Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Lessons on Managing Confrontations in the Workplace From a Book-Burning Controversy

Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of tensions building in the United States between groups of various beliefs and Muslims, something which unfortunately grew even worse last week over plans by Pastor Frank* to burn copies of the Qu’ran, the holy book for Muslims.

As the days drew closer to when Pastor Frank was going to burn copies of the Qu’ran, I watched with interest as more and more diverse groups and individuals began to speak out against his planned event. In the course of just a few days, representatives from opposing political parties, as well as coalitions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from across the United States, held press conferences and released statements indicating why they were against Pastor Frank’s plans while offering their support to American-Muslim citizens. Even leaders from countries around the world took to the public stage to condemn Pastor Frank’s actions, if not encourage understanding for the pain and harm such a stunt would create not just in the US, but around the world.

Following Pastor Frank’s decision last Friday to cancel his event, most of us have dismissed the whole thing as a stunt to draw attention to his small congregation, if not his overt messages of hatred and intolerance. Of course, while there has been ample discussion about the inappropriateness and insensitivity demonstrated by Pastor Frank’s, what I’d like to discuss here is some of the interesting insights this incident provided on how leaders can manage confrontations within their organization.

Granted, most leaders will never face a situation that creates as much controversy, or as much emotional responses, as last week’s planned book-burning event.  However, there are still some valuable points here for leaders to learn on how to view and manage situations where a potential dispute might be brewing between their employees.

Watching this story unfold, I noticed three lessons in particular that leaders can benefit from on how to deal with confrontations in their organization.

1. Don’t just criticize, but offer explanations to build awareness and understanding
Whether Pastor Frank ever intended to carry out his plans or not, there’s something interesting to note among the various statements given by politicians and religious leaders of various faiths in response to this book-burning event. In almost all of the cases, people didn’t simply condemn his plans, but they also worked to inform the public – and no doubt hopefully Pastor Frank himself – of why his plans were so misguided.

This is the first important lesson leaders should take note of in dealing with a confrontation with or between their employees. In trying to resolve the situation, you can’t simply tell your employee that their actions or behaviour is wrong. Instead, what leaders need to do is help their employee to understand why their conduct is not acceptable, of how their actions are damaging to their team and organization. By working to educate your employee over why their actions are being censured, you’ll ensure the behaviours are not repeated while helping your employee improve themselves in the process.

2. Reach out to learn what is the root cause behind the confrontation
As the controversy over the Qu’ran book burning continued to escalate, Imam Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, offered to meet with Pastor Frank in an attempt to try and diffuse rising tensions. What makes his efforts particularly interesting is that he wasn’t focused only on trying to stop Pastor Frank from burning copies of the Qu’ran.

Instead, he wanted to understand what Pastor Frank hoped to accomplish through this plan of his, in the hopes of finding an alternative option that would address what Pastor Frank was after. No doubt this was part of the reason why Pastor Frank was willing to stop his plans after Imam Musri offered to arrange a meeting between Pastor Frank and the organizers of an Islamic community centre that is being planned to be built near “Ground Zero” in New York City.

Here again we can see another valuable lesson that leaders can use in their attempts to address any confrontations within their organization. When facing a contentious dispute, it’s easy to focus on assigning blame to one party for causing distress and disengagement within your team. However, a more practical approach is to make the effort to listen and understand what is behind this employee’s confrontational stance; that this current situation might be more a symptom of some underlying problem.

By making efforts to understand what’s the origin behind the current problem, leaders can not only resolve the current discord, but also make sure a similar situation doesn’t reappear simply because the root problem hasn’t been resolved.

3. Make sure the process is kept open and transparent
As we all saw, even before the weekend arrived, Pastor Frank was starting to soften his stance and his insistence on going ahead with his plans. While it’s hard to gauge which parties or groups helped to influence his decision to stop his Qu’ran burning event, there’s no question that the more individuals and groups spoke out in public against Pastor Frank’ plans, the more others felt compelled to join in to help diffuse the situation and prevent any negative fallout either at home or abroad.

As more leaders and organizations spoke out publicly against the planned book-burning, Americans were reminded of their country’s values of freedom of religion and respect for others, as well as providing reassurances to Muslims everywhere that others were aware of the inappropriateness and insensitivity of Pastor Frank’s book-burning event.

In terms of confrontations in the workplace, there is always a concern for how the involved parties will feel about the decisions an organization’s leadership makes to put an end to the discord. More often than not, such situations are dealt with quietly behind closed doors or even worse, with those in leadership positions burying their heads in the sand in the hope that the situation will somehow resolve itself.

As last week’s controversy demonstrated, a more effective way to deal with confrontation is not through avoidance or closed door meetings. Instead, the process of dealing with workplace confrontations should be kept out in the open and transparent. This will not only provide reassurances to other team members that their organization’s leadership is aware and willing to deal with the situation, but it will also reinforce what your organization’s values are in terms of what is acceptable and what won’t be tolerated.

Dealing with different groups of individuals can prove at times to be a challenging process, whether it’s groups of different religious beliefs or different departmental groups within your organization. And yes, at times this can unfortunately lead to confrontations between individuals or groups who appear to be coming from opposing sides. It’s in these moments that the mark of true leadership is revealed – when people don’t shy away from such confrontations, but use them as an opportunity to build a better sense of understanding and awareness, if not also a greater sense of respect for each other.

*NOTE: Name has been changed in order to not draw more attention to this controversial individual.

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8 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , | September 13, 2010 by |

  1. On September 13th, 2010 at 7:30 PM Susan Mazza said:

    Great insights Tanveer. What seems to have evaporated from our culture is our ability to engage in passionate discourse without it having to come to blows in some way. When people disagree they seem to go to their “corner” and plan an attack, rather than debate their views out in the open, not just to win the debate, but also to learn. The book burning idea was a great example of an attack.

    Responsible communication from our leaders is a great place to start. Yet it is not just up to people in leadership positions. Everyone can learn from the lessons you shared.

  2. On September 14th, 2010 at 12:56 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Susan – Thanks Susan.

    I’ve been reading lately about how many leaders tend to think confrontation is something they should prevent from arising in order to maintain a proper level of productivity and engagement within their organization. The reality, though, is that to have an engaged team means encouraging a sense of passion and purpose among your employees and that undoubtedly will lead to some confrontations as people become loyal to their belief or cause.

    As I hoped to show through the example of last week’s controversy, confrontation is not something that needs to be avoided or prevented if leaders understand how to manage it so that both parties gain a better understanding and appreciation for the other’s point of view.

    And like you, Susan, I think the best lessons on leadership are not those that exist solely in the realm of running a business, but those that can be applied to other parts of our lives as they put the focus on people, not simply on getting results.

    Thanks again, Susan for sharing your thoughts on this.

  3. On September 13th, 2010 at 9:00 PM Rusti-Ann Blanke said:

    Tanveer, Susan’s comment bears repeating: very insightful.

    Both the book burning idea and its subsequent condemnation by so many were attacks. We can all take a lesson from the Imam, who, instead of taking a side in a politicized attack/argument, came out of his corner (thanks for that visual, Susan) and reached out in an effort to alleviate the fears that gave rise to it. A truly inspirational act of humanity and demonstration of respect towards a person that so many others were content to just write off as an irrational crackpot.

    I admire the way you translated this into some valuable workplace lessons.

    …adding your blog to my ever-growing list of regular reading!!

  4. On September 14th, 2010 at 12:58 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Rusti-Ann – Hi Rusti-Ann. Thank you for the kind words. I agree with you that it’s easier to simply dismiss the ideas or attitude of those who we happen to disagree with. But if we make the effort to try and understand why they feel compelled to take the actions they’re willing to commit to, we might gain not only a better understanding of their motivations, but also how we might come to some common ground to help diffuse the situation and gain a sense of mutual understanding and respect.

    Thanks again, Rusti-Ann for adding your voice to the discussion.

  5. On September 14th, 2010 at 6:05 AM Athif said:

    Bravo! Thanks for putting those lessons and mapping it to leadership thought process.

    Can’t wait to RT 🙂

  6. On September 14th, 2010 at 12:59 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Athif – Thanks Athif; I think it’s always encouraging when we can take what seems to be a negative moment and turn it into a lesson that we can all benefit from as we move forward. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for sharing it with others on Twitter.

  7. On September 21st, 2010 at 3:37 PM Corrie Block said:

    Choose the people whose opinions will matter to you as a leader, just make sure there’s an enemy in there somewhere so you get the full picture.

  8. On September 21st, 2010 at 4:47 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Corrie,

    I agree with you that it’s important that people focus on those whose opinions will matter or benefit them in how they approach their leadership. However, I wouldn’t say one needs to include an “enemy” as much as someone who you can trust to be honest and frank with you to help you stay the course. Of course, this would also have to be someone who you’d be willing to listen to when they tell you things you may not want to hear. In other words, “yes” men need not apply.

    Thanks, Corrie, for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

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