In times of crisis, complex decisions often have to be made and implemented quickly. It can be challenging to coordinate and obtain buy-in on those big decisions even when the stakeholders can get in a room together to hash it all out. In the new “Work from Home” (WFH) era sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, being in the same room isn’t an option. That can lead to some predictable conflict-management problems that you can avoid with a little foresight and creativity.
Think back to that distant time of February 2020 and earlier. There were probably times when you found yourself in the middle of an email flame war. You remember how those went. One or more participants poured gas on the fire by sharing crazy assumptions or accusations without having all the facts. If you’re like the best leaders I’ve coached, you calmed the conflict by pulling the parties together to talk things out. Just the act of bringing the players into the same room made things better because once people are together, they connect more as human beings and not as faceless combatants sitting at their keyboards.
Now that we’re all WFH, leaders need to be super intentional and proactive about creating virtual spaces for human connection. For instance, let’s say you’re finding yourself at odds with a colleague about how your teams should coordinate and work together during the crisis. One option is to send emails back and forth (and maybe CC’ing a few people in the process) so the two of you can argue about who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s not good for anybody – your customers, your teams or either of you.
If you were in the pre-WFH days what would you do? I asked that question of an executive coaching client a few days ago who was in the middle of one of those virtual conflict loops. He immediately answered, “I’d walk down to his office and say, ‘Let’s go get a beer and talk things over.’” We concluded that that was still a good move, it would just have to be executed a little differently. Later that day, he set up a FaceTime call with his colleague and they each had a beer while they talked things over. The next day, they co-led an online meeting of both of their teams so everyone was working from the same playbook. The show of leadership unity that was engineered over a virtual happy hour was a crucial component of getting things back on track. (Thanks to my client for giving me the OK to share his story with you.)
We don’t realize how much our effectiveness as leaders and colleagues depends on the little things like picking up on facial expressions and body language while we’re relaxing together until our usual ways of doing that are no longer available. Until they are again, we’re all going to have to be more mindful of creating and calling for virtual alternatives. Our ability to make complex decisions and get good things done without a lot of needless friction depends on it.
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