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Traditional Management Will Always Be Bad at Conflict

A year ago I made the point that dealing well with conflict is integral to becoming a social business. And I suppose many of you out there would agree with my argument, but I’m also guessing that despite that agreement, you still work in organizations that are generally pretty bad at dealing with conflict. Conflict is one of those ideas that we’re good at dealing with when it’s just that: an idea. But in reality? Not so much.

This may become our achilles heel in organizations. We’ll develop the right strategies, will set up the right social tools, we’ll engage our customers, and we’ll develop a kick-ass set of company values, but in the end we won’t see that promised increase in productivity or effectiveness. Why? Because the senior team members never actually resolved their underlying differences about the strategic direction before they wrote it down in the plan. And our departments never actually act on customer feedback because they feel the problems identified are some other department’s fault. And frankly, when anyone internally acts in ways that contradict our values, we rarely confront them, at least not directly. Because we cannot deal well with conflict, we are missing out on the benefits of social business.


Why? Because the traditional approach to management only understands conflict as a bad thing. In machines, conflict is bad. Machines that “run smoothly” are free of conflict. When something breaks down, it is fixed. The conflict is removed. And obviously if something broke, then someone made a mistake, either in the design or the implementation of the machine. Conflict is bad. While there is nothing wrong with “running smoothly,” this negative view of conflict means we avoid it, particularly when the conflict is just developing. This is both ironic and frustrating, because early on is when it’s easy to resolve!

In my latest white paper, I talk about how you can turn this around in your organization. It requires better skills in conflict resolution, as well as making some changes to internal processes and structures. For example, have you ever considered how the basic reporting relationships in your structure can inhibit conflict resolution? By insisting that we keep organizational issues and challenges within the “chain of command,” we sometimes are inhibiting people from actually solving problems. Instead of dealing directly with that person in the other department who’s making my job harder, I have to bring the issue to their supervisor. This actually just makes things more messy, and it reinforces the very unhealthy behavior of avoiding direct conflict and complaining about it to someone else.

We need to re-think things like why our reporting relationships exist. Maybe supervisors need to take on a completely different role when it comes to internal conflict. We have to shake up management at its core of we’re going to turn the corner when it comes to dealing with things like conflict, and until we do, we’re going to struggle with social business.


(photo credit)

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