by Jeffrey Pfeffer
No matter how sound or well-intentioned your ideas, there will always be people inside — and outside — your organization who are going to oppose you. Getting things done often means that you’re going to go head to head with people who have competing agendas. In my career studying organizational behavior, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing some incredibly effective conflict management techniques. I’ve distilled a few of them into some rules for dealing with organizational conflict:
1. Stay focused on the most essential objectives.
It’s easy to become aggravated by other people’s actions and forget what you were trying to achieve in the first place. Here we can learn a lesson from Rudy Crew, a former leader in the New York City and Miami-Dade County schools.
When Crew was verbally attacked by Representative Rafael Arza, a Florida legislator, who used one of the nastiest racial slurs to describe Crew, an African-American, Crew filed a complaint with the legislature but then essentially went on with his work. As he told me at the time, a significant fraction of the Miami schoolchildren were not reading at grade level. Responding to every nasty comment could become a full time job but, more importantly, would do nothing to improve the school district’s performance. Arza was eventually expelled from the legislature. Crew’s takeway? Figure out: “what does winning look like?” If the conflict were over and you found that you had won, what would that look like? Which leads to the second rule…
2. Don’t fight over things that don’t matter.
For a while, Dr. Laura Esserman, a breast cancer surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and a leader of fundamental change in breast cancer treatment and research, was sponsoring a digital mammography van to serve poor women in San Francisco. The sponsorship was taking a lot of time and effort — she’d had trouble raising money for the service after the Komen Foundation had reneged on a pledge of support. Her department chair was worried about the department’s budget and why a department of surgery was running a radiology service. The hospital CFO was not interested in funding a mammography service that would generate unreimbursed care while the university was raising debt to build a new campus. And Esserman herself did not (and does not) believe that mammography was the way forward for improving breast cancer outcomes. After figuring out that sponsoring the mamo-van was absorbing disproportionate effort and creating unnecessary conflict with important people inside UCSF, Esserman offloaded the van. It smoothed the relationship with her boss and allowed her to focus on higher-leverage activities.
3. Build an empathetic understanding of others’ points of view.
As the previous example illustrates, sometimes people fight over personalities, but often they have a reason for being in conflict. It helps to understand what others’ objectives and measures are, which requires looking at the world through their eyes. Don’t presume evil or malevolent intent. For example, an ongoing struggle in the software industry has centered around when to release a product. Engineers often want to delay a product release in the pursuit of perfection, because the final product speaks to the quality of their work. Sales executives, on the other hand, are rewarded for generating revenue. It’s therefore in their best interest to sell first and fix second. Each is pursuing reasonable interests consistent with their rewards and professional training — not intentionally trying to be difficult.
4. Adhere to the old adage: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
The late President Lyndon Johnson had a difficult relationship with the always-dangerous (because he had secret files on everybody) FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. When asked why he spent time talking to Hoover and massaging his ego, Johnson was quoted as saying: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” This is tough advice to follow, because people naturally like pleasant interactions and seek to avoid discomfort. Consequently, we tend to shun those with whom we’re having disagreements. Bad idea. You cannot know what others are thinking or doing if you don’t engage with them.
5. Use humor to defuse difficult situations.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president of the United States, he was (at the time) the oldest person to have ever been a candidate for that office. During the October 21, 1984 Kansas City debate with the democratic candidate, Walter Mondale, one of the questioners asked Reagan if he thought age would be an issue in the upcoming election. His reply? “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Let’s face it: you’re going to have conflict in the workplace. It’s unavoidable. But if you keep these simple — albeit difficult to act on – rules in mind, you’ll learn to navigate conflict more productively.