In a meeting designed to explore the topic of unity, two speakers—mid-level professionals from different companies—each shared a similar story. The two accounts have profound implications for individuals and organizations.
In the first case, a man spoke of being in charge of a project that was moving slowly. He had a peer who had a network of relationships that would be invaluable to the project. Yet there was a problem: the two of them were in constant conflict. He did not like her and did not want to work with her.
As he pondered his dilemma, he came to a curious insight. He noted that when he was with his boss, he showed humility. He listened without interrupting or defending and he accepted assignments without complaining. Rather than making suggestions, he asked exploratory questions. He wondered what might happen if he treated his colleague as he treated his boss.
While not anxious to perform such an unappealing experiment, the organization needed the project to succeed, and he needed it to succeed. So arrangements were made for the woman to join the project. He then executed the unattractive experiment.
Over time, the relationship improved. The project produced an extraordinary product—the best of his career. In recounting the story, the product was not what most impressed him. He spoke with a sense of awe about his new relationship. As the project unfolded, he discovered the woman knew more than he imagined about customer needs. He began to feel respect for her and it turned into trust. She felt this and by the end of the project, she had become a genuine friend.
In summary, he noted two things. First, his contrived experiment in humility resulted in real humility. As he increased in humility, other virtues emerged including respect, authenticity, compassion, and gratitude. As these virtues emerged, unity and collaboration increased and collective success followed.
Second, soon after the experiment, he found himself in a similar situation with another person. He executed the same experiment and achieved the same changes. In closing, he posed a question, “I wonder why it has taken me decades to learn the power of humility.”
In the second story, a woman spoke of taking charge of a project in video production. A key member of the team had been on the team longer and had more technical skills. He resented her appointment as team leader. As the project unfolded, she found him to be a source of increasing difficulty and came to the conventional conclusion: one of them had to go.
However, as she further reflected, she came to an uncomfortable awareness. Her conscience suggested there were things she could do that she did not want to do. They involved self-change, specifically putting the highest purpose of the group ahead of her own ego needs. After some struggle, she invited the man to meet so he could give her feedback. Since she knew the information would not be positive, her anticipation of the meeting brought dread. When he walked into the room, he was also anticipating criticism and appeared to be feeling dread.
She explained she wanted to hear his honest assessment of her behavior and indicated she would not respond but only take notes so she could then work on improving. This was hard for the man to believe. After a few moments of testing, however, he gradually opened up and she took notes.
As the process continued, he suggested that perhaps she had some feedback for him. She indicated that until she improved on her weaknesses, she was really in no position to criticize; it would be hypocritical.
In the weeks that followed, she diligently worked on his feedback. As she did, she noted a surprising outcome: the relationship improved. In fact she developed genuine appreciation for the man. While she never did give him his feedback, he began to cooperate in ways she had hoped. The project ended a success. She indicated he is now her good friend. The surprising experiment remains vivid in her memory, a lesson she now draws upon in conflictual situations.
The stories share instructive similarities. In both cases, there was a collective, higher purpose, a leadership responsibility, an interpersonal challenge, and the operation of conventional egos. Such situations are ubiquitous in organizations. Interpersonal conflict constrains organizational performance and accounts for vast losses in money and other resources.
What happened next is not so common. Each person experienced a call from conscience, an impression to sacrifice ego for the common good. Neither desired to do so. Yet driven by purpose, each committed to an experiment with an uncertain outcome. As they moved forward, they produced a new, more authentic and virtuous self.
The experiment brought not only the manifestation of genuine humility but also other virtues such as hope, diligence, patience, learning, appreciation, and compassion. These personal changes brought new interactions. The other person began to believe, trust, experiment, invest, collaborate, initiate, learn, adapt and succeed. This new relational experience produced new expectations for the future. Because two people brought conscience to culture, they made possible the co-creation of a new relational culture, a relationship of social excellence.
- In your organization, how often does conflict constrain performance? How much does it cost?
- Do you see humility and related virtues as weaknesses or strengths?
- What does bringing conscience to culture mean and what does it have to do with leadership?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?