In their new book, Transparency: Creating a Culture of Candor, Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and Patricia Biederman, emphasize the importance of creating an open flow of communication in organizations. They urge leaders to seek information from a broad range of sources and share it widely. Indeed, robust and open discussion of issues leads to more effective decision-making.
Yet an insidious roadblock to open, effective communication exchange is a natural and inevitable part of organizational life - conflict.
Think about it – when you are in conflict with others, do you talk more or less with them? If you're like most people the answer is "less." And if you talk less with others, are you more or less likely to solve problems? Of course, the answer again is "less."
How can you keep conflict from diverting the flow of ideas and hampering discussion of differences? From an organizational or team standpoint, the key is talking about how you want to handle conflict before it occurs. Developing norms that encourage open discussion of issues caused by differences can help people keep talking when conflicts emerge. Candor and openness enables them to search for solutions instead of someone else to blame. Such norms need to deal with questions of trust and safety because when people feel that what they say will be used against them later, they will not fully engage. The norms should also encourage the use of constructive communication behaviors that can help lead to problem resolution.
Constructive behaviors include the ability to listen carefully to others with whom you are having conflict. Listening to someone whose view is opposed to yours can be difficult, especially if the conflict has angered you. This is essential, however, if you want to find ways to effectively resolve the conflict. Effective listening encourages the free flow of information and may be a leader's most effective tool to promoting open communication.
When conflict has caused communications to dry up, leaders can use a behavior called reaching out to get discussions moving again. Reaching out involves talking with the others involved in the conflict and encouraging them to try again to resolve their differences. If the leader is personally involved in the conflict, reaching out may including issuing an apology when appropriate or acknowledging at least partial responsibility for the difficulty. When appealing to those in conflict, the leader can clarify the business problems caused by the conflict and encourage further efforts to talk about how to best resolve them.
Effective leaders recognize just how crucial it is to foster open communication in their organizations. More importantly, they take steps to make sure conflict doesn't sabotage the free flow of information so necessary for creativity, good decision-making and implementation.
We get it. Presidential debates are organized for the specific purpose of showcasing the differences between the candidates. And it's a great idea. Our system is built on the premise that voters decide who gets elected. (OK, we know how the electoral college works'¦ but just bear with us on this.) Having the candidates speak openly in a forum designed to highlight their differences is a great way to enable voters to gather information and make their judgments.
At the same time, aren't you just a little dismayed at some of the antics and behaviors of our candidates? There is no question that John McCain and Barack Obama have conflicting views. Each wants to convince us that his views are better than the other's. The winner becomes arguably the most powerful person on the face of the earth for goodness sake. What won't they do to win?
There are many ways to handle conflicts, even between candidates for office. Essentially, there are two broad categories of conflict: constructive and destructive. Constructive conflict enables an examination of differences and disagreements in ways that focus on exploration, dialogue, and curiosity. Most often, constructive conflict results in new ideas and satisfying solutions. Destructive conflict is characterized by blame and criticism. The result is often frayed emotions, indecision, and diminished commitment to outcomes. With these concepts in mind, here are just a few observations from the town hall style debate of Oct. 7.
Both candidates spoke frequently about trust. Unfortunately, in their zeal to win, the issue of trust was reduced to a game of showing why you can't trust the other guy. It doesn't matter much who said what. "He voted 24 times to raise your taxes and now he says he's going to reduce taxes." "He supported the failed policies of the current administration for the past eight years and now he wants you to believe he's going to change those policies." The blame game only serves to demonstrate that there is little trust between these two obviously powerful men and their respective parties.
At the root of most destructive kinds of conflict lies trust issues. Wouldn't it be amazing for our country if the two candidates could share their differences without criticizing and blaming one another? Is it possible that the two candidates for president could model constructive conflict behavior? Might such behavior actually encourage more trust of our leaders? Open discussion of differences, without blame, provides an opportunity for constructive conflict. That seems like something our country could use these days.
Both candidates also seemed to enjoy pointing out their "fundamental differences." If only they could stay focused on the differences rather than each other! Every time we heard the phrase "fundamental difference," we yearned for a true examination of those differences. Unfortunately, the candidates quickly stooped to characterizations of one another as "inexperienced," "rash," "unpredictable," and "irresponsible." We'd rather they have laid out their perspectives clearly and left the analysis, judgment, and any criticisms up to the voters. Constructive conflict focuses on content issues. Destructive conflict focuses on personal issues. Don't we, the voters, deserve more focus on content?
One question from the audience provided a glimmer of hope. A woman inquired about the heavy economic burden of taxes and health care. Both Obama, then McCain, addressed the woman with empathy. They used phrases such as, "It's easy to see your frustration," and "I can sense your cynicism." Constructive conflict behavior includes the ability to empathize and understand the perspectives of others. Both candidates demonstrated empathy in their responses. We hope whoever wins the election uses empathy and perspective taking as they maneuver through the many conflicts facing our nation.
As the debate ended, Obama and McCain strode to the center of the stage to shake hands (which interestingly never happened as Obama offered his hand but McCain apparently didn't notice), blocking moderator Tom Brokaw's view of the teleprompter. As Brokaw struggled to read his concluding remarks he laughed and motioned for the candidates to move. Obama and McCain, realizing their error, quickly and in perfect synchrony, pivoted away and apologized. Order was restored. In this moment of genuine, human, unintentional misunderstanding and subsequent resolution, we all smiled. Perhaps there is hope.
We'll see on Wednesday night.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard this question over the last 25 years. I could retire tomorrow!
Why do so many keep bringing up this tired clichÃ© when we clearly know that "business ethics" is not a contradiction in terms? Obviously, this clichÃ© does point to something true about joining "business" and "ethics." At the same time, I think this clichÃ© conveys something very misleading that can derail corporate ethics initiatives. It's time to separate the truth from the error.
People never will stop repeating this clichÃ© because, deep down, we know that it's not always easy to be ethical—in business or anywhere else in life! Sometimes it's hard to know what the right thing to do is. Because modern life is complex and fast-moving, we sometimes are honestly perplexed about what ethics require in a particular quandary.
Other times, when it is crystal-clear what we should do, we still may stumble because there can be powerful obstacles to acting ethically. For example, in the short term, acting ethically can sometimes be very expensive.
So, calling "business ethics" an oxymoron rightly recognizes that ethics is a challenge. This much is true. That said, I think that this clichÃ© also betrays a deep error in the way that many think about ethics in business. This error can be costly for business and it should be cleared up once and for all.
Calling "business ethics" an oxymoron conveys the misguided assumption that ethical commitment and conduct have to be 100% in order to be valid. In other words, if you're going to be ethical you have to be a saint. Like being pregnant, being ethical is thought to be an all-or-nothing proposition: you either are or you aren't!
It's certainly not bad to strive for ethical perfection, but it can be very destructive to insist upon it. Demanding 100% ethical perfection can have the unintended reverse consequence of discouraging people from trying to be ethical at all. When faced with the impossible, sometimes people just give up.
The hard realities of business require give-and-take among people as they strive for pragmatic solutions. These solutions aren't always perfect, but they often represent the best we can achieve. So, we shouldn't give up, by saying it is impossible to join "business" and "ethics," simply because it is sometimes hard to put our ethics into practice.
The implications for business are serious. Just recently, there were stories in the news media about how certain socially responsible investment funds had fallen short in their goals to achieve ethically clean portfolios. Much of this coverage cynically suggested that investors shouldn't even try to apply their ethics to investment decisions because of the difficulty of avoiding "dirty hands" in the market place.
I oppose this kind of cynical response. Instead of concluding that ethics and investments don't go together, we should be seeking even more sophisticated and thoughtful ways to link our values to our wallets.
Business schools and leading companies support the idea of "continuous improvement." This means that any business practice can be improved upon. Effective businesses cut victory laps short in order to improve quickly upon their successes. Entrepreneurs in particular understand that "sitting still" is the same as "slipping backwards."
But continuous improvement also entails the frank admission that we're not perfect—not ever. If we were perfect, there'd be no room to improve. There's no shame in being less than perfect. The shame would come only from giving up on doing better.
Continuous improvement as a business philosophy makes good sense. Why should it not also make sense as an ethical philosophy? There's no such thing as an ethically perfect manager, or an investment fund, or a company. If perfection is the impossible standard we're applying, then indeed we might as well conclude that "business ethics" is an oxymoron.
It makes no sense to impose this unrealistic standard on business or anything else. Instead, every company should examine its own practices and policies, and ask, "How can we improve what we're doing? Is our ethics code adequate? Do we train our people as well as we can? Do we treat our customers and other stakeholders as we should?"
The answer, of course, is that we can always do better. But far from being a reason for cynicism, this answer is actually good news. "Business ethics" is not an oxymoron; it's an opportunity.
Conflict is a challenge everywhere, in every business. But rarely is it this public.
A recent headline in the St. Petersburg Times blared, "Effort issues incite angst." Our hometown team, the Tampa Bay Rays, this year's "Cinderella club" in Major League baseball, has a problem. It's a problem not unlike one of the most common issues faced in workplaces across the country and around the world. One of the key players on the team appears, no check that, is demonstrating, a lack of commitment to the team.
In short, rising star centerfielder B.J. Upton has been guilty of one of the cardinal sins in any level of sports: a lack of hustle. He failed to run hard to first base in a recent game. After the game, Ray's manager Joe Maddon met with Upton, discussed the situation, and gained assurances that this would never happen again. About a week later, Upton again failed to run full speed after hitting a ground ball that turned into an inning-ending double play. Maddon pulled Upton from the game, met with him again, and did not allow Upton to play in the next game. Once again, all parties, including Upton, agreed this type of effort was unacceptable. Several games later, Upton hit a line drive off the left field wall. As Upton jogged toward second base, the throw from the outfielder reached the first baseman who tagged Upton from behind for the out. The crowd booed. Upton walked off the field in embarrassment while Maddon and the Rays wondered how they could continue to count on him.
The conflict here is not just between Upton and his boss. Upton's behavior has had an impact on the entire team. The climate has been damaged and emotions are running high. What makes this situation so interesting is that the offending behavior was addressed immediately. And not just by the manager. Recent reports from the Rays indicate that several teammates have discussed the situation at length with Upton. And the team met as a whole with Upton apologizing and committing to be there for them as the Rays make their stretch run.
We're typically cautious about using too many sports examples and analogies. In this case, however, I believe there is a great lesson to be learned. When conflict arises because of the unsatisfactory work habits of a teammate, the behavior must be addressed swiftly. The integrity of team norms and climate is critical to the motivation of team members and ultimately the performance of the team itself. Handled well, events like this can be a galvanizing force for any team. Handled poorly or ignored, even the best of teams will suffer. Here's hoping the clear, quick steps taken by the Rays will pay off with a championship season.
Conflict is an inevitable part of most leaders experiences. It can be at the root of some of their best ideas -— or their worst failures. Whether they get good or bad outcomes out of conflict comes mainly from how they respond to it, both emotionally and behaviorally. Numerous books talk about how to handle conflict from a behavioral standpoint. They encourage people to listen carefully to the other person in order to understand his or her perspective. They suggest transforming conflict from an adversarial process to one that involves collaborative problem-solving. When things go wrong, they recommend reaching out to the other person to try to get communications restarted.
These are all tools that any of us can use. They're good ideas which can help people resolve conflicts that result from their different interests, needs, and values. But it's not that easy to be calm and rational -- or even to remember these rules -- when you are in the midst of exploding. The best approach? Learn how to cool down and slow down when you are faced with conflict and feel your emotions rising. The best news? We can help you do just that.
We use an assessment instrument that, among other things, measures people's hot buttons -- the behaviors in others that tend to upset us and cause us to get angry or otherwise emotionally off balance. (You can try a free version of part of the hot buttons portion of the assessment here.
Knowing more about what causes you to get upset when you are faced with conflict can help you figure out why these behaviors upset you and help you adjust your reaction to them.
In addition to knowing what triggers your emotions in the first place, there are techniques that can help you cool down when you feel your emotions rising. Traditional approaches include taking deep breaths and thinking about something more pleasant to distract yourself. More refined techniques involve observing or reflecting on your thoughts and feelings. This enables you to detach your sense of self from the negative emotions and thoughts, which effectively causes the emotions to become less intense and then to subside.
In spite of our best efforts to cool down, sometimes things begin to spin out of control. If we keep going, we'll likely react negatively and do something that will escalate the conflict. It's time to STOP and begin to SLOW things down before taking next steps. Taking a time out will enable you to slow down physiologically and mentally. It effectively gives you another chance at practicing cooling techniques.
Once you are able to reach a more balanced emotional state, you will be ready to practice the constructive types of communication behaviors that can help lead to satisfying results to conflict.
Some people feel that if they can just keep their feelings inside and use logic in conflict contexts, everything will be all right. Our experience suggests otherwise. Feelings that are suppressed tend to fester and eventually they will leak out in some more destructive manner. This has led us to recommend to our clients that they need to deal with their emotions around conflict or their emotions will eventually deal with them.
The choice is yours. Choose wisely.
It is said that the eminent 18th century British jurist Lord Mansfield once gave this advice to a struggling Colonial judge: "Consider what you think justice requires, and decide accordingly. But never give your reasons; for your judgment will probably be right, but your reasons will certainly be wrong."
Today we can still relate to the keen insight in this advice because nearly everyone squirms when pressed to give reasons for their views—and not just in the courtroom. It's one thing to venture forth an opinion. It's quite another to back up that opinion with evidence because this increases the chance that we will make a mistake or say something that others will challenge. As we reveal the reasoning behind our decisions or choices, we feel exposed because we make it easier for others to criticize us. It's so much easier simply to assert ourselves; it is far more difficult to have to explain ourselves.
We get especially uncomfortable when asked to give reasons for our ethical judgments. Many people have no trouble saying that they think something is right or wrong. But when pressed for why they think something is right or wrong, people often shrug and reply, "Who's to say?" This evasive response sometimes is an attempt to be polite or to avoid a judgmental confrontation. When dealing with minor issues, most of us would rather not get bogged down in debates about values. Like politics and religion, perhaps ethics is a topic best avoided in polite conversation.
But when dealing with important business ethics issues, we cannot afford to be evasive. There are times at work, like at home, when it is not enough simply to take an ethical stance; we also should be able to explain or justify our stance to others who may have questions or need guidance. And why shouldn't this be so? We expect important business decisions to be supported with the best analytical thinking and the most rigorous evidence that money can buy. Who would accept an important financial decision without first scrutinizing the underlying numbers?
But ethics judgments, it is sometimes said, are not like other business decisions: Ethics is subjective whereas business is objective. This is why we demand solid reasons for our business decisions. Ethics decisions, being only a matter of subjective feelings, cannot be supported in the same way. When we shrug and reply "Who's to say?" we are saying that there are no answers in ethics. Or, that any answer is as good as another. Philosophers call this view of ethics emotivism.
However interesting emotivism may be for philosophers, it is deadly for business. When we conduct business as if ethics only involves mere feelings, we open the door to costly ethics abuses and scandals that make it hard to do business at all. Granted, ethics may not always be as clear-cut and precise as mathematics; we've known that simple fact since Aristotle. That said, ethics is not completely subjective or arbitrary because often it makes good sense to ask someone for the reasons why they have a particular ethical judgment. In other words, people with reliable business experience usually can tell when one ethics argument is more convincing than another. It's not all completely subjective.
For this reason, ethics training in business should emphasize critical thinking skills of ethical reasoning. It is not enough simply to require employees to memorize a list of do's and don'ts. In today's complex and rapidly changing business environment, workers inevitably will encounter grey areas of business where they will have to think for themselves. When asked why they handled ethical issues as they did, we would be outraged if business people shrugged and replied, "Who's to say?" Indeed, especially when serious ethical judgments are at stake, we would expect them to be able to say why! Responsible and effective business people can tell others why their decisions are worth taking seriously.
With all due respect to Lord Mansfield: When dealing with important ethics issues in business, our reasons had better be right. We owe it to ourselves, our employees and our investors to provide the best possible tools for effective, intelligent ethical reasoning. We are long past the era when business ethics training could get by with mechanical indoctrination. Today's business world is more complicated than that. Today, people in business must be able to answer "Who's to say?" with a confident "I am."
Most people prefer to avoid conflict. Leaders don't enjoy it either, but effective ones know that too much is at stake to ignore conflict. Poorly managed, it can lead to a number of out-of-pocket expenses. Addressed skillfully, conflict can actually improve creativity and decision-making.
If leaders avoid conflict or respond with destructive behaviors, it can lead to a type of conflict researchers describe as relationship or affective conflict. Then, things really get worse. Research has shown that this type of conflict tends to prolong and escalate negative feelings that lead to reduced communications and commitment.
When this kind of conflict is prevalent in organizations, you stop running a company, and you start running interference. Managers wind up spending more time trying to work out solutions, turnover rises as good employees leave to find more acceptable work environments, and absenteeism or its cousin presenteeism sap productivity. When conflicts fester and grow over time, they can lead to even more serious outcomes such as sabotage, violence, labor unrest, lawsuits, and bad publicity.
But when leaders are able to respond to conflict constructively and encourage others to do so as well, they can find benefits hiding in the very same differences that can lead to bad outcomes. Researchers have identified a second type of organizational conflict termed task or cognitive conflict that when harnessed can lead to higher productivity. When people engage in task conflict, their focus remains on the issue at hand and their efforts revolve around problem-solving rather than finger-pointing. When teams engage in task conflict, they regularly exhibit higher levels of creativity and innovation. When issues can be debated and ideas vetted, leaders are able to arrive at better quality decisions and team members will be more committed to implementation because they have been active participants in the process.
While the concept is straight forward, it is not easy to keep the focus on problem-solving. When people's ideas are criticized, it is very easy for them to take the criticism personally, become angry, and strike back. Leaders need to closely monitor when it emerges to make sure teams keep their focus on the task at hand. They also need to model effective behaviors to keep communications positive and solution- focused.
To make it work, leaders must respond rationally rather than just react. One leader's team faced a critical decision with team members deeply split about whether to invest in a new product design. The leader favored the new approach, as did two other members of the team. They argued vigorously for their position – so much so that the others on the team became angry because they felt they weren't being heard. Finally, they forcefully challenged the leader and he reacted with hostile remarks. Things deteriorated quickly and didn't get back on track until intervention from a third party.
While it is easy to get into a win-at-all-costs mindset, leaders must recognize that conflict can rapidly escalate when it is not handled well. Conflict is too important to ignore or to approach by flying on autopilot. Leaders need to become conscious of their emotional and behavioral responses to conflict and then exercise discretion as they address the critical opportunities that conflict provides.
Ethics scandals create a sense of urgency that business must do a better job of promoting ethical behavior. There is a growing suspicion that legal compliance alone is not sufficient to promote responsible practices and to maintain the public trust. In an earlier post, I wrote of the need to develop the moral imagination of entrepreneurs who are our best hope for insightful, innovative solutions to the ethics challenges of today and tomorrow. But how is it possible to develop moral imagination? Some say that ethics can't be taught, at least not past early childhood. Either you have ethics or you don't, goes this line of thinking. Trying to teach ethics is like trying to teach someone how to carry a tune: If a person is tone-deaf, no amount of instruction will help.
This view that ethics cannot be taught is refuted by developmental psychology, which shows that people do acquire more sophisticated forms of ethical reasoning as they mature. Learning ethics might be like learning a language: It's easier to learn when young, but everyone can improve their foreign language skills, even later in life. There's a certain kind of wisdom that comes only from experience and ethical reasoning improves with instruction and practice.
Compliance training is all about learning rules that prevent business from doing harm. It deals less with the grey area of ethical quandaries and more with basic boundaries that should not be crossed. By comparison, it can be harder to determine the limits of our obligations when we seek to do more than simply stay out of trouble. We are required to do deeper thinking when we are asking how much good we should do in a particular business situation.
In this more complex calculation, ethics instruction can use a tool like the Kew Gardens Principles, a decision guide developed by a group of ethicists in the early 1970s. These principles were a response to the brutal killing of a young woman in Kew Gardens, New York, when witnesses to the attack failed to intervene or call for help. These principles identify four factors to consider when deciding whether to help solve a problem, even if the problem is not of our own doing:
1. Need. We are not required to go out of our way to fix every trivial problem we encounter. But the greater the need, the greater is our duty to address it.
2. Proximity. The closer we are to a problem, the more we may be expected to do something about it. We may have physical proximity, but we can also be close to a problem in more complex ways if it involves people we know well or are related to.
3. Capability. Ethics does not require us to take on problems we can't fix. I wouldn't be expected to dive in a pool to save a drowning man if I don't know how to swim -- though I certainly could be expected to do something else within my capability, like calling for help.
4. Last resort. If no one else is likely to help, we have a greater obligation to act ourselves. When there is uncertainty about the availability of others to help, we should err on the side of caution and act as if we are the last resort.
Need, Proximity, Capability and Last Resort. These four factors provide a simple but powerful framework for analyzing those grey situations where we must determine our obligations to do more than simply to avoid harm. These stimulate the moral imagination to envision new solutions to the ethics issues that arise at work. Business has shown it can respond to ethics scandals by beefing up compliance education. The challenge now is to take the next step to develop more advanced skills in ethical reasoning. Tools like the Kew Gardens Principles should be part of that next step.
- Open Communications and Conflict
- Obama and McCain: A Study in Conflict
- Isn't Business Ethics An Oxymoron?
- Lazy Teammates Compromise Team Performance
- Managing Your Hot Buttons
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