Fire is an interesting metaphor – businesses are continually looking for sparks of innovation, igniting employees’ enthusiasms, fanning the flames of success, markets heat up and entrepreneurs blaze trails. These are all positive. However we also know that if not carefully managed fires can rage out of control, people can get badly burnt, issues flare up, and ultimately both people and projects can burn out. All negative experiences.
It is a manager’s role to be fireman to these situations, both as controller of the flames as on a steam engine and as a firefighter – but most business schools and executive development programs spend time only getting leaders to enable the first set of processes, to encourage and promote ‘heat’. Oddly though, we spend little time on developing people to manage the second set of skills – what to do when situations ‘overheat’. This is peculiar as for most executives ‘fire-fighting’ is what they do every day, managing those innumerable little issues that need to be sorted. It is much rarer for executives to get a general training in managing these fires for when they really do turn into serious conflagrations. As a result in many cases a lot of time and energy is spent in looking the other way as most executives do not want to engage with heated situations as the risk of ‘getting their fingers burnt’ is too great.
Research statistics vary, but data from the Confederation of British Industry in 2012 suggested that in the UK 20% of managers time was devoted to managing conflicts, costing some £33 million per year. Other research suggests that this figure could be as high as 35% to 40% of manager’s time.
The frustration with this failure to embrace controversy and conflict is that it can often, usually always, be turned into an opportunity to create and innovate a better situation than previously existed. Charlie Irvine set-up a consultancy in 1996 and together with his colleague Graeme Rainbird focusessed their attention in the early years on turning these conflict experiences from negative to positive ones.
Highlighting the fact that no-one likes to get involved with arguments, Irvine early on had to change the company’s name from Conflict Management Ltd to Questions of Difference as organizations had difficulty with admitting they had conflicts to manage, the hope was they would be more open to having differences that required questioning. And so it has turned out – but the resistance to embracing conflict remains widespread in organizations, both public and private and particularly not-for-profit where intrinsic rewards make up a higher element of the reason people work there. With a high enough salary people seem to tolerate higher levels of conflict, but this cushion does not exist in not-for-profits as effectively.
Charlie Irvine started his career as a mediator and peace monitor in apartheid South Africa, he is therefore far from a champion of conflict, observing that the organizational conflicts he deals with now are no longer ones literally of life and death. Irvine notes mischievously though that conflict “is a fantastic, natural resource – no-one has ever had to get a consultant in to create conflict!…There are always going to be differences between people, particularly people with ideas and responsibilities to manage; but we are never taught how to have constructive conversations about them and even to turn them to the advantage of an organization.”
“The vast majority of work we do”, says Irvine’s long-time colleague Graeme Rainbird, “is not mediation – but ultimately people looking for change.” He cites a recent example of a client they have worked with where the sales and marketing functions were sparring over the launch of a new product. The heavily invested-in launch was having to be delayed and the two sides were becoming bogged down in a finger-pointing blame-game of whose fault it was; this all-consuming focus meant that no-one was seeing the opportunities of how a delay could be used advantageously for the product. With the heat removed from the conflict the sides were able to move on to something more constructive. It was change that was actually desired, some clarity on how the previous plan could be enhanced under the delayed circumstances. However the primal need to not be seen as the guilty party was drawing all the energy and nothing was left to seek the positive change opportunities.
Irvine and Rainbird believe that there are a whole range of techniques and frameworks that managers can learn to enable them to better manage these conflicts, and more importantly, become aware of evolving issues before they develop into more serious and damaging ones. However, they also are clear that there will always be a place for third parties “because third parties are not personally invested in the answer.” It is this distance from the emotions of the substance of the disagreements allied to a profound interest in people that lies at the ability to resolve these difficult situations, believes Irvine.
“In situations of conflict people assume the resolution is a judgement of right or wrong – but that is neither correct nor helpful” he says “in fact, it is an ability to see the future and what is possible and unlock a different way of engaging with each other” that is the solution.
Rainbird recalls a situation with two senior managers in a children’s charity where conflict had descended to a situation where neither person had any regard for the other. Even Rainbird’s initial attempts at casual small talk with one drew mocking reproaches from the other to their adversary; all chances of success looked in vain. Yet Rainbird could see that in fact the two essentially agreed on much more than they disagreed, it was a conflict of style more than substance. The two were passionately wedded to the charity’s mission of helping children however, and he made the breakthrough by putting a mirror to their behaviour in asking “if a group of the children you help, were standing in a circle around us now, watching this argument, what do you think their advice to you both would be?” This salutary question forced the antagonists to reflect not on the details of their disagreement but on the impact of their behaviour. It distanced them from the ‘rights and wrongs’ of the conflict’s original issue, and highlighted the damage the conflict itself was causing to the wider organization and how that was undermining the very thing they both cared so deeply about – the children in the charity’s care. When Rainbird followed-up with them some days later, the hatchet was clearly still firmly buried “Graeme, we don’t need you anymore” he was told – which is the ultimate accolade.
These stories illustrate how quickly things can derail – and how difficult it can be for those involved to get things back on a positive track themselves. But they also show that, as Irvine noted, from conflict and differences can come new thinking and innovation. Warren Bennis, often cited as the ‘father of leadership’ and author of the authoritative book ‘On Becoming a Leader’, said in his 2002 HBR article “our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” This article was titled ‘Crucibles of Leadership’ and it is notable that crucibles are of no purpose until they are held to the flame.
What leaders need to deal with these issues is the ability to distance themselves from where the conflicting gear-wheels are interlocking, and gain a broader perspective of the whole organizational engine. Part of the problem with being too closely involved with the conflict itself is that your perception of what has occurred can be wildly different from that of your opposite number’s. And as with so much in dealing with behaviour related issues, there is good neuroscience to explain why this may be.
John J Medina, a molecular research scientist and professor of bioengineering and author of Brain Rules, has commented that our memory is not interested in reality, but recasts our perceptions to enhance our survival chances. “Brain research is pretty clear on this point. Bona fide recorded memory is a very rare thing on this planet. The reason is that the brain isn’t interested in reality; it’s interested in survival. So it will change the perception of reality to stay in the survival mode. Unfortunately, many people still believe that the brain is a lot like a recording device – that learning something is like pushing the ‘record’ button and remembering is simply pushing ‘playback’…. The fact is that the actual moment of learning – the moment of fixing a memory – is so complex that we have little understanding of what happens in our brains in those first fleeting seconds. Long-term memory is even worse. That’s because, much like cement, memory takes a long time to settle into its permanent form. While it’s busy hardening, human memory can very easily be modified, as traces of earlier memories leave their imprint upon it. All of which is to say that our understanding of reality is approximate at best.”
The message we need to take away from this is that what we think is crystal clear recollection can often be very skewed, and so indeed may other people’s. The truth will probably lie elsewhere altogether. On this basis there is often little point in fighting one’s corner to the last moment over perceived injustices and misdeeds. A much more effective approach is to seek out how the future outcome can be better shaped from the present circumstances in a collaborative way, rather than to correct the apparent wrongs of the past.
When a fire gets larger than is desired there will be scorch marks and charred edges; these cannot be undone, but overtime they can probably be repaired. The clever approach that Irvine and Rainbird help people to master, is to see what can be achieved with what you still have – and often an opportunity will appear to fashion something phoenix-like that is innovative and better from it.