So, in order to move forward with any discussion, there first must be a place to safely stand. In conflict, there will always be petty tyrants who want to advance their own egotistical agendas, and they will always be able to keep yes-men and weaklings in their employ. These kinds don’t work for the good of the organization or the people they serve; they simply maintain their own egos and petty fiefdoms through attachment to the one individual capable of keeping them out of the hands of the masses. When that person falls, often, so do they.
And as we pointed out, this dynamic isn’t exclusive to the “front office”. I have seen labor representatives in the same situation, as well as bureaucrats who have very similar situations going. If you have a little bit of leverage, bullying isn’t just for the people with bugles on their collar.
Efforts to prevent escalation tactics have to be established, sometimes, with parties outside of the situation, because a referee is in order. Aggressor parties, and even sometimes both parties, will engage in scapegoating, distributing propaganda, intimidation, and exploitation of vulnerabilities. Again, it is important when seeing that you are dealing with intractability, that you protect everyone who is involved, as a means of leveling the playing field for resolving the issues. It might sound counterintuitive to be “protecting” the bully, but instead it is making sure that the process is just. Sometimes the “bully” is so not because they actually are, but because conditions seem to lend themselves toward our perceiving them that way.
I know of at least one case where an individual, a fire chief, was defined publicly through a smear campaign by a few individuals, unfairly characterizing them as an aggressive, uncooperative bully. When you can tell a compelling story and have people who are inclined to listen, it isn’t hard to portray your cause for martyrdom and all the while being the aggressor party. We see this sometimes when leaders agitate for positive change stripping individuals of their current power. Consider a department with an entrenched culture bringing in a chief from outside who wants to create positive change, who proposes a perfectly reasonable plan, and instead of having Labor work toward concessions and negotiating, the troops going straight to the attack. It happens a lot, actually. Therefore, the rules must apply for all the parties involved regardless of who appears to be in the right.
That being said, though, there sometimes happens to be issues where the aggressor party is doing what they are being held to do by their bosses (council, commissions, etc. or conversely, particular constituencies, the people who elected you, or even lobbyists if you choose). This becomes a moment where those parties, if they are being real leaders, must push back to their bosses and educate them, work to sell concessions, or even just tell them to back off for a little until we can get a hand on the problem.
Yes, intractability doesn’t stop at the two aggrieved parties; a balance has also got to be struck in the wings, where those parties must work with those who they represent to get the on board as well. If we fail to engage those individuals, our efforts to swing the continuum back out of intractability will be but a temporary situation. Therefore, protection is in order for everyone involved, and the best protections are transparency and communication when it comes to getting us on the road to negotiation. Transparency and communication rebuild trust. If we can facilitate trust through opening our hands and showing that we aren’t carrying a weapon, we may be able to start chipping away at the walls.
Join me tomorrow when we talk about building trust.