Volume 2, Issue 2 - Fall 2017

Navigating the disruptive winds and disturbing calm of internal conflict

By James Mitchell. 

For decades, operational specialists and heads of the world’s most successful companies have realized the value of involving people at all levels of an organization — in assessing needs, developing plans, making decisions, and successfully executing and evaluating the development of a service or product. Would it surprise you to then learn that, despite this greater awareness and consensus, only about one in five employees today feels valued?

Why, if we as business leaders truly believe that our people are our most valuable resource, do so few of them feel that they are? From experience, I would say a certain ‘wind’ — or lack of wind — is the problem.

I will spare you the grandeur of the analogy; however, if businesses are ships and we are the owners or officers of our ships, we understand that too much wind, not being prepared for changes in wind, or having too little wind can often lead to problems.

In corporations, wind may be produced by shifting markets, supply issues, technological development, board or management power struggles, interdepartmental disconnects, team dysfunction, and so on. Wind, or an unhealthy lack thereof, may be influenced or even created by our own internal responses.

I’m regularly asked how a lack of wind can be a problem in business. A period of calm can be a good thing, absolutely. A brief tranquility after a storm offers a helpful period of reflection and can build confidence when systems and relationships work as they should. But, if a prolonged lack of disruption is the result of fear, apathy, or some other demotivating factor, a business may avoid important decisions, actions, and the taking of healthy risks.

That may manifest itself as ineffective governance and management, increased absenteeism, decreased engagement, problems with retention and recruitment, dampened production, as well as spikes in errors, complaints, lawsuits, and other losses. We need enough wind to keep us challenged, alert, and moving forward.

In my line of work, we tend to call this wind by another name — conflict.

While some might see the job of managing conflict and disputes as the domain of negotiators, lawyers, mediators, arbitrators, or HR specialists, paying attention to conflict is everyone’s job, from the shop floor to the corner office — just as it is up to all officers and crew aboard a ship to identify, prepare for, and manage changing wind conditions.

So, with the effects of conflict or not enough conflict in our companies all-too-obvious, what should we do? Ignore them? Suppress them? Fire trouble makers or slackers? Offer better incentives? Hire a consultant to do an analysis, mediate a conflict, or facilitate a team-building exercise? Although just about any of these responses can be appropriate under the right conditions, most of them would be ineffective or incomplete on their own.

One of the most common mistakes is relying solely upon continually mounting benefits and perks in the hopes they will keep employees happy and productive. History shows that, beyond certain salary and benefit levels, simply increasing ‘extras’ can be counterproductive and even demotivating. Likewise, insulating staff from corporate realities alienates employees and hampers efforts in responding to changing conditions.

Real engagement is about paying attention to what is happening to and around others, at all levels of the organization, and including them in the planning, decision-making, and other processes. We have all heard examples of companies who are very successful at adapting work schedules, environments, and benefit packages to the needs of employees. At the same time, we also know of companies where top talents line up to serve, sometimes for longer hours and lower wages, because they believe in the work and feel their unique contributions are needed and valued.

Another frequent mistake is misunderstanding the role of consultants, mediators, and other specialists (and I should know — I am one). Let me be clear: These professionals can play an important function in managing conflict and ensuring healthy winds are blowing. But they must be accompanied by an intentionally renewed interest in the work and greater purpose behind it, along with a genuine regard for the people involved. This may not seem like profound insight, yet these qualities are vital, and so many of us fail to sustain them over time.

As leaders, if we are not truly interested and motivated by our work, how can we expect others to be? And, if we do not truly respect and consider those serving with us, how do we expect them to believe their contributions are worthwhile?

These are not practices you can fake, either.

Have you ever been surprised when people close to you have identified one of your thoughts, when you’ve never said it aloud? It happens all the time. People sense what we think — through our decisions, our actions, our body language, and our tone. Therefore, if my words and conscious actions toward you seem good, but my regard for you is not genuine, should I be surprised when you start fighting me at the boardroom table, disengaging from work, making more mistakes, contributing to a less-than-healthy workplace, making demands, or taking legal action?

In the same fashion, isn’t it odd how, if I am gruff or clumsy in our work relationship, but you know I sincerely respect you and your conviction in fulfilling the vision, values, and mission, that you will likely overlook my lesser qualities, feel appreciated, and dig deeper into the challenges we face?

There is no shortcut for achieving this level of engagement. Being prepared and responding effectively means being okay with conflict or differences — even valuing them. Often, when things are going well, we do appreciate the different skills, personalities, opinions, and approaches others bring to our organizations. When things get tough, though — when wind becomes violent or a needed breeze dies completely — we often panic. We draw tighter on the reins of power. The result is more fear, more tension and conflict (or not enough), less regard, and less effectiveness.

Don’t forget to give your people the opportunity to help respond to what is coming.

If the ship sinks, whose fault it is doesn’t matter.

James Mitchell is the principal of Saskatchewan-based Conversations Consulting. He has a master’s degree specializing in conflict analysis and management, is a certified management consultant, and is a chartered mediator.