Category Archives: Conflict Management

Saying Yes

I have written a few times in the past about the requirement that leaders are obliged to present a dissenting opinion when they genuinely feel that there may be a better alternative solution. I have also noted that that the word “no” can be one of the most important and valuable words in the leader’s lexicon. Having a different or contrary opinion does not make anyone any less a member of the team. It makes them someone who continues to maintain a different perspective on the business knowing that the diversity of opinion is a key to business health.

It is an exceedingly difficult line for a leader to walk. Many times a dissenting opinion can be confused with open opposition, which is something most managers cannot tolerate. Sometimes management doesn’t want to hear a differing opinion. Many times they can be quite content with a single perspective. What do you do when you have much to say to the contrary, but all that is desired of you is to hear you say “yes”?

I think we have all probably been in a situation like this from time to time. Most of the time situations like this are usually transient. Sometimes there is complete alignment on business topics. Occasionally there is divergence of opinions. Many times there are aspects of both alignment and divergence of opinions. This is what is known as a healthy business environment.

In this sort of business environment differing opinions are understood and accepted. The challenge is to the idea or the process, not the individual. The objective is to try and get to the best solution. As I said, this is in an ideal environment. Unfortunately individuals are prone to differing behaviors in the business environment.

Issues such as cultural differences, personalities, management styles and differing individual versus corporate objectives can come into play. Any one or more of these factors can contribute to a situation where the differences of perspective, opinion and approach are no longer the exception to the management alignment, but seem to become the standard.

In many instances there can also be “opinion drift”. If another manager sees that the alignment of opinion is better rewarded than the healthy discussion of alternatives, eventually a polarizing of positions and opinions can take place. It can fall more and more to the leader to make sure that the contrary is both heard and considered.

In time a situation can evolve where management is no longer looking for a specific or studied input on any new idea or direction. As more and more opinions drift into total alignment with management all that is desired is for all the various team members to align and say yes to each new process or direction and immediately get behind it. There can be a total breakdown in the structure of the healthy challenge business model. Contrary views and opinions in such an organization can begin to be viewed as oppositional and divisive.

Before leaping to specific conclusions along this line of thinking, as always it is best to take a step back to understand and assess the situation. Sometimes it only feels as though the stars are aligning and that everyone is aligning without due consideration. A complete management alignment along the lines described is a pretty rare event in my business experience.

On the other hand, I can hear the words my dad used to say in just about any situation that could even be remotely considered a parallel to this. His favorite was:

“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you.”

He would also say:

“Aim low because the bad guys* could be crawling.”

*Dad actually used a more colorful word for “bad guys” that also started with a “b”, but I know my mom occasionally reads this and she doesn’t like it when I use such colorful language.

Needless to say, you needed to take what dad said with a grain of salt.

Sometimes the best approach to a potential situation, particularly one that involves the input and behavior of others, is to not be in a hurry to resolve the perceived issue. This approach runs almost entirely contrary to everything we have seen, learned and thought about business leadership.

We have learned that those who recognize the issue first, are the first to take steps to resolve the issue and those that do in fact resolve the issues first are the ones usually rewarded. This approach does normally work when identifying and resolving business issues. However when the issues are not business or performance in nature and are more personality or management style related, an immediate and direct approach may be difficult.

It is best to remember that it always takes two to have a difference of opinion. In most instances no one sees themselves as being either wrong, or in the wrong. Sometimes a mismatch of this type can occur.

It is again at times like these that I think back to my dad and what he told me about these instances. He said:

“I may not always be right, but I am always boss”

I think that this was his way of telling me that while I was under his purview I was the one responsible for finding a way to rationalize our cultural or generational differences. Since he was the one paying the bills at that time, it did make a certain amount of sense.

However the parent offspring relationship is not the same as the leader team member relationship when it comes to differences of opinion. Leaders need to understand that differences of opinion, even prolonged ones, are something that should be expected. The recognition by the leader that opinion diversity needs to exist for the business to stay healthy is key. Differing opinions do not mean wrong opinions.

One of the best ways to establish a baseline for dealing with these management differences is to revisit past differences with an eye toward what the different positions were and what the eventual resolution of the difference was. Facts are normally everyone’s friends. The historical record has a funny way of refocusing the disagreement away from positions and more toward resolutions.

Business is about performance. Performance comes from taking the right positions and making the right choices. The historical record is always very clear along these lines. If the right positions are taken, contrary or aligned, the business performance will reflect this. If they weren’t then there are usually second and third “adjustments” that get made as the corrections are implemented.

I have found that members of teams that I have been leading are in many instances much closer to the specific issues at hand than I was. Because they have been closer they usually had a better vantage point from which to derive a solution. It has served me very well in the past to stop, even when I am so absolutely sure of the elegance, purity and accuracy of my solution, and truly understand why they are saying “no” when all I wanted to hear was “yes”.

In many instances I was fortunate to have done so. We can all be prone to having blind spots in our solutions when we are so sure of their accuracy. When someone wasn’t ready to go along with the desired solution, it usually was for a good reason, and that reason probably needed to be reviewed and possibly incorporated into the actual solution.

It almost always made for a stronger final solution.

All leaders will always want their teams to say yes, but will be open to addressing and incorporating differing or contrary opinions. This is how solutions are strengthened. Other managers may be less tolerant and accepting of differing positions with the resulting opinion drift I mentioned before.

Understanding which environment you are in will be a key in deciding how you can respond when someone is looking for you to say yes.

Kung Fu and the Laws of Change

It seems that I do have a tendency to talk about change in business, a lot. I think one of the main reasons for this is that some of my initial leadership roles involved being charged with either changing and transforming some underperforming organizations, or shutting them down. No one likes or wants to shut an organization down. It doesn’t matter that it was not your leadership that caused the performance issue. Shutting down an organization is an event that will stay with you for a while.

This is what has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s First Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

No matter how many businesses you grow, expand and improve in your career, shut down just one business because you could not get it to change in order for it to survive and you will always and forever be known as a “hatchet man”.

A hatchet man is a person who is recognized in the organization as someone who causes people either voluntarily or involuntarily to leave the company. They lay off. They fire. They close. When they walk into a room or meeting, all conversation momentarily stops. Other people keep track of them and never turn their backs on them. Once given the label, it is almost impossible to shake it.

This fact has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Second Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

A “Change Agent” is someone who when faced with the option, will almost always do whatever it takes so as to not be labeled a hatchet man.

When faced with the down side prospect of being labeled a hatchet man as opposed to the upside opportunity of changing a poorly performing business into a more profitable one, I think it is easy to see why I usually chose to be a change agent. It really isn’t so bad once you understand some if the realities associated with being a change agent. You need to understand that even though you are avoiding the down side of shutting down a business there are still many obstacles that will need to be overcome.

This is what has led me to coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Third Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

No matter how necessary the change is that you are leading, no matter how much it will improve profitability, efficiency or customer satisfaction, there will be people who will feel that they have something to lose as a result of the change, and they will resist the change at every opportunity.

Everybody understands in some esoteric way that change must occur. They just don’t want it to happen to them. They want someone else to have to change. They may already have plans and strategies that conflict with your change. They may have organizations that are dependent on the change not happening. (I am sure that there were buggy whip product or service or maintenance groups that were not happy with the change in corporate direction when the automobile came about). They in short have a vested interest in the status quo.

The point is that they will take the short sighted approach and fight change. The fact that the alternative would eventually be the emergence of a hatchet man on the situation does not seem to matter. That will be then and this is now.

In my rather arcane way this change resistant conflict has reminded me of an episode of the old television show Kung Fu that I saw as a kid. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it had David Carradine as a Kung Fu master monk wandering around the old west looking for his brother. That was the extent of the show’s entire plot. There would be a requisite martial arts action sequence and there would also be a requisite eastern philosophy lesson in each episode. As a kid I loved it.

I am sure that it must have had some influence on me and my resulting studies of martial arts and readings of eastern philosophies. Although I have been talking about conflict and resistance to change, I am going to use one of the show’s eastern philosophy lessons here.

The lesson that I am going to refer to dealt with attackers and defenders. The following is a paraphrase of the lesson. Please read it with something of an Asian accent in your mind to get the full value and effect since that is the way the Kung Fu master sounded when he intoned it to the then monk – student David Carradine:

Attackers must win to be considered a success. Defenders need only survive to be considered a success.

The question that must first be answered when making sense of this quote is to understand if you are the attacker or the defender. The answer is that as a change agent you are a little of both. You are attacking the current status quo that you are wanting to change, and defending your proposed change plan. However when you look at the bigger picture, change agents are attacking and those that are resisting the change are defending.

With this in mind, and knowing that you must “win” the change related contention points in order to implement change, I will now coin what I humbly position as “Gobeli’s Fourth Law of Change Management”. It goes something like this:

Before engaging in a change management battle, get the data. Get all the data. The data will be your friend. It is much more difficult for people to argue with and resist numbers than it is to argue with and resist opinion.

Now a certain amount of attribution for this law needs to be given to Robert McNamara. He was one of the first automotive industry “whiz kids” and a member of President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet in the 1960’s. He was a great proponent of data acquisition and analysis. He was called a “whiz kid” because he seemed to be right quite often. This is probably because he had acquired the data and analyzed it better than everyone else at the time. Go figure.

Now if you have acquired the data and properly analyzed it, this will force those that are resisting your change to rely on something other than data for their resistance. They will call in other topics and non sequiturs as reasons for their resistance and defenses for their positions. These reasons and defenses can be quite vociferous and colorful, but data usually wins. They will resist the change with an appeal to the “greater good” argument for the company. They will counter with their own incremental improvement. They will talk about the non-monetary effects of the change.

In general there will be great keening, rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth.

As an aside, I once had a group try to argue that there were more hours in a man year in one country as opposed to another as one of the reasons to resist the pending change. Desperation when it comes to resisting change knows no limits.

In the final analysis, if you have followed these simple laws for effecting change you should be successful. The one note of caution to post here is to understand when you are dealing with a business that does not want to change. Sometimes despite what may be some of your best work, the decision to change will just not get made.

We all need to understand that we may not be acting with all the data that those who must make the final change decisions have. There can be other plans. There can be other strategies that you may not be party to. On the other hand, they may just like the way things are done now.

You need to takes these pieces of information into account when trying to be a change agent as opposed to a hatchet man. It is also a good idea to remember that doing nothing can eventually be an invitation for a visit by those that swing not a hatchet but an ax.

Don’t Drive Angry

For those of you that don’t know, I live in Texas. Texas is an interesting state and there are many things that I like about it. And there are a few that I am not so fond of, such as the apparent absence of any mountains or anything else that might pass for “terrain” within a five to six hour driving radius from where I live. It’s pretty flat here. Driving in Texas is invariably a very high speed endeavor and learning experience. Hence there are many signs along the sides of the various highways which simply state “Drive Friendly”.

It may be a reach but I got to thinking of the parallels that exist between Texas highways and today’s business climate. I think it is obvious that there are far more ups and downs in today’s business than there are on Texas’ highways, at least in the part of Texas that I live in. Now there is supposed to be some mythical portion of Texas that is referred to as the “hill country” where there are supposed to be some hills and there may be some people who claim to live there that might dispute this assertion.

I have flown and driven over a great deal of the state. While not “planer” flat in the mathematical sense, it is by and large pretty flat.

But I digress….

I think that some of the speed limits on Texas highways are some of the highest speed limits in the country, and even these are considered to be not much more than guidelines and suggestions as opposed to limits and laws by the Texas locals driving here. People move quickly here on the roads. This requires a great deal of attention and high speed interaction if you are to get anywhere safely.

Are you now starting to see the parallel between driving in Texas and working into today’s business environment?

What Texas has learned is that high speed interaction between people requires a certain amount of courtesy and respect between the related participants. There needs to be a certain adherence to the protocols associated with the various interactions (such as driving on the proper side of the road, remaining in your appropriate lane, dimming lights for oncoming traffic, and if you are going to swear at or call the other participants on the road derogatory names it is probably good form to keep your windows up so that they cannot hear you (this would be the automotive equivalent to the “mute” button on a conference call). Hand gestures of just about any kind, other than a polite, short, open handed wave are discouraged.

In short, this type of mutual respect and interaction on the Texas highways can be considered driving friendly.

What the Texas highway department has realized is that people who are not friendly on the Texas highways seem to have more issues and unpleasant interactions on the Texas highways than those that are friendly. They have learned that people who are not operating in a friendly manner in a high speed environment have problems interacting with other people in a high speed environment. Being tired, angry or any other non-friendly physical or emotional state could affect how they are perceived and have a detrimental effect on their performance and interactions.

Overly aggressive behavior, just as overly timid behavior had a tendency to cause issues on the roads and disrupt the smooth flow of traffic. The same was seen with a lack of respect for the needs and rights of the other drivers on the road. It was also noted that the boorish behavior of one could engender a similar behavior in others, again resulting in a limitation of the progress for all. Even those that are maintaining their proper decorum on the roads needed to be ever aware for those that were not in order to make sure that they were not inadvertently caught up in issues not of their own making.

Hence the multitude of signs dotting the (mostly flat) Texas highways reminding all participants to “Drive Friendly”.

Unfortunately, most business environments do not come with signs reminding the various participants to drive friendly.

By its very nature today’s high speed business environment requires us to openly and directly confront the various issues that we face on a daily basis. Many of these issues can be the result of actions, activities and behaviors of others on the same road. In short there are many times where we are asked, or in some instances forced to deal with issues that are not of our own doing. There are other times where we will be dealing with issues that are our own. This is business.

When there is an issue to be solved it doesn’t matter at that point in time who is responsible for creating that issue. Despite everyone’s urge and desire to first thing figure out who is to blame for it. What matters is who is going to be responsible for solving it. If someone is driving on the wrong side of the street or running red lights, it can create issues. If there is a traffic issue you worry about taking care of the issue and those affected by it first, then you look at who is at fault. Getting people back in the right lanes and making sure that they stop at future red lights should be the preventative solution goal as it is always more effective to avoid future issues than to have to expend the time and resources required to deal with them.

By the way, that red light thing in Texas can be tricky. I think the standard street light progression as perceived by Texans is: Green – Yellow – Dark Yellow – Really Dark Yellow – Almost Green Again – Should Have Been Green Again By the Time I got There – Green. It seems that the standard response to any of these perceived light colors or light color changes is to increase speed to enable that person get through the intersection as quickly as possible and thereby minimize the time available for any intersection issues. This approach does not always seem to work.

Business is about how effectively we can interact with others in the pursuit of our objectives and goals. Our human nature makes it difficult to separate how we are feeling at that time from how we are dealing with others. Anger and other emotions have a tendency to adversely affect our performance and decisions making abilities in the office, just as they do when we get behind the wheel of a car.

Business decisions and judgment, like the decisions and judgments while driving on the highway are best performed when we “Drive Friendly”. Perhaps we might do better if we added a few more “Drive Friendly” signs to the office environment, instead of just having them on the sides of the flat Texas highways.

Difficult Conversations


When was the last time you held a difficult conversation? I am not talking about having an argument. Anybody can have an argument. Arguments are usually unproductive for the participants and rarely provide a beneficial value to the business. I am referring to having a civilized conversation with someone about a potentially unpleasant or difficult business topic. In the business world difficult or unpleasant conversations normally revolve around what you feel may be improper conduct, low performance or lack of goal attainment. These conversations can be positioned in a number of ways depending on who you are talking to and what the objective of the conversation is. Whether you are trying to provide guidelines as to what future performance or behaviors are acceptable and expected, informing someone that past performance or behaviors were not acceptable, or explaining to an executive that micro-management is unproductive and that they need to delegate more responsibility, a business leader must be prepared to deal with difficult performance or behavior issues, as well as being prepared to recognize and encourage the desirable ones.



I think that we would all prefer to avoid conflict or unpleasant situations. Unfortunately as business leaders we are responsible to make decisions that may be unpopular, enforce standards of performance and behavior, as well as make sure the consequences associated with behaviors and performance are enacted. If leaders fail to address issues directly with individuals and teams, or fail render appropriate consequences, they run the risk of allowing the entire business to become demoralized.




I would like to believe that positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors and outcomes would be sufficient incentive for all individuals and teams. I have however found that this is not necessarily the case in all situations. If there are positive reinforcements for good performance, there must also be difficult conversations associated with those factors and areas that need improvement. I have found a key here is to make sure to separate the behavior / conduct / performance in question from the person you are having the difficult conversation with. A negative reaction or review cannot be seen as a personal attack. Staying simple, direct and factual have always worked best for me in these situations.




On the other side of the coin I have also been associated with managers who not only did not shy away from difficult conversations, but could best be described as too aggressive and confrontational when it came to addressing a team member’s performance improvement requirements. If the team begins to feel that the negative feedback and consequences outweigh the positive reinforcements, they can again as a group begin to feel disenfranchised in the organization and their performance will also suffer.




For me difficult conversations seem to come in variations of two general approaches. The first approach is to focus on what sort of future performance state is acceptable. In this way the focus is on what is desirable going forward, whether it is a behavior, performance or goal. The person you are talking with may not have achieved, behaved or performed in the past, but you are making sure they know what is expected in the future. This approach seems to work best when there are definable or measurable standards that people must be held accountable to.




The second approach to difficult conversations is a little more tenuous, at least for me. This is the approach where you are focusing on what is unacceptable about the past state. I have had to use this approach when team members or colleagues have conducted themselves in manners that while not adversely affecting their business performance, could be seen as detrimental to the team. The idea here is that it is impossible to tell everyone what they must do for the team to operate at its highest levels. Sometimes you need to make sure that it is clear what they must not do. Instead of saying what is desirable in the future, you are saying what is undesirable about the past. 




Either way, it is important for the leader to quickly, clearly and professionally address the negative issues associated with the individual and team performance. I think we would all much prefer to only have to recognize good performance and to provide positive reinforcement. However, if we don’t have the difficult conversation when it is called for, we run the eventual risk of fewer and fewer opportunities to recognize good performance.

What Would You Do ? (Part 2)

A little while ago a friend of mine called me and asked me the following question:

“A past business associate of mine is out looking for a job and has put me down as a reference. While I know times are hard and I do want to be supportive of him, he was not in my opinion a very good employee. On one hand I don’t want to give him a bad recommendation and potentially ruin his chance at a position, but on the other hand I do not want to give a report or recommendation that is not the truth. What should I do?”

This is a situation for our current times. With so much continued upheaval in the job market, I am sure that we all know multiple numbers of people who either are, or have been looking for new positions. I am also reasonably certain that although we many know multiple people who are searching for a new job, we might not be as willing or prepared to vouch for or recommend some of them as we may be for others.

So that brings up the question: What would you do if someone put you down as a reference, and you did not feel comfortable in providing a positive recommendation?

Do you respond to the person by saying that you would not feel comfortable being a reference for them? This would inevitably lead to having to explain why you would not want to provide the reference input. It might lead to hard feelings and someone who in the future might feel they have reason or position to cause you professional issues in the future. Who can truly say they know where they will be working, or who they will be reporting to in the future?

Do you accept and provide a less than glowing reference and potential derail an employment opportunity?

Do you accept and provide a less than fully truthful positive reference?

It’s at times like this that I remember what my dad has told me in the past: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

My recommendation to my friend was that if he did not want to directly respond “no” to the request, (which would probably be the proper response) then he should not to respond at all to either the request to be a reference or the request for reference input by whomever his name had been provided to. Let his inaccessibility and silence be his comment. Normally both the reference requestor and the reference input requesting entity should get the message.

People who have something positive to say about someone are normally accessible. Those who don’t have something good to say normally aren’t accessible.

I would say this course of action is the professional equivalent of the “pocket veto”. A pocket veto is a legislative maneuver in United States federal lawmaking that allows the President to indirectly veto a bill. If the president does not want to go on the record as being against a bill, he can hold it with no response until congress adjourns. His “no response” in effect kills the bill without having to take the active measure of vetoing it.

Given the situation that my friend outlined, this was my suggestion. What would you do?

Disagreements Are Good

I have heard it said “If everybody says it’s so, then the chances are very good that it is really not so”. I think this is another way of saying that if everybody agrees, then you have a problem. Healthy disagreement within a team is a desirable condition as long as it is handled properly.

 

When putting together your team it is easy to get lulled into the comfort of bringing on “Known Quantities” and friends. A problem that this situation can generate is complacency and a lack of diverse thinking.

 

Issues and problems need to be looked at from many vantage points before the best solution can be generated. Different people with different perspectives will provide this. Just as “sales” people will invariably generate a sales solution, “finance” people will also generate a finance solution. The “best” solution may indeed incorporate aspects of both sales and finance.

 

With this diversity of thought and perspective will come disagreement. This will be healthy, as long as everyone plays by the rules that:
1. The disagreement is not personal, and
2. The objective is to generate the “best” solution, not “my” solution.

 

The end result of this team management by disagreement is both a stronger team and a stronger business. “Group Think” and “blind spots” are avoided and the best aspects of all perspectives can be incorporated into running the business. That makes for a stronger business.