Alternative Title: How a Lowly Brake Operator Changed Corporate Policy in One Conversation

My father spent the last 10 years or so of his career working at a metal-press company in the Kalamazoo area. He was responsible for training new employees how to use the presses and working with them until they mastered the work.

Employees were not required to work on Sundays, something my dad appreciated. My father believed in a day of rest. He would work six days, but Sundays were for family and worship. He often worked second shift, so my mom, sister, and I didn’t see him much during the week. Dad spent Sundays at church, with family, working in his garden, and sometimes watching a little football or NASCAR. It was an important part of our life as a family to be together on Sundays.

At one point the company went to mandatory Sundays. Employees on the floor were required to work seven days a week. This directly conflicted with some of my dad’s deepest held beliefs. He went to his supervisor, then that person’s supervisor, then the plant manager, and he got the same answer each time: It was out of their hands. The president of the company made the call to meet demand. No exceptions. He could get fired if he didn’t comply.

My father chose his battles. Conflict wasn’t his favorite thing, but he did not avoid it when he felt it was important. This was a battle worth fighting. This was the early 90s, before the internet was widely available, and back when the church denomination we were a part of strongly objected to working on Sundays (or going shopping or going to the movies or mowing the lawn—you get the idea). Dad visited our pastor and got a letter from him outlining the church’s beliefs about Sunday being a day of rest.

The next day, my dad arrived at work early and went into the corporate office. He asked to speak to the president of the company. He had to put paper booties over his work boots to protect the floor-to-floor white carpet. (This was not the most culturally healthy organization—no work-boot friendly floors here.) Dad sat in the waiting room until the president could see him, then headed into the office, letter in hand.

Dad was wearing his work clothes. This was really dirty work, so his clothes were stained and ripped. The president was in a suit and tie. The power imbalance could not be more obvious. My father thanked the president for his time and told him that he was there to talk about mandatory Sundays. The president shared the reasoning behind it. My dad listened. Once the president finished speaking, my father told him that he had a religious objection to working on Sundays. Dad shared the letter from our pastor and asked that the president reconsider mandatory Sundays. The president thanked him, shook his hand, told dad he’d think about it and get back to him before the end of the week.

Later that week, the policy was changed. Sundays were mandatory for everyone, with exceptions made for people who objected for religious reasons. If they provided a letter from their pastor on church letterhead they would be exempt. Apparently my dad made quite an impression on the president. Not many people from the floor were willing to cross the cultural boundary into the corporate office. The president started visiting the floor more often, and he would often stop by to say hello to my father.

Without having a name for it, my dad and the president used the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model. If my father had stormed into the office refusing to work Sundays, his job may have been on the line. If the president hadn’t taken the time to listen to my dad’s reasons he would not have understood the reason behind his objection.

I was young when this happened, maybe eleven years old, but I remember vividly my dad talking about this as it unfolded. I believe this story and others like it about my dad formed my belief in the power of healthy conflict: of being willing to have hard conversations with respect.

Conflict can feel awful. The Leaning into Healthy Conflict model was designed to let the conflict become a conversation. It may still feel nerve-wracking, but the model is built on listening, which in itself diffuses the anxiety from the conflict. Here’s how the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model played out for my father and the president of his company:

  1. Someone needs to talk to you about something OR you need to share your perception with someone: Dad needed to share his concerns about mandatory Sundays.
  2. Seek to understand: Dad first listened to the president as he explained why they had to institute this policy.
  3. Seek to be understood: Dad shared his concerns about the policy, and his religious beliefs about working on Sundays.
  4. Communicate where you both stand. Do you agree? Can you agree to disagree? At this point dad and the president were not in agreement, but the president was open to changing his mind.
  5. Plan together the next steps: The president said he would consider dad’s objection, make a decision that week, and let dad know. My father was okay with this. I have no question that if dad didn’t hear back from the president that week, he would have gone right back up to the corporate office, put those paper booties back on, and had another conversation with the president.
  6. Follow through: The president followed through that week, allowing exemptions for religious beliefs .

I’m sharing this story because I believe it is such a powerful example of what the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model can accomplish. There was a huge divide between the corporate and manufacturing sides of the company my dad worked for. It would have been so easy for the president to dismiss my father’s concerns. He could have judged my father because of his clothing, his position in the company, his ever-lingering smell of cigarette smoke. But because my father had the courage to cross that cultural divide, calmly share his concerns, listen to the issues the president was facing with staffing, and then rationally share his own concerns and beliefs, the president changed the policy.

This tool is powerful. Think about it: A 50-year-old brake operator made a positive impact on corporate culture using the Leaning Into Healthy Conflict model in one conversation. What impact could you make if you were more willing to use the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model? How might you affect your corporate culture? Who might you help develop?

We often say that the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model is the most important thing we teach. This week, please don’t think about how you can use this tool more; just use it more. Conflict arises every day because humans have different beliefs and values, gifts and passions, wiring and communication styles. Using the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model often solves conflict. But even when it doesn’t, it strengthens relationships.

Lead on,

PS – This is the last post in the Leadership Toolbox series, at least for now. If there are other tools of leadership you’d like us to write about, please let us know!

Image by screaming_monkey. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.