Leaders fix problems. Problems have multiple parts. Sometimes the problem is lack of shared vision. Sometimes the vision is spot-on but the procedures are flawed. Sometimes the computer systems are unreliable or badly designed. And, sometimes human conflict reigns. Sometimes the problem is all-of-the-above. But the most challenging problem is human conflict.
Addressing conflict requires bravery; bravery is a much-needed and relatively uncommon leadership attribute. There are many scenarios where lack of bravery shows its true colors, but the most common one is personnel management. People who dodge personnel issues often excuse themselves with arguments about compassion. Focusing on performance deficiencies is seen as mean-spirited. But not addressing deficiencies affects everyone in the workplace. Staff morale suffers. Good workers see others getting away with not pulling their weight. Someone who does not meet the needs of his or her position generates unfair workloads for those that do.
An example. I was once promoted into a position that had all of the above problems. The circulation system – an early installation – had never worked well. The leadership had little experience with technology. Service was erratic and often slow, faculty and students were unhappy, and of course staff morale was low. Paper-based pre-automation procedures were retained because they were “better” and more familiar (and didn’t fail unexpectedly). The computer system did fail, and frequently. I brought technology expertise to deal with the problems we were having with our technology vendor but it took quite a bit of time to get key things fixed. But the most challenging issue was staff conflict.
The two key people – the desk supervisor and the computer technologist – were good and well-meaning but did not relate to or trust each other. But we needed the two to work together as a team to solve the problems we faced. After speaking with each of them separately, I tried meeting regularly with the both of them in my office. The level of distrust and apprehension was so great that we accomplished little. Finally, I discovered a communication method that worked.
There was a wide hallway between the circulation area and the computer room – neutral territory. I found that if the three of us “met” standing in that hallway, we could “discuss”. Initially I would ask one a question about the particular problem we were facing. He would turn red, but then venture an opinion. Then I would turn to the other and say, “What do you think?” He would clench his jaw but then provide useful information. We went back and forth like this until we had a shared sense of the problem and a possible solution.
On reflection, I think this process worked because standing in the hall wasn’t a real meeting and either one could walk away – but neither ever did. We met like this for several months. But slowly, those meetings because calmer, even friendly, especially as our confidence grew and we solved one problem after another. A year later we three went to a conference together and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. When I left my job there, my position was eliminated. One of the two was promoted and the other moved to a better job at the university. They didn’t need me anymore.