As much as some don’t want to hear this, there is an “I” in team – there is simply no getting around the fact that teams are comprised of individuals. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best? It cannot. The strongest teams don’t weed out or neutralize individual tendencies, they capitalize on them. The goal of a leader is not to clone him/herself, but to harness individual strengths for the greater good of the team, and for the overall benefit of the organization. This is best accomplished by leveraging individual talents; not stifling them.
The simple fact is that no team can maximize their potential by ignoring or minimizing the strengths of individual members. While smart leaders seek to align expectations and to create unity in vision, they understand this has nothing to do with demanding conformity in thought, or perspective. In fact, savvy leaders do everything possible to inspire non-conformity in approach. It’s only by stretching the boundaries of “normal” that organizations can fuel change and innovation.
If unique perspectives, philosophical differences, and dissenting opinions are viewed as an opportunity as opposed to a set-back, growth and development are certain to follow. What I like to refer as “positional gaps” are best closed by listening to all sides, finding common ground and then letting the principle of doing the right thing guide the process. When a leader develops the skill to transform negative conflict into creative tension, they have found the secret sauce for developing high performance teams. Mature leaders see individual differences as fuel for development, not as barriers to success.
It is absolutely possible to build very productive relationships with even the most adversarial of individuals. Regardless of a person’s original intent, opinion or position, the key to closing a positional gap is simply a matter of finding common ground in order to establish rapport. Moreover, building rapport is easily achieved assuming your motivations for doing so are sincere. I have always found that rapport is quickly developed when you listen, care, and attempt to help people succeed. By way of contrast, it is difficult to build rapport if you are driven by an agenda the other party sees as being a threat to their success or security.
While building and maintaining rapport with people with whom you disagree is certainly more challenging, many of the same rules expressed in my comments above still apply. I have found that often times dealing with difficult people simply just requires more intense focus on understanding the needs, wants and desires of the other party. If opposing views are worth the time and energy to debate, then they are worth a legitimate effort to gain alignment on perspective, and resolution on position. However this will rarely happen if lines of communication do not remain open. Candid, effective communication is best maintained through a mutual respect and rapport.
In an attempting to resolve conflicts, misunderstandings, or positional and/or philosophical gaps, the first step is to identify and isolate the specific areas of difference causing the difficulty. The sad fact is that many people in leadership positions are absolutists in that they only see things in terms of rights and wrongs. Thinking in terms of “my way” is right and therefore “other ways” are wrong is the basis for polarizing any relationship, which quickly results in converting discussions into power struggles. However when a situation can be seen through the lens of difference, and a position is simply a matter of opinion not a totalitarian statement of fact, then collaboration is not only possible, it’s probable. Identifying and understanding differences allows people (regardless of title) to evolve their thinking through rational and reasoned dialog. The following perspectives if kept top of mind will help in identifying and bridging positional gaps:
- Listening leads to understanding.
- Respect allows differences to evolve thought and create new behaviors.
- Accepting a person where they are, creates an bond of trust.
- Trust, leads to a willingness to be open to:
- new opportunities;
- new collaborations;
- new strategies;
- new ideas, and;
- new attitudes.
The key to maximizing the individual talents within a team is to focus on the shared vision rather than individual differences. By adhering to the following principles, most individual points of departure can be used as a springboard for growth and innovation rather than barrier:
- Be Consistent: If your desire is to minimize misunderstandings, then I would suggest you stop confusing people. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and follow-through on your commitments. Most people don’t have to agree with you 100% of the time, but they do need to trust you 100% of the time. Trust cannot exist where leaders are fickle, inconsistent, indecisive, or display a lack of character. Never be swayed by consensus that calls you to compromise your values, rather be guided by doing the right thing. Finally, know that no person is universally right or universally liked, and become at peace with that.
- The Importance Factor: Not every difference needs to be resolved. In fact, most differences don’t require intervention as they actually contribute to a dynamic, creative, innovative culture. Remember that it’s not important be right, and more importantly, that you don’t have to be right for the right things to be accomplished. Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. However if the issue is important enough to create a conflict then it is surely important enough to resolve. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, people will do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional gaps.
- Make Respect a Priority: Disagreement and disrespect are two different things, or at least they should be. Regardless of whether or not perspectives and opinions differ, a position of respect should be adhered to and maintained. Respect is at the core of building meaningful relationships. It is the foundation that supports high performance teams, partnerships, superior and subordinate relationships, and peer-to-peer relationships. Respecting the right to differ while being productive is a concept that all successful executives and entrepreneurs master.
- Define Acceptable Behavior: You know what they say about assuming…Just having a definition for what constitutes acceptable behavior is a positive step in avoiding unnecessary conflict. Creating a framework for decisioning, using a published delegation of authority statement, encouraging sound business practices in collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management will all help avoid conflicts.
- Hit Conflict Head-on: You can only resolve problems by proactively seeking to do so. While you can’t always prevent conflicts, it has been my experience that the secret to conflict resolution is in fact conflict prevention where possible. By actually seeking out areas of potential conflict and proactively intervening in a well reasoned and decisive fashion you will likely prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, you will likely minimize its severity by dealing with it quickly.
- Understanding the WIIFM Factor: Understanding the other person’s WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) position is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other’s motivations prior to weighing in. The way to avoid conflict is to help those around you achieve their objectives. If you approach conflict from the perspective of taking the action that will help others best achieve their goals you will find few obstacles will stand in your way with regard to resolving conflict.
- View Conflict as Opportunity: Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development. If you’re a CEO who doesn’t leverage conflict for team building and leadership development purposes you’re missing a great opportunity.
- Clarity of Purpose: Everyone who works for me knows that I care about them as an individual. They are important to me. They know that I’ll go to great lengths to work with them so long as one thing remains the focus point – the good of the organization. So long as the issues being worked on are leading us toward our vision, they know they’ll have my attention regardless of positional gaps or personal differences. Likewise, if things degenerate into placing pride or ego ahead of other team members or the organization as a whole, they know I’ll have no tolerance whatsoever.
The bottom line is that people matter, and but for people, organizations don’t exist. As a leader you have only two choices when it comes to your people – serve them and care for them. Sometimes this means working through challenging scenarios and situations. If as a leader you’re not up to this task, then you should rethink your decision to lead.
Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments section below.