Lisa Hancock of Restorative Communications On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Invest in the employee’s personal growth. Offer workshops, lunch and learns, and teach them conflict management skills. When a company invests in the well-beling of its employees they are investing in the future of humanity. Skills learned helps retain employees, builds trust, makes for a more fulfilled life, and their families, communities and society benefits.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Hancock.
Lisa is the Director of Restorative Communications and is a conflict resolution specialist and sought-after guest speaker whose work promotes dispute resolution, problem solving, team building, and decision making. In 2007 she received a Master of Arts in Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University, and is an adjunct professor in their dispute resolution program.
Lisa performs mediations, conducts workshops, and teaches conflict transformation to churches, groups, and businesses.
Lisa’s gift is being a trusted resource to leaders and clergy so they can successfully navigate challenges. Her passion is empowering faith-based women to live more fulfilling lives.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a chaotic household full of conflict. I know what it’s like to be in the midst of anxiety and not be able to think straight and be scared. I was naturally drawn to the field of mediation because there was something precious and pure about being able to rise above a crisis and have a skill set that helped people. After being a mediator for 9 years I realized people in conflict don’t know how to keep it manageable, aren’t aware of the effect the conflict is having on others, and don’t know the motivation behind their behaviors. To solve this problem I started teaching classes in conflict resolution, family systems, and the Enneagram. The more self aware we are the greater the chance we can manage ourselves in difficult situations. These skills are also transferrable and can be used at home, work, and in our communities.
The world needs people with these capabilities right now. I believe our society has regressed in the last several years. People are more anxious, words are weaponized, and if people don’t agree with each other they are demonized. High level leadership makes the crucial difference in determining the functioning of the group. Leaders who know how to manage their own anxiety make a great difference in whether the business goes forward with its mission or falls backward into dysfunction. I am hopeful. I believe this time of regression offers an opportunity for step-ups in functioning for leadership. On projects where I’ve been hired I’ve witnessed this growth first hand in churches, families, and businesses when new skills have been applied.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I wish I had a funny mistake to share. I have a big one and it wasn’t funny then or now. I was hired to mediate a delicate conversation with a large group of pastors. I won’t say what it was they were fighting about. I thought I had prepared. I thought with my knowledge and enthusiasm I could handle this sensitive and sticky mediation. Everything started off smoothly enough, but 10 minutes in, the pastors started yelling, interrupting each other, and got very emotional. I’ve never seen clergy act like that. They broke the guidelines they had written and agreed on. I was so caught off guard I wasn’t prepared for the actions I needed to take in order to lead this group to a healthier space. I let this destructive conflict go on way too long. I was intimidated by their robes and their profession. I learned that even the finest people can break their word when they are scared and hurt. I also learned it’s ok to ask for help and admit I don’t know what to do next. My desperation to help and hopeful naivete got in the way of the work that needed to be done.
Another painful lesson I learned from this mediation was the hardest pill to swallow. The very next day my husband and I were leaving for a much needed vacation to Paris. I had longed to go there for years. I almost let the residue of this experience ruin our dream holiday. After days of moping around one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I realized I was allowing my mistakes and regrets determine my happiness. I now do the very best I can, and let it go. It is still hard for me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many great people whose shoulders I stand on. The first person to give me a job and show support was my pastor Dennis Wilkinson. He nurtured the seedling dream I had of becoming a mediator in the non-secular world. Whenever I mention I am a mediator for churches and pastors in conflict, I get this reply, “I thought Christians weren’t supposed to fight in church.” Dennis knew Christians create conflict just like everyone else, and he told other pastors about what I did and his support got me my first couple of jobs, which allowed me to start building a reputation.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My understanding of a purpose-driven business is one that takes action on something bigger than its products or services. Restorative Communication was built on the need to solve a problem. Parents were having a difficult time communicating with their teenage children. During Restorative Communication’s first 3 years, most of my work was with families. I had work with churches, but no corporate work. I hoped families were strengthened by the communication skills that I taught and the mediations I performed. I know from experience this led to less drug abuse, better grades, and healthier decisions from teens. I didn’t give much thought to purpose or vision. I just knew I had a skill set that was missing from most homes, churches, and leader’s toolkits. Over the years my purpose has remained the same. I want Restorative Communications to be the resource where leaders transform together. My vision has expanded to include more than teens. Restorative Communications inspires the potential in all of us and provides skills so conscious leaders can grow.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My teams can change from job to job. I work with the leadership I am given, and train them in dispute resolution and to be systems-thinking leaders. Having a boots on the ground approach teaches businesses how to manage themselves instead of bringing me in to smooth every bump in the road.
One of the most challenging experiences I’ve had involved a group of clergy from around the United States that was meeting for an annual retreat. One of the female clergy received an unwanted advance from a male clergy member. She confided in the head of the leadership team and they brought me in to lead a mediated conversation about trust, alcohol abuse, and personal boundaries.
The first thing I did was train the leadership team on guidelines for difficult conversations regarding personal and spiritual boundaries, so they would be equipped to lead very sensitive discussions. When we feel safe, we can talk about almost anything. I didn’t know how these conversations would go, and there were many moving parts. To add to the uncertainty was the sensitivity of the topic, and the secrecy surrounding the violation. These conversations triggered some who had been previously sexually abused which led to more hurt and fear. There were so many unknowns, it seemed my team would deal with one situation and another would pop up somewhere else.
I lead and teach from a systems perspective. Systems thinking tells us we are all connected so when leadership is calm and less anxious, so is everyone else. When anxiety is high people are reacting rather than responding and communication becomes less accurate. Systems thinking requires we look at more than cause and effect. Systems thinkers look at circles of influence, communication patterns, and observe how these are repeated and turn into patterns. When I take on a project I try and get a handle on the level of anxiety first thing. So in this situation, I did my best to lead from a less anxious place.
Another pillar of systems thinking is to make decisions based on thinking rather than feelings that come and go. This doesn’t mean a leader doesn’t consider feelings. It means a highly functioning leader relies on thinking based on objective observation rather than what people think, feel, or say about themselves. My team repeatedly reminded each other to think our way through. This was such an emotionally charged topic. Critical thinking about next steps and how to guide this group through conversations could have been forgotten. The unwanted advance created a challenging situation, and it took 2 weekends to address, but with observation we determined how this pattern of gathering with alcohol was normative of the retreat experience, and a symptom of the stress associated with their profession, and a cultural expectation of their youth.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Father Richard Rohr says there’s nothing success will teach you after the age of 30. I built Restorative Communications 13 years ago. Along the way there have been several times I wanted to give up. It has been so difficult for me to build a business that is centered around something people want to avoid….conflict. Most leaders believe that if you utilize my services, they’ve failed. Especially clergy. People don’t believe conflict and churches belong together. Of course they do! Churches are filled with humans and we hurt each other. One of the reasons we go to church is to ask for forgiveness for our sins. So I’m like the ugly step mother who never gets asked to the ball. If you’ve hired me, you’ve known trouble.
Motivation has come from the faith that I am answering a calling. A summoning that’s bigger than I am. That also sustains my drive and keeps me hoping that leaders will no longer feel shame when conflict arises within their company, family, or church.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I have read, reread, highlighted, and dogeared the pages of “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” by Edwin Friedman. This is one of my texts when I teach. This book is full of gold nuggets I use at work and home. In the introduction of “A Failure of Nerve” Friedman describes his book like this, “The emphasis here will be on strength, not pathology; on challenge, not comfort; on self-differentiation; not herding for togetherness.” Right out of the box you know it will be unconventional!
I am the oldest child in my family. Both of my parents’ cognitive abilities have declined tremendously over the past year. Despite their failing health, they wouldn’t discuss moving to a retirement community. As the oldest, I felt responsible for making this difficult decision. They were never going to agree to willingly move and the objective fact was it was no longer safe for them to live alone. My dad was calling repairmen to fix things in the house that weren’t broken, and my mom was getting lost on her walks. Friedman’s book gave me courage to lead in a space I haven’t been before. Concepts in this book provided me a mature path to adapt to and navigate the challenges ahead. My sister and I chose a secure and loving place to move our parents to a year ago. Taking action despite the discomfort and fear of going against my parents’ wishes is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Friedman says, a highly functioning leader chooses progress over peace. I think that’s what we did.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader must be an example to others and show how to maturely manage themselves during challenging times. Self management includes doing internal check ins, appearing less anxious, staying connected even while disagreeing with others, and making decisions based on principles and objective observation rather than fear and feelings.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
When I mediate disputes one of the first questions I ask is “When was the last time you had fun together?” Churches, families, and businesses who are in trouble don’t have fun together. It seems counterintuitive to laugh and relax when morale is low, but that is exactly what’s needed. To motivate and engage their team, a leader needs to recognize when spirits are low and do something unexpected and fun together. I think bowling nights and happy hours are overdone. Instead, bring in an expert in a field of interest that is unique and interesting. Learning together is a quick way to build rapport and utilize parts of the brain that shut down during stress and lack of community.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly as soon as all the facts are known and it is appropriate to do so.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We live in a fear based society. We are so scared of making mistakes or failing. Sometimes we need to build the airplane while we fly it. Think of it this way. America was built on adventure. Our ancestors got on a boat, sailed into the unknown with little knowledge of where they would land or what they would find when they got there! Sometimes an attitude of adventure over safety is needed. Especially when the future is so unpredictable.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes. Invest in the employee’s personal growth. Offer workshops, lunch and learns, and teach them conflict management skills. When a company invests in the well-beling of its employees they are investing in the future of humanity. Skills learned helps retain employees, builds trust, makes for a more fulfilled life, and their families, communities and society benefits.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
When we face challenges people tend to feel stressed or anxious. When people get anxious they look for a quick fix or way to relieve their anxiety. Band-Aids don’t work. They are a short term fix to a long term problem. We must be willing to sit with temporary discomfort in order to establish long term gains. Another mistake I’ve seen businesses make during difficult times is to fire a “problem” employee. Sometimes this action is required, but all too often this “problem” employee is only a symptom of a disease that is part of the system. After the employee leaves, things settle down for a bit, but the problem resurfaces somewhere else because the root of the problem hasn’t been dealt with. Another mistake made during difficult times is to avoid the problem, hoping it will go away. This rarely happens and in fact, things usually get worse. Like a fire that starts with a smoulder, a problem tends to get bigger without some sort of fire prevention. In order to avoid costly mistakes, I look through a systems lens. When I teach systems, I use several good texts. “Extraordinary Leadership” and “The Cornerstone Concept” are both authored by Dr. Roberta Gilbert and are excellent sources if you are curious.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The first and most important thing a business leader should do to lead effectively during turbulent times is to know her/himself. Nobody is going to follow you if you don’t know where and why you are going there. I recently traveled to another state to work with a church whose staff was in conflict. The pastor had done the best she could with the tools she had. During my initial meeting with this pastor I discovered she had grown up in a family much like mine, with lots of conflict and little trust between parents. To get to know her we did some family of origin work and realized she was recycling the relational patterns she inherited from her parents. This pastor was infecting her staff with the same fear she experienced as a child She got a good therapist and is working to be more aware and conscious of how her actions affect others.
Second, is build an atmosphere of trust. Trust is the single most important element during uncertain times. I received a call from a granite company here in Dallas. The office manager said there was an employee, Karla who was “poisoning the workplace” with her lack of attendance at happy hours and birthday gatherings. The office manager asked if I could do a mediation with Karla and those who couldn’t work with her. As I was doing my in-take, it was apparent Karla had a different social style than the other employees. When she worked, Karla closed her door and didn’t come out for lunch or group chats. She wasn’t disrespectful, mean, or thoughtless. She was just different, not toxic. With this new insight, instead of a mediation I suggested I lead a workshop on enneagram types. Everyone attended, and as they discovered their enneagram type, compassion for differences grew. With this renewed sense of community, employees were able to understand why people behave differently. Here’s the back story. Karla was the original employee of this company. The first hire. She had been there 15 years and was always their top sales person. The CEO was willing to let her go not because she wasn’t producing or not doing her job. Simply because there was no foundation of trust because nobody had bothered to get to know her. Developing a work environment that is respectful and safe allows employees to talk about almost anything.
Third, establish conflict as normal. Expect it. It’s part of life, and when employees disagree, insist on responsible dialogue. Conflict creates real problems in our lives. In the work place it costs us billions of dollars in lost productivity, lowers morale, and reduces employee retention. When I’m called to mediate a conflict there is so much shame associated with how it’s been handled. Shame loves darkness, and it drives us to hide from conflict instead of managing it. I remember a story that involved a manager who overheard an employee talking about him to a co-worker. What was being shared was destructive and challenging to the manager’s authority. The manager decided to do nothing about it. He reasoned with himself that what was being said wasn’t too bad. What started off as a problem with one employee soon turned into an office wide gossip session. If there had been guidelines in place regarding conflict, and employees had been given tools for constructive dialogue, this manager might have been able to keep his job and his reputation.
Fourth, equip yourself with listening skills. Deep and careful listening is a sign of respect and that will be reciprocated. If leaders can model listening to understand rather than listening to reply, 75% of workplace conflict can be avoided. That’s how important listening skills are. It’s just faster to jump to conclusions rather than listen. This was recently proven to me again when I taught a class on conflict management. I asked the class to break into groups and practice paraphrasing, asking open ended questions, and agreement stating. Three good and easy listening skills. Participants repeatedly tell me this is the hardest part of the class because they don’t use these skills. One student said, “If I had used paraphrasing with my wife, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a divorce!” We do the best we can with the tools we have. When we acquire new tools, use them.
Finally, resist the temptation to try and change others. Edwin Friedman says, “The key to successful coaches is less a matter of how they ‘handle’ the players than how they handle themselves.” I think we find it easier to get along with people who are similar to us. But where does that leave us when there are differences of opinion, values, or beliefs? We don’t want to change, we want other people to change. Trying to change someone leads to resentment. If you’ve seen the movie “12 Angry Men” with Henry Fonda, you know what I’m talking about. This movie demonstrates the stamina and courage it takes to stand alone when disagreeing while staying meaningfully connected to others. The movie is about the murder trial of a young man who is accused of killing his father. Soon after entering the juror deliberation room, the 12 male jurors take a vote to see where they stand. Eleven vote guilty with Henry Fonda being the only not guilty. The intensity of dialogue and rising tension add to the drama as Fonda calmly states his opinion and perspective while not attempting to change another juror’s vote. His steadfast maturity is attractive and the jurors listen. Fonda is calm and methodically thinks through the evidence out loud. Eventually the other men settle down and begin to consider alternatives to their way of thinking. In the end, the young man accused of murder is acquitted because one man (Fonda) had the courage to be curious and look at the evidence in a different way even in the face of opposition. And others followed. Not because Fonda tried to make them change their verdict, but because healthy leadership is compelling.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Will Rogers said, “You’ve got to on out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” This speaks to me because I intuitively want to play it safe and not take the jobs that scare me or agree to mediate disputes that could be difficult. I also know that the risks I’ve taken have led me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. I’d rather fail than live with regret.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Lisa Hancock of Restorative Communications On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.