Put the fish on the table, not under it

Tuesday, 22 January 2013 15:19

The most difficult kind of dialogue for anyone is a conflict, and part of the territory of leadership is managing conflict. When I spoke with IMD professor George Kohlrieser for my Leadership: A Master Class, he made a clever comparison between conflicts and fish. Sound strange? Perhaps, but his rationale is anything but. Here’s what George said about the importance of hashing out differences before they sour a relationship – and a problem-solving process.

"Every leader recognizes that conflicts destroy inspiration and motivation. But if handled well they can also lead to increased motivation and inspiration -- an impetus to move forward and to solve a problem. Conflict is a difference characterized by tension, emotionality, disagreement, and polarization. But that’s true only where bonding is broken or lacking. You and I can have a big difference but if we keep the bond, it’s not really a conflict. If we break the bond, a small difference can become a huge conflict.

A leader has to pay special attention to the bonding process, and to differences. The difference can be styles of communication, goals, or status. Good conflict management is built around the ability to engage in the dialogue and be able to understand the bonding that is necessary to bring two people together. That's why I always say you don't have to like someone to form a bond. You only have to have a common goal. I have so many examples of people who have had conflicts in work situations, or a conflict with a boss.

I had a man who just was resigning. He was going to quit his job because he was so upset with his boss. We said, OK, before you do this, go and talk to your boss. Put your concern on the table, because conflicts are like fish, and if you put this fish under the table, what happens after a while? It starts to smell.

Why go through the bloody mess of cleaning a fish? The great fish dinner at the end of the day. So he had to put the fish on the table with his boss. His boss was American; he was from Italy. There were many cultural miscommunications and signals.

What was supposed to be a half hour meeting turned into a three-hour meeting. They resolved the difference -- it was a complete misunderstanding over an incident that happened that the boss never got over. But when they clarified that, the boss actually became his sponsor and mentor to move to a new position. He didn't leave his job and to this day he's very grateful that he learned to put the fish on the table, to have that courage to engage in that conflict management process."

(Daniel Goleman, Co-Director of Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, LinkedIn, January 17, 2013)