There are two things that are obvious to anyone who knows my friend Ken.
Firstly, he is an enormously successful businessman and secondly, he is one of those rare extremely nice people.
Ken has built his empire on the premise of always putting people ahead of profits and personal gain. He is one of those folks who cares deeply about people and genuinely looks for the good in everyone he meets.
Over the many years of Ken’s business career there have been occasions where it has become necessary for him or, under his direction, for his managers to fire an employee. These decisions have always been extremely anxiety-causing for him and, in every case, prior to making the decision to terminate someone’s employment, he has first exhausted every possible way of salvaging that person.
He has invested heavily in counseling, coaching, training, conflict resolution and mediation and has given these errant folks chance after chance in an effort to avoid having to take that final step of termination.
On more than one occasion he has called me to talk at length about an impending firing and has always been apologetic in explaining his reasons. He believes that firing a person has profound effects on their life, their dignity and their livelihood and he only does so after all exhaustive efforts at salvation have failed.
We met for lunch a few weeks ago and Ken shared with me his latest conflict resolution tactic he had employed successfully in bringing resolution to a long-standing “war” that two of his employees had been waging for many years.
These two folks, of different ethnicity, nationality, religion and culture, have, for many years, openly expressed strong dislike and distrust of each other. No one can quite remember the origin of their animus, it just seemed to have always been there.
A pattern quickly emerged that repeated itself year after year. Something would trigger an escalation of their conflict and both employees would quickly surround themselves with their supporters in an attempt to strengthen their position and prove to management how they were the injured party – the victim – and how the other person was the evil purveyor of all things bad.
Each time the conflict recurred, Ken’s management team would adopt the same practice of first attempting to resolve the conflict on their own and, when that failed, they would bring in outside mediators to attempt to bring these two adversaries together in a spirit of compromise.
Invariably a “ceasefire” would be negotiated and would hold for a while until, inevitably some action by either of them would spark a new outbreak of hostility and the whole process would begin all over again.
Ken’s senior management were now urging him to terminate one or both of these employees. They had reached the point where they felt that constantly repeating this pattern was merely validating the accepted definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting the result to be different.
It was agreed by all that the exceptional work delivered by both of these employees was eroded by the effect of their morale lowering behaviors each time they went to war.
When the most recent conflict erupted Ken was at his wits end and just about ready to do the one thing he hated – terminate both of them. Then he had a thought; he would try a different tactic and see what happened.
He ordered them both to meet him at a local hotel where he had reserved a small meeting room.
Upon arrival, with each of them openly expressing surprise at seeing the other, they were told that they were going to spend the better part of a day together in this room and that while many topics would be to covered, there was one absolutely taboo topic; there were told in no uncertain terms that neither of them could make any reference to their dispute, grievances or dislike of each other.
Instead the time would be spent getting to know each other. Ken chose to speak first. He spent the better part of an hour telling them about himself, his childhood, growing up in poverty, his struggles, his victories, his trials and his successes.
He spoke at length of how he met his wife, the great love they had for each other and how proud he was of the wonderful job she had done in raising their children.
They laughed as he talked with them about wonderful vacations taken as a family and they cried as he shared his heartbreak when his wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness and the painful road he had traveled while trying to regain some normalcy following her death.
They saw in Ken the same fears and aspirations they had and, for the first time viewed him as a human being, not a boss.
Then he asked them to do the same and they both, slowly and hesitatingly at first, spoke of their lives, their families, their aspirations, their setbacks, their kids adventures, their family heartbreak, their fears and their hopes. It didn’t take long before they realized that there were far more similarities between them than differences.
For the first time in their lives they saw each other as humans who bleed when cut, cry when sad and laugh when happy and who all wanted the same things – to build better lives for their families.
After several hours and a delightful meal the realization of their similarities became the focal point of the discussion and they both realized that, as these similarities far outweighed their differences, they could easily build an enduring friendship and learn to deal with their differences objectively rather than emotionally.
They even “negotiated” a mutually beneficial arrangement to instantly resolve one of the longstanding points of contention.
Over a long Friday afternoon lunch Ken told me that in the five months since that day there has been no new outbreak of conflict. In fact, there’s been a noticeable increase in their trust of each other and a willingness to sit down and address their differences in an adult, non-threatening and non-insulting way.
Their newfound collaboration has resulted in substantial productivity increases within their departments.
Ken laughingly told me the dollar costs of his conflict resolution method – renting a hotel room and ordering a meal – was a tiny fraction of what he had previously paid professional mediators to unsuccessfully do in the past and laughingly told me that he was thinking of launching a new career as a “conflict resolver.”
He then got serious for a moment and said, “I really believe we can resolve any conflict if we just realize we’re all human, and we all want the same thing – a happy life.
“I understand there may be past grievance that are legitimate and past wrongs that have caused great pain but if we simply put aside our need to be right – which means the other side must be wrong and that all wrongs can only be righted through retribution –and leave the past where it belongs – far behind us, we can focus on a future in which we relish in our similarities and celebrate our differences.
“We are, after all, children of the same God.”
I’m thinking of sending Ken to the Middle East.
Till we read again.