The cost of Inter-personal conflict- Part II

Are you missing the wood for the trees by picking up pointless arguments? Read about the Cost of Conflict — the concluding part( published in the October issue of the magazine “Management compass”)

By Hiren Shah

Conflict in the corporate world often arises because of not being clear about one’s goals. In cricket, Rahul Dravid being able to hold one end with his singles and twos enables the Tendulkars at the other end to get on with the fours and sixes. Similarly it is better to separate change and routine management as far as possible. Perhaps that is why Bill Gates handed over the CEO’s job at Microsoft to Steve Ballmer and took on the title of ‘Chief software architect’ in addition to remaining chairman. Such bifurcation of roles should happen at lower levels as well. Practical management, where a lot has to be achieved in very less time, is a lot like one-day cricket, but there are test match situations in between, which require concentrated effort without interruption. If they are also faced with one-day strategy, the result is bound to be dismal and conflict prone.

Apart from the complimentary synergy explained above, which relates to the type of problems, there are others where people’s strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. Based on a 40-year research, Gallup organisation has developed 34 themes or talents or strengths and they strive to bring two people of diverse talents work together so that one person’s strength can balance the other person’s weakness. Among the strengths that are directly related to reducing conflict are adaptability, communication, connectedness, empathy, harmony, relator etc. However good relations are not considered an end in themselves and they are encouraged to team up with people of opposite talents — achiever, activator, command, competition, focus. This way both inter-person and intra-person conflict can be reduced and one can practically achieve the balance between being task- and relationship-oriented, which is taught in MBA schools.

Right Perspective

As the saying goes, ‘The deeper the water, the calmer the surface’, or ‘Still waters run deep’. The depth has also to be gauged correctly. The former managing director of Procter and Gamble, Gurcharan Das once said that a good CEO is one who knows all the details of his company without losing sight of the big picture. The details may be significant in the sense that a small spark can cause a big fire or a small leak can sink a big ship and therefore it is better if the CEO checks all the management control systems thoroughly. However, if too much analysis causes paralysis, he loses sight of the main objectives. That can be like missing the wood for the trees. Normally what happens is that short-term goals often clash with the long term objectives. I read about a new procurement manager who, in order to impress the top management, tried to be rough with the existing suppliers and squeezed very impressive terms. For a while his cost-cutting seemed impressive but he could not last for more than a year and it took the management years to mend relations with suppliers. Similarly, many production managers go overboard in using plant and machinery to show impressive production figures but this is counterproductive in the long run. An organisation should follow the principle of the funds flow statement to avoid this kind of conflict — it uses short-term funds for short-term purposes and long-term funds for long-term purposes. Separate the short-term goals from the long-term goals. This is unfortunately more an exception than the rule in most companies.

Communication in conflict

Though communication is supposed to improve relationships, it often does not end up that way. Many a time the conflict increases directly in proportion to the verbal exchanges. George Bernard Shaw once said that “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Osho had put it very aptly, “When the husband communicates, the wife misunderstands, when the wife communicates, the husband misunderstands, when both of them speak, they end up arguing and when both are silent, even that is misinterpreted.” If this can happen in a marriage, it can happen in any relationship. A psychiatrist had once said that he does nothing except make the members of a family sit together and listen to each other without interruption and very often, the problem solves itself. This is the significance of being “a good listener”. In management it is said that people should not react but respond and being trained to be a good listener automatically takes care of that.

The discussion forums on the internet are very convenient for exhaustive discussions as the other person is forced to read one’s complete view before answering. Even if he wants to, he cannot react. He has to respond. Some people would still be aggressive but it reduces friction considerably. Maybe brainstorming can be done there to the extent possible and the execution is taken up during actual meetings.

Even responding cannot help at times when some of the basics of thinking are not clear. Some people have a habit of jumping to conclusions and making sweeping statements, despite the fact India is be a country with a great spiritual legacy and the very essence of spirituality is that one should not be judgmental as it can spawn conflicts. Sometimes, even trained psychologists and psychoanalysts fail to read a person correctly.

The manner in which something is communicated also goes a long way in reducing conflict. There’s a narrative of a father, who tried to get his son to wash his hands before eating, without much success. He took his son to his doctor friend, who educated him on what germs were, showed them under a microscope and further showed a video film on what could happen to the body if it got infected with those germs. After being oriented like this, the child started washing his hands on his own. Though it is said that wise men learn from the mistakes of others and fools from their own, very often man ends up being a fool because learning is not imparted that way. Whether in personal or professional life, if experiential learning is imparted like this, the chances of reducing conflict are much greater.

Role of trust in conflict

In corporate life and self-help books one is encouraged to trust people, which is supposed to go a long way in reducing conflict. One of the reasons behind Dhirubhai Ambani’s success was his ability and willingness to trust people. A book on leadership by Harvard University emphasised that one should “Trust but verify”. People are different in a variety of ways and it is highly unlikely that they would respond equally to the same level of trust. People are also changing all the time and it is not necessary that the person who was trustworthy yesterday would be equally trustworthy today. The future is not always an extension of the present.

Autocratic bosses

There are also cases of people being fed up of their immediate autocratic bosses. That is why it is said that people do not leave a company but a particular boss or an individual. turning a blind eye to autocracy tends to prove counterproductive in the long run and if the top management is not in a position to stop it, there is no other alternative to bid one’s time before leaving the company.

One of the best ways of reprimanding is to follow the philosophy of the great Chinese Philosopher Confucius, who said that just as lighting precedes rainfall, anybody who has to reprimand a subordinate should also be able to give counselling thereafter. This is similar to a concept called ‘maintaining hundred percent closeness and hundred percent distance’, which I learnt in a workshop conducted by stress expert, Dr Rakesh Chopra. The phrase itself removes any doubt about what exactly one is required to do. Playing both roles may not always be possible for all the people as it requires both an aggressive temperament and communicating ability. There is nothing wrong even if two different people perform the two roles as long as it makes the employee more effective.

Commonsense in conflict

Last but not the least, the most important thing in management, commonsense, can also go a long way in reducing if not eliminating conflict. It is easy to say “Don’t let the trifles get you”, but in strenuous situations, a small incident is enough to spark a big row. We will come back to the personal example from which we started off (Management Compass, September 2007). Like many other young people in the mid eighties, I had fallen in love with the personal computer at the cost of everything else. My father tried to put it in perspective once: “Your computer may produce reports faster, accurately and neatly and losses may look very nice in your printouts, but in reality, losses are never lovely and one has to be proactive to avoid them, whereas your reports are more of a
postmortem.” That argument had sound logic.

At another time, when I would insist on leaving early to be near my beloved computer, he would tell me about how hard he had struggled in his early days in Bombay where he had to change a train and two buses after getting up at 5.30 in the morning and therefore wanted to leave at his own time. Everything cannot be argued with cold logic, however true it may be, as punctuality in this case. Fortunately, I had the
good sense not to argue over those issues. One always has to remember that a human being is more a creature of emotion than logic and depending upon the type of argument, one has to know when to use the heart, when to use the head and when to use both and also, when the heart stops and head begins and vice-versa. It is said that
common sense is most uncommon and in the context of conflict, it can certainly be true.

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2 Responses

  1. A good material to read put in the right perspective

  2. My friend on Orkut shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came to your blog.

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