Break the stalemate

The hunt for common ground

Has your organization ever been caught up in a stalemate?

It could be a deadlock between union and management. It could be that some issue has split the senior management team. It could be that half of your employees are in favor of moving the headquarters to another state and the other half are appalled (take my kids out of their school?!). It could be a branding change. It could be almost anything. If enough of your associates care – really care – about the issue, a simple difference of opinion can escalate into “us and them.”

Once that happens, it begins to suck up a lot of energy and financial resources. Long-term relationships between team members can be tossed aside. Time and attention get diverted from usual responsibilities into intense conversations about the divide. Everyone gets involved in building a case for why his or her side is right. Recruitment goes on.

“Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow; I can tell you more about why I’m supporting Plan A.”

Unfortunately, the whole drama soon leaks outside of the walls of your organization. Family members usually hear about it, probably ad nauseum. Favorite customers often are taken into confidence and told the nitty gritty details (shaped by bias, of course). Vendors as well. It is amazing how fast the news of this tense stalemate takes on a life of its own.

And none of this is good for the health of your organization.

The underpinnings of all this contentious behavior are as old as man. We seem to have a special warning system within us for differences. We are more alert to detecting differences in others than things in common. It’s a tribal thing and survival-related, no doubt. We may even get an adrenaline rush as a result of the deadlock and all the fallout from it. Some may simply like getting caught up in the distraction from usual responsibilities.

So your bedtime story may be “OK, this is my company, (department or team), what the heck am I going to do about this? How am I going to manage this huge conflict?”

First of all, you must not play in the game. You must be up in the control booth or on the sidelines. Once you take sides, you’ve just added four new layers of drama. So put your hands flatly on your desk and listen with respect. Do not align yourself with either side. Keep your dignity and your own counsel.

Your job is to lead all of these folks back to common ground. You must answer the questions, “What do they care about more than they care about this issue? How can I inspire them to see the big picture, that this rift is threatening the success of the organization and thus, their own success? How can I motivate them to listen to each other, rather than batting their prejudices back and forth?

There are people in the business, so you could always hire a conflict management consultant. But I’m hoping you already have the trust of your employees, so the most efficient thing is to do it yourself. It is an opportunity for your own professional growth, and certainly a situation in which you can deepen the trust and respect you have earned so far.

Take a long walk and begin building a plan. You want to move them onto the same side of the issue, using bits and pieces of their arguments to fashion a resolution. You will need to remind them of the common ground and the benefits of spending time there. There may be a few strays who do not care about the success of the organization or even their own success within it. Good to know – and you can help them make an appropriate exit plan. Those few may well be the ones who ignited the conflict and kept kindling the fight.

It is a hefty challenge and you will end up with a powerful leadership skill that will be yours forever more.

-Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee-area resident. She can be reached at jgorissen1@gmail.com.

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