One day, a cowboy was riding his horse in the dawn hours, driving cattle toward market. Glad to see daylight, he pressed the herd through the now sun-drenched rangeland. As he reveled in his freedom, he felt a sharp pain in his shin. Peering down, he saw he had drifted into a patch of bull nettle; their thistles had pierced his jeans. But he had cowboys to lead and a herd to drive, and so he ignored their mild sting and carried on. As the day went on, the mild sting turned into an aching pain, finally calling him to dismount and take a closer look. To his dismay, his leg had become infected.
Soon, a fever set in, and it wasn’t many days until he, unable to mount, was rendered useless to ride alongside the cook on the chuck wagon. Though he tried to ignore his worsening condition, his demise was becoming quickly evident to the cowpokes who gathered nightly around the wagon for dinner. Soon, he was found lying under a mound of Texas red dirt marked only by a twisted mesquite cross lit by the mourning moon.
Why? He didn’t stop to pull the thistle.
Though this story is set in another time period, the same story plays itself out in today’s business environment every day. There is an offense--a verbal thistle or behavioral barb. The offense gets ignored and soon it lies festering under the surface of all other business activity, poisoning everything near it. How are we as leaders to deal with offenses?
Good Leaders Pull the Thistle
Pulling the thistle requires a difficult conversation, and unless you are a sadomasochist, no leader truly enjoys such conflict. But thistle pulling is a part of the leader’s job. Leadership never promises us an easy path. In fact, difficulty is to be expected. Most often this difficulty will occur because there are two or more humans involved in our endeavors. We humans are innately flawed, we make mistakes, and we offend one another. To err is human, but to ignore is not divine. Leaders must grow comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. When any offense is perceived, real or imagined, it is the leader's job to address the offense with--and ONLY with--the parties directly involved. Thistles rarely work themselves out on their own. The leader’s role is to serve as the verbal tweezers, exposing and removing offenses that others would rather keep hidden.
How Do The Thistles of Conflict and Offenses Occur?
Bobb Biehl, another wise leadership coach, says almost all conflict and offense results from two differing sets of assumptions. One person assumes it is okay to continually be 10 minutes late to a team meeting. Another member doesn’t, and gets mad. One staff member assumes it is okay to use a certain type of humor in the workplace, and another assumes that no joke like that should ever be uttered in the public sector. One employee assumes you, the leader, would do so-in-so in such-and-such a situation, and acts unilaterally on behalf of the company. You assumed a decision at that level would be run by you first. A conflicting set of assumptions is at the core of most of our human interaction problems. They cause us to butt heads, harbor grudges, and reduce productivity and morale. (ALSO READ: Detox Damaging Co-Worker Relationships)
The Key To Overcoming Conflict
If the core of most problematic human interaction is a set of differing assumptions, there is a straight-forward solution. Instead of thinking in terms of conflict resolution, which has a winner and loser, a thistle-pulling leader thinks in terms of clarifying assumptions, addressing the differing sets of assumptions held by each party. By providing clarity, a leader is able to reduce the undefined space that allowed the assumptions to arise in the first place. Sometimes this conversation will occur between the leader and a team member. At other times, it will call for one to become a mediator between two warring factions.
How to Lead A Thistle Pulling Conversation
As you prepare for a pull-the-thistle conversation, list the set of assumptions you think each party might have in place on a piece of paper. As you commence the thistle conversation, lead with, “Here are some beliefs/behaviors that I think you hold as being okay.” Go down your list of assumptions, attempting to state them in the most positive light. For example, don’t say, “You assume it is okay to be late.” No one that wants to keep his or her job is going to answer in the affirmative. Instead, state, “You have a lot of important tasks in front of you each day. Where does the daily team meeting play into how you prioritize your time each day?” You are striving to get them to state the assumption. You can then clarify the expectations and eliminate any room for assumption.
After you provide this clarity, the ball is now clearly in their court. You’ll quickly learn whether you have a competence issue or a compliance issue with the parties involved. If it is a competence issue that is correctable, clearly stating expectations and providing training can greatly eliminate a repeat of the conflict. At other times, despite competent abilities, the person will not comply with the clarified expectations. Unfortunately, this requires you, the leader, to move them out of your organization, or they will become a poison to it.
So “cowboy up” or “cowgirl up,” Leader. Pull the thistle. As painful as it might be, it is much less painful to remove the thistle as soon as it occurs rather than wait until the problem has festered and is visible to everyone. Act quickly.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on this process in the comments below. Have you had to remove thistles in your organization before? Did you do it quickly or wait too long?
If you'd like help identifying the influence traits that will create the greatest impact in your career development, start here: