The cost of Inter-personal conflict- Part I

This article was published in the September 2007 issue of HR Magazine “Management Compass”

How daily tussles in office can be avoided and resolved

In management, it is said that it is better to get willing co-operation rather than grudging submission. One of the major distinctions between a boss and a leader is that a leader is able to inspire better teamwork and group dynamics towards the objectives of the company. Even from an individual perspective, since a majority of hours are spent at work, work relationships automatically assume critical importance. Just as intangible assets like brands, business processes, goodwill etc have tremendous value which cannot be numerically determined unlike tangible assets like plant and machinery or land and building, one wonders what value can one impute to a harmonious work ambience?

This is particularly more relevant in the 21st century, which is expected to be extremely stress-prone. Putting it differently, what is the cost of inter-personal conflicts?

Need for dexterity

I started working with my father in 1987 in a lighting company which he had turned around. He had been trained in the management of the Sixties where “the boss is always right” was perhaps blindly and strictly followed. The personal computer was becoming increasingly popular in those days and we bought one. Without knowing even the basic inputs, he tried to dominate on how the computer was going to be implemented. He wanted to get me involved in other areas of business as well but since nobody knew anything about computers in our company at that time, it was my primary responsibility and I wanted to devote full time to it. There was a furious argument during which I took a firm stand about devoting full time, which proved right later on in addition to other computer-related issues. Finally, when I was done with the financial accounts, the software people said that except for one non-standard report, I had done everything right. Since I was proving right all along, I insisted on doing that right as well but as the provision for changing the coding was not there at that time, I had to start from scratch again as according to the views of the software person “I was 10 per cent away from perfection”. My father, not being a persuasive communicator, tried to prevail upon me that it was futile to do the whole thing again just for one report. I was adamant because of all my previous successes. This time unfortunately my father proved to be right because of his management experience — he was trying to convey that “The good is the enemy of the best” or “One has to strive for excellence, not perfection” but could not do so. Doing the whole thing again cost us dear as it snowballed into endless delays for other group companies as well and what could easily have been achieved in six months took two-and- a-half years and we could not venture into other areas of computerisation which ideally, should have happened as fast as possible. This is what can happen when simple conflicts are not dealt with dexterity.
It would not be out of place to mention here what Pakistani captain Imran Khan said some time back on television, “As captain, I could only advise fast bowlers because of being a fast bowler myself. I never really knew what to say to batsmen, wicketkeepers or spin bowlers. I told Richie Benaud (Famous Australian spinner) to speak to Abdul Qadir (Pakistani leg spinner in Imran Khan’s team).” This coming not only from Pakistan’s greatest cricketer and captain but perhaps one of greatest captains and all-rounders of all time. One wonders why like Imran Khan, people cannot abstain from intruding in areas which are beyond their domain expertise and if they have to, they should at least have the basic inputs at least.


Cost of conflict can also be put in a somewhat tangible manner in a different way and that is likely to be common to all companies. The well known author Dale Carnegie, in his book How to stop worrying and start living, has said, “If you took blood from the veins of a day labourer while he was working, you would find it full of ‘fatigue toxins’ and fatigue products. But if you took a drop of blood from the brain of an Albert Einstein, it would show no fatigue toxins whatever at the end of the day.” Carnegie says fatigue has more to do with negative emotions such as fear, anger jealousy etc than work per se.

Research shows that in the long run, continuous negative emotions have a strong bearing on aging. Recently, some well-established software professionals made front-page news for taking up organic farming as they could not cope with office politics. Such tendencies can be minimised by the top management by being tough but fair and promoting as much transparency as possible. I used to be the executive assistant to managing director in a washing machine company. There was a phase when a few presentations prepared by the junior staff were hijacked on the way by middle management, as a result of which there was a lot of heartburn and justified anger. I had to firmly convey the grievances of the junior staff to the commercial director and fortunately, the situation did not go out of control. The principle of unity of command, which states that each person should have only one boss sometimes proves disadvantageous in some situations because that one boss can do a lot of mischief he wants to. It is better to have an ideas meeting where all can contribute freely and the principle can be followed for execution.

At Microsoft, Bill Gates encourages people to write to him directly. Then he either directs them himself or redirects them to people who may be able to help them. This can reduce a lot of conflict because the person with bright ideas or execution must be transparent to the top management. It is better both ways — the management knows where the real talent lies and the person concerned does not have to worry about his contribution not getting due recognition. Management books are replete with examples of people who are angry at not getting due credit because of lack of transparency.

Dealing with arguments

Incidentally, Dale Carnegie’s other book How to win friends and influence people is regarded as one of the best books to reduce friction and conflict. One of Carnegie’s favourite line is ‘You can’t win an argument’. That maybe true but in many management situations, one has to take a strong stand at times. At times conveying one’s position in writing with the facts and logic is a good strategy. At other times, smart repartee may put the argument in one’s favour. In one of my previous companies, my boss, who was doing very well and got several promotions, was not given commensurate enough compensation, with arguments like ‘You are living with your parents and so well off… What is the need…?’ My Boss’s reply to that was, “If I had been a beggar and staying alone, would you have paid me double the amount due to me?” The chairman’s son smiled and was bowled over by the smart retort even though it was against his interest. This actually represents an argument of vested interest which are very difficult to argue rationally. I once faced one gentleman in a train who refused to budge from my seat despite my showing him a confirmed ticket. He presented a totally absurd argument, “I have an RAC ticket. What’s the difference?” For a while I was nonplussed at his ridiculous stand and did not know what to say. Then I got a bolt from the blue. Mr Manmohan singh had been appointed Prime Minister the previous evening and so I told him “The difference is the difference between Sonia Gandhi and Mr Manmohan Singh. Mr Singh is a thoroughbred Indian and has therefore become PM. I have a confirmed ticket and so the seat is mine. Please get up”. Argument and conflict were averted. Everybody around started laughing and a couple even clapped. The gentlemen had no alternative but to leave. However, vested interest arguments can be quite dicey in other situations — ask people who have to deal with bribe taking government servants who do not budge once they have made up their minds.

What is an argument? Two or more people express their opinions and those opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion that those thoughts harden into mental positions. Many of these positions can either be formed out of our own myopic view of issues because of limited exposure or because of other prejudices. At least for some arguments, it would be well to remember that most truths are paradoxical-
A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.

— Thomas Mann

All maxims have their opposites, and proverbs should be sold in pairs a single one being half the truth.


That is why in Zen meditation they say, “Don’t seek the truth. Just cease to cherish opinion” This would depend upon the issue and the type of argument but is worth keeping in mind.
To be continued…


One Response

  1. […] couple of published articles in conflict management. It is in two parts. For those interested. :- The cost of Inter-personal conflict- Part I My published articles/works. The cost of Inter-personal conflict- Part II My published articles/works. Go Back Up […]

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