How to Make Nice

Tips for winning back estranged colleagues

It's amazing how often executives are stymied by their inability to influence others. The typical scenario involves a talented, change-oriented leader who gets a shot at a more visible role. In the process of getting stuff done, he steps on a few (very influential) toes. Over a couple of years, the executive racks up some impressive accomplishments but finds that his success is hindered by the organizational minefields his actions have sown over the years. As a result, the executive tires of the level of effort required to move things forward and decides that it's time to move on.

Getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to do it is the ultimate test of leadership skill. It's hard to face the fact that others don't like working with you (and it always boils down to this very personal sentiment, doesn't it?) but once the tears, anger and denial are over, two questions remain: Is it too late to salvage these relationships, and how can I do that?

It's rarely too late to try again, although it does take a lot of time and effort because it's easier to create impressions than change them. It may seem easier to start over at a new company, but the only sure way to put the issue to bed is by winning back those who have walked away. I have a couple of clients in this situation and, the fact is, they can change organizations but they won't change the outcome. No matter where they go, there they are; you can change organizations, but unless you change your behavior, you'll find yourself in a new place facing the same old problem.

It's easier to outline what to do than it is to muster the courage to get it done. The first steps require eating a lot of humble pie. Start by facing the truth of how your actions got you into trouble. Everybody has a tendency to, at first, place the blame on others. Accepting accountability requires explaining the past without using the phrases "He said...," "She should...," "I told them...," "I tried...," and so on.

Next, reach out to would-be colleagues by communicating three things. First, say that you are sorry for past actions. Tell them you would like to restart the relationship. Then ask for their help in doing so. The combination of apologizing and asking for help is powerful in that it disarms the listener and asks him to verbally (and therefore, psychologically) commit to being a partner in your success. If the other party is unwilling to let go of the past, focus your efforts elsewhere.

Finally, you need to learn how to understand and serve the needs of others in order to find the win-win solutions that define effective collaboration. To do so, you will need to:

Understand your stakeholders. Understand the motivators of key stakeholders by discovering their current objectives, concerns and longer-term goals. Determine how to collaborate effectively by understanding their communication, decision making, and conflict management styles using tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Listen more empathetically. When people are emotional, they need to be heard. People hate know-it-alls who spout off with advice-giving statements that start with "you should...," "you ought...," "what about...." When approached with an issue, respond by reflecting the content and emotion of the other party two times (for example, "I bet that it was frustrating when you had worked so hard...") before asking "when," "what," "how" type questions to understand the situation further. Avoid using "why" questions because they put others on the defensive. If conversations get heated, take a break and reconvene later—in person if possible.

Uncover underlying rationale. People have a tendency to advocate their point of view ("We should use this vendor") without providing the underlying rationale regarding information and interpretations—particularly when they are emotional. Don't counter with your own advocacy statements ("The current system can be enhanced..."). Instead, use inquiry to understand their how they reached their conclusions (for example, "What do the customers think?" "What are the key issues?" "How will we measure success?"). Shift into productive advocacy once you have all the facts by presenting your recommendation and underlying rationale, and inviting comments or critiques ("What am I missing here?").

Apply the psychology of persuasion. In a Harvard Business Review article entitled Harnessing the Science of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini outlines six psychological principles that can help strengthen relationships and tip the scales in your favor. The principle of reciprocity, for example, discusses how important it is to give what you want to receive. Although "Do unto others" is hardly a new concept, what's interesting is the fact that you will compel others to repay in kind if, and only if, you give something unexpected and relevant and respond to their gratitude by saying, "I'm sure you would do the same for me" rather than the more typical response, "No problem" or "My pleasure." The remaining principles include liking, social proof, consistency, authority and scarcity, and they are useful to any leader, regardless of the circumstances.

My clients, like most executives in similar circumstances, are having trouble getting off first base because of the ego hit involved with taking accountability for their actions and asking others for help. Ultimately they will be successful because they understand that is it impossible to move on without staying put and delivering against the acid test of turning around negative impressions.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. You can e-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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