When were you last truly empathetic toward a work colleague or team member?

When did you last articulate your needs and interests or were curious to learn about the unmet needs of your conversation partner?

If your answer was ‘yesterday’ or ‘only last week’, well done! Feel free to stop reading now.

If your answer was ‘two months’, ‘longer than a year ago’ or ‘never’, then stick with me, turn off your phone, tie yourself to the chair and read on.

I once had a line manager who experienced anxiety and difficulties when speaking to us  – his team. He only managed to give out commands and criticism when we didn’t perform well. He spent the rest of his time in his office being busy and looking miserable. We found it challenging to approach him even for simple decisions and so, over time, we stopped having face to face contact with him and e-mailed instead. One day he was gone, made redundant. We were told that he had failed to achieve the business objectives and to manage his staff to an above average performance.

In my professional work as a mediator and conflict coach in workplaces and commercial cases, I see these stories on a regular basis, in particular encountering managers who can’t diagnose and don’t want to see the core issues. Collaboration expert Margaret Heffernan calls this phenomenon “wilful blindness”. Feeling unable to find solutions or to make a start on the problem they tend to avoid new issues, stop listening, and develop a survival strategy getting lost hiding in busy-ness and communicating only to please their bosses.

The personal cost of this behaviour is seen in the shortening of their career ladder, the creation of dysfunctional teams and the development of bizarre relationships with their boss. We see managers becoming depressed and unhappy and developing anxiety or severe physical health issues and their team members calling in sick, leaving the company or making complaints and grievances. The next 360° degree feedback results sheet does not make for happy reading.

Here is a quick conflict-health check for you to see how ‘healthy’ or ‘ill’ you are. Which symptoms do you recognise?

  • Absence of engagement across all staff
  • Lack of team performance
  • A drop in sales
  • Poor team provision of service
  • ‘Prozac-culture’ amongst staff members
  • Blame and avoidance become the cultural norm
  • Old-school command and control management culture from the top down
  • Clock watching and coffee-pot-complaint
  • Staff with lifeless eyes and dead souls, and,
  • A wave of hopelessness that can be detected 100 metres away

Let’s attack the root cause

What’s missing and causing this desolate situation?

One of the main voids is the absence of Positive Vulnerability – this is the constructive trait of strong leadership where the individual’s inner strength permits the admission of outer doubt acknowledging that they do not know everything.

In its place is a consuming fear of career loss related to an out-of-date paradigm (command-control). This leads to a lack of team autonomy, empowerment and delegation as well as to an absence of accountability across the entire workforce, but mainly coming from the leaders who impose artificial control techniques and who suffer from ‘brave-boys-don’t–cry’ syndrome or just stick their heads in the sand.

What can you do?

It’s time to create new contracts and let go of the old paradigm. It’s time to learn to trust, to learn how to delegate, to coach, to mentor, to listen actively, and to detach and let go.

Take a deep breath and start a real crucial conversation with a team member or colleagues. Use a framework that is flexible and provides guidance and security (we’re happy to provide you with a framework).

My wish for you is that you embrace the crucial conversation structure, kick away the rotting crutch of old habits and experience the enlightening moment that comes with an honest and respectful exchange between two humans.

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By Suanne Schuler

Susanne Schuler is a qualified lawyer and an accredited mediator in the U.K., Germany and Switzerland. She has been working in the dispute resolution field since mid of 1990’s and has facilitated more than 100 mediation processes in recent years. Her clients mainly originate from the corporate world but community and divorce mediation also form part of Susanne’s dispute resolution work. Professional Background. http://www.cedr.com