How often in your work have you ended up in a tense state, where the atmosphere seems oppressive? Is that just the normal stresses and strains of living a busy demanding life, or can something be done to alleviate it? My contention is that we don’t want to look at, or think about, the situation too much because we assume it will make us feel worse. But if we were to just try and gain a small bit of perspective, we would recognise the source/s of conflict and then maybe take a step to dealing with it.
I was approached by an organisation last year to conduct a governance review, and to make suggestions as to how the structures and modi operandi of the board could morph into something more appropriate. From talking to the CEO, I got the impression that she simply wanted a bit of technical restructuring, which excited me not a bit. When I suggested that organisational design wasn’t really my first love, or skill, for that matter, she kept me on the phone. She wanted me to meet the person slated to take over as chair, and they would come down to London to meet me.
I sensed this was about more than reordering a committee structure. I discovered that there was fundamental conflict between the way the outgoing chair and the CEO saw the purpose and shape of the organisation. I spent about six weeks, on and off, meeting up with each director for at least an hour, and probed them as to how they saw the organisation. Once I asked people to look a bit harder, the sources of the conflict emerged. How could you have an organisation where the two significant leaders had fundamentally different outlooks?
As it happens, I have just been asked to take on the chair role in one of the organisations I have been working with. Almost without realising it, the first conversation I had after the announcement had been made was with the CEO, who rang me straight away to tell me how excited she was and how we could really achieve the potential of the organisation by working together. We talked about the sector and what we thought our clients needed, about the changes required in the organisation that we should put in place to achieve a more effective shape, and we quickly mused on some key objectives, even though this was just a spontaneous and informal call. But what we did, on reflection, was to demonstrate a lot of alignment in our thinking.
That was not the case with the other organisation. But once the nature of the conflict had become clear, it was relatively straightforward to put things right. Plans for changing the chair were accelerated and clarity achieved around the way the board needed to conduct itself.
My mediation work has taught me to keep asking questions until it is obvious that the truth has been reached. But often people don’t want to reveal it, not necessarily because they are deliberately trying to hide something, but simply because they don’t want the pain of it coming out. However, so often, once individuals in a dispute are honest as to what they really want, the solution becomes a lot simpler to find.
I know that when I sense an atmosphere of tension and strain, I should seek out the root of this, and address it. I know that this may come across as a bit perverse, but experience has taught me that it will probably reveal the truth, however painful, and we can then find a solution or an improvement that can improve matters. Don’t get me wrong, as the leader, this may mean removing someone from a team or having a very challenging conversation with someone but, more often than not, the solution lies in working in slightly different ways.
As a leader, your job is to make your organisation work effectively. You’ll have to resolve many conflicts, probably on a weekly, if not daily basis. Follow your instincts, and you’ll usually find the source. But don’t think you’re going to do yourself any favours by pretending everything if fine, or assuming that you are being melodramatic in your thinking.
It’s not a governance review the CEO needed, but a realignment of vision between two leaders.
I think she gets it now.
If you’re interested in how I can help you work through a challenging situation to reach clarity and confidence, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a voicemail on 07818-092245