Is the decision maker in the rooom?

Someone came to me today with a conflict and I think as we talked about it, I learned as much or possibly more than she did.  I learned about the importance of the decision–maker.

It seemed straightforward at first. This is the kind of conflict which you hear about often in the workplace.  “I am concerned about the tone and the language in the emails I am receiving from this person and I am honestly wondering if she is deliberately trying to undermine me.”  That sense of paranoia about the motivations of another, the suspicion about language and tone, these are very familiar concerns in conflict world.

Here's lookin' at YOU, sweet-stuff!

In this classic scenario, I normally advocate a direct conversation with the individual involved to start with. After all, that individual is the one who has the ultimate authority to change their own behaviour.  It is usually best to approach the most direct source you have access to for all kind of reasons – it will prevent the situation from escalating; it will eliminate the sense of possible blind-siding or circumventing which will harm the relationship further; and very importantly, it provides a critical opportunity to learn more about the other side of the story and gain a deeper understanding that will help build a stronger relationship.

But a more important point came up as we began to debrief and explore the situation.  I began with some questions:

  • What is the ultimate and ideal change you would like to see?
  • What evidence will you have when it has occurred?

Well, these questions broadened the scope significantly.  In fact, the concern was not about the emails at all, but about the changing nature of the relationship between the two organizations each of these people work for.

More questions followed:

  • Who has the authority to influence these changes that you have identified?
  • How do you believe your previous relationship with this person has influenced your perspective of this situation?

This is always a tightrope walk. It is almost never a bad idea in a gentle, honest, open and specific way to address your concerns directly with an individual.  But it is a very good idea to examine what the nature is of you relationship with that person, and the bigger picture.

In this case, because of the previous history of the two involved, because of their roles, and the nature of the relationship of the two organizations they work for, it became clear through questioning and exploring that the best move would be to turn concerns over to another who has the authority to address the bigger picture. The dialogue would not be about the behaviour of one individual, but rather about the changing roles of the two organizations in their working relationship.

Take the time to prepare before entering into a difficult conversation. Examine your own assumptions, and critically look at your role and your authority. Ensure that the decision-maker who has the authority to induce change is in the room from the beginning.

Leaders can learn from Scot Beckenbaugh

Toronto Maple Leafs player scoring goal agains...

Toronto Maple Leafs player scoring goal against Detroit Red Wings, Stanley Cup Playoffs, 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to resolving disputes, leaders can learn from Scot Beckenbaugh.

There may be mixed feelings to the news of returning hockey this week, but one thing is for certain: we can all learn something from Scot Beckenbaugh, the mediator who managed the NHL talks in a frenetic and final 48 hours this weekend.

Define your role.

Beckenbaugh’s experience is in the business of negotiating labour disputes in a wide range of industries for the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He does have extensive experience with sports negotiations, but his business is not hockey.  He has declined interviews and comments about the talks this week.

  • You can support good dispute resolution by making a deliberate decision yourself about when and how to get involved.  Support those with the authority who are most closely involved and have the expertise to own the content, the final decision, and the stories. Be transparent about your role.

Listen openly and critically.

Winnipeg Jets Defenseman and union negotiator Scott Hainsey told reporters that “Scot was great for a number of reasons…When it got to points where you didn’t know what to do next – or you had an idea but you didn’t know if it might upset the other side – you could go to him and talk to him about it and there was a way to work your ideas through a third party who was able to really help the process.”

  • Asking powerful and provocative questions and listening actively to the answers will help others clarify their thinking. You will learn a lot too, and when the decision is finally made, you will understand if and when it is the right one, and when it is necessary to step in.

Remain loyal to the process.

Over a 48 hour period and in marathon days Beckenbaugh held both sides to the process.  There was not enough trust for parties to meet face to face, so Beckenbaugh managed the process by shuttling between them, building trust in his engagement, and in the process of conciliation.

  • Decide on an appropriate process for reaching a resolution and hold everybody to it.  Even when you don’t have a ready answer you can demonstrate leadership by managing an effective process to get to one.

Providing ready answers and solutions is the easy part of being a leader. The mature and effective leader knows when to step back and how to empower others to reach their own conclusions. Active listening will aid understanding for all, and strategic choices about your role and the process will foster good long-term decisions.

When it pays to say No

Getting to Yes, Getting Past No, The Power of a Positive No. William Ury has written some of the most seminal books on negotiating. Putting the theory into practice can be a challenge. David Savage spoke at our Workplace Fairness Lunch recently and we learned from him that a positive no is a great place to start in negotiation because it allows room to create positive boundaries and gives space to consider.

I can think of more than a few times I should have said no.  Why do we always say yes?  As a consultant with bills to pay I recognize the fear of not being certain where the next job is coming from.  As a parent I recognize the apprehension of being judged. As a member of the community I see the impact of perceptions of neighbours.  It takes courage to say no. In fact David reminded us too that our toughest negotiations are with ourselves:  What am I prepared to be courageous on? What am I prepared to trust you on? We often don’t take the space and time to consider these questions. They deserve careful consideration.

The other thing about starting out with no is that it provides an opportunity to build accountability.  There is never a better time for examining consequences and accountability than when you need something from each other.  I recognize this sentiment too.  I commit readily to committees (notice the name which instills a sense of commitment guilt) and one or two meetings in I begin to think, what is my role? How can I contribute? It is all too easy at this stage to take a backseat in a meeting or two as life intervenes between committee get-togethers.  How do you continue to hold yourself, and others, accountable? And what happens if you don’t?

Well as David Savage reminded us, you need some naysayers at the table! Once again, no is good.  The critics will minimize the group think. Imagine the committee meeting surrounded by agreeable nodders, and then the frustration that sets in afterwards once reality reveals the difficulty of meeting the commitments. Naysayers and reality-checkers will help you be realistic from the start and avoid the pain later. In fact, Dave suggested to appoint critics, as many as 2 in 10, if they are not readily apparent.

And how else can you continue to hold yourself and others accountable? Well, negotiation is not a one-time event. It is a circle; it builds relationships and trust.  Once you leave the table, it is important to review what you have learned, gained, and lost as well as the status of the relationship. Maintaining relationships with the other parties is important so that you can review and improve the process and outcomes. Finally, you can take your learning from each discussion to help prepare for the next.

On David Savage’s website, you can find some useful videos on getting ready to negotiate, and the qualities of a master negotiator. They are here:

Using David’s suggestions, I made a brief checklist for my own reference which I plan to use every time I am invited to join a committee. I am going to post this where I can see it, read it and review it regularly! Thank you David!

  1. Prepare by clarifying your interests, vision, and boundaries before the first meeting.
  2. Take time to build relationships, engaging in face-to-face discussions.
  3. Share expectations and understanding early: authority, resources, goals, timing, accountability.
  4. Be persistent, and say no until you are ready to agree.
  5. Take care to serve the other other’s and the group’s interests.
  6. Embrace conflict and diversity and positively engage challenge.
  7. Evaluate the commitments and create mutual accountabilities. Ask, what happens if someone fails to perform?
  8. Document.
  9. Review, reconnect, review.
  10. See 1.

Dave’s full negotiation checklist is posted here: