Originally this post was published on 6/6/2020 at LinkedIn.
As a leadership coach with a degree in coaching psychology, I am concerned about the lack of proactive approaches in relation to stressed individuals and teams who clearly need help but don’t realise it themselves or are told to just sort themselves out, change the way they think and play nicely.
Leaders often ignore the desperation principle: “when people’s resources are outstretched or exhausted, they enter a defensive mode to preserve the self which is often defensive, aggressive, and may become irrational” (Hobfoll, Halbesleben, Neveu, & Westman, 2018, p. 106).
This article is for managers who feel they have a duty of care.
Stressed living systems
Teams, just like all complex adaptive systems, are infused with tensions that are born in struggles over conflicting needs, ideas, or preferences (Uhl-Bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007). In more diverse teams, where members have different ideas about how they would like to be at work and how they expect others to behave, there is a higher likelihood of tension. Let’s also acknowledge our context, stressful conditions we have been living through, like self-isolation and working from home while home schooling your young children, major job losses and social unrests.
What options do leaders have when dealing with interpersonal tensions?
I would like to invite you to reflect on the patterns you fall into in relation to tension in your team or between your team and other teams:
· You believe, since everybody has been nodding in the meetings and nobody has raised their voice, there is no tension in your team. You don’t need to do anything!
· You dislike conflict, so you tend to avoid it and wait until people work it out between themselves.
· You are too busy to pay attention to, what you consider, people’s personal issues. You hope the bickering parties will stop talking or just pretend to be polite, the problem is going to go away.
· You reprimand “an offender” who upset the other party and explain what behaviours you will not tolerate.
· You ask “the offended” to lodge a formal complaint, so your HR colleagues could address it.
· You ask everyone to be rational and work out a solution logically, and if they don’t, you send them to HR.
· You invite the disagreeing parties to share their perspectives, acknowledge each other’s emotions, look for a common ground and show how the rest is just details, that can be agreed upon with some compromises on both sides.
What makes resolutions hard?
Why is the last response, albeit more productive than others, awfully hard in practice and can’t always deliver desired outcomes?
It makes it hard because you, as a leader, must:
· Find time and emotional resources to attend to resolving tensions; often it means to decide to prioritise it over investing their scarce resources into other things.
· Think systemically to notice that tensions are rarely brought by an individual, but rather co-created and reinforced by the systems they are embedded in.
· Acknowledge alternative views and the ways of expressing those views, showing they value the human beings in front of them.
· Recognise the desire of those who disagree, to protect their self-esteem and to defend their values, beliefs and assumptions about themselves, others, and the world.
· Recognise your own desire for team cohesion and consensus to get moving on the set goals.
· Have empathy for the fact that people have complex cultural profiles, due to exposure to multiple cultural influences; attend to how they make meaning, their preconceived set of values and beliefs, what they consider to be the right way to do things according to their cultural code of conduct (Plaister-Ten, 2018).
· Acknowledge how your preferred vision of the solution impacts whom you invite to contribute and how much airtime who gets.
· Find an effective way to invite alternative views and surface hidden tensions.
· Be mindful and listen to what is being said and for what is not being said, to identify the tension.
· Create an environment where there are no repercussions for people who disagree.
· Encourage everyone to listen to and respect alternative perspectives.
· Identify how the systems these individuals are embedded in, fuel the tensions or the ways they manifest themselves (e.g. political correctness and expectations to “be nice no matter what” can fuel silent protests and passive aggressive behaviours; the scarcity of resources to achieve a stretch goal will drive the desire to take care of oneself and the significant others).
· Draw on evidence-based approaches to intervene, rather than some self-help books, inspirational talks and what might have worked for you.
It makes it hard because the disagreeing parties must:
· Find time and emotional resources to attend to resolving tensions.
· Have trust that their leader has your, team’s and organisation’s best interest at heart.
· Manage their emotions to dispassionately listen to another person’s perspective.
· Select the right words (sometimes in a foreign language) to articulate their challenges, views and feelings.
· Make a judgement on how they must communicate effectively, so that it meets the expectation standards of the receivers.
· Recognise their own desire to protect their self-esteem and to defend their values, beliefs and assumptions about themselves, others, and the world.
· Be open to discussing their perspective with others and accept an invitation to notice what they have assumed and what is based on their lived experiences.
· Have cognitive complexity to see a bigger perspective.
It makes it hard because senior leaders in an organisation must:
· Care deeply about the wellbeing of human beings they impact by every decision they make, allowing managers to take time to attend to human needs and not just performance numbers.
· Recognise that their own interactions and the decisions they make foster and nurture or limit and block the resource creation and sustenance for their staff and how positive and negative effects (e.g. social support and social undermining) crossover (Hobfoll et al., 2018) into other areas of their employees’ life and burn people out over time. Simply requesting them to be more resilient within is a form of bullying.
· Acknowledge that when hiring leaders, a selection panel does not ask to present any proof that the candidates have a capacity to notice, lean into and work with tensions in teams in an evidence-based way that does not jeopardize the wellbeing of their subordinates.
· Examine the current state of relationship between their HR and other business leaders in order to identify capabilities, competencies and capacities required to successfully notice, explore and address tensions to not only eliminate distress but also to leverage productive tensions in order to create innovative solutions and more resilient organisations.
Above I mentioned only three organisational levels and the capabilities that leaders and their team members must possess to address the interpersonal challenges that exist in today’s demanding workplace. Co-workers have responsibilities too, and so do the shareholders, customers and suppliers who increase or decrease our stress (everyday and overtime). The level of stress we feel has something to do with the way we appraise the situations we are in but it is much more complex than that and therefore we need to apply a systems lens onto the issues that arise. Ask yourselves, what capabilities you have internally, what capabilities you wish to develop and what capabilities you would rather redeploy from those who specialise in helping teams to have complex adaptive conversations in diverse teams.
Please reach out if you wish to discuss further at email@example.com.
Hobfoll, S. E., Halbesleben, J., Neveu, J.-P., & Westman, M. (2018). Conservation of Resources in the Organizational Context: The Reality of Resources and Their Consequences. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 5(1), 103-128. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032117-104640
Plaister-Ten, J. (2018). The cross-cultural coaching kaleidoscope : a systems approach to coaching amongst different cultural influences. Boca Raton, FL: Routledge, an imprint of Taylor and Francis.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The leadership quarterly, 18(4), 298-318.