Imagine that you’re sharing a house with a friend or partner. You’re both good people, but sharing a living space can be tricky. You don’t know each other’s habits and preferences, and it’s easy get in each other’s way.

One of you might like to sleep late, while the other is an early riser who watches breakfast TV. One of you may need to work in silence, while the other prefers working to loud music.

Both of you are trying to do your best, but tension can escalate quickly. These conflicts can suck the life out of things, and even end in passive resistance or noisy rows.

The same dynamic happens in business, between departments, functions, or even teammates. Although everyone wants to help the organization succeed, everybody has different agendas and goals which can bring people into conflict.

Some of these conflicts are quite familiar:

  • seizing an opportunity vs. avoiding a risk
  • making as many sales as possible vs. delivering sales at a profit
  • controlling costs vs. maintaining quality
  • getting it out to the customer fast vs. avoiding accidents

Other conflicts are idiosyncratic and easily overlooked.

The thing you need to remember about all these conflicts is this: In a sincere effort to optimize their own performance – for the good of the whole enterprise – people sometimes hinder one another. That hindering may be accidental, or it may be on purpose. Either way, it slows implementation down or makes coming into work onerous.

When leaders hear the protagonists’ inevitably one side reports, it’s easy to dismiss those reports as petty squabbling. This interpretation is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. It discounts the effect that squabbling has on productivity and morale.
  2. It distracts the leader from what is required to resolve the conflict: which is the leader’s attention itself.

So, as a leader, next time you hear what seems like a petty gripe, try this: see each party individually. Ask them to walk you through the situation – as they experience it. Listen carefully, but resist the temptation to either agree or disagree. Simply learn about the perception that is their reality.

When you have heard from all the parties, you may come to see that anyone in their shoes would experience similar frustrations. Now get the parties together and explain what you have learned. Suggest that you all solve the problem together.

You might be surprised by the potential this approach releases.


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