Updated: Feb 18, 2019
I loved 80’s punk music when I was kid.
Disclaimer: I was never really a punk myself, but I always had a few punk friends in my social periphery as a teenager.
I guess I was kind of a punk tourist, if that’s a thing. After I left the military in the mid-90’s, I found myself sharing rent in several admittedly sketchy collective living situations with lots of real punks.
What’s that like?
Imagine the movie Mad Max stuffed into a small apartment where no one takes out the trash, there’s no defined sleep schedules, and weekly full-sized concerts in the living room. Oi! Oi! Oi!
I never jumped into the mosh pit of punk-world with both feet. However, I was made an “honorary punk” by a guy named Scooter. Scooter kind of looked like Joey Ramone’s evil-er twin. He was about a buck-forty soaking wet and six-foot-two, plus another one-whole-foot of perfectly straight Elmers-glued purple mohawk.
Seriously, Elmers glue is the secret to a perfect hawk.
You can also use a blowtorch and belt sander. But don’t. Really. Don’t. Those guys are not punks and they are going to hurt themselves.
In fact, if you still have a mohawk and you’re reading a blog about leadership and workplace conflict, it might be time to grow up. It’s at least time for a new hairstyle.
Most of the punks I lived with claimed to be anarchists, so they couldn’t admit to having leaders. But I suspect that Scooter was the unofficial punk king; kind of like being king of the wildlings north of the wall. So, I suppose he had the power to dispense honorary punk-titles and privileges.
Alas, those days are long gone. I now enjoy quiet nights reading, healthcare, and you know… a shower with plumbing that actually works. What does this little walk down the memory lane of punkdom have to do with leading conflict at work?
Imagine a whole flat filled with folks like Scooter. Now imagine that you are the only one who actually cares if the garbage is taken out, anyone practices even remedial hygiene, and everyone makes at least a token rent contribution.
Oh yeah, there’s also some dude that no one seems to know who’s been sleeping in a closet every night for over a week (true story).
In an environment like this, you get lots of practice in confrontation and figuring out how to be heard when those around you are used to day-to-day racket and confusion.
If this is how you feel at work sometimes, here’s some tips on how to get heard above the noise:
Pull the plug. Sometimes the sheer pace of things in a busy organization takes on a life of its own. The flow of work and the conflict between people can start happening so fast and furious, that it’s easy to become reactive when you need to be strategic.
This can make a leader feel like a fireman in room full of children with matches. As soon as one interpersonal fire is put out, five more have started.
When things feel out of control, you might need to stop everything, get everyone to drop what they are doing, and ensure that you have their full attention.
If people can’t hear you over the band’s lightning fast power-chords, screaming in the mic, and horrible distortion from the four amps someone stacked on the coffee table – you need to pull the plug and stop the show.
Punk music sounds ridiculous without high-powered distortion. Office conflict is the same. They’ll stop and listen if you kill the power.
In the office this means: close your laptop, put away your smartphones, cancel your next videoconference, and let the landline go to voicemail. We all need to talk. Now.
Stand next to the dead rat. If things in the office have been messed up and chaotic for a while, people might hate it, but they also tend to get used to it.
In one of my living situations the state of the kitchen was my number one headache. It wasn’t just messy. It was a public health threat.
The kitchen was so bad that after many attempts to lecture everyone about the growing array of funguses and other threats, I started lining the counter with giant rat traps. These were not the friendly live-capture traps available today. They were the old, brutal spring-loaded snap-traps.
Within a day, we had a giant dead rat on the counter.
My assumption was that this gruesome spectacle would inspire a spasm of dishwashing and tile scrubbing. One day passed. Then two days. Another day passed as the rat was becoming a rotten zombie-rat. I now had the perfect concrete example for our next house kitchen discussion.
Talking vaguely about kitchen cleanliness in the abstract was not very effective. Doing so while standing next to a three-day old rotting rat, did make an impact.
Though to be honest, a couple of my roomies actually said they were sad to see the dead rat go. It was pretty punk after all. Sigh…
Whenever possible don’t discuss problems in the abstract. Provide a real and immediate example of what results from poor performance or behavior. Quality leadership is also part theater. Use your props wisely.
Repeat yourself, while upping the ante. If you’ve been droning on-and-on about the same problem for too long, people eventually stop listening. You might need to up the ante.
Pull the plug to ensure you’re being heard. Stand next the metaphorical dead rat to ensure that what you’re talking about is real and concrete. You might need to do these things more than once. Just make sure that the consequences for not changing go up with each repetition.
Some consequences are natural. That dead rat was only going get worse if everyone chose to do nothing.
Other consequences might need to be imposed. One night, the weekly punk show in the living room was so out of control that I threatened to call the cops on my own apartment. This was a decidedly un-punk thing to do. It was also effective.
Conversation, collaborative engagement, and banking on empathy doesn’t solve every problem. There is a selective and strategic role for the fear of consequences. If used sparingly, fear can be an effective motivator of last resort.
You can’t fight noise with more noise. So, the next time things feel out of control at work, lace up those Doc Martens and get creative. Strategizing how to be heard is just as important as knowing what to say.
Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.
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