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Managing Conflict in Organisations: Part 2

Michael O’Neill is a Biotech entrepreneur, currently R&D Director of his own company Inflection Biosciences. He is also a chartered psychologist and has worked as a consultant and technical and organisational issues in the biosciences industry for many years. He is co-editor of the book “A Biotech Manager’s Handbook”, which is a practical guide to some key areas of managing bioscience companies.

In a follow up from Part One: Managing Conflict in Organisations. Have you enough of the right kind? – he offers some thoughts on how leaders should deal with conflict in their companies.

Conflict if not dealt with, can cause serious damage to an organisation. A huge amount of energy can go into internal conflicts, petty disputes and personal battles. Good managers spot conflicts as or even before they arise and deal with them as effectively and efficiently as if they were dealing with fires in the building.

Individuals differ in their response to conflicts depending on the degree of assertiveness and cooperativity. A highly assertive person with low cooperativity will simply impose a solution. This “banging heads together” authoritarian style is favoured by a commanding leader. The short-term effect is that it can work if the manager is strong enough but in the longer term it only drives problems underground to resurface (more vigorously) later on. Unless the sources of conflict are dealt with, the conflict does not go away and in fact, it festers.

The opposite extreme is the style which is low in assertiveness and low in cooperativity, in other words, the conflict is simply avoided. The manager simply hides and hopes the issue goes away. While avoiding any immediate conflict, this sows the seeds of greater conflict in the future.

The style which involves high cooperation and low assertiveness can be designated as an accommodating or appeasing approach. This is essentially resolving a conflict by giving in to the demands of others while failing to defend one’s own interests. Again, it might work for a while, but the problem will always come back as the demands increase.

The best way to approach conflict is, therefore, to employ techniques that involve high assertiveness with high cooperation. The question that needs to be asked is “How can we work together to sort this out?” We might have to work our way back through a lot of issues around hurt feelings, injured pride and so on but these are relatively easily dealt with. The main point is to retreat from entrenched positions and look for areas of common interest. Changing the time frame so that people are not locked into the current conflict but have to think about how they will work together at some point in the future is a good way of achieving this.

One of the simplest ways of dealing with conflict, either between individuals or groups within the organisation is to work on the Principle of Charity. This is an idea that comes from critical thinking that allows arguments to flow and both parties to work towards understanding and a solution. It can be stated in a number of ways but essentially it asks all parties to make a simple assumption that the other person might be making sense and that it is us who has failed to understand it.

This misunderstanding can be based on a different use of language, insufficient information or embedded ideas that might need to be challenged or even overturned. One version of the principle is this maxim of translation: “Assertions startlingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of languages.” (W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object)

The principle of charity involves each person suspending judgement on any new idea or data even if their initial reaction is to strongly disagree. It means sometimes having to live with the ambiguity of seeing data that might clash strongly with a particular view or theory. The premise is to allow all parties to explore the new or paradoxical data fully and work to a common understanding rather than simply dismissing it.

One of the corollaries of this assumption of charity is that we can assume that we are more likely to have misunderstood or even misheard something than that the other person is foolish, wrong or even an idiot. It can also spare our blushes if we do tend to charge in and dismiss things that later turn out to be true or useful if we have only partly understood or heard what was being proposed. Another corollary is that people have the right and indeed duty to challenge data and even more importantly challenge the interpretation. The simple question “is there another way of looking at this?” might move the debate in a healthier direction.

This simple strategy can eliminate a lot of needless conflicts simply by making the not unreasonable assumption that the person we are dealing with is working from different premises that we need to understand before we criticise them or their work.

As a leader the aim when dealing with conflict should be to get people to listen to each other’s concerns but also to get them to discuss their expectation and disappointments without descending into abuse. It often turns out that both sides have a strong argument. Getting the groups to focus on the problem as a common issue, not as the fault of one or other group can heal the rift.

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