6 Tips for Leaders Managing Uncomfortable People Problems


Discomfort is a Signal

The more I work with business owners and CEOs, the more I am confronted with a surprising human foible: no matter how successful and confident people may be we will go to tremendous extremes to avoid dealing with the bad actors in our lives.

Of course there are those rare individuals who embrace conflict calmly and authentically. They listen attentively with ease and diffuse emotion while guiding the conversation to an elegant conclusion. For the life of me I can’t name a single one, but they must exist. Maybe Tibetan monks can pull it off. For the rest of us, the emotions that get raised around bad behavior and missed expectations can be so uncomfortable we just shut down . . . or blow up.

The real issue is we don’t trust ourselves to handle the situation.

At the core of conflict is actually a difference in beliefs or values. Without realizing we’re doing it we project our values onto others and when they are violated it shakes us to the core.

When employees, bosses (or spouses) “misbehave” they are not violating their values, they are violating the values we think they should have. Suddenly our foundational assumptions about the world are put into play and we feel anxious and frustrated with a world that doesn’t work the way “it should.” Then we judge the other person as bad, and make them responsible for our angst.

In reality, the emotional discomfort we experience is not bad. It is simply a messenger and it will keep pounding on the door until it is allowed to deliver its message. The message is often, “You are not following the highest calling for your life.” (I find this one applies to my own decisions or interactions.) The other message I get a lot is, “You are expecting others to interpret the world and make the same decisions you would make.” And since I always make decisions that have my best interest in mind I am appalled when others violate this most fundamental of principles and act in their best interest. Oh, the humanity!

6 Tips for Leaders Facing Awkward & Uncomfortable Employee Problems

With the pop psychology out of the way, let’s look at how to apply this to the workplace.

  1. To get to an environment of candor and trust, the first place to start is with shared values and shared expectations. Taking the time to really uncover our shared beliefs about the organization and our relationships builds a foundation that allows us to weather the storms that inevitably come along.
  2. Become disciplined about using a values-based decision making approach for decisions that impact others. The more you openly reflect your values in your decisions, the more confidence you instill and the more likely it is that people will follow suit with their decisions.
  3. Kill the monster when it’s a baby. Deal with issues at the first point of emotional discomfort. That emotional messenger is acutely accurate and should be consulted immediately. Therefore, the minute you sense a person or project or conversation is off track speak up. Without attacking say something like, “I’m uncomfortable about this; I’d like to slow down and make sure we are on the same page.”
  4. Provide feedback and make requests. The greatest gift to someone you care about is to give them the information they need to make better decisions for themselves. Get in the habit of sitting down with your team once a month to review progress against goals and to share observations and suggestions for getting better outcomes. Make sure your conversation is judgment free by simply asking for what you want. “Tom, it would help me a lot if you would put more focus on our research project. Can you commit to getting phase 2 complete by the end of the month?”
  5. Take a stand. Ask for commitments, make promises and manage them. By asking for commitments and negotiating the conditions of satisfaction we can stop a whole raft of problems from ever forming. In the previous example, Tom could respond, “I can commit to the end of the month if I can have one more person to help with the project; otherwise I’ll have to let another project slip. What does the team want to do?” By negotiating and informing everyone of the situation surrounding a promise the team now takes ownership in the decision, Tom is helped to succeed and trust is built.
  6. Repeat after me, “It’s only a movie.” In the final analysis conflict stirs such deep emotions because we are resisting reality by unconsciously thinking this should not be happening. If we breathe deeply to keep from freezing up and remind ourselves, “This isn’t personal, it is simply an unwanted reality and I am now searching for the best solution” we can usually regain our wits in just a few seconds.

Dealing with conflict may never be fun, but you can do it.

This article was written by Bill Mills and originally titled “To Tell the Truth.” Bill Mills is an award winning author and speaker on business innovation. He directs Executive Group Inc. an entrepreneurial think tank for almost 70 Minnesota business owners and CEO’s. www.mnexecutivegroup.com or bill@mnexecutivegroup.com.