Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


Leave a comment

Take a deep breath, slow down – hiring doesn’t need to be a pain


agree-to-disagreeHiring, none of my clients enjoy hiring. In fact, they strongly dislike the entire disruptive process of finding a new person. The process is fraught with risk, expense, and distraction (hidden costs). Hiring, however, is not like removing a band-aid, do not just rush through it thinking that reduces pain. Hurrying through the hiring process exponentially increases pain. Hiring is more like creating a fine wine. You need the right process, the right ingredients, and time to age.  Which is to say, good hiring is as much about perspective as it is a good process.

Here are some stats on hiring that SHRM recently published. örgen Sundberg, CEO of Link Humans, estimates that bad hires cost as much as $240,000.  Several variables that go into calculating the cost to replace a bad hire in our experience. These include:

  • Recruitment advertising fees
  • Recruitment follow-up and review
  • Staff time for interviews
  • Relocation costs
  • Training costs
  • Reduced team performance
  • Disruption across related projects
  • Lost opportunity
  • Assessment costs
  • Placement services
  • Litigation fees

A 2015 talent acquisition study from Brandon Hall Group and Mill Valley, Calif.-based Glassdoor concluded that the lack of a standardized interview process makes a company five times more likely to make a mistake in hiring compared to those companies with a standard process. Look at your process. Do you have one? What makes it work or why has it failed? What needs to change?

Ten percent of the respondents to one survey noted that new hires did not work out because they did not fit the culture of the organization. Oddly, determining cultural fit is typically one of the last steps many companies take in hiring. Since skills are easily assessed through any variety of validated skill assessment tools, it makes sense to spend more time on cultural fit. In my work with clients, appropriate skills sets are determined through communication skill, behavioral interviews, and skill testing. Communication skills are used as a preliminary test of employee capability. We provide instructions on how to follow-up by requesting response in writing. If a potential employee cannot put together professional email response they are dropped. A quick phone interview determines whether they have the presence that is needed.

Part of cultural fit is understanding the work behavior and stress behavior of the potential employee. I use the Birkman Method Signature report to look for who may make the best team fit. The Signature report from Birkman isn’t a cure-all, but it will accelerate how long it takes to understand how the potential hire will approach their work and your existing team.

Brandon Hall Group research reports that strong onboarding processes improve new-hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent. In contrast, companies with weak onboarding programs are more likely to lose new hires in the first year! One researcher suggested that the onboarding process should be a year-long mentoring process that routinely checks in on new hire adjustment and development.

Hiring is inconvenient, bad hiring is extremely inconvenient. Review your hiring process. The best time to make improvements in the way you hire new people is before you need to engage the process. Don’t wait until you are under the gun to find someone and whatever you do – don’t just look for a stop-gap. You will loathe the day you hurried through the process of hiring. On the other hand, if your organization is growing, hiring is a consistent need. In addition to the good process, a good mental shift is also helpful. Don’t look at hiring as a pain, look at it as part of your work to meet your customer needs with excellence.

If you are the owner or the hiring manager of your company build the kind of networks that allow you to be exposed to the best employees. Recruit even when you don’t have a position open at this very minute. Why wait? Think about what your organization needs next year and the year after, not just what is needed today. Remember that open positions actually offer an opportunity to rethink how work gets done. Look at your existing team first. Who is moving up? Who else needs to move out? If you have to do the work of hiring then look at your entire team and ensure that you have the best team for where your organization is going. Don’t fear change – embrace it.

I am always happy to sit down with you and talk through how your company finds and places new people. Give me a call.


Leave a comment

Avoid the weariness trap


ResistanceThe single greatest challenge I see in the leaders I have known is the challenge of weariness that isolates them from their team. Leaders who are weary become inconsistent in the enforcement of policy and disengaged emotionally from their team.
I am often asked to help organizations develop new systems or to engage in remedial coaching for a poor performing employee. I have learned in these engagements to insert a condition. If I don’t work with the CEO or owner as well as the challenge employee or group I don’t take the engagement. Why? Because poor performance is rarely a single issue event.
The place leaders wear down the most is the place they can least afford i.e., staying engaged and staying consistent.

Like it or not employees or staff take their queue from the posture of the manager or executive to whom they report. It doesn’t take long for inconsistency on the part of the manager or executive to cascade through the system of their direct reports as lethargy, poor follow through, or even deliberate sabotage of the company’s objectives. It is fairly easy to empower a group or individual to engage their work when two things occur.

 First, support the work of others with consistent application of existing policy whether it is informal (implicit as in past behavior) or formal (explicit as in an employee handbook and job descriptions). Set clear expectations and provide a consistent environment and people will generally exceed expectations. I watched an entire sales team languish in one company when one of the members of the team (the poorest performing member) was retained in a downsize over a long-term employee who was a better producer. Why? Because the employee was friends with the owner – they were a “project” of the owner. As a result, the entire team saw that reward for their effort was not a matter of their own work or mastery of their tasks but the result of the degree to which they curried the favor of the owner. There is no wonder then that better producers resented this setup and became unresponsive to doing any work outside of meeting the minimum number of tasks.
Second, recognize the negative impact of poor systems. Poor systems are not unusual in privately held companies where the owner still struggles with the concept of corporate sovereignty i.e., a system of control and policy that describes what can and cannot be done so that the organization becomes the sovereign rather than the owner. In many privately held companies, the owner is the first to violate the rules of operation that he demanded others live by. This situation is compounded by the fact owners often refuse to design a system so that control of the company can transition from his or her own activity to a clear operating process and people committed to executing on that process. Designing such a system takes work – it is the work of decentralizing power not just delegating tasks. That is what makes it risky and why it doesn’t happen on a whim. One mentor of mine was fond of pointing out that the first job of any leader was to develop other leaders. Owners who have this mentality focus their efforts on building a great company around a great system of policies and controls that allowed employees to fully engage their work. These owners develop others to step up to responsibility and commitment. On the other hand, if hard conversations are ignored or avoided leaders won’t be developed. A great company expects policies to be enforced. When a leader demonstrates that they can be intimidated or that they won’t consistently enforce policy then performance runs amok.

Both of these problems i.e., inconsistency and poor systems, contribute to leadership weariness.

First, leaders try to do the work of their entire team – their scope is too far reaching usually out of mistrust of others. This is a sure sign that the systems and controls that are needed to create a great company are missing. Instead of disciplined execution, these leaders run from fire to fire. People never know where this leader will land and resent the intrusion when they do because they are a flurry of activity and anxiety that contributes very little to the completion of the task. How many hats do you wear in your business or organization? Why? If your answer is that others just don’t have the commitment or the skill it is time to reassess your assumptions about your organizational structure and your hiring practice.  Up the game or the game will eat you. Create systems and processes that ensure the right controls and the right permissions so that others can excel along with you.

Second, leaders often don’t know how to rest. They violate their own physical and mental energy by overexerting themselves for fear that others won’t perform. The fear part of this equation is answered in designing clear processes and accountability. The exhaustion part of this equation comes from a lack of time away. This kind of leader hovers over the time clock, stays late, arrives early and present him or herself as the paragon of productivity. In fact, they often duplicate their efforts, give contradictory commands, and overturn other people’s work then hasten to get them to do it again without significant changes. Day’s off and vacations are not optional. A tired leader often thinks he or she is demonstrating deep commitment – however, their short fuse, inability to critically assess problems and emotional detachment undermine the commitment of those working for them.

If things are broken reassess your systems and the degree to which you are developing leaders.

If you are weary, get away before you destroy your own success by harboring resentment toward those you blame for your weariness (usually the people closest to you who have no idea of what you are feeling – they just sense your displeasure).


5 Comments

How do you Stay Engaged as a Leader?


king_david_statueI have spent the year digging into the life of the biblical character David. I was drawn to David because much can be learned about how to survive the pressures of leadership when there is a way to get inside the head of a successful leader. That David was successful is apparent, he unified a loose confederation of tribes into a central government; he established the infrastructure needed to sustain a nation including the enormous task of shifting the “corporate culture” of the nation from one of tribal self-service and intrigue to one that engaged a sense of unified purpose and support. He survived several attempts to topple his reign and he engendered the kind of loyalty in others that gave them permission to speak the truth and express a willingness to put their lives on the line for him.  Success alone isn’t that impressive, a lot of jerks are successful. What makes David’s success so amazing is that he consistently came back to the kind of character and ethical decision-making process that raised the character of the nation. He openly admitted his faults and openly changed for the better.

It is possible to get inside David’s head because he wrote a lot.  David put his emotions, insights, fears, questions, distress, gratitude, and celebration. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, in my observation leaders who fail to express the full range of emotion ultimately derail into only anger and resentment. These leaders cannot see the impact of their behavior and emotion on others. They become toxic and abusive. Second, the leaders who exhibit emotional awareness and remain emotionally engaged are leaders who can then express a range of emotions appropriate to what they experience.

David wrote 71 Psalms that I analyzed for their major themes. The distribution of these major themes across the Psalms of David is illustrated in the chart below and defined in Table 1.

Chart 1: Themes in the Psalms of David

psalms-by-theme

Three things jump out at me when I review the chart. First, notice the preponderance of lament in David’s writing. Over one-third of David’s Psalms were laments in the face of disaster, disappointment, danger, and loss. I like this because those who study leadership seem to rarely write about how leaders face disappointment, betrayal, loss, danger, and disaster. All of these experiences are part of leading which is why many sane people avoid jumping into a leadership role.   David faced these things with an emotionally healthy expression of anger, grief, and howling. It’s a good lesson for leaders when they face the turbulence of leadership – get alone and have a good howl.

Second, David lived with a profound sense of purpose. It is meaningful because leaders who produce lasting results possess a transcendent awareness of purpose. They inspire others with it. It drives them to continue when every other aspect of their being may just want to throw in the towel. David worshiped and he worshiped with a sense of gratitude. He lived the practical, dirty, gutsy reality of leadership with a perspective that included a sense of the transcendent. This impacted his decision-making, his respect for the experience of others, and his decisiveness and compassion. Leaders devoid of purpose, leaders who have no real sense of the transcendent can fall prey to data pedantic that dehumanizes work and aims at efficiency in profit unaware of the stultifying impact on those who make profit happen.

Table 1: Definition of Terms

Theme Description
Lament Expressions of distress, grief, sorrow
Worship Expressions of devotion, adoration, praise, and love for God.
Worship/Gratitude Expressions of adoration, appreciation, and thankfulness.
Vindication Desire for God’s help to clear from accusation, imputation, or suspicion.
Wisdom/Reflection Expressions of what has been learned through experience.
Confession Repentance Acknowledgement of a lapse in moral judgment and deficiency in behavior.
Vulnerability w/ God Deliberate exposure of intent, dependency, and susceptibility.
Judgment Request for God’s direct exercise of justice and punishment of evil.
Benediction Innovcation of divine help, blessing, and guidance.
Prophecy Insight to the future promise and action of God’s working.
Reflection on Mortality Thought on the meaning of life in light of its ephemeral nature.

Third, the frequency with which David reflected on his experience and drew new insights into the present as he prepared for the future is impressive. The wisdom Psalms of David point to an element of healthy leadership i.e., healthy leaders learn from their experience and learning is defined by a change in behavior.  I am surprised at the number of leaders who relive the same experience over and over from one company to the next, from one year to the next without every asking what has happened and why it continues.  Some leaders operate like a tether ball running faster and faster with less and less a scope of influence until at last they hit the wall only to recoil and start all over again.

Thanksgiving is a good time to do some reflection as a leader. How emotionally healthy are you? Do you have an appropriate outlet for your emotions? Are you aware of your emotional health or distress? Learn from David and be a leader whose emotional awareness gets leveraged into new insights and deeper connections with your partners, employees, and clients.


Leave a comment

What script are you reading from?


conflict-in-recruitment“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions.  If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns?  No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them?  No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.


Leave a comment

Three questions successful people routinely ask themselves


successI had the pleasure of addressing the incoming class at Bethesda University in Anaheim, California this morning. They are a wonderfully diverse student body, many of whom are the first generation to enter college. In my time teaching there I was privileged to hear the stories of change, courage, and the desire to give back to their communities.  In thinking about what would both inspire and challenge them this morning I thought of three blunt and transformative encounters Jesus had with his disciples.

The narratives of these encounters are stacked up together in Luke 9:46-55.  In the first (v 46-48) Jesus addresses the idea of greatness. In the second (v 49-50) Jesus addresses the idea of synergy with others. In the third (v 51-56) Jesus addresses the subject of anger in the face of rejection.  These three encounters frame the questions I find successful people ask themselves to remain focused on the important rather than the urgent. This kind of focus helps them see opportunity others simply walk past. And, it is this ability to see that seems to drop new opportunity at their doors step regularly. So, let’s look at the questions and how they work to generate focus and new ways of seeing.

What is your ambition?

The disciples clearly had ambition (a drive toward a new future and a trajectory away from a past). However, their ambition had gone down the road of power acquisition and prestige. Somewhere along the way, they began to run to the goal of dominance rather than destiny.  This detour along the way doesn’t take a person toward their future – rather it reasserts the past as a diminishment to be avoided rather than a foundation on which to build a future.  Those who are running from their past have not yet made peace with their past and end up running into an ever increasing intensity of shame and denial.

Jesus redirected the disciple’s debate by pointing to a child and asking them to receive or relate to the child. I think of my grandchildren who don’t care about the fact I have an earned doctorate, or that I own a successful company, or that I am recognized as an effect adjunct professor. All they know is that I engage them at their level with attentiveness, love, and a desire to see them succeed.

Jesus reduced the question about who is the greatest to a willingness to engage life like one engages a child.  This generates a posture of learning v showmanship, curiosity v arrogance, and vulnerable v defensiveness. Refine your ambition – dream big AND do it as a learner, not an expert.

How do you see others?

Small minded people interpret knowledge as power and the means for exclusivity. Jesus redirected the disciples who shut down the effective efforts of some unnamed person flourishing in the works of God simply because that person wasn’t part of their “in-group.”

Jesus’ response had two parts. First, DON’T HINDER HIM. The success of others is not a threat – it is a point of potential synergy! If you view the success of others as a threat to your own power/prestige then you will never achieve the greatest part of your ambition. You won’t be a change agent you will be a toxic tyrant.

Second, Jesus’ lesson is powerful, listen to it. WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST YOU IS FOR YOU! This is a significant shift in perspective and will keep you from being so afraid of loss that you fail to see friends. Highly successful people have large networks of highly successful friends. Why? They don’t view the success of others as a threat rather; they see the success of others as a potential point of synergy and momentum to their own ambition.

If you are proud about getting rid of others who threatened your own prominence, then competitors are about to eat your lunch. You got rid of the very people who would both accelerate and help sustain your own ambition.

What do you do with anger?

James and John were furious at the way the Samaritans refused to help them. They wanted revenge for the rejection and betrayal they felt.  The reality is that in life rejection and betrayal happen. The question isn’t whether one has face rejection or betrayal it is whether they will engage in the ruinous circle of revenge or the virtuous circle of forgiveness. The cycle of anger and revenge is what destroys many communities and organizations and holds them in poverty and mediocrity.

You can choose to break the cycle of revenge and anger and be a healing force in your community or organization.  If you want to transform your community or organization you won’t do it through anger and revenge – you will do it through forgiveness

Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and
attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this as an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive.  Forgiveness possesses behavioral corollaries i.e., reductions in revenge and avoidance motivations and an increased ability to wish the offender well impact behavioral intention without obliging reconciliation. Forgiveness can be a one-sided process. Johnson defines forgiveness as “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her…” (Craig E. Johnson. Ethics in the Workplace: Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, 2007, 116).

 Conclusion

So, what are the three questions highly successful people often ask themselves?

  • What is my ambition?
  • How do I see others?
  • What will I do with anger?

How do you answer these questions?


Leave a comment

Refocus your energy!


downloadOne of the themes that emerging from my client conversations lately is the need to refocus. What do you do when you or your organization experiences gridlock and a lack of energy? Or when increased activities just don’t result in the desired ends? Being gridlocked shows up in three ways: (1) an unending treadmill of trying harder, (2) looking for answers rather than re-framing questions, and (3) either/and or thinking that creates false dichotomies.
Sometimes a leader just needs to stop and refocus. The pressures of the daily grind and challenges that constantly jump in the way of progress have a tendency of dulling clarity and shifting actions to activities that have no direct impact on results. Take several steps to refocus your efforts and the work of your team.
First, identify the questions that are nagging at the back of your head. This requires some honest reflection – identify the “self-talk” that develops just behind your conscious mind. One client paused for a moment and said, “Oh, I get it.” Then he began to list his nagging questions,”Am I making a difference? Is this really worth it? Is this what I really want to do? Why have I failed in every major endeavor?” He paused, “This is tiring, I’m exhausted just saying these things.”
I sat on the phone quietly for a moment then responded, “Didn’t you start this conversation by saying you were exhausted and lacked energy?”
“Yes,” he said.
He had been working harder, looking for solutions and all he really accomplished was reducing his field of vision to false dichotomies e.g., his team was either loyal or disloyal, customers were either about to leave or diminish their orders, his spouse was either supportive or undermining his success. He identified the nagging questions, now he was ready for the next step. “Let’s re-frame the questions,” I said.
Second, re-frame the questions that had been nagging you at the back of your mind. The client above re-framed each of his questions in the following way: “In what ways do I make a difference? In what ways is this worth the effort or in what ways can my efforts be better directed? In what ways does the present contribute to my ultimate contribution in life?” (He had done the work previously of identifying what he wanted his ultimate contribution to be.) “In what ways have past failures positioned me for success in the present?”
As he re-framed the questions the cadence of his speech increased, his tone sounded more optimistic, and his thoughts became more prolific – less ponderous. The more he worked to re-frame the questions the more energy came over the phone and the more creative his brainstorming became.
Third, go back to your personal mission statement. If you don’t have a personal mission statement its a good idea to build one. It helps to focus attention on activity that contributes to the right end rather than getting caught in the treadmill of activity seeking to convince yourself that you are legitimate. When I suggested this my client just sighed. “I think,” he said, “I lost track of my purpose somewhere in the midst of this year’s challenges.” He restated his purpose and immediately determined to drop three initiatives that had no bearing on what he really wanted to accomplish.
Each of these steps can help pull a leader out of gridlock and back into being a contributor to a measurable purpose.
Use the same steps to turn your team around. Brainstorm with them to identify the questions nagging their performance and identity. Re-frame those questions together and watch new alternatives and new ideas begin to accelerate. Return to the mission of the organization and review the activities people are engaged in – stop and redirect activities that have no bearing on producing the value associated with your organizational mission.
Everyone loses focus at some point. Don’t let the nagging questions become the pimp of your talent selling your best energy to actions that have no return and no promise. One of my students in Kenya responded to these principles in a lecture by saying, “You metaphorically ask me to eat and elephant. Do you know how to eat an elephant Dr. Wheeler?” he paused with a twinkle in his eye. Then after the appropriate pregnant hesitation, he continued, “One bite at a time!”  So, go ahead face your elephant and start eating!


Leave a comment

Discussing Social Issues as a Follower of Christ


conflict-in-recruitment“So you strain the Scriptures and mislead your reader.”  The frustration and antagonism in the writer’s voice was palpable. He wanted me to unequivocally condemn another writer for his view. I wanted the respondents to engage each other in honest communication about their biases, commitments, and background reasoning to their social commitments. I failed to draw anyone into that kind of discussion. Some were encouraged, some were enraged, some were disappointed, and some were ruthless in their proclamation of what I should have said.
The conflict among my group of friends rapidly jumped from disagreement to an ugly display of religious proclamation, fixed attitudes, hardened identities and closed hearts.
I generated an argument between people who found it easier to throw ideological stones from the safety of a fenced off belief system than engage a dialogue with real people.
One observer shared his candid observation of the discussion with me off-line. He said, “I also observe that the tone and content of some people’s words are not one of work or inner turmoil, but rather of hatred and of aggression. I believe the absence of passion in the moderator [myself] of a discussion can be a critical tool in advancing the discourse. However, the absence of passion (or decisive marginalization) in the face of persistent, willful, hateful rhetoric is, in my view, corrosive to the soul; yours, and the other participants in the discussion.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. Where did I drop the ball? More importantly, am I clear about my own convictions and statement of logical starting points? In this blog, I outline ways to manage conflict with comments about how well I did or didn’t deal with the conflict I generated and make my own assumptions clear for those who wish to engage me in the future.
First, how is conflict approached?  Mark Gerzon identified three common responses to conflict: demagoguery, management, and mediation with the later being the most effective.
The demagogue addresses conflict through fear, threats, and intimidation turns opponents into scapegoats. The demagogue dehumanizes others and resorts to violence to dominate and destroy the other. I had one especially insistent demogogue in the argument. I felt like turning into a demagogue myself in the face of mounting stress. However, throwing back the same kind of rant I was being served would not do a thing.
The manager faces conflict on the basis of an exclusive or limited definition of “us”. He/she defines purpose in terms of the self-interest of his or her group and cannot or will not deal with issues, decisions, or conflicts that cross boundaries. Managers are very effective in directing and controlling resources and the activities of other people for the benefit of a particular group. Gerzon points out that this approach is limited.
I recognized a wide variety of people who served as the audience to the argument. I knew that every intransigent statement, every belief hurled in anger, every example offered as a proof text would only exacerbate the argument. I attempted to pull back the participants – to get them to listen to each other. They were not ready and I failed to provide them a bridge to get there.  Each wanted me to side with them or absolutely disagree with them. I failed to state my starting point clearly and as a result, I failed to bring the appropriate people together.
In contrast, Gerzon states that the mediator approaches conflict by striving to act on behalf of the whole (cf. John 3:16 as a definition of the church’s scope of concern).  Mediators have the capacity to discover the whole and to act in the best interest of the whole. Mediators work on the collaborative principle which Gerzon defines as:
 
If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with reliable information, they will create authentic vision and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization or community.
The mediator thinks systemically and is committed to ongoing learning.  The mediator builds trust by building bridges across dividing lines and seeks innovation and opportunity in order to transform conflict. I wanted to go here, I did not arrive.
In hindsight, I failed in the ability to ask questions that unlock essential information about the conflict that is vital to understanding how to transform conflict so that it becomes an opportunity. I failed to communicate that the point of inquiry is not the loss of conviction or strong beliefs but the realization that one’s views are discovered and renewed through inquiry. Mediators of conflict naturally want to learn more; “What else can I learn about this situation?” “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?” “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?” “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”The rule of thumb in facing any conflict is: inquiry must precede any form of advocacy.
My other conclusion is that social media used as a discussion point requires a highly structured set of rules for engaging a discussion that participants must agree to before entering and that must be enforced aggressively to create an environment where listening to clarify positions is the goal. Clear convictions can be communicated without expressing hatred. But when participants are dehumanized and made into moral positions only, it’s easier to just shoot at them.
Will I engage another such discussion again on social media?  Yes. Why? It allows an audience who deeply wrestles with difficult questions to work through their thinking by listening to others.  I will encourage concise statements of conviction, and then encourage inquiry to dissenting views. To what end? Understanding and respect. Can my goal be achieved with every person? Here I have to agree with Machiavelli, no. Why? Because there are evil people whose only goal is the destruction of others. Additionally, there fundamentalist individuals who disallow any dissenting opinion from their own.
Religious convictions require another a short discussion about why the founding fathers of the United States wanted to limit the establishment of religion by the state? They saw in their own history the evil unleashed when political power is mixed with religious absolutism. My friends who want to legislate their Christian beliefs to the exclusion of other systems in civil society would only succeed in reducing civil society to the tyranny of their enforced moral codes. History consistently demonstrates the failure of this. Instead, civil society acknowledges the diversity of core moral conviction and allows for its influence in a discussion involving every participant. Hence it is, in my view, equally dangerous to prohibit the discussion of religion or religious convictions.
The American experiment used the foundation of compromise to create a form of government that allows for religious freedom and offers representation to a diverse populace.  I prefer this form of government over others I have seen even with its flaws and limitations. Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to minimize the contrast of their convictions to a perceived norm or power.” As a result, fundamentalists consistently press for an oligarchy composed of religiously acceptable candidates who state religiously acceptable convictions.  The hypocrisy and tyranny of such a system are constantly illustrated in the despotism that always results.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists who want to see America great again, fail to differentiate compromise as “the ability to listen to two sides in a dispute and devise concessions acceptable to both” from compromise as “the fearful abandonment of conviction in an attempt to blend into the perceived norm or power.”
Second, in light of what others in the argument describe as my own fuzzy commitment, I thought it a good exercise to state my own commitments as clearly as possible. I am one who follows Jesus the Christ. I have an unapologetic and inquisitive faith that informs the assumptions I begin with when it comes to moral and social issues. But, I am not fundamentalist in my perspectives. By fundamentalist I mean a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam. I hold to the centrality of the Christian Scriptures and recognize that given their diverse literary forms (i.e., poetry, prose, law/statutory, prophetic, historical narrative, parable, and proverbial/wisdom) that a “literal” interpretation does a disservice to a proper interpretation of the text.
In full disclosure, I also understand Jesus made an exclusive claim when he said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)  Does this reduce me to a mindless automaton closed to learning and assuming full and complete knowledge of all that is spiritual?  No, it makes me a disciple i.e., literally one who is learning. And as one who is learning, I recognize that I live in a diverse and pluralistic society from whom I can also learn.  Has faith answered every question? No, it answered the main question e.g., about purpose and meaning and it opens new questions that I still ponder.
So, I reject fundamentalism as inherently flawed both historically and reasonably. I see a different model in the Bible particularly evident in the growth of the first-century church from a sect of Judaism to a multi-cultural entity. The rapid expansion of the church in the first century moved the faith community of the church from the comfort of a modified theocracy (often more an oligarchy of socially or religiously powerful and corrupt leaders) experienced in the history of Israel to existence as a unique community and social force in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world. Paul, the apostle most influential in teaching the fledgling church to live in a pluralistic world wrote this advice,
“Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10)
So, if you hang out with me I will demonstrate this commitment to loving my neighbor. I also demonstrate a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. I am open talking about my relationship with Jesus Christ in a way that is neither in-the-face of my neighbor nor hidden from my neighbor. I understand that in loving my neighbor I fulfill the law and in fact, make its provisions clear as well as the promise inherent in the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ. I practice listening skills and invite those with whom I strongly disagreed to talk while I listen. We engage a discussion rather than a diatribe.
Are you looking for a way to love your neighbor? Do you want to be heard about your faith? Start by listening especially in a day when religiously induced hatred and hostility is passed off as indicative of Christianity. Listening skills may be tested by conducting a simple exercise.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.
  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone, and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with the heart as well as with the mind.
After doing this notice what difference this makes in you feel about your relationship with the other person.  Pay attention to how your act of listening often (though not always and rarely immediately) opens others’ hearts and mind to ask about your faith. The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues, however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.  Listening is a good step in demonstrating the love God has for the world about you.
Want to know more about faith in Jesus Christ? Contact me directly. My contact information is listed on the “About Me” tab of this blog.
Want to know more about conflict?  Read Mark Gerzon (2006).Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. 273 pages.
Want to know more about where I attend church? See http://madeforfellowship.com/.