There they were. Two managers glaring at each other. Teeth clenched. Hands tightened into fists. Barely breathing. Exchanging noxious words of personal attack.
The issue? Whose people were more responsible for a very angry major client threatening to pull all her business due to late delivery and poor performance.
I and several other people watched in stunned silence as the fight escalated. We made a few attempts to calm them down and address what could be done to fix things and keep the client, to no avail. Accusations kept flying. We backed off—for our own safety. In what seemed like hours but was actually only a few more minutes, the warring parties stalked off in opposite directions leaving lots of blame but no solution in their wake.
You’ve seen this scenario before. Perhaps you’ve even been one of the participants. It happens all the time to a greater or lesser extent: conflict that ends with no resolution but leaves a toxic atmosphere of bitterness and rage.
The issue that led to the fight becomes even more problematic.
Shortly after witnessing this battle, I participated in a raucous board committee meeting, in which we met with our newly hired branding consultants to kick off a project. Varied and often wildly divergent opinions were passionately expressed. Voices rose and disputes ensued.
Our excellent consultants encouraged the debate. They asked provocative questions to keep it going then stood back to let it flow.
And yet, no clenched fists and no one stopped breathing. Not a single personal attack. Conflict? You bet. Anger and a poisoned atmosphere? Not a trace.
After two hours of heated back and forth discussion with nary a break, we ended the meeting with smiles, handshakes and jokes about how we’d worked hard to make the consultant’s job more difficult. All of us, clients and consultants, left feeling excited and energized about what was to come and looking forward to working together to address our branding issue.
Two faces of conflict. One that leaves the participants angry, resentful, and on the verge of passing out due to that held breath. Conflict that intensifies the problem that started the argument. The other, conflict that results in camaraderie, satisfaction and fresh ideas to not only remedy a problem but to achieve even better results.
You have a choice. When a situation appears where disagreement occurs—and it will, it always does, in all walks of life—you can stand your ground, throw some fists, and leave bloodied. Or you can reach out to those with differing opinions, have an energetic and excited but without personal attacks discussion, and come to a successful solution together.
The choice is yours. Begin by making it personal and end in worse shape or keep the focus on the issue and solve the problem.
The six hour flight from Tel Aviv was late so I rushed through Heathrow to catch my connecting flight home to Birchrunville. Facing another nine hours in an airplane, I was happy to have snagged a business class seat. Then I boarded the American Airlines flight and my mood suddenly changed…
Beat up old-style seats. No place to put anything. No fancy privacy pods, no outlets, no cool video. Actually no video at all until the flight attendant came by with her hands full of electronic equipment for me to assemble and create my own video screen. Very weird.
The woman seated next to me looked over and said, “quite a disappointment. They should have given us a discount or at least mentioned we were flying a wreck so old they haven’t bothered to install new seats…or even fix these falling apart antiques.”
A kindred soul! Things were looking up again.
This happens often. You wind up in disappointing situations that you can ignore, get upset about, or turn into adventures that lead to unexpected pleasure. Ignore her comments and continue to mope about my decrepit surroundings? Offer a cursory response and turn my back and read? Or get into the moment and see where it leads?
Most people seem to choose the ignore or read option. Rather than take the opportunity to see where such a random event might lead, they tune out and the opportunity passes them by. Then they complain not only about their poor flight, bad restaurant, or mediocre meeting, but also about the fact that nothing happened to inspire them.
Serendipity visits us all. Some pay attention and respond to it but many others never notice it knocking, or what’s even worse, they notice but ignore it, considering it an inconvenience.
Serendipity: a fortunate happenstance. Yet few will notice and even fewer will explore to find the fortune hidden within. They fail to keep an open mind and pay attention and so they pass right by new ideas and opportunities they never imagined.
Serendipity: an opportunity to turn time on a lousy airplane into something exhilarating.
My seatmate and I wound up spending the majority of the nine hours engaged in an energizing conversation. She from the metropolis of Johannesburg and I from the hamlet of Birchrunville discovered we shared many ideas on how to make companies function better. Even cooler, we discovered we both were putting these ideas into practice around the world. We shared stories about past and current projects and how we helped create effective leadership teams and improved cultures of organizations.
From an inauspicious beginning, the flight turned into an invigorating experience for both of us. As we approached Philadelphia International Airport, we prepared to disembark, each of us carrying new ideas for helping our clients and many other things to think about. We finally introduced ourselves and traded business cards. I left with an invitation to visit Wendy in Johannesburg…which I expect to do before too long. If all goes well, there’s a joint project in our future.
And the seats and electronics…and airplane…soon destined for the trash heap? We completely forgot about them.
My seatmate: Wendy Lambourne, Director (and founder) Legitimate Leadership, South Africa…and the world. Read her book called, what else, Legitimate Leadership, and find some wonderful ways to improve your organization.