The Leadership Dilemma No One is Talking About

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How do we create work environments where people who passionately disagree can productively coexist? 

Self-awareness and nonviolent communication are part of the answer.

I recently wrote that leaders’ ability to embrace differences and solve problems effectively with people with whom they disagree is essential to their success. It is also essential to societal safety and human progress.

In our personal lives we can surround ourselves with people who look, act, and believe as we do. Even online, “the algorithm” helps us create and perpetuate our own echo chambers which powerfully validate our existing thoughts and values, emboldening our positions and pacifying our emotions.

At work, however, we may find ourselves interacting with people who do not look like us nor share the same beliefs or values. Further, our work culture may not value relationship building and empathy, nor create opportunities for understanding and celebrating differences.

This creates a powder keg where an interpersonal misstep or wrong word can spark conflict ranging from minor irritation to violence.

It is important for leaders to know how to not only deescalate conflict, but coach people to listen and connect with intention to prevent destructive conflict in the first place.

To this end, I would like to look at a quote from Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, to get us thinking about how we might start to develop our capabilities in this area. Rosenberg is quoted as follows,


“We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.”


There is both wisdom and warning in these words.

What does it mean to be dangerous?

It means to cause harm or injury, or to cause problems or adverse consequences. We have all worked with people who lack emotional intelligence or who are arrogant and self-absorbed. We have worked with people who do not value others’ feelings and who rush to pass judgement and make assumptions. These people have the potential to cause harm and adverse consequences at work.

What does it mean to be conscious?

To be ‘conscious’ is to be keenly aware at any given moment of what we are thinking, feeling, and doing. It is to be actively contemplating whether we are truly open to understanding other people or judging and dismissing them. This self-awareness is the bedrock of improving our relationships at work.

What does it mean to be responsible for our behavior, thoughts, and feelings?

We can choose our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. We have a choice. No one can cause us to do, think or feel anything. So, if we lose our temper, make a hasty decision or storm into a building, it is not justified by anyone or anything except our own conscience and will. Additionally, our behavior tends to follow our thoughts and feelings. So, until we do the hard work of truly examining how our beliefs influence our world view and consider whether we are truly open to new information and perspectives, we remain brittle and ready to snap at someone or something that threatens our position.

Further, until we become students of our emotions, allowing them to inform (vs. hijack) the quality of our communications and strengthen (vs. weaken) our connection to others, we will remain hypervigilant and protectionist rather than empathetic and open to change.

It bears repeating: “We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.” As leaders, we bear more responsibility for our behaviors, thoughts, and actions because we can be especially dangerous when we abdicate that responsibility.



For more from Heather Haas, read her previous article “And Yet: Two Words that will Change Your Life and Your Business.”

And, don’t miss “The 3 P’s for Greater Effectiveness of Frontline Leaders” by Leadership Consultant Patrick Howe.