Conflict and Culture with Anne Hilb
In episode 36 of Mission: Impact, Carol, her guest, Anne Hilb discuss:
Anne Hilb, MSOD is a community and culture architect, an expert at conflict resolution, and a champion of restorative and racial justice practices. As a community and culture architect, she partners with managers, executives, and front-line employees to repair conflict and restore trust so they can succeed and organizations can thrive. Her approach to this work is unique due to her blend of a decade of hands-on experience with more than a half-dozen degrees and certifications. Anne harnesses the power of circle and uses her deep listening skills to help build healthy workplaces. She develops deeply connected people and communities by leading with authenticity, transparency, curiosity, and care. Her work is centered around building confidence and accountability while mitigating blame, shame and guilt. When not repairing harm, working through conflict, and restoring trust, she can be found searching out the best taco, hosting circles, and spending time in nature.
Important Links and Resources:Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Anne Hilb. Anne is a community and culture architect, an expert at conflict resolution, and a champion of restorative and racial justice practices. Anne and I talk about why so often people wait too long to deal with a conflict or have someone help out or mediate. Why a first step to resolving a conflict is to define what the conflict is actually about and whether the parties are in agreement about that and why organizational culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Anne, welcome to the podcast. I like to start each conversation with the question of what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Anne Hilb: Yeah, so, I was drawn into this work from a lot of different points of entry. I think my own experience of belonging or not belonging in probably more cases and wanting to promote healthy dialogue and use my skill set to create safe environments for folks is really my why. Because in a lot of ways I didn't feel like I saw that. And in a lot of ways, I also feel like or experience that rather. And in a lot of ways, I just feel like it's the best use of the gifts that I have from. Childhood and also from developing those through educational experiences, life experiences.
Carol: You often work with groups where there's a lot of conflict going on. Can, can you set the stage of what that might look like or a typical scenario that you might be walking into?
Anne: Sure. A couple of different sorts of groupings of those scenarios. And so conflict work is definitely my area of expertise, but I do, I do a lot of different work but in the conflict realm in particular, I'd say there's a couple of buckets, so it's usually. An incident, an incident of harm. Most often sexual harm I would say is what I get called into the oftentimes racial or sexual, but usually sexual harm these days. Two founders fighting or two or more founders fighting or senior, the senior level leaders and the mid level. Leaders fighting or having some big incident or just in general, poor culture or the senior level leaders or the leader not, not doing well with the rest of the organization. So again, those are sort of the three buckets. I'll give them a more specific one example. So Well, let's say that the founders are not doing well. And they call me in because they, for whatever reason, have reached a point of no return and they're deciding how we can continue? Right. Like, do we shut down? Do we buy each other out? It's just, it's no longer sustainable now it's affecting their home lives. It's really, really affecting their employees because they're screaming at each other. Or maybe they have decided to take a temporary close if they're a business that's a product business or like a restaurant or something. So they call me and depending upon the service, right? Because I offer different ones, they might need a mediation. They might need to come in and consult. They might even need to come in and do a circle for them. And so I'll come in and I'll work with them to work through what's going on.
Carol: For those mediations. What are some of the steps that you typically take to I don't know, bring the temperature down, I guess, between the two folks who are in
Anne: conflict. Yeah. So if it's a mediation, right, I'm going to do pre-work and talk to everyone first to find out what's going on the same way you would in any of the work that we do and find out. What success looks like ultimately, and really find out what the different perspectives are because one person might be thinking something's totally different than what the other person is, and they might be experiencing it totally differently. And also. What's really bothering one person might be completely different than the main thing that the other person wants to tackle is. And so one of the main things in conflict that's really important is to land on what the conflict is about. So, you can all be working on the same thing at the same time.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting. I was on a board where we had a conflict between the two leaders of the staff leaders of the organization. It happened to also be a faith community where they went to mediation a number of times. And by the time climate got to us as the board, once we heard both sides of the story, if you will, it was almost. We couldn't find that common ground of figuring out the kernel or each person saw the situation so differently and described it so differently. It was hesitant, being in different countries, speaking different languages on different planets. It was, so it wasn't one where, where we ended up, the folks ended up staying ultimately over time. But one where we could find a good resolution. I felt like in that situation, we only have bad choices to make, but that was just interesting to just hear they are so far apart in terms of how they're seeing this situation. It was really hard to find that common ground.
Anne: Yeah, that's unfortunate. I think oftentimes folks wait and it's anything where we talk about preventative work, right? Like we, I mean, just last week I had a new computer installed. Right. And I'm thinking to myself, I'm talking to my tech person. I'm saying, this is really necessary. Like I, my computer works fine right now. And we're installing antivirus software on my new computer and I bought a new computer. Right. And I'm like, but this seems like a really expensive thing to invest in. And I know of course that I need to do that, but because I can't see it, it doesn't feel like it's necessary yet, but it, but I know that just because you can't see the embers of a fire that's burning in the wall. Doesn't mean that it's not possible to have a fire burning low and people wait until the flames are bursting through the wall to take care of it. And I think that's the issue sometimes with something like conflict is people wait until the whole building is on fire.
Carol: And another, another situation that you described or one where there is sexual harm, I'm assuming sexual harassment or racial harm. What steps would you take in entering an organization where that type of thing has been going on perhaps for a while, or perhaps it's part of the culture. Certainly we're seeing a lot of that in the news these days. But I'm curious how you approach it.
Anne: Yeah. Delicately definitely with Vanessa. Yeah, so I think I would say I approach every conversation and every client by asking a lot of questions. Right. So with sexual harm or racial harm but I'll start with sexual harm, I think Aye, try and find out more about the feelings and the facts more than anything, right? I mean, the facts are important and it's important to find out more about first, like what happened here and it's usually more about what's residual than it is about what happened in the first place. Because first and foremost, when I'm coming in, unfortunately it's usually after things have burned. Ideally folks would bring me in before that has happened to support a healthy culture. And unfortunately I usually get called in after the fact. So when that happens, I'm coming in and I'm Working usually with HR and the founders or the CEO. And typically when it's sexual harm, it happens to you more of the women in the workplace. And there has been someone who's caused harm. So we will. Group, group people into like, what assess, okay. What harm do you think has occurred and try and do some understanding of what's happening to those who feel that. They have been harmed. So oftentimes in organizations, there is a lack of understanding around sexism and toxic masculinity. So how do you group folks up so that they can speak in a way, the same way that when you do white cops, and caucuses for people of color and give them a safe space to talk about the culture of the organization. Right? Sometimes the harm has occurred in a different way where maybe the culture is such that it feels out of alignment, right? So conflict is a clash of ideas. And it's also to me when there's a lack of alignment, so. In organization development speed, right? A lack of alignment leads to difficulties, right? If there's misunderstanding or miscommunication, we know that something in the organization has gone amiss. And that means that we're saying that we have these values, we have these espoused values and we're not practicing those values in action. And that's going to lead to conflict because. We're saying one thing and we're doing another, were hanging up values on the wall and we're running around and living these other values or we're on zoom and we're, saying something or doing something that we can get away with because people don't know how to call us out on it in a virtual room, the same way that we can. We've with our physical bodies folks don't know, oh, I can leave this virtual space in the same way, because a lot of it is new. And so when that happens in a place where there's harm created with sexual violence, like let's say a leader. Creates an instance of sexual harassment and they're covered by the firm's lawyer. And now the leader leaves or gets pushed out. But the firm's lawyer is still there, which is why I've had this incident happen many times. And then there's all this animosity towards the lawyer because he's doing his job and also. Folks feel like, well, why are they still here once that all comes to light? So then you have this schism in what the firm says they stand for, especially if they're an organization that says it supports a women's issue. Right. So how do you then look at smoothing over the, the. Lack of alignment in a way that you haven't technically broken policy, but you have broken the, the values or the espoused values of the organization. So, that's an instance where you're going to have to work with folks in a way that gives them bullets. And those back to the foundation of what do we stand for? What's our mission and how do our policies, our processes and what we say we want to do line up. I don't know if that answered what you were asking.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I, I heard I'm not, I'm going to have to look up who it was that said this, because I, I heard this person at a conference, but they talked about how they saw things like sexual harassment as a, as a symptom of an unhealthy culture, rather than you know central. I don't know, it was just interesting to me. I don't know if, I don't want to put a bigger and lower thing, but it was interesting to me how they talked about it, as that's the worst manifestation or some of the worst manifestations of a really unhealthy culture, but what's underneath it. Is that, that culture, I'm curious to know your perspectives on that.
Anne: Yeah, I. I think it's an and also I think that culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. So, when we see one person, I heard on a podcast, the analogy of this, that in society, when we allow someone to litter, right? Like. And we don't call it in, then all of a sudden society becomes full of trash, right? Like it's very quick. I mean, like I leave a piece of trash in my car one day. This happens to me all the time. Right. If I take my piece of trash with me when I leave my vehicle, Then I'm pretty good about continuing that behavior. But as soon as I leave a water bottle, after I go golfing in my car, you can be sure that I have five water bottles in my car. Right. So very quickly that that behavior continues. And so as soon as we allow any pad behavior to occur, Then many bad behaviors accrue. And as soon as we disallow bad behavior and we say, no, that we don't have that here. Others are witness to that. And they realize, oh, we don't allow that here. Right. And so I really think with your question about sexual harassment, right? Like if you nip it in the bud, then. People know what the expectation is. And I think that there's a lot of debates about hiring for culture and all these things. And sexual harassment is one that's probably, and sexual harm is probably one that's very complex and nuanced to get into because. A person who will do something like that. There's a lot of complexities with that person. And we could get into all of those things. And at the same time, the cultural component of that is as soon as something that's inappropriate happens, it's absolutely imperative to. Say we do not allow that here. There's not going to be tolerance for that. That being said, there's a very big component of how we handle harm in this culture? Right? So condemning the deed and not the person and separating those, separating those things out. And The way that you handle a bad act versus a bad actor is also going to be something that's important and says a lot about your culture.
Carol: Yeah. And when someone's caused harm, one of the things that folks want often as an apology and we've seen again, I think in the news instances of really poor apology is what would you say goes into making a good apology that could actually move towards some resolution?
Anne: That's a great question. I think a good apology has three parts. A good apology says, I'm sorry. I take responsibility for that and here's what I'm going to do going forward. And here's what I essentially like learned from it and how I'm gonna use this as a learning example. Most people tend to miss it. One part of the apology or when they say, I'm sorry, there's lots of different ways to say, I'm sorry. Like I'm sorry. You feel that way is putting the responsibility back on the person or, I'm sorry, but, or I'm sorry. And here's what's happening, like, and trying to excuse the behavior of the defendant, you know. I won't go on. I'll just answer your question.
Carol: Yeah. I love it. Cause I think, yeah, any, any one of those missing and it's so easy, right? You can be in a conversation. When you are trying to say, you're sorry, did you actually see those for like going forward backtracking? But yeah, so I'm sorry. Plus the plus the taking responsibility, but I appreciate the third one, which is, what am I learned about it and what, how will I do things differently? Moving forward based on that.
Anne: Yeah. And that is, I will say from experience, incredibly hard to do. Don't feel as much remorse in the moment as you might want to. Like, I apologize this week I was on vacation with my family. I apologize to my sister or something. And it was incredibly hard for me to do that part when I didn't feel some frustration towards my sister at that moment. Because I didn't want to say that part. Right then. And so there's a lot of timing involved and apologies, I would say as well. And in a workplace scenario sometimes if you are, if there's pressure on you to apologize because of the HR aspect or the public relations aspect or whatever's going on. You can really make things worse. If the person is put under duress to a pod,
Carol: And it's interesting. I'm thinking of the timing and it takes a little bit, a little bit of time and reflection to know what you've learned and how you might act differently in the future. And so, you might manage to get the first part of the apology out and half of the second part, in a first go, and then it might take a little while to come back and be able to do it. Do the full thing and let me do, let me do sorry. Take it to try again. Yeah.
Anne: A circle once with, with young children, like kindergarten age and the parent and bought one of the parents involved with trying to force me to have one of the children apologize. And I said, I'm not going to force an apology because an apology, if it's not genuine, means nothing. And young people are often forced to apologize, and that is something that. Is ingrained in us as adults that, oh, well, apologize to your sister. And so an apology then comes to mean very little to us as we age as, as do many things that are rote. So. We say a lot of things and we lose their meaning, like, think about when you bump into someone in the grocery store. Oh, I'm sorry. Right. And so many of these things that are meant to have a great bit of meaning lose their meaning when we do them out of learned behavior.
Carol: Yeah. And one, one thing you, I wanted to follow up on that you talked about before was the instance of, well, maybe the incident didn't quite cross the line in terms of a policy, but there's still a ripple effect in terms of lack of trust or, or diminished trust or how people are working with each other. How, how, how, what are some steps to, to deal with those ripple effects?
Anne: Yeah. I would say, clarifying the role, I think is always a good first step in a lot of these interventions. Right. And helping folks understand. What everyone's role in the organization is to play. Sometimes people aren't going to like that. And it's important to acknowledge that individuals can hold their own feelings and those are important. And also that conflicting feelings can hold without creating a conflict. That presents a fight. So a conflict and a fight are different. And it doesn't need to rise to the level of tension that it did the first time, every time. Then I might say that, when you bring in someone who does what I do, they can help you to understand that not everyone is privy to information every time, while at the same time sharing information is helpful. And the more information you share the better while at the same time, that information is not Always going to be going to mean that everything is an open book for everyone, right? There are different ways to be transparent as leaders. And I think leaders think because something's confidential, that means they can't share information. So I think there are ways to say this is what's going on without sharing the details of it also. So you can say. We are doing X, Y, and Z, and not saying the specifics of X, Y, and Z, and then the employees that are not getting the specific details need to also understand that what was shared is enough and the building of trust can happen in better ways by sharing information transparently. But the expectation of transparency also needs to shift. And I think that those are the nuances of shifting culture that happens slowly and also break down that distrust that happens when something like sexual violence in a, in a community does occur.
Carol: I feel like transparency is one of those big words, like communication. Well, if we could just solve our communication issues, if we could just be transparent, everything would be fine. But yeah, I think, and I do think that people see it in an all or nothing context. So it's interesting that you're saying it's more of a continuum.
Anne: Yeah, absolutely. And I do think that that. Need better language around breaking down what their expectations are and the way to ask her what they need and the way to offer it. And when I say asking for what you need, I'm also aware of that. Those who would be doing the asking have much less power in the organization. So, the folks with formal power and titles need to really understand the power over that they have and, and take ownership over that. The understanding of that power, because I think oftentimes we are a manager or in the C-suite, or even just have informal, formal power or hurt in that we are positioned to take power in a manager position purely because of the type of role that we have, because it's a more formal desk job and it can roll into a manager position or because we have Privilege. And we tend not to recognize that. And so working on that, understanding in an organization or just as an individual is really important in order for these shifts to happen.
Carol: And you mentioned that there's a distinction on that. Between fighting and conflict. And for me, I probably use those words interchangeably. How do you see those as different?
Anne: So, like I said, I think conflict is to me, a clash of ideas or lack of alignment. So I see conflict as neutral. When I teach a course on conflict, I will say conflict can be positive, negative, or neutral, right? Like it, I can have a conversation with you where we're in conflict because we. Both are trying to decide where to go to dinner and you want Italian and I want Chinese and we're in conflict, but we're not fighting. And so when we're fighting about it, we're at odds in a way that we're really expending energy, that now we're in a duel, so to speak. And so you want Italian and I want Chinese. Maybe we leave one another angry and you go to Italian alone and I go to Chinese alone and we don't talk to each other for three days. Right. So we are at odds in a way that puts us in a really bad way with one another, as opposed to in the right relationship.
Carol: So it's a question of the intensity and emotions getting caught up in it. And, and I guess in that instance, each person digging in and then somehow taking personal offense and not wanting to speak to the other person over their dinner choices.
Anne: Yeah. And, and, and these aren't like terms that I've looked up in conflict management that I, this is just the way I'm calling it for this conversation. I'd have to go look at, I mean, maybe I know the conflict piece is definitely a neutral pot. conflict is not inherently a negative thing. Haven't looked up the word fight, like I'm, I'm relatively positive. This works
Carol: I mean, it's interesting though. Cause I think you, most people, when they hear the word conflict will assume that it's inherently negative.
Anne: Oh yeah, definitely. And that's the first thing you'll learn in any conflict workshop, every single person who teaches the work will write conflict on the board and say, what does the word conflict mean to you? And you'll hear everyone say all these negative words or draw pictures of dust clouds or fists. And that's like the first teaching of conflict that you'll likely learn in any course.
Carol: Yeah. And I think in our culture and the us in the dominant white culture yeah, we tend to be very conflict averse and tend to be afraid of all of those, all of those pictures that you just mentioned. Certainly doesn't mean the conflict doesn't happen, but with that tendency, how does conflict then show up?
Anne: Yeah. Conflict. Can be creepy and that it creeps in, right. I have a workshop called conflict creeps and to your point, it shows up in very passive, aggressive ways oftentimes. And I think. We often hear the expression elephant in the room because the expectations are not clear. Right. So I talked about lack of alignment. I think that that shows up a lot here. And, I would say that folks are often not seeing the covert ways that conflict shows up. They only see the overt ways that conflict shows up. So if it's not spelled out for them to your point, like in a fight, they think that everything is okay. And that's one of the reasons why I think that right now is such a moment because. I do believe that most people think conflict intentions are so high because they think particularly white, white folks are thinking that the workplace feels and the world or the U.S. I'm talking about the U.S. right now. Their world, I should say, feels like an unsafe place to them because everything is a quote unquote fight. And actually, I think there's a huge opportunity here because if they get it right and have constructive dialogue in a really open way, I think it can actually lead to less harm and less conflict then we were having before. I just think that way people were missing it because it was going on in a lot of ways, without their knowledge.
Carol: Yeah. So underneath the surface and covert or those embers in the wall, as you talked about before. So at the end of each episode, I'd like to ask a question where I ask a random icebreaker question. And so what is one family tradition that you would like to carry on to the future?
Anne: Hm, interesting. I think the first thing that comes to mind for whatever reason is that. My parents gave us contracts when we learned to drive like legit contracts, driving contracts made up by a lawyer that we had to sign. That had like 10 things on them. I have it framed behind me. And we had to know how serious something like this was. And I mean, my parents did a lot of weird things and I would like to carry that on for my kids so that they know the seriousness of. Big things. I mean, they did a lot of mile markers, things like that, but I just always thought that was really cool that they took that so seriously and imparted that on us. That, and I just remember the line that said, driving is a. Privilege and, and a responsibility and not a right. And if any of the following are not followed, then this privilege will be revoked.
Carol: Awesome. That's certainly getting really clear about expectations and communicating them very directly. I did some contracts with my daughter at various points along the way. She would remember better than I exactly what they were about. But we have, we did sign them. There were no lawyers involved.
Anne: We had friends that were lawyers.
Carol: I think getting things down on paper and having it clear can really really help lawyers get a bad rap, but in that way of just making it all clear what, what each party is expecting and is really important. Well what are you excited about what's coming up next for you and what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Anne: Yeah. I'm really looking forward to a community that. I'm advertising for right now. There are some amazing women signing up called the confidence community. This particular one is for white women utilizing DEI in their work. And If you're interested, people are registering. Now, it's going to be amazing. I've been utilizing circle practices in my work for a long time. So really, really looking forward to sharing that with more women identifying folks and I'm Baltimore. I live in Baltimore city and we are working to be the first Equitech city. And There is an amazing entrepreneur community tech community in Baltimore. And they have This incredible group of folks building out this Equitech space. And Techstars is like the BC engine behind it right now. And I'm just really, really excited to be a part of what's happening with that work.
Carol: And can you define that term?
Anne: Aquatech? So the idea is that it's equity meets technology and they're working to put equity at the center of the tech work in Baltimore. So that rather than just doing diversity, equity and inclusion in technology work in Baltimore, they are trying to make it the first. Like a full equity city. And they're trying to be really thoughtful about how they are disrupting that and how they are thinking about the entrepreneurs that are already here. Baltimore is a huge hub because of Hopkins in the biotech sphere. The same way that Silicon valley is for chips. So. Really looking at how they can draw folks here as there's a new opportunity in the tech space because of everything that's been disrupted because of COVID and everyone moving around again. And it's just a really exciting time to see where folks are gonna land.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Anne: Thank you. Great to see you.
Carol: I appreciated how Anne described the impact of an instance of sexual or racial harm – and even when technically a policy or the law has not been broken the trust within the team has been broken. There still is a ripple effect in the organization. Morale is impacted and trust needs to be repaired. As part of this I thought it was interesting how she described the residual feelings about those who were involved with managing the issue – whether it is the lawyer or HR professional or other organizational leaders. While the offender may be gone, trust in those who remain is likely much lower than before and it going to take a process of healing to move through the remaining feelings about what happened. I was struck by Anne’s comment that culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. What behavior are you allowing to slide in your organization that may be eroding the trust within your team and your organizational culture?
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Anne as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Thanks again for listening.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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