By Brian J. Bolwell, MD, FACP
I receive constant and varied feedback on my columns. While most people seem to appreciate the content, some think that leadership is not only easy but also intuitive. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion; however, I would venture a guess that those who claim it's easy are not, in fact, in organizational leadership positions.
The reality is, leadership presents many challenges. Some leaders believe that being a leader is analogous to being a reservoir for problems, and a dumping ground for everyone's complaints, woes, and issues. One of the most common challenges is conflict resolution, or taking the complaints and problems and providing counsel and guidance. The conflict may be between others in your organization, or it may involve you personally. Sometimes it is the result of hard conversations that are necessary to hold a person accountable. I am far from an expert at conflict resolution, but I have improved over the years, primarily because I picked up some useful tools.
Talk to People
I have previously discussed the importance of face-to-face interaction (see Talk to People, Oncology Times 2017;39(20):17), but I cannot emphasize enough that having a conversation (not an email) is crucial when conflict arises. It is inevitable that the accurate tone and message through email will get distorted by the reader… especially if they are in a conflict.
Always have a conversation and observe how it is perceived. And, when having that conversation, remember to follow two fundamental leadership principles: listen and be honest. You must hear the other person (or persons) out, and grasp both the surface message and, more importantly, the non-verbal cues. The only way to do that is to listen. And while honesty is often hard, it's always the proper path.
Be the Teacher
Our work environment frequently generates interpersonal conflict. Sometimes this conflict can get heated. When that occurs, nothing positive results and usually somebody gets hurt. When in conflict, consider that the other person does not know as much about the topic in question as you do or they are missing key facts. If that is indeed the case, the conflict is an educational opportunity. Take a breath, and review the topic. Educate the other person. Learn from them as well. I have used this approach many times and, at the very least, it can reduce the tension in the room.
Right the Wrongs
When in conflict with somebody you respect, do three things. First, apologize if the conflict results in any harm. Do not mess around with this. Really apologize. Second, you need to forgive (see Let It Go, Oncology Times 2018;40(24):29). Holding grudges hurts the team, the other person, and especially you. True forgiveness requires courage and inner strength, but more than that, it is always the right thing to do. Finally, if the person in conflict with you is a colleague that you admire or, more importantly, a friend, then make sure they know they matter. Tell them they are doing well. And tell them that they have many wonderful qualities, specifically stating what those qualities are. This is important stuff.
As a leader, with both your words and actions, you influence those around you. It's up to you, with each interaction—saying hello in a momentary passing or in large meetings—to have a positive impact. It's your job to be the bigger person, as your words and title carry weight. Make sure people know their value. Let people know during conflict that they are heard, appreciated, and valued. Right wrongs when you can.
Perception, Not Intention
Not uncommonly, one person feels hurt after an encounter, which surprises the other. How can this be? Hurt feelings can arise in any situation, but especially in conflict. How something is stated, or the intent behind the words, is not always how they are perceived or interpreted. That is key. It doesn't matter what you say, it matters what the other person hears. It's not just the message, it's also how the message is delivered that matters. My opportunity, to this day, is to remember the difference between my intent and my impact. Of course my intentions are always noble (at least they are to me). But if my impact is off-putting, then my message is lost.
It's All About You
A person's core values are critically important when trying to understand their behaviors. This can get to the root of what causes conflict in the first place. Looking inward, understanding your values, and what makes you, YOU, is imperative to understanding your response. Why does the behavior of some people drive others nuts? Or, to make it more personal, when you get angry about the behaviors or actions of somebody else, why are you so angry? What causes conflict?
Most of the time, it's personal. One reason is that the behavior of the other person is in conflict with your core values. If you are aware of this basic fact, then maybe you will be able to better manage the interaction. For example, honesty is a big deal to me. It is a core value. But the fact is, honesty may not be a core value to everyone. If you are clear about your core values, then hopefully you will be more aware of your triggers that lead to anger, or conflict, or your responses. That knowledge and awareness should empower you to manage any encounter in a more productive way. Knowing is half the battle.
Leadership is about working with other people. While the goals of servant leadership are real and the principles work, unfortunately, leadership also involves conflict management. Basic tools can help. For me, exploring my core values is a useful way to identify why I might be stressed about something. Plus, examining the core values of others is frequently a useful strategy to identify the origins of a conflict. With all of these tools, it is beneficial to pause. And remember, nobody ever said this leadership stuff would be easy.