Monday, December 28, 2009

Conflict is Good

The title of my book — Say Hello to the Elephants — was inspired by the reaction most people have to conflict. That is, they sit on their hands and refuse to acknowledge it. I was thinking about this during a team meeting with my managers, some of whom refuse to criticize the named partners at Rose, Snyder, & Jacobs.

Conflict in any organization is important, I told them. What I failed to add is that conflict in any relationship is important. To be clear, conflict doesn’t mean that you hate a person or hold grudges. It means that you simply have an inquisitive mind and ask questions when we see them dangling before us. It means that you have the courage to look at each other and say what is honest. It means that you do what you should be doing and, when something doesn’t seem right, you speak up.

In other words: If you leave an elephant in a room, it will not go away. In fact, according to Ellen James of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, an adult elephant produces up to three hundred pounds of dung a day. If you ignore an elephant too long, you will quickly find out what it is like to walk through a pile of elephant dung.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Finding Clarity Is Painful

Sometimes my clients sound just like my kids: “But Tony, this is hard wooooork. Finding clarity is painful.”

You bet it is. In my book, Say Hello to the Elephants, I tell the story of Doyle. Imagine that Doyle is your fitness trainer, and that you tell Doyle that you have always watned to run a marathon.

“No problem,” he says (of the 26.2-mile race). “It will be easy.”

You smile at him and say, “Swell.”

So you are off and running, expecting it to be a piece of cake based on what your fitness trainer has told you. It will be calming, he says. You will probably have one epiphany after another, similar to those deep, transformational moments during yoga. Doyle leads you to believe that running the marathon will be kind of like relaxing in a Jacuzzi, but different.

You set off running on your first training session. You start hopeful and full of confidence.

Then reality sets in. Your heart is about to burst out of your chest, and you are panting like a thirsty dog. You are convinced that your toenails will rub off, your arches will fall, and you will have shin splints, sweat rashes, strained Achilles tendons, blisters, chafing, and various knee and back ailments along the way. You have only run a half-mile before you decide that running is quite awful.

Swell? More like swelling!

I am simply not cut out for this, you decide, reflecting on Doyle’s claim that it should be easy.

On Day One of training, you quit.

Although it might seem that clarity should be intuitive, the process of reaching clarity is not always easy. Clarity can be difficult to achieve. It does not have to be painful, but it often is. Our choices muddy the waters. Our responsibilities add pressure, and our setbacks seem impossible to overcome.

Pain, at least when it has passed, can be palliative. Imagine for a moment a world in which we could set ambitious, challenging goals and then turn around and attain them without sacrificing a single ounce of blood, sweat, or tears. Not only would that take the “accomplish” out of the accomplishment, but it would also turn your ambitious goals into monotony. You probably would not want to achieve those goals any more. At best, the accomplishments would lack significant meaning.

Maybe your trainer, Doyle, disagrees. “Goals that are easy to reach would not be boring or monotonous,” he says. “That would be fantastic. We could have our cake and eat it too! Sign me up—I love German chocolate cake!”

You should fire Doyle.

Pain gives meaning to our desire and ability to reach goals. It strengthens us, builds our self-confidence and self-worth, and gives us the experience we need to get through the next round of pain. When you have fought for years and years to reach the top—and in the course of those years you have been beaten down, failed on numerous occasions, and rejected by more people than you can count—you will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you have earned it once you get to the top. The pain you endured will make the reward sweeter. The scrapes and scars are all badges of courage proving you were challenged. The mettle was tested, and the mettle won.

The pain is priceless.

You hire a new trainer, Lance. Lance’s favorite movie is Predator about a U.S. Special under attack by a hideous creature from outer space known as “the Predator.” Lance’s favorite moment is when a fellow soldier informs the tobacco-chewing Blain that Blain is bleeding. Blain keeps chewing his tobacco, scoping out the terrain, matter-of-factly stating, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

And neither do you. When you have clarity, much of the pain is incidental.

The reward makes the pain irrelevant.

Take Theodore Geisel. In college, Theodore was voted the least likely to succeed. Though his art and writing professors disagreed, Theodore felt he had a knack for drawing and writing, so he sent his work to a number of publishing companies, all of whom rejected his books like clockwork. Twenty-seven publishers said no. (Those grinches!)

And then, publisher twenty-eight said yes.

With that, Theodore Seuss Geisel became Dr. Seuss.

Certainly, being rejected or meeting obstacles can be painful. Disappointment, frustration, and anxiety are normal. But whether that pain blocks you from moving forward is up to you. You can take rejection and let it cut deep, let the pain seer into your being. Or you can say, “I am only looking for one publisher to say yes. This is not the one, but I ain’t got time to bleed, so I will just keep looking,” and move on.

There’s no getting around it: some things are going to hurt. Confronting partnership problems is not easy, nor is it easy to plan for succession, take a new risk, or end a relationship. Our economic slow-down hurts. There is no shortcut. You must have clarity to minister your strength within.

So you tell Lance about your goal of running a marathon. He nods his head. With understanding and support, he says, “Your goal is worthy, and you can do it. It is going to take some time. Many people will not believe that you will succeed. You will have a lot of close calls—a lot of times when you think you cannot do it. Your body will shake. You will feel discouraged, but if you are sure you want to do it, if you want to call yourself a marathoner—a title only 0.13 percent of the population can claim—you can move past the pain. No matter how many disappointments or setbacks you encounter, you can do it. I will be there to help. You are unstoppable.”

You look at Lance and say, “Swell.”

[Today’s blog is modified from “Clarity Planning Takes Effort, and Pain Is Swell,” a chapter from Say Hello to the Elephants.]

Today’s Challenge: Find at least one occasion where you can say, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” Say it, and then go about doing what you should be doing.