the button to change the conversation. Most of the time I am working with leaders, or those people who aspire to become leaders. In describing the ‘I AM RIGHT’ theory, I actually put on the button so everyone in the seminar will know that is my perspective.

Then, I hand out the same button to every person in the room, (I purchase them by the hundreds). Now the dynamic is a bit different. When someone in the room has a divergent opinion from mine, I can clearly see that the person is also wearing the button. I can no longer easily ignore or belittle the other person’s opinion because he or she believes it is right.

It is common for individuals in my seminars to say, “Can I get two buttons? My wife will want one, and I need one for myself!” It is all very comical, and people love them, but beneath the fun there is a fundamental shift in thinking that is vital for leaders, and really all people, to learn.


Look for the invisible button that every single person wears every day. Once you get the hang of it, you will see the button everywhere, and it shifts the conversation.

When people indicate a disagreement with something you have said or done, your first reaction will not be to show them the error of their ways.

You can say something much softer like this, “That is interesting to hear your point of view. I want to know more about your opinion because with the same set of information and circumstances, I came up with a different view. Tell me more, please.” Now you are in a position to make the person glad they brought up their opposing view.

This method does not rely on both parties eventually agreeing on each point. Clearly you can agree to disagree and move on, but you come across as a leader who is willing to consider the opinions of others rather than become adamant or defensive, as many leaders do.

That small change in dynamic can make a world of difference in the way people react to you as a leader.

The same benefit works well with peers, or really any other person who expresses a divergent view from your own.

Try to spot the invisible ‘I AM RIGHT’ button on people, and you will find less conflict in your life. If you are a leader, your ability to listen and empower will be significantly enhanced, because people reporting to you will not feel punished for speaking their truth.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Deadline Dynamics

October 2, 2016

Classic ClockI was having a discussion about deadlines with one of my students the other day, and it got me thinking about these strange things in our lives.

Deadlines have a bigger impact on the quality of our lives than we realize, but most people seem to accept them without challenging them. This article will put the spotlight on deadlines and suggest some ways we can handle them a little better.

I come at the topic from four different perspectives: 1) the arbitrary nature of deadlines, 2) self imposed deadlines, 3) deadlines set by others for us, and 4) setting deadlines for others successfully.

First, let’s realize that most deadlines are arbitrary dates without real substantive factual backing. For example, say your senior manager sets a deadline for the budget to be submitted by the end of the month. Will the world really stop turning if the budget is submitted later than that? I doubt it.

In reality, many deadlines are set so a higher level deadline (equally arbitrary) can be met. In the example above, the senior manager may need to have the budget in time to roll it up with a corporate level budget that somebody decided needs to be finished by the end of the quarter.

There are some fiscal hurdles in certain situations that give the deadlines more of a real feel, but when you hold them up to the light, you can see that nearly all of them are based on someone’s desire that could be changed, if it was really necessary.

If you use the “Five Why” technique with any deadline, you are sure to come up with some eye-opening conclusions. Simply ask why something must be done by a certain date, and when you get the answer, ask why that is the case.

Do that five times, and you will usually find that the specific deadline is not as firm as it appears. The answer to one of the last “why” questions is likely to be, “because we have always done it that way,” or maybe “because that is the way the boss likes it.”

What I am saying is that the pressure to meet most deadlines is something organizations usually impose on themselves.

On the flip side, deadlines are an essential ingredient for having things work as intended. Imagine if there were no deadlines at all. Precious little work would get done, because human beings have a remarkable ability to procrastinate from doing things that are not fun.

I think self-imposed deadlines can be helpful. Many of us impose personal deadlines that are figments of our imagination so we can accomplish the things we want in life.

I impose deadlines on myself all the time. It is a habit called “operating ahead of the power curve.” If I have a presentation to give in four weeks, I will convince myself that it needs to be given next week.

I create a self-imposed deadline to get the presentation prepared. It then sits in my computer for a few weeks before the presentation. Actually, I am still subconsciously working on it and “polishing the edges,” so the ultimate quality of the presentation is much better than if it was presented when initially completed.

There is intentional pressure on myself at the start to get the presentation done, then I can relax and not be in a panic just ahead of the due date.

The same philosophy is true with writing. As I am typing this article, there are five articles in the queue, all ready to publish, so this particular one will not get published for six weeks.

In the meantime, my beloved wife will help me make it more worthy of the reader’s attention, and I will think about it a few times more before going to press. My personal deadline to get this article done is today, but it will not be published on my blog for six weeks.

The deadlines set by other people generally cause us the most stress in our lives. This is especially true if the person or organization setting the deadlines has a history of being unreasonable, rigid, or confusing with them.

When you think of it, most people are juggling several deadlines on any given day and trying to sort through the different priorities.

To lower the stress of deadlines, make sure you have a firm agreement with the person imposing them and arrive at a reasonable priority for this work in addition to everything else on your plate.

If the task seems unreasonable, try to negotiate some leeway or some assistance, and express that you want the time to ensure a quality job. If it becomes apparent you will miss a deadline, let the person who gave it to you know well in advance. It is much easier to work through an alternate path if the problem is surfaced in a calm manner before the deadline.

If you wait until after the deadline to share the shortfall, all of the “reasons” you give will appear to be flimsy excuses, and you will lose credibility.

People instinctively know that getting things done on time is a prerequisite for advancement, so they really try to comply with deadlines, even if it means becoming nervous wrecks. When conflicting deadlines occur, either for one person or between people trying to work together, it is a formula for dysfunctional conflict.

Managers who establish deadlines for other people need to be careful that they are reasonable, clear, and not in conflict with other deliverables.

Here are some suggestions that may be helpful for setting deadlines for employees at work:

1. If there is a true need for something to be done at a particular time, state the reason when giving the deadline so people know it is not simply an arbitrary date.

2. When possible, give people a voice in establishing the goal for when work will be completed. Participating in the setting of a deadline makes it personal, so it becomes much more palatable.

3. Make the deadlines visible with some sort of chart or notes to back up the validity and avoid confusion.

4. Ensure the specific deliverable is crystal clear and not subject to interpretation. This level of clarity will avoid hard feelings later on.

5. Establish some milestones along the way, so people can experience progress toward the final submission.

6. Celebrate a job well done and let people know you are grateful for their efforts to meet the deadline.

7. Coach people who habitually fall short of deadlines and help them with more specific targets in the future. Let them know that demonstrating a solid track record of meeting expectations is really going to help their own standing.

8. Be flexible, when possible, so that changing priorities and conditions do not put undue pressure on people. Be alert to the signs of people feeling trapped by deliverables that are not really possible.

Working with deadlines is something we all do. When we seek to establish deadlines at work, following the above tips will reduce some of the problems we encounter.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

End Manager and Worker Misalignment

May 21, 2016

Between my own consulting and online teaching of MBA students all over the world, I have been fortunate to study the cultures of literally thousands of organizations: large and small, profit and not for profit, government, and NGOs.

Once I get past the window dressing of how these organizations wish to appear to the outside world, I find some hurtful things that are common. One of the most frequent problems is a kind of “we versus they” thinking between the management levels and the workers. This article examines why this symptom is so common and suggests eight ways to mitigate the problem.

The fundamental cause of what I call the “two sides mentality” is a lack of true alignment. Most organizations have invested big bucks into developing a “strategy,” which includes things like Values, Vision, Mission, Purpose, Key Result Areas, Tactics, and Measures. These essential elements are usually developed by small teams of managers who cloister themselves away in a hotel or something for a few days to bang out the strategy.

Then, as the ink is drying on the pages, the discussion turns to how this brilliant plan is going to be communicated to the mass of workers in order to get “buy in” from the people “in the trenches.” Eventually there is a “roll out” of the information which inevitably is communicated BY the managers TO the workers. Notice the hackneyed expressions I used above are the actual words that are used, even today in the real world – amazing! If you listen, you will hear them.

The presentation is given to half-asleep people who are sitting in neat rows trying not to yawn. The data dump is followed by a few polite questions, and then everybody files out of the conference room and goes to lunch. The managers meet in their own dining space and congratulate themselves on clarifying the strategy and getting buy-in from the workers.

In reality, what happened is that the managers illustrated, once again, that they are clueless about how the culture is created by their actions, not their words. Their attempt to get everybody “on the same page” only served to drive the wedge between the management team and the people doing the work deeper. How is it possible for managers to miss the reality that they are doing the same thing hoping for a different result?

The fact that some organizations actually do achieve true alignment of purpose throughout the organization (my personal estimate is less than 20% do) gives me hope that not only is it possible, but with excellent leadership it is easier and faster than the conventional route. Organizations that achieve true alignment always blow away groups that have fractured perspectives.

In their book “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations,” Bob and Gregg Vanourek have a whole chapter on alignment. It is an excellent model. One key point they make is that the elements of the strategy need to be developed collaboratively. Great leaders know that for people to truly embrace a concept, they must put their fingerprints on it while it is being developed. The authors write about how the alignment is a kind of cascade rather than a lay on. The principles and information are generated organically and developed carefully by the whole team over time.

The collaborative process allows all people in the organization to feel true ownership of the plan, which becomes the foundation for alignment. It is alignment that erases the feeling of one side versus the other, because we all understand what we are trying to do and are pulling in the same direction. So how can leaders create this kind of culture? Here are eight ideas that can help any organization reduce the “we versus they” thinking and thereby obtain the full energy that is latent in the entire team.

1. Leaders need to listen more

In the urgency to survive and the reality of a flat world, it is a real challenge to make the effort and take the time to engage people at all levels about the future direction. Of primary importance, it is necessary to agree upon a set of values that the entire team not only adopts but pledges 100% to live by, even when it is difficult. It is not enough to simply state the values. For true alignment, all of the values must be demonstrated by all people all the time.

Clarifying a compelling vision of the future is equally vital. If every person in the organization feels that he or she is going to be much better off once the vision is achieved, you have a powerful force multiplier for alignment.

2. Involve everyone in identifying the direction

As ideas are put forth, look for common themes and keep working the information into a model where each person feels ownership. Once people realize they are actually part of the generation process, they will be much more inclined to embrace the final product. When one part of the strategy seems impossible, don’t discard it. Rather, examine the blockage and get creative with a way to accomplish it anyway in an ethical, values-based way.

3. Don’t say things you cannot do

So often I see a values plaque in the lobby of a company indicating “People are our most important asset,” only to find the managers in the back conference room trying to figure out details of the impending downsizing. Once a stated value reveals managerial hypocrisy, it does more harm than good to put it on the plaque. It fosters a “They say it, but they don’t mean it” mentality that enables “us versus them” and works against the alignment.

4. Don’t “Roll Out” the “Program”

I have found that having a big roll out program is often the kiss of death. Employees smell a lay-on coming a mile away, and they will go to the meeting with earplugs firmly inserted. A roll out meeting may allow managers to check the box called “communicate” but it does little to build alignment. Instead of the big fanfare, share the information at small family groups with good opportunity for dialog, and indicate this was derived by all of us. Stress that the information on the strategy is how we intend to conduct ourselves from now on. Repeat that information at every possible point and illustrate it when decisions are based on it. For example, a manager might say, “We have recommended this vendor as the supplier for our parts because their demonstrated integrity matches our own value of integrity.”

5. Be willing to admit mistakes

In changing a culture, there will be small, or sometimes big, mistakes made along the way. The world is a messy place, and it is impossible to reach perfection. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “If we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” When managers are willing to admit they made a mistake along the way, it demonstrates to people they are sincere about the culture change. Also when managers admit their vulnerability and do not punish people for pointing out apparent inconsistencies, it builds higher trust because it reduces fear in the workplace. Lower fear means less opportunity for “we versus they” thinking.

6. Build and value trust

Trust becomes the glue that holds the whole organization together in good times and in difficult times. The culture of any organization is a reflection of the behaviors of the senior leaders more than any other single factor. If the culture is split so the workers do not trust management, then every initiative, strategy, and outcome will be compromised. Leaders need to understand and step up to this incredible challenge. True alignment requires the attention and effort of everyone on the team, but the leaders set the tone and model the way.

7. Don’t get derailed by short term thinking

The daily and monthly pressures of any business will test the resolve of the team. In his program “Life is a Journey,” Brian Tracy points out that “obstacles are not put there to obstruct but to instruct.” The whole team needs to learn from the challenges and focus on the long term vision to navigate the speed bumps with grace. The very reason for having a strategy in the first place is to focus energy on the big picture when the vicissitudes of the real world try to blow us off course.

8. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones

The atmosphere can be moved from surviving an oppressive string of burdensome crosses to bear to one of hitting the tops of the waves as we water ski to victory. The trick is to recognize and appreciate all of the good things that are going on. Teach people that the reinforcement should come from all levels, not just the managers. Once the workers start practicing reinforcement of others, magic things begin to happen.

There are numerous other ideas and helpful tips that can add to the success of the team. The main point of this article is that it is possible to create real alignment where everyone in the organization is truly excited about what is being accomplished, and that culture eliminates the “we versus they” mentality between workers and managers. I wish more organizations could experience the fantastic boost to performance and the true joy of working in such an environment. It all rests on the quality of leaders to create that kind of culture.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at 585-392-7763. Website BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Betrayal of Trust

December 12, 2015

A total breach of trust can take your breath away because it violates a sacred bond between two people.

There was a connection that was solid and true, but all of a sudden something happened that appeared to violate everything the relationship was built on.

Here is an example of a trust violation from my experience.

I was Mike’s boss, and we had a relationship built on trust. Mike was a manager in my Division. We had been together a long time, and I knew him well. Mike knew that I always put a high premium on honest communication, so when I heard a rumor that he was having an inappropriate relationship with a female employee reporting to him, I could not believe it.

After all, Mike was an upstanding pillar of the community with a wife and four kids. He was also the leader of a large bible study group at his church.

Several weeks later, I was provided indisputable evidence that he actually was having an affair with the female employee reporting to him.

Since this was totally out of character for Mike, I stopped into his office one day to confront the situation. I shared that I had heard a rumor that turned out to be true, and that I was extremely disappointed.

Mike looked me straight in the eye and said it was not true: there was no affair and no relationship. He lied to my face in order to get out of a tough spot.

Obviously the lie cut me much more deeply than his sexual indiscretions did.

In this case the damage was irreparable because all trust was lost. Mike had to find another job, because I could no longer have him reporting to me.

When trust is totally violated, it is sometimes impossible to rebuild.

The first question after a trust betrayal is whether the relationship can be salvaged or not. If it can be, then take steps in that direction immediately, if not, then you must take your lumps and end the relationship.

When a trust betrayal happens, both parties usually feel awful about it. It is important to move quickly to confront the situation. Sitting on the problem will not resolve it, and it will make you feel worse.

Do not just float along pretending the problem had not occurred. That does a total disservice to the valuable relationship you had. Often there are steps that can repair broken trust.

The first question to ask is whether the relationship is salvageable. It is an important decision because sometimes the violation is so serious, there is no going back, as was the case with Mike.

When a trust violation occurs, the question to ask is “do I feel strongly enough about our relationship to find some way to patch it up or is it over.”

Here is a case where a misunderstanding nearly ended a strong relationship.

I trusted Martha completely, but then I found out she tried to steal a resource out from under me. I felt totally violated, but decided our relationship was worth saving.

I arranged to meet with her so we could get to the bottom of the problem. It took a lot of courage to confront her, but I am glad I did.

The first point I established was that we both felt rotten, and wanted to recover our former relationship of trust. Once we agreed to invest in the relationship, we were able to share the facts, apologize, and generate a plan for renewal.

Actually in this case, as often happens, there was a misunderstanding, so the repair process worked out for us. By sharing facts and discussing future intent as adults, the violation was repaired.

This case was a great example of when trust is repaired quickly after a violation. In such circumstances, the relationship can end up stronger than it was before the problem occurred. The process is to:

• open the lines of communication,
• confirm that the relationship can be saved,
• share with each other your perception of what happened,
• determine what things would need to happen for full redemption,
• make a plan,
• and follow through with the plan.

It is very much like marriage counseling.

Exercise for you: Today think about a relationship in your life that has gone sour, but that you wish could be brought back to life.

Relive the experience and pay special attention to how you felt at the time. Would you play the scene differently if you had the opportunity to do it over?

Meet with the person and find out if the feeling is mutual. If it is, then make the investment in time and energy to salvage trust. You may find it to be stronger than ever after you do.

Recognize that not every relationship can be saved. It is a matter of deep introspection, and it really depends on the nature of the violation as well as the character of the people involved.

Making a conscious effort to repair lost trust is a blessing in your life because in many cases it can restore a precious bond. That is an enriching experience.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to

The Root of All Conflict

April 7, 2013

celeriacCan you believe a single three-word phrase is the basis for nearly all conflict? It is true that conflict shows up with numerous symptoms and there are many different ways of resolving it. If it were not for three words, and their implications, we would rarely experience the dysfunctional behaviors of conflict that cause interpersonal problems and billions of dollars wasted in business.

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes; each of us is a unique specimen. One universal truth we all have in common is an amazing ability to drive other humans crazy when we try to live or work in close proximity. Two people working in the same area day after day will eventually hurt each other emotionally, if not physically. Put three people together and it will happen even faster. When you peel back the various layers of symptoms, you always come back to the same three-word source of the problem.

Professional negotiators and conflict resolution consultants have hundreds of techniques to deal with the conflict problem and to try to get people to get along. Each one of us has some mixture of techniques we use, depending on the situation. Typical techniques for dealing with conflict include:

• Flight – Trying to avoid it or somehow get away from it.
• Smoothing – Trying to make everyone feel good.
• Negotiating – Finding a compromise that works. Looking for a win-win.
• Showdown – Driving for a decision. Demanding a judgment on win-lose.
• Confronting – Getting to the real issues. Finding the root cause.

In my leadership classes, I have a module on conflict reduction. I give each student a three-inch round button with the three words that are the root cause of all conflict. The words are “I AM RIGHT.” In most interfaces, each person has a personal opinion of what is happening, and that opinion is invariably “right” according to the person who has it. Reason: It is next to impossible for a person who is not insane to get his or her opinion wrong. If you believe it, then it is true for you.

If I have a disagreement with another person about a situation, the other person must be wrong by definition, because I am convinced that I am right. Few people will draw a conclusion about something believing it to be incorrect. I pass out the “I AM RIGHT” buttons to remind my leadership students that all people are, in effect, walking around each day wearing the same button. If we could only change the wording on these buttons to read, “I am not sure” or “I may be wrong,” then there would be less conflict and more room for constructive dialog.

If we can teach people to soften the zeal with which they believe their opinions long enough to at least listen to the case for an alternate view, then we can enable healthy consideration of both views and lower the level of conflict. One way the professional negotiators use to get people to do this is to reverse the roles. During a heated debate, it can be useful to get person “A” to attempt to advocate the views of person “B” and vice versa. That technique is easier said than done.

I recall having a heated debate with another engineer early in my career. Neither one of us was able to convince the other person that he was wrong. Finally I said to him, “OK Frank, how about we reverse roles; I will argue your side and you argue mine.” Frank was a smart negotiator. He said, “OK Bob, you go first.” I then proceeded to explain why Frank’s position was the correct one, then I told him it was his turn to explain my side of the story. Frank pondered for a minute, and said, “You know, Bob, after listening carefully to the description you just gave (which was actually Frank’s thesis), I agree with you.” He had me cold.

To lower conflict in your work area, teach individuals to recognize they are all wearing an “I AM RIGHT” button all of the time. Help people see that an alternative view is possible and should be considered. Encourage people to listen carefully to what the other person is saying and do their best to see the validity in their views.

Load Rage

May 1, 2011

As organizations wrestle with global competition and economic cycles, the pressure on productivity is more acute each year. I do not see an end to the pressure to accomplish more work with less. There comes a point when leaders ask people to stretch beyond their elastic limit, and they burn out. As the constant requests for more work with fewer resources starts to take a physical toll on the health of workers at all levels, people become justifiably angry. I see evidence of what I call “load rage” in nearly every organization in which I work.

An interesting flip side of this problem is the observation made by many researchers that working human beings generally operate at only a fraction of their true capability. I have read estimates of organizations extracting on average something like 30-50% of the inherent capability in the workforce; some estimates are even lower. It would be impossible for anyone to continually operate at 100% of capacity because that would require the adrenal glands to secrete a constant stream or adrenaline that would kill the person. However, if the estimates of typical capacity used are accurate, there is still a lot of upside in people, so why the “load rage”?

The reason is that we base our perception of how hard we are working at any moment on a sliding scale. We base our feelings of load on how busy we are, not on what percentage of our capacity is being consumed. Many of our activities are simply traps that we invent because of habitual patterns in our daily work. We tolerate a multitude of inhibiting actions that steal seconds from our minutes and minutes from our hours. We excuse these diversions as not being very important, but in reality they are exceedingly relevant to our output and to our stress level. Let me cite a few examples.

Look at the inbox of your e-mail account. If you are like most people there are more than a few notes waiting for your attention. We have all kinds of reasons (really rationalizations) for not keeping our inbox totally cleaned out each day. I will share that at this moment I have 5 “read” notes and no “unread” notes in my inbox, and it is driving me crazy. I need to get that down to zero within the hour, but right now I am consumed writing this article. If we are honest, it is inescapable that having more than 2-3 notes waiting attention will cause a few milliseconds of search time when we want to do anything on e-mail. That time is lost forever, and it cannot be replaced. We all know people who have maxed out the inbox capability and have literally thousands of e-mails to chew through. These people are drowning in a sea of time wasters just like a young adult with 20 credit cards is drowning in a sea of debt. It is inevitable.

You know at least a few people in your circle of friends or working comrades who spend a hefty chunk of their day going around lamenting how there is not enough time to do the work. Admit it – we all do this to some extent. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Looks like I have plenty of time and not much to do.” OK, old geezers in the home have this problem and so do young children who are dependent on mommy to think up things to keep them occupied. For most of us in the adult or working world, our time is the most scarce and precious commodity we have, yet we habitually squander it in tiny ways that add up to major stress for us. I suspect that even the most proficient time-management guru finds it possible to waste over 30% of his or her time on things that do not matter.

One healthy antidote, especially at work, is to have a “stop doing” list. Most people have a “to do” list, but you rarely see someone crossing things off a “don’t do” list. Think how liberating and refreshing it would be if each of us found an extra hour or two each day by just consciously deciding to stop doing things that do not matter. Whole groups can do this exercise and gain incredible productivity. The technique is called “work out,” where groups consciously redesign processes to take work out of the system. If you examine how you use your time today, I guarantee that if you are brutally honest you can find at least 2 hours of time you are wasting on busy work with no real purpose. Wow, two hours would be a gift for anyone.

Another technique is to really load up your schedule. You think that you are overworked now, but just imagine if you added 5 major new activities that had to be done on top of your present activities. That would feel insane, but you would find ways to cope. Then if you cut back to your current load next week, what seemed like an untenable burden a few weeks ago would feel like a cake walk. I can recall a time in the Fall of 2004 when I was teaching 11 different courses at the same time. That was in addition to writing a book and developing a leadership consulting practice. I will admit that was a little over the top, but did I ever enjoy the load when I cut it back to only three courses at a time.

Another huge time burner is conflict. We spend more time than we realize trying to manage others so our world is as close to what we want as possible. When things are out of kilter, we can spend hours of time on the phone or e-mail negotiating with others in a political struggle to get them to think more like us. The typical thought pattern going through the mind during these times is “why can’t you be more like me.” The energy and time to have these discussions can really eat up the clock time during the day.

Dither is another issue for many of us. I already shared that while I am writing this paper, I am really procrastinating from opening up and dealing with the 5 notes in my inbox (oops – now 6) (now 7). I typically get between 100-150 e-mails a day. There are other things I must do today, but I am having fun writing this paper, so the “work” is getting pushed back. I will pay for this indulgence later, but at least I do recognize what I am doing here. The point is that most of the time that we lose is unconscious. We have all figured out how to justify the time wasters in our lives, and we still complain that there are not enough hours in the day.

There is no cure for this malaise. It is part of the human condition. I think it helps to remind ourselves that when we feel overloaded, particularly with work, it is really just a priority issue, and we honestly do have plenty of time to do everything with still some slack time to take a breath. If you do not agree, then I suspect you are in denial.

Now, I need to be excused to go clean out my inbox!