Posts Tagged ‘conflict management’

We seem to live in an era when words are more like bullets—a way to injure and defeat others, to get one’s own way—than a way to communicate in a genuine manner, seeking understanding, insight, and mutual respect.

As I write this, the Paris climate summit is underway. We have just about all the countries in the world represented and we’re told this is the “last chance” to “save the planet.” Last chance. Really? Save the planet? I would think the planet doesn’t need us to “save” it. But, like the gospel inspired song said of That Lucky Old Sun, the earth will surely go on rolling around heaven all day. We may be in danger of disrupting our habitat or of damaging it beyond repair (that remains to be seen), such that we, as a species might be endangered. However, a cursory review of earth’s evolution over geological eons will show that it’s been through much worse before and life has gone on.

The zeal with which enviro-enthusiasts (or should I say fascists?) are claiming that it’s our last chance to keep the planet’s temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees is more religious than scientific. The same can be said of the attempts to claim a scientific consensus, as if scientists all agree with everything that’s claimed about environmentalists.

There may be a scientific consensus about the law of gravity, or evolution through natural selection, because the empirical evidence is overwhelming in favour of those theories. I doubt there is even close to the same level of agreement within the climatological community, which is really the only one that counts scientifically. And yet we keep hearing that 95 % of scientists, or whatever the figure is, believe that global warming is a reality. That may be the case, but being a scientist doesn’t automatically qualify someone to judge the validity of scientific theories outside their field of expertise. Just talk to medical doctors with different specialties to see how divergent the knowledge, skills, and judgment are on any particular illness or condition to realize how important these specialized competencies are to coming to a proper diagnosis and prognosis, much less the best treatment plan.

I’m not necessarily a skeptic about climate change and human-caused warming. However, there has been too much environmental change over the eons on earth to claim any kind of stasis in the matter. After all, what caused the end of the most recent ice age 10 or 12 thousand years ago? Perhaps the woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were expelling too much methane as they chewed their cud. And what caused the planet to plunge into a deep freeze 130 thousand years ago when the current ice age started?

On the other hand, I am a skeptic when it comes to claims that “the science is settled.” Moreover, I find the current climate (pun intended) against questioning this so called common sense consensus to be a dangerous trend. It’s also very convenient for those with a statist centralizing agenda who wish to restrain economic growth and capitalism, because they claim they are the cause of global warming, at least indirectly. How convenient that there be a such an apocalyptic menace for our collective well-being. Nothing less than total war is needed to combat impending doom. And in war, all manner of propaganda and control mechanisms are warranted to defeat the common enemy. Many of the poorest countries in the world are already clamoring for a transfer of wealth from the wealthy countries to pay for African wind farms and human scale solar power units. After all, nothing should be excluded in order to “save the planet,” because this is our “last best chance.” Once again, I’m not arguing against such a wealth transfer (although there are good arguments against one). But I don’t think that haranguing people into feeling guilty is the correct way to go about it.

The use of language as a weapon and words as bullets is just as pernicious in other areas. Activists—or should I say bullies—at the University of Ottawa have gotten management to discontinue free yoga lessons for handicapped people on the grounds that yoga is “cultural appropriation.” In other words, they claim that you can’t use any idea or activity that comes from another culture if that culture was at one time subjugated by another. Presumably, the reference is to British imperialism in India. Is it okay to have Indian cuisine, or Chinese food? Can we Zumba, or do the limbo? After all, they come from Latin America and the Caribbean, originally all slave societies.

Just to be egalitarian, I don’t think war mongers come off any better. The Islamist inspired attacks in Paris, the Middle East and anywhere else are horrible and the Jihadist threat must be met militarily and politically with appropriate means and strategy. But I don’t think we’re in a “war on terror” any more than we’re engaged in wars on inequality, cultural appropriation, climate change, or global capitalism.

Language and words should help us understand and think better, not separate us into sloganeering tribes with faith-based creeds and intolerant beliefs. After all, words aren’t bullets.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Since the IS-perpetrated terrorist strikes in Paris there has been surge of “advice” and debate on the best strategy to adopt against the Islamic State in the Middle East. The problem is that most of the discussion confuses tactics with strategy and then presents these as mutual exclusive. Air strikes are not effective. No, air strikes are the way to go. No, we need to put boots on the ground. Actually, no. We need to concentrate on humanitarian action.

In reality, all of those approaches are needed in order to create dilemmas for IS and its operatives. You have to take the fight to the enemy by seizing and maintaining the initiative. Air power must be combined with ground forces in order to achieve maximum synergy and effect on the battlefield. You can knock out a command post, but that only creates a delay and temporary confusion. You can buy a bit of time, but it’s all much more effective when you can hit a command post and use the ensuing confusion to launch a ground assault. Moreover, you have to realize that a command post is a physical entity, but a headquarters with its commander and staff are a team. Command, control and communications (C3) can be degraded, but it is much harder to eliminate them entirely, especially if the enemy has a very decentralized structure with competing factions.

Here is a non-exhaustive listing of other thrusts in the strategy:

  • Economic warfare to disrupt the enemy “home front” such as it is,
  • Financial warfare to disrupt and interrupt the flow of funds, because gold is the sinews of war,
  • Humanitarian aid to support the non-belligerent population and refugees,
  • Psychological warfare against foreign and home-grown terrorist threats,
  • Information warfare to degrade the enemy’s psychological and media warfare capabilities and build up domestic and foreign support to fight IS, and
  • Numerous other aspects of combat, kinetic and non-kinetic.

The basic point here is that you need a strategy that attacks and “pinches off” IS wherever it tries to operate. IS combatants in a theatre of war must be treated as prisoners of war, while those who have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity must be treated as such. IS and allied terrorists operating in other nations must be treated as criminals.

Another critical point is to realize that there is no such thing as a “war on terrorism.” You can fight an identified enemy, opponent or belligerent group. You can’t fight a tactic, much less a vague concept.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

There is nothing wrong with conflict within a team. It only becomes a problem when it gets out of hand and prevents decisions on important matters or undermines performance. In addition, lack of conflict can be just as much of problem as too much conflict. It can be a sign of group think or unquestioning obedience to authority.

In fact, conflict is a sign of healthy disagreement and debate about important issues. If managed properly, through respectful dialogue and exchange, then it can lead to higher quality outcomes.

There are four basic types of conflict, and I’ve listed them below in growing order of criticality and difficulty of resolution:

  • Conflict about inputs, priorities, and resources
  • Conflict about courses of action and options to achieve an aim
  • Conflict about objectives and aim
  • Conflict about fundamental values

As long as internal conflicts are limited to the first two and are resolved by clear decisions and communications–which is ultimately a leader’s responsibility–then they are very manageable. Conflicts about aims and objectives are harder to resolve and may require difficult decisions and resentments. The final form of conflict is usually impossible to resolve without one or more parties to the dispute leaving the organization.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned “personality conflict.” In my opinion, this is really nothing more than disagreements about fundamental values.

I’m never too busy to discuss your needs or those of anyone else you feel may benefit from meeting or talking to me. So feel free to contact me at any time!

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it can sap the energy and resolve of managers, entrepreneurs, and employees, undermining morale and effectiveness in the process. But, it can also invigorate a discussion, create healthy rivalry, expose problems for resolution, and stimulate the creative juices of stakeholders to come up with innovative solutions. The key is to manage conflict, rather than trying to avoid it.

Here is what happens when you try to avoid conflict. It goes underground. It generates seething resentment and unhealthy rivalries. Bystanders feel they have to take sides or risk being left in the cold on important decisions. It’s much better to keep the issues likely to lead to conflict near the surface, or to uncover them if they are in danger of sinking into the morass.

There is no point in avoiding conflict. Any time two or more people get together with a goal of achieving something of significance, there are bound to be disagreements as to what the goal is, why it is important, and the best means of achieving it. Therefore conflict can exist at three levels: values (the why), goals (the what), and means (the how).

Some of my work with clients involves the identification and analysis of issues that, if managed incorrectly or left unattended, can easily descend into unhealthy conflict. I also face actual and potential conflicts in my own life. Sometimes this involves other people, but it can also be internal, where there is misalignment between my values, goals, and approaches. When you’re working to resolve, reduce, or, in a more positive sense, canalize conflicts toward productive ends, the first step is to identify the stakeholders in the disagreement. Who are the direct parties to the conflict? Are there others who can be affected indirectly? To what extent?

The second step is to determine if it is a conflict about values, goals, or means. If the conflict is about values, it may not be possible to reconcile the parties. If it’s about goals, there is a better chance of achieving consensus. This usually involves a question of priorities, because there are never enough resources and time to achieve all the goals at once. Sometimes it is better to sequence them in time, or to allocate resources that are commensurate with the importance or criticality of the goal. If there is agreement about values and goals, then the only other substantive source of conflict is disagreement about means to achieve the goals.

We often hear talk of “personality conflicts,” where two people supposedly have so much antipathy to each other that they can’t possibly work together to resolve their differences. While I agree that personality incompatibilities do exist, in most cases, these are symptomatic of deeper conflicts that come from a misalignment of values, goals, and means. In other words, “personality conflicts” are usually an effect of substantive conflicts, not a cause.

When I’m working with others to help them resolve or manage conflicts, I always start by asking each party what their respective goals are, or what outcome they would consider in their best interest. What is it that they are seeking? If the conflict is very heated, it may be necessary to ask each party separately. If possible, though, it is better to do this in each other’s presence. The basic rule is that they have to listen to each other without interrupting. In practice, there can be a lot of emotion involved, and sometimes there is a need to express themselves and give their perspective on the other party’s position. This is okay, as long as they are giving concrete facts and examples, and not trying to impute motives to the other party. The key advantage of focusing on goals and outcomes is that it operationalizes the conflict. It shows everybody involved that it is about achieving something, much more than it is about who somebody supposedly is, or why he or she is supposedly acting in a certain way. In other words, goals are tangible and can be achieved. Conversely, trying to change someone else’s personality is always doomed to fail. Once the starting positions are known, we can start to work toward a resolution. In many if not most cases I find that there is more common ground than the parties are initially willing to concede. I often find that they are saying nearly the same thing, but using different terminology or giving differing weight to factors and criteria.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that people hold their beliefs for reasons that they think are valid. There is no point in denigrating someone else’s values or goals or approaches to a problem, because they will always look slightly less rational than one’s own particular mix. The solution is to take the parties’ statements at face value and seek common ground. Sometimes the residual areas of disagreement are insurmountable, and the best solution is temporary or permanent separation. In practice, though, the residual disagreements can usually be parked for the time being while the main conflict is worked out, or mechanisms can be put in place to compensate for the remaining issues or minimize them in the bigger scheme of things.

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2011. We encourage the sharing of this information with attribution. All other rights reserved.