Workplace Wisdom

Focus on Tasks, Not Emotions, to Save Money on Conflict

“Conflict costs businesses a ton of money,” management guru Steve Caldwell observed while interviewing me recently. Caldwell is a team leadership coach, the author of Manager Mojo: Be the Leader that Others Want to Follow, and the creator of the podcast Manager Mojo, where he highlights commonsense solutions to management and leadership issues.

These lightly edited excerpts from our conversation create a through-line from the reasons for conflict to tips for reducing the disruption and expense that conflict causes.

How Conflicts Get Started

SC: “What do you see as the top two or three causes of conflict in the workplace?”

LK: Some of the most common are historical norms of how people used to behave two and three generations of managers ago — and their departments took up the cause. In almost any organization that has more than a handful of people, you can see it, whether it’s sales vs. operations, or marketing vs. product development. Some of these conflicts are just assumed: We disagree about things, so we have to be in conflict.

Another common cause is procedural norms, the way business has been done. Again, it’s historical, so you don’t notice it every day. There are rules in place, say, from regulations that existed 40 years ago. There are forms that were used in paper and we digitized them, so the same structures remain even when they’re not needed anymore. Those kinds of things are so common that we don’t even look at them as actual forces. So we’re going to have conflict even if the people are really nice, really smart, and want everybody to succeed.

Some Different Styles of Conflict and How to Cope

SC: But what can you do about people who enjoy fighting, and you can just see them ready to go for it?

LK: You make the case that this kind of behavior is disruptive to other people in ways that cost money and suppress results. You go back through the story of the conflict: You give examples of when they were having it out in the conference room and how staff members pushed their chairs away from the table, got very quiet, and sat small. Nobody took notes; nobody knew what to do. You count up that time as not only wasted time, but also as time that has to be rehashed, because the staff gets to feel safe again by checking with the others: “Are you wounded?” “No, I’m not wounded either, I’m okay.” “What was going on in there?!?” So huge amounts of time are wasted.

SC: It seems we struggle the most with people who are passive-aggressive, who pretend to agree with you but then leave the discussion and tell everyone what an idiot you were. They sow the seeds of discontent and cause a tremendous amount of damage in the company.

LK: It’s easier for passive-aggressive people to say yes than to put the uncomfortable facts on the table. It’s easier to say yes than to risk people being overtly disappointed with you. So they say yes, and then leave the meeting and don’t do the things they committed to do. Or they say, “Well, they told us everyone has to do X, but our group isn’t going to do that.” Or they’ll complain about others in the meeting and undercut them in ways that make it very difficult for the passive-aggressive leaders’ team members to work with them, or that make it hard for people to work interdepartmentally.

SC: But how can we deal with this kind of situation without having a knockdown, drag-out?

LK: Try to stay extremely fact-based and talk about the things that need to be done and how they will get done, and the upsides and downsides of doing them this way or that way. Then do very task-based kinds of plans that will seem to have almost nothing to do with people. You can get agreements or signoffs on these little bits of tasks and document that stuff to a fare-thee-well with commitments, names, and dates. Then, if the passive-aggressive folks aren’t holding up their end, you have all this data that proves it. And passive-aggressive people don’t want to look like the bad guy — that’s why they’re passive-aggressive. So that’s one way to get people to participate and start performing together.

Use the True Nature of the Work to Exit the Conflict

SC: As leaders of companies, what can we do to spot conflict before it happens and to eliminate some of the conflict that we do see?

LK: Most conflict is differences of opinion that got out of hand. There’s nothing wrong with having differences of opinion — in fact, we need to have them. The engineer who is assessing the situation is going to have a different view from the marketer who wants the software to sound like magic. They are going to have disagreement. But we need leaders to say, “Oh, it’s excellent that you disagree! Let’s talk all about it!” and then actually put the facts of the situation on the table.

The engineer says, “Here are all the things that have to happen. They are all very important things, because without them, thus and so will go wrong. That’s why we have to do it the way we do it.” And the marketer says, “But I want customers to believe X!” So let’s talk about that: “Do we actually have to do every single thing? What’s the risk of what could go wrong? Are there ways to explain it more simply?”

From the marketer’s perspective, the job should be figuring out how to make the truth sound good, not how to make lies sound good — anybody could do that. They need to share their realities with each other: “Here are all the reasons I’m concerned. Here are what I think the costs will be.” And they need to agree that there is a higher good they are trying to serve, whether it’s their customers or a larger societal good, or on behalf of the shareholders.

If we can look at the big picture (“Why do we exist, who are we serving, and what are our values?”) as well as at the small picture (“What are the facts of this particular situation?”) then, once everybody agrees at both ends, most of what feels like conflict goes away, and it’s just about resolving the tasks again.

Listen to the full interview here:

Onward and upward,

LK

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