Why Don’t You Resolve Conflicts inside Your Organization?

Has your organization’s performance slowed or is it failing to meeting its goals? Are there signs of trouble down the road?

Two ways to help are to resolve internal conflicts or, second, have someone analyze cultural gaps and guide the organization to correct them. The first approach is the faster and far less expensive, particularly if you do it yourself. (Yes, you can also arrange for me to come and do, helping to teach you in the process.)

Let’s consider 5 kinds of conflict:

  • An executive committee increasingly divided on an issue until the members just butt heads;
  • Managerial teams unsure of where to go,
  • Conflicts after mergers and concerns and conflicts before and after split-ups
  • Newly promoted leaders still uncomfortable dealing with emotions who suddenly must advise the people who report to them about those people’s emotional problems,
  • And people who were once productive but no longer contribute to the organization – maybe even having a hidden agenda that could destroy the organization.

Every organization I’ve been in has had conflicts. How do you cope with them? Can you do it yourself?

Let me use examples I know personally. I’ll mention the Avatar® Courses and the tools of consciousness people learn in them, and I’ll be referring to 6 skills. They involve

Directing attention with your will:

  • Being fully present,
  • Feeling what someone really means,
  • Keeping attention neutral,
  • Being truly empathetic without being drawn down into the other person’s emotions,
  • Supporting someone else to be creative.

1). Butting of heads in a key team or committee. In 2000, NYS laws about dying people dated from the 1950s and were based on medicine back then. Now, in 2000, following the old laws often made suffering worse. If people communicated the care they did and didn’t want, doctors would comply. If not, there was a dilemma.

A year before, the Bioethics Committee of the State Medical Society had debated the issue over a couple of full day meetings. It was acrimonious. The more the debate went on, the more fixed each side’s position became.

But now state government wanted the medical society’s guidance, and that meant our committee’s guidance. I was not always successful in the committee’s meetings, but this time things went well. Two of us remembering the debate of the year before, checked. Yes, 2/3 of the committee did what they and the patient’s surrogate thought best, despite the law.

One-third with very conservative backgrounds claimed they followed the old law strictly and that the path followed by the other 2/3 couldn’t be enshrined in law. We asked, “OK, was there ever a time when a patient suffered so much you did what the others do?”

They answered, “Yes,” and gave examples. “But there’s no way to turn a specific case into law or to have the law sanction the change.”

Any long-standing committee has hidden alignments even though heads butt. Time to bring one out. The key was using Avatar skills.

“Let’s compromise,” I said. “I’ll tell the state that most of the committee acts despite the current law, and that the minority does so in specific cases but the minority doesn’t believe this can be enshrined in law.”

They agreed; I testified to state government; the law was changed so doctors of a patient who could not communicate could base decisions on discussions with a surrogate or the patient’s clear needs.

2) Teams that are bewildered, stuck, or have lost their way.

  1. a) The nonprofit Abilities United in Palo Alto – you may know of it as C.A.R. – was hit hard by cutbacks in government revenue. Its people largely have social work and educational backgrounds. From work on their Board, I had gained respect and trust from these people. The managers of its departments explored the need for new approaches for an hour. I used the technique of asking, “What’s important about the organization?” – in this case, the agency – and to write the answers on a board, waiting for the reluctant to respond or not. After that, I ask, “and what’s important about this answer?” taking each of the first answers in turn.

Anyone can state a reason; everyone gets as many chances to do so as they wish. I write those answers down as a longer list. The managers were motivated to inspire themselves. They outlined plans for a payment-for-service plan for each program. The one manager with a business background helped the others. Abilities United soon got back on its feet.

b) In 2008 and 2010, failing Toastmasters clubs needed to succeed. Using the tools at each visit allowed me to earn rapport and trust. Now I wanted to motivate them to inspire themselves to high-performance. Again, this actual task took an hour at each club. We met. I asked what was important about their Toastmaster Club, and when they were done, what was important about each answer.

At the end of the hour, each team had inspired itself. One team stated their commitment and how they’d proceed. I asked the other if the suggestions they’d put forward made a plan. “You say you need to get 15 more members quickly. You want to get your friends and contacts to join, and you want to have an open house to bring more prospects?” “Yes” They did it and succeeded. I never had to come back; to this day each club continues to flourish.

c) On the other hand, I helped my wife when she mentored a new club. It was very effective, but I hadn’t yet realized the importance of inspiring the club to motivate it, didn’t suggest we do it, and the club dwindled after a year or so.

3) Conflicts after a merger or before and after a split-up

How many of you are more comfortable doing what you are already doing and less comfortable with the stress and stretch of change? Stretching means giving up comforting beliefs. In fact the definition of ‘belief’ is a comfortable thought. Giving up a belief is uncomfortable, even frightening.

a) Entrenched opinions had to change when the Palo Alto Red Cross chapter merged with San Jose to form the new Silicon Valley chapter,. Palo Alto’s volunteers were retired CEOs and high-level executives. The culture was that staff learned something was needed and asked the volunteers to handle it. The volunteers decided how to do things, did them, and got the wherewithal from each other and from the staff.

The San Jose culture was that the staff made all decisions, did the work, and told their volunteers, largely blue collar workers, how to help.

Silicon Valley’s new executive director and the members of each chapter’s Board wanted the best elements of each old culture in the new chapter. I wrote the major points of leadership meetings on an easel pad which I later turned into minutes. There were conflicts in the leadership, but many of these quickly resolved to compromise and consensus when I used skills of consciousness. When I didn’t, the conflicts often remained.

Three crucial people from the chapters had a conflict. A senior staff member from San Jose couldn’t imagine volunteers deciding what to do. Two leading volunteers from Palo Alto weren’t about to have staff tell them things they were experts on. Luckily, this one went well. With the tools, I asked if the volunteers would be willing to work with the staff if he would try a different approach for three to six months? Yes.

Would the staff person be willing to experiment, and for three to six months let these volunteers run their areas in close concert with him? The volunteers would decide how and what would be done but would keep the staff member fully informed hour by hour. Yes.

At the end of three months, everyone agreed the new method was working and made it standard operating procedure.

b) When a merger or acquisition involves a full company, the company often pays for its top people to talk things through with mentors or psychologists. As Patrick Lencioni illustrated in his book, Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, the rest of the employees also need to talk things through. This can be done by letting them vent fears, frustrations and suggestions in open meetings while executives and managers listen. The more you as a neutral facilitator can be empathetic without being drawn into the emotions and the more you can support everyone’s creative efforts, the better this works.

c) I made the mistake of dropping this critical aspect of the Red Cross merger. It took a good year for most volunteers to work through the change. Some never did, and they left.

d) Split-ups. Split ups produce anxiety the instant the CEO announces one – see news articles about notable split ups in eBAY, HP, and Symantec. Executives, managers, and general staff all worry. What will the two new organizations be like? Will the split up succeed? Who will lead and how well? How will the organization’s clients or public react? Who will be kept on and who will be fired? To some degree the worries are different for each group, but all are real and all impact creativity and productivity (see my blog on “Employees and Teams Who Succeed. A Neurologist’s View”). Fear causes the amygdala, deep in the cerebral hemisphere, to shut down most the areas of the brain’s cortex which support creativity. Only a small segment of the cortex is active. It is an area that reacts to activate “fight or flight” responses.

Ralph Stacey points out that a split-up leads to complex problems. The outcome is often uncertain. His matrix of complexity and the analyses he and others make suggest that the most dangerous, severe, or uncertain problems require creative collaboration between groups of staff.

Be creative when the amygdala has shut off those parts of the cortex? Yes, there is a path.

A series of meetings, modeled on those of a merger, can help. More important, using your abilities to be fully present, to feel what others really mean, to keep your attention neutral, and especially to be truly empathetic without being drawn down into others’ emotions will allow you to support others to be creative.

4) Learning to deal effectively with emotional situations.

a) Many of my medical colleagues needed to deal effectively with emotional situations they thought they couldn’t handle. I practiced neurology – brain and nerve disease. Most doctors work hard to heal or keep healthy the organ system they specialize in so it will support the brain. Diseases of the brain itself – those are frightening. My colleagues needed coaching so we could collaborate on patients who now had brain disease. When I was compassionate in my coaching and felt how the colleague was responding, things went well. When I was abrupt or dogmatic, I failed.

b) As an example of things going well, my hospital realized that decisions needed to be made about the care of dying patients. Someone had to deal with the family’s fears and convince doctors to follow well-made decisions. The hospital formed an ethics committee. Each of the three physicians on the committee rotated month by month to chair the ethics consultation team. Non-physician professionals rotated on the team – a senior nurse, a therapist, or a dietician, as did three outside business men who were interested in ethics. This meant I always had others to advise me when I took the wrong approach or got impatient or autocratic.

One family agreed to let mother die; then a long-lost son arrived late at night from the other coast. He’d not seen mother for decades and was wracked with guilt. The nurses on the ward called me at home. “Do everything you can to keep mother alive!” he insisted. Luckily he too was tired to talk more. We agreed to meet in the morning.

The ethics team joined him and the rest of the family on the ward mid-morning. A senior nurse and a business man were on that month’s team with me. The ward nurse assigned to his mother joined us as did the head nurse from the ward.

The conference took an hour. The senior nurse and the business man acknowledged the son’s desire to speak to mother, acknowledged and defused his guilt at ignoring her over the years, and praised him for being willing to come all that way to make up. I provided medical facts: her coma for two weeks, the medical evidence she would never wake up or speak. We all impressed on him, our team and the ward nurses, that even in coma, she could feel him hold her hand and feel emotion in his voice, and that he should speak to her and tell her of his love. He reluctantly agreed with the rest of the family that she should be kept comfortable but not have tests done or be put on a ventilator, and be allowed to die peacefully.

I wrote a consultation note with all this, and then called the woman’s doctor. Like most doctors, he had no training in caring for dying patients. He listened, asked questions, and then decided he, too, would go along with the recommendations of the consulting team.

5) A person with valuable traits no longer contributes. Two churches had merged. A stalwart of the church into which the new congregation moved stirred up dissent, badgered the new minister into resigning, and broke the new church into competing factions. I was asked to intervene. First I explored the situation with a small group of leaders from each of the two original churches. One man insisted that it was not Christian to push the trouble-maker; the others felt she needed to step aside or leave.

At the meeting of an official committee, I used my skills to earn peoples’ respect and trust. I could feel the anger and the hidden agenda of the trouble-maker. I pointed out that the dissent needed to come out in open discussion or the church could fail.

Then I spent a week interviewing key people, beginning with the dissenter and her cohort. My discernment really came from feeling what was under the words. Underneath any hidden agenda there is a fear of being inadequate.

Maybe she was in the beginning of a brain disease. Maybe something else was going on. The subtle loss of function frightened her and made her afraid of losing control of life. This came out as being afraid of losing control of the church. She supported the merger because she knew how to manipulate the new congregation. She and her cohort used half-truths followed by inventions and lies to bully and intimidate everyone who disagreed with her. The atmosphere was hellish.

I requested a meeting of the entire congregation. Using the tools and asking why the church was important, and why each answer was important, got the cohort to break away from the dissenter. Unfortunately I dropped the ball by not openly confronting the dissenter then and there. She blocked my returning to follow up, but in such an openly vituperative way that the congregation saw through her.

Once a hidden agenda is openly discussed, it is no longer a peril. Open discussion is healthy for an organization. The church hired a new minister who decreased the dissenter’s authority and influence.

Yes, I’ve seen less dangerous examples of someone no longer contributing. These seem easier to handle because a direct approach has usually worked.

  • If the person has burnt out, a change or a break is needed.
  • If the person feels his or her advice is not valued or someone is disrespectful, simple discussions and coaching usually work.
  • If the person misses a colleague who has left, or has a problem away from work that is using up attention, mentoring often helps.

The critical skills you need to resolve internal conflicts are

  • to be fully present,
  • to be able to direct attention with your will,
  • to be able to feel others,
  • to be in neutral attention,
  • to be empathetic but not drawn into another’s emotions,
  • to support others to be creative.

You can learn these skills in a short time.


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