Tom would be the first to admit he wasn’t always comfortable with conflict. In fact, he used to avoid it at all costs thinking that all conflict was bad. So, when he pitched the idea to his senior leadership team about hiring inmates to work at the company’s manufacturing facility, it was one of many markers indicating how far he’d come in addressing conflict productively.
Growing up in humble beginnings
“I grew up in a blue-collar family in a 900-foot square house with my parents and two younger siblings. Dad was a hard-working welder who worked his way from the bottom up as an apprentice to a supervisor in the labor union. Mom never worked outside the home and made sure we were all fed and cared for. I was the first in our family to attend and graduate from college.
While we never had to go to soup kitchens or food pantries, there wasn’t a surplus of money. Dad didn’t have paid vacations so we did what’s called today – staycations. We’d go fishing or to a baseball game, the kind of things that are remembered as quality time together as a family.”
Productive Conflict Skills
“We didn’t have a lot of conflict growing up, virtually none, which was both a strength and an opportunity. The strength was it gave me a secure base as a leader to take risks and question the status quo. The opportunity was I didn’t have skills to handle conflict well. The early parts of my career, I abhorred conflict because I didn’t have a base of experience to handle it well. I didn’t really appreciate the role of what I call the productive conflict in business until about 15 years ago.
It was in reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that I saw the value of how conflict can be productive.
I thoroughly embraced Lencioni’s concepts and I’ve used that model ever since because I wholeheartedly believe in it. What resonated with me was having the foundation of trust in order to engage in productive conflict. That’s when the best ideas come out. It doesn’t matter who had the ideas; sometimes they’re synergistic and better than any one person would have thought of on their own.”
The Gift of Second Chances
Today as the CEO of Penco Products in Greenville, North Carolina, the company was facing the challenge of finding employees in one of their rural locations. Tom pitched the idea of hiring inmates to work at one of the company’s manufacturing facilities. The initial response of the senior leadership team was a healthy resistance and skepticism. Tom tapped into his productive conflict skills and the trust he’d already built with the team. The team agreed to a pilot program over the past summer of 2018. Not only has the pilot program been successful, when a couple of inmates were recently released from prison, Penco Products offered them permanent employment. The work release inmates have been model employees.
When it comes to conflict, do you tend to avoid it? Perhaps stick with the majority in order to not rock the proverbial boat? Do you tend to not speak up for fear of rejection? Do you avoid offering innovative ideas for fear of what people will think or who may be upset, even withdraw important funding?
Dad’s Words of Wisdom
While a key component of Tom’s leadership success was his willingness to learn and implement productive conflict skills, he also attributes his family upbringing as a significant influence on his success. He said “every day my parents show up in my office through my leadership style. Because of the genuine interest my parents took in my siblings and me, that’s how I relate to my employees. As a leader in the manufacturing industry, it’s a tough business. There’s nothing elegant about what we do, it’s hard work. I appreciate the people on the floor who make things happen. They leave their house at 4:15 am each and every day to come to work and put in a good day’s work. My parents modeled how to appreciate people.
As a leader, I have all these inspirational quotes that my parents said to me as a youngster going around in my head:
- Get involved and make a difference. Dad would often tell us kids you have no right to complain if you choose to stand on the sidelines. When I was growing up, we didn’t have any sports program at the grade school that I attended. I loved basketball, it was one of my favorite pastimes and dad knew that. Instead of waiting for the school to develop an athletic program, dad became an athletic director at the school out of nothing. He raised the money and got his friends together to set up the basketball program. They installed the hoops and other necessary equipment so we could have a basketball program. That program continued on for 35 years after my dad’s vision.
In a similar way, I wanted to make a difference for the inmates and give them a second chance in life.
- Face challenges and conflict as temporary, instead of permanent – When my parents went through tough times, they both had the attitude, this is only temporary. They didn’t view it as anything that would debilitate our family permanently. They focused on the importance of effort and attitude because those are the things you can control. You can’t control how much talent you have, how smart you are, but you have 100% control over the effort you’re going to put into something and the attitude you’re going to bring to it every day.
One of the outcomes from our inmate work program has been showing people you can dispel stereotypes and change your beliefs about people with a criminal background.
- Don’t prove to your employees how smart you are, show them how much you care – I wouldn’t make a good undercover boss, because I put my dad’s wisdom into practice. I interact with my employees on a regular basis. I don’t have to go undercover in a disguise to find out how they’re doing or what their perceptions are of the company. I hear it directly from them because I take a personal interest in them, just like my parents did in me, by asking more questions than providing answers and showing I genuinely care about them.
We treat the people involved in the work release program the same as we do all of our employees. All of our current employees have been overwhelmingly supportive. One of the members of Penco Products work release program said he is thankful to be given a chance to move forward and not live in the shadow of his past mistakes.”
Leaders face conflict every day and are challenged to be creative in order to stay relevant and viable in their given industry. Sometimes an idea is a fine line between innovative and outlandish. While you may not be dealing with resistance, conflict, or naysayers about hiring inmates, you have opportunities to work through conflict productively, and in the meantime, give people the gift of second chances.
Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture. Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.