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Leading: Turning Conflict Into Conversation

People hate to fight. Its human nature to avoid conflict and we all want to be liked. Unfortunately, people often mistake confrontation for aggression. The reality is that conflict can be positive and constructive. Confrontation does not have to, and shouldn’t, be personal nor does it have to be mean. Direct conversations are productive and create tighter bonds of trust. If someone is willing to have an open and constructive discussion about disagreements they won’t hold back their opinions and insights which can improve decisions. Most people, however, avoid delivering messages that they believe will not be well received. It’s easier to just not say anything about an issue. In businesses, we sometimes build processes around bad processes because we aren’t able to address issues directly.

A friend of mine works in one of those large Silicon Valley product manufacturing companies that have great profit and growth. They are so awash in cash that they sometimes work around poor business decisions or rigid processes rather than fix core problems. One example is that their technical support was not allowed to send out more than 3 replacement units, even when they have a recall involving thousands of products. A work around had to be put in place that allowed the call center to have the manufacturing organization ship larger quantities of units at greater cost than through a service repair solution. They did this because the service repair leader was viewed as an “old school guy” that was difficult to deal with. Instead of working with the right people to directly address the business problem they built an exception process around him and it cost millions more than it had too.

Another friend, who works at a large Internet Marketing firm, was on a product development team that had similar communication problems. The engineering group padded the schedule for delivery by 2 months. The reason given was that they couldn’t trust the design team and Project Manager to deliver “good work” on schedule. As deadlines got closer it became apparent that the product functionality did not meet required functionality. Turns out that the engineering organization didn’t have the appropriate skill set in the team to build the product. Engineering didn’t believe they could have a frank discussion without fear of negative consequences about their constraints. Most of the original product had to be redone from scratch and the engineering team was completely replaced. What a waste of time and people.

Its always easy to ignore problems and avoid conflict; but, in the workplace, we’re paid to directly address issues and maximize value to the company and to the customer. This requires that we address problems directly and effectively. Without the ability to disagree openly and respectfully, problems will fester and often not get solved at all. Healthy tension allows us to explore different business options. Decision impasses do occur but that’s what positive escalations are for. If we focus on gracious professionalism and direct respectful communications our businesses will run more efficiently and we will be happier and more trusting people.


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