An insecure leader is quick to fight. But a sign of real strength is a person who avoids unnecessary battles.
There were about a dozen trophies arranged in a corner of his office. Each was about 4 feet tall, which explains why they were standing on the floor rather than on a bookshelf.
Atop each trophy was a figure of a man in a karate gi delivering a high kick. Nearly all of them had a brass plate that read, “Grand Champion.” I counted only two that were not first place trophies. None were less than second place.
“Wow,” I said. “You must be very good at karate.”
Rick smiled. “Yeah, pretty good.”
He was about 6’ tall. Very slender & fit. A soft-spoken and good looking man. He was an insurance agent and I was there to sell him an advertising schedule.
“How long have you been in the sport?” I asked.
“20 years or so.”
“You know, there are some who claim that studying the martial arts makes a person more violent.”
“Actually, the exact opposite is true.”
“Let’s say a big guy walks in here. He’s angry and throwing his weight around. He’s looking for a fight. Someone who isn’t trained to defend himself will likely puff out his chest, and go nose-to-nose with him. A fight is nearly inevitable at that point.”
“Makes sense,” I replied.
“But if I got angry and it were to come to blows, I know I have the ability to seriously hurt or even kill the man. Of course, I don’t want to see that happen. So, I will do everything in my power to talk the guy down so that I can resolve the issue peacefully.”
I left Rick’s office that day with a profound respect for him. And a strong desire to see him in the ring.
How Are You Using Your Strength?
Weakness in a leader escalates conflict. Strength moderates it.
Gentleness is strength in its purest form.
As a leader, your position alone gives you the ability to end conflict at any moment. “Just do what I say.” “Get back to work.” Or even “You’re fired.”
In short, you wear a black belt.
A young leader deals with conflict by wielding his positional power indiscriminately and often. The result is a team that goes silent. Or worse, employees decide to leave the company altogether.
An experienced leader knows there are times to use the force of his position. Times when all reasonable courses of action have been exhausted and force must be used.
But he knows those times are rare. And even when exercised, the force applied is firm but measured. He is in control, restrained.
In other words, gentle.
We mustn’t mistake gentleness for weakness. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gentle. But is there anyone who believes his gentleness masked a lack of strength? On the contrary, there was a ferociousness in King’s determination to overturn injustice. He did so with gentleness mixed with resolve. And it ignited a revolution.
Your most effective weapon in dealing with conflict is gentleness.
Four Ways to Deal with Conflict with Gentleness & Respect
The goal is to address conflict head-on while simultaneously preserving the cohesiveness of the team. Winning an argument is secondary to winning the respect & cooperation of your staff.
Here are a few ideas on how you can put this in practice.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. A strong leader laughs at her own mistakes. In doing so, she earns the respect of her team.
Understand that some employee behavior may have nothing to do with you. An otherwise great employee starts behaving irritably. Go to him. “Jim…what’s going on? You are normally upbeat and positive, but something has changed. Are you doing alright?” His issue might be work-related, which you can talk through. Often, though, a problem at home is the source. Either way, the fact that you noticed and cared enough to ask will cement your relationship.
Require people to respect their fellow co-workers. It’s not uncommon. A small disagreement among team members escalates into a heated argument or personal attack. As a leader, it’s important to step in. “Hey guys…I appreciate your passion on this. You both are coming at this from different perspectives, which is great. We need that. But you need to dial back the attacks. Don’t make this personal. Now, Sara, tell me more about this idea of yours.” If this isn’t sufficient to solve the issue, adjourn the meeting and deal with each person separately.
Don’t allow an employee to criticize you publicly. It happens to the best of leaders. When it does, immediately interrupt the person and say, “Frank, I’d like to speak to you privately in my office. Now.” This sends a direct message to those who witnessed the exchange that this type of behavior is not permitted. Once in private, say, “Frank…if you have something against me, say it now. You are always free to come to me privately and express frustration, as long as you do so respectfully. But you must never again do it publicly. Are we clear on that?” Each time I have used this approach, the employee has softened and the ensuing conversation is productive.
A Final Thought
Doc Bell was an acting teacher of mine in college. He knew that when a scene called for anger, most young actors liked to yell. So, Doc had an axiom that he shared with all of his students:
“When you want to scream, whisper.”
Doc Bell knew that controlled anger was perceived by an audience as more menacing than blowing up.
The same is true when dealing with conflict in the workplace. A reasoned, calm, yet direct approach has a weightiness to it that is incredibly effective in promoting behavioral change. Resist the urge to meet anger with anger of your own. It might end the conflict now, but resentment will surely follow.
It’s far better to heed the advice of a certain Middle East king known for his wisdom:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Or to put it another way, keep your black belt in the drawer.
Questions: How do you deal with conflict, either at work or at home? What are some principles that have served you well? Leave a comment below.
Note: There are conflicts in the workplace that I am not qualified to address. Issues of harassment and insubordination are complicated legal matters best discussed with someone in your human resources department.