Best Practice in Conflict Management
The quality of canapés offered at law firm receptions has increased significantly in the last couple of years. And so has the quality of conversation – at least to the extent that I don’t have to define mediation or explain who CEDR are as often as I used to. But what hasn’t changed, particularly when I’m talking to businesspeople – to finance directors, chief executives and chairmen, rather than simply to lawyers - is what happens when I move into sales mode:
“So, tell me about your business – do you get involved in many disputes yourself?”
“Oh no, we don’t really have disputes. It’s not really my area as our lawyers deal with that sort of thing”
“Really? So do you have any conflict in your organisation?”
“Oh yes, conflict – we have lots of that”
And nine times out of ten the non-verbal answer is even clearer – a thin smile and a resigned look as I see the guy recall an argument, a difficult colleague, or most often a simple reality of business life.
So what’s going on here? When Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is required reading at all of the leading business schools, why is it that business managers shy away from the word “dispute”? It’s certainly not because they don’t have any – or because it doesn’t have any impact on their business.
A Universal Condition
Conflict is a fact of life even in the best-run organisation. It goes under many names - disagreement, disharmony, dispute, difficulty or difference - but the results of mis-managed conflict are the same: at best unwelcome distraction from a heavy workload; at worst damage which may threaten the very future of the organisation.
On the other hand, conflict can be productive, with a healthy disagreement often fuelling the cauldron of debate from which new ideas and innovation emerge. Conflicting views can lead to debate and refinement of solutions, or can act as an impetus for further information gathering, leading to more informed decisions.
So the challenge for management is to realise the benefits of creative tension without straining relationships to breaking point. From an unhappy customer to a disgruntled director, business can have the challenge of conflict come from any direction – and just as with all other aspects of risk management, the goal is to maximise the benefits whilst minimising the downside and avoiding, or at least surviving, the catastrophic.