October 30, 2015

This BOG Update is brought to you by Rosanne Nelson, MBA, MA/OD, Director of Leadership Development at the ACC.

Halloween is upon us. A spooky time filled with candy and magic for children of all ages. In our home, the holiday preparation inevitably begins in the hallowed halls of our beloved Costco. And, during our most recent bulk-store voyage, we were approached by an older woman with a question we've consistently encountered in the past. "Are your kids twins? ...They look like twins? They seem to act like twins." Our response: "Not twins, but very close in age. Just 18 months apart. How do twins act, by the way?"

And, as in the past, the response brings forth the same statement about 80% of the time... "Oh, that's so nice! Two little girls, so close in age, they must be such good friends. How fun for you both!" Naturally, our response is always the same: "Well, if you like chaos and conflict, then...yes, it's a lot of fun!" Certainly, we understand 'chaos' goes with the toddler territory, but we are also keenly aware that these are the years in which our conflict style starts to take shape. In big ways and small, we see it (and hear it!) loud and clear. In fact, it's a fascinating study to simply watch how our own children negotiate and manage the inevitable waves of conflict.

We observe it in how children navigate the playground, their teachers, and the dinner table. There is a tremendous body of research regarding conflict style development...and it starts at a very young age.

Take a look at the books located within the children's section of your local library. You will find shelves upon shelves of fairy tales, each with its' own subtle conflict-related messaging.

"Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict. We are all misfit for the world, and somehow we must fit in, fit in with other people, and thus we must invent or find the means through communication to satisfy as well as resolve conflicting desires and instincts." (Princeton University Press. 2012).

Cue Goldilocks as she risks her life in order to avoid confrontation with the Three Bears, Cinderella as she attempts to accommodate in order to resolve family challenges and, of current Frozen fame, Elsa and Anna remain embroiled with a powerful drive toward collaboration for fear of hurting others. The subtle, and not so subtle, cues we pick up during our formative years are grounded in so much of our development.

The challenge, however, is to recognize what we learn, or experience, during these early years stays with us and often presents in various ways as adults. You may recognize it during a perfunctory team meeting, in an emergent situation with limited time to recalibrate, or simply triggered by a benign statement that harkens you back to a different place.

Some of us run toward conflict, others dash away from conflict as quickly as possible, and there are those that simply avoid conflict at all cost. Our role as leaders is to frame (or reframe, if needed) our approach to conflict to ensure we approach this critical competency in a healthy manner.

In a recent post by Joel Peterson, Jet Blue's Chairman, the notion of conflict as an organizational imperative was front and center: "Conflict happens — in businesses, in charitable organizations, in political parties, and in families," he concludes. "It means people care about outcomes, and conflict is far better than apathy. So, fostering a culture in which conflict is processed openly is as vital as any habit in the creation of a high-trust culture." I encourage you to take a look at your organization / institution of practice, and observe how conflict is managed throughout. What is your role within this cultural dynamic? Might there be opportunities to flex your leadership style in this regard?

For this month's article on leadership, I encourage you to consider the following exercise:

  1. Assess your personal ghosts of conflicts past.
    • How did you learn to manage conflict? What were the cues?
    • What is your primary mode of managing conflict (see tool B).
    • Consider how your family/early years contributed to your primary conflict mode as an adult.
  2. Take a moment over the next few weeks, and seek input/feedback:
    • How do others perceive your conflict management style? Seek out those that work with you each day, live with you, have grown up with you...they will tell you.
  3. Review the included tools:

This message will arrive in anticipation of Halloween, at the same time our little ones will be dressing up as their favorite fairy tale princesses. On this day, we will encourage our children to enjoy the fantasy of being Snow White and Cinderella. When they inevitably reach a heightened level of discord regarding who wears the tiara, we will be quick to jump in with a teachable moment about managing conflict and moving forward. Conflict is a natural element of any healthy relationship. As well, conflict serves as a critical component within a healthy organization. Living with the ghosts of conflicts past may be comfortable in the moment but, if not addressed, may pave the way for a frustrating leadership journey. I encourage you to explore the tools included in this posting, adapt your style as needed, and test out the situational application of various conflict styles. Don't be spooked by conflict, and feel free to reach out should you have a need for additional support along the way.