Resolving Conflict is a key Executive Skill
“When Elephants jostle, the grass gets hurt” Swahili proverb
The Organization Development consultant JK Galbraith suggested that organization life has many elements of ‘theatre’ as there’s always some drama underway. So, lets take the following as a given. Even two people under one roof is normally a recipe for friction (technically referred to as ‘marriage’). So, when you bundle a bunch of people into a single organization there’s likely to be tension, friction and conflict.
Always Negative? Conflict isn’t always negative. You know from your own experience that debates can lead to alternative ideas, even superior solutions. Indeed, several organizations have attempted to harness the power of internal friction e.g. ‘Constructive Confrontation’ in Intel has been widely publicized and ‘Straight Talk’ in Pfizer plays a very similar role. Yet while conflict in these organizations is respected, it’s not a license to be a jerk and has to be kept within boundaries.
Conflict Downsides: While conflict around ideas can actually be a sign of organization health, Interpersonal conflict can be enormously destructive to individuals, damaging productivity and lowering confidence. So, while conflict is inevitable, combat isn’t! The executive role (i.e. your job) is to navigate a path between legitimate conflict – around ideas – and destructive conflict – around personalities.
Colds versus Pneumonia: Like bacteria, the germ of conflict is all around us but a level of immunity helps us cope with this. That level of immunity depends on the respect given to alternative points of view. While we can live with debates and tolerate disputes, we have to draw the line when issues become derogatory.
Debate: “Should we build a plant in Ireland or Israel?”
Dispute: “It’s going to be Proper governance from now on”
Derogatory: “Finance: where ideas go to die”
Taking Stock: The typical organization response to conflict is to ignore or avoid it. “Hey, that’s not my job!” Ignoring it may be driven by a genuine belief that the conflict will resolve itself over time. This may even have a specific Irish cultural dimension e.g. ‘least said – soonest mended’. While avoidance (“Nothing to see here, move along”) can be a form of well intentioned peacemaking … it sometimes ignores a burning, resentment that’s never fully extinguished. Case Study: I worked with a financial services client on a strategy project. There was a ‘heavy spat’ between two executives. I knew one of the guys from college; after one meeting, I asked him about it: “I’ll tell you about that guy” he said. “During a pitch to my European boss he highlighted a math error in one of my slides. It was really embarrassing.” My response: “I can understand why you were annoyed. When did it happen?” “I’ll never forget it. 20th February 1995.” The Point: An ‘unresolved’ conflict had damaged their relationship for 20+ years. If you think that’s nuts, don’t get me started on 50+ year disputes in my own family that have never been resolved.
To understand avoidance, we need to acknowledge that behaviour has a psychological payoff. In the case of conflict, the normal payoff = anxiety avoidance. People simply don’t want to go there! In one client organization where conflict avoidance was really apparent, a client said: “Real conversations are about as welcome as a diagnosis of bowel cancer.” He was not alone…
Full-Blown Avoidance: I was involved in a case which I label ‘“The Hunch-Back of Ballsbridge.” It involved a small team of financial specialists (from memory, 7 women and 1 man). The man had a body odour problem which could be measured somewhere on the Richter Scale. Believe me, it was bad. The women, severely annoyed, decided to do something about it. They kicked off by discussing a variety of anti-perspirants and kept returning to that topic at every coffee break: “24-hour Sure is the best. You can run through the jungle and you don’t produce a drop of sweat.” When that didn’t work, they decided to ‘up-the-ante.’ One of the women had recently undertaken a major home renovation and the topic of conversation turned to Power Showers. “We installed a Mira. Jesus, a power shower first thing in the morning gets your day off to a flying start.” (I’m not sure if she added: ‘You’d feel like a new man’). Of course, the guy with the BO problem was completely mystified by all of this and rationalized that it was some sort of ‘women’s thing’ (he was only recovering from the anti-perspiration fetish when this power shower stuff kicked off). At that time I was working with the company on an organization structure project. The MD called me aside and asked for help to resolve this. “What have you got in mind?” I asked. The MD had figured out a ‘perfect solution.’ In the new organization structure, there was to be a stand alone department. She wanted me to suggest that this guy be ‘promoted’ to look after this. The old building which housed their offices had a ‘Dutch Hip’ style roof which meant that they had an enlarged attic. She suggested that the new department could be relocated there. And then, quite incredibly, she told me that there was a fire escape from the roof which ran down the back of the building. Her suggestion: this ‘newly promoted’ manager could “come and go as he pleases” (presumably as long as he didn’t walk through the normal offices leaving a scent trail). I told her this was a ‘Hunch-back of Ballsbridge’ solution and it was ridiculous. She needed to confront the guy. Explain the problem. Tell him the impact it was having. Ask him to fix it. And, explain the consequences if he didn’t fix it. Very, very reluctantly, that’s exactly what she did (about a month later).
Huge Downside: The costs of conflict avoidance, while seldom measured, are very real. On the people side, damaged morale leads to absenteeism, labour turnover, stress and depression which all carry negative implications for productivity. Internally, there’s often collateral damage where chinks in the senior team become fissures lower down the organization. On the customers’ side, defections and poor word-of-mouth marketing damage your brand. So, while you might be ignoring this you are definitely not avoiding it. The negative costs of conflict pile up. And, while I’m at it, lets make a special mention of Not-For-Profits. My experience is that there’s an inverse relationship between the ‘nobility’ of an organizations mission and the amount of blood spilled on the carpet (I subsequently discovered that this actually has a name ‘Moral Licensing Theory’ – look it up). It’s in keeping with the famous Henry Kissinger quote about working in academia: “The tension is so high because the stakes are so low.”
Whoa! Halt: Some companies go outside and seek external help. The problem here is that the Cavalry come in all shapes & sizes, including cowboys – people who either don’t know what they are doing or have an ethics lapse. A common problem is process confusion – “Let’s just follow the legal model.” The search for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – using fair procedures doesn’t normally fix relationships and investigations often end up as allocations of blame. They are costly, time consuming and result in ‘divorce’ rather than relationship building. Of course, a fundamental question is whether the particular relationship is worth saving and merits the investment of time and effort that needs to go into ‘repairing’ this. Sometimes, it’s simply too late to intervene:
“Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall Humpty Dumpty had a big fall
All the Consultants And all the King’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again…
Appreciative Inquiry: History is not always correctable. Going back over old ground (he said/she said) doesn’t always add value. An alternative approach is to help participants decide what this relationship will ‘look like’ in the future. In my experience, the market for positive reinforcement is never saturated. Valentines work by getting people to focus on what they like about the other person (of course, this has to be sincere), stopping them spending all of their time thinking about what they ‘don’t like.’ The following story reinforces this: When Yen Ho was appointed as tutor to the Duke of Wei, he went to Ch’u Po Yu for advice. “I have to deal with a man of depraved and murderous disposition …. How is one to deal with a man of this sort?” “I’m glad” said Ch’u Po Yu “that you asked this question. The first thing you must do is not to improve him, but to improve yourself.”
Don’t Ignore: Conflict doesn’t normally go away on it’s own.
Don’t Avoid: Even if your boss is the source of the problem … deal with it.
Men Only: Executive teams that are 100% ‘male and stale’ sometimes avoid emotional disputes. Don’t reinforce the stereotype (anyway, it’s not just men that avoid conflict).
Culture Change: Leadership teams can learn to harness conflict rather than be destroyed by it, incorporating best-practices from well managed companies.
When you chicken out on awkward discussions, you run away from the job you’ve been paid to do. If conflict is something that you need to address in the workplace, have the courage and skill to tackle this before it leads to dysfunctional outcomes. Knowing how to resolve conflict is a key executive skill – and offers benefits across all areas of your life. Take it on.
Q: What’s a mediators’ favorite food?
A: Anything as long as it is processed correctly!
Q: What’s the difference between a mediator and an astronaut?
A: An astronaut sits on top of a controlled explosion but has some idea of the direction it’s headed.
Heaven Versus Hell: Hours after the end of the world, a border dispute emerged between heaven and hell. God, invited the Devil for a conversation to find a way to resolve the dispute. Satan proposed a soccer game between heaven and hell. God, always fair, said to the Devil: “The heat must be affecting your brain, the game would be so one sided. Don’t you know all the ‘good’ players go to heaven?”
The devil responded: “Yeah, but we’ve got all the refs!”
Farm Dispute: The Collins family owned a small farm in Canada, just yards away from the North Dakota border. For generations, their land had been the subject of a minor dispute between Canada and the United States. Mrs. Collins, who had just celebrated her 90th birthday, lived on the farm with her son and two grandchildren.
One day, her son rushed into her room with a letter in his hand. “Mom, I have some news,” he said. “The government has come to an agreement with the people in Washington. They’ve decided that our land is really part of the United States. We have the right to approve or disapprove of the agreement. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” his mother replied. “Jump at it! Call them immediately and tell them we accept. I don’t think I could stand another one of those Canadian winters!”
From Amie Mooney: I went to the zoo yesterday and saw a baguette in a cage. The zoo keeper told me it was bread in captivity!
Q: What did the drummer call his twin baby girls?
A: Anna 1, Anna 2.
Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.