Mitigate Conflicts, Like a Boss!
Conflict is the unfortunate sum of all discord; of needs, expectations, goals, values, means, perceptions, and styles. A life skill, important yet often ignored, that leaders must possess is the ability to manage conflict. When not managed, conflict can drive organizations unknowingly into an intractable condition where “nobody knows what the cause is, though some pretend they do; it’s like some hidden assassin waiting to strike at you,” much like cancer, as WH Auden observed. Anthropology teaches us that since the days man has been a hunter gatherer he has always been ready for a fight. A pugnacious belligerence coupled with an intrinsically acquisitive nature has been embedded in the very DNA of mankind. War, a basic manifestation of conflict, has been ubiquitous in human history spanning over ninety percent of human cultures. It is no surprise that almost all organizations see conflicts simmer and erupt leaving a corrosive impact on constituents concerned.
Enterprises and their leaders must perhaps contemplate as Shakespeare’s Hamlet did; “Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” A leader who is alive to the nature and impact of conflict in workspaces helps proactively mitigate them. A significant aspect is to ensure that the organization moves from individual goals to a state of alignment where there is shared vision and values; when you feel like one, there are no sides to take. Leaders enable a common ground, with constant communication, where conflicting individuals are also able to see complementary strengths that provide a win-win position rather than a zero-sum state. A natural corollary is that creating a culture that binds teams together is squarely dependent on a cohesive management. It is equally vital to ensure that discussions are fact based and lead with composure and calmness, and resolutions are enforced.
Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a classic on wisdom in action written in the fourth century, highlights that in situations of conflict the wise leaders’ touch is light, and shunning force when not required. The leader delineates the two roles he needs to play: the Doer, who has power and decision making and the Healer, who is open, receptive, and nourishing, in essence, the being. When differences crop up, the leader avoids egocentricity and emphasizes being than just doing, and mitigates differences. It is critical that action is taken swiftly and decisively with innate understanding of the origins of disconnect. Conflict is invariably an output of social interactions and interdependence. When recognized as inevitable inside organizations, yet actionable, proactive cognizance and mitigation can be enabled. Left to simmer things can go from bad to worse.
“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence’ observed Sun Tzu in his “The Art of War.”. Conflicts are handled differently by different leaders and organizations. Jack Welch championed the cause of creative decision making at GE using the innate disagreements and conflicts channeling it to reach collaborative outcomes. Ernst & Young, for instance, focuses on shared values, cascading them across the organization to enhance common purpose and mitigate likely sources of disconnect. An organization’s culture that allows debate, contrarian thinking, and free flow of feedback, where the business goals find precedence over individual personal issues, enables open and constructive ways of working, reducing prospective dissonances. However leaders must also be willing at times to wield the pink slip when the cause for conflicts is beyond redemption. Let us recall Matsch’s Law: ‘It’s better to have a horrible ending than to have horrors without end’.
( Conflict: On a Sunday, when I visited London in October 2011, I saw the famous Westminster bridge being closed down for traffic as thousand of protestors congregated to demonstate against the proposed reforms in healthcare. Conflict indeed are of many kinds, and here is one of them. I clicked this photograph to capture a situation of conflict, and must disclaim that this does not imply any political stance or statement at my end ! )