Conflict: is it always better to avoid it?
For much of my life in leadership positions, I avoided it. I only saw the potential negative outcomes of tackling difficult issues in a direct way. I perceived giving honest (negative) feedback as criticism and felt it would always worsen the relationship. I never in my wildest dreams saw conflict as a force for good. Besides, I had an approach that generally worked a treat when dealing with issues, which was to work around the issue, rather than tackle it head on; it was a strategy of appeasement.
The sticking plaster method
Did it really work a treat? On reflection, it probably just kicked the can down the road or put a sticking plaster on the issue rather than resolving it.
You see, my personal experience of feedback was that it was generally delivered in a critical and confrontational manner, which I resented. I formed a belief that it is much more effective to appeal to people’s better natures. This was a conflict within me that I struggled to come to terms with. There were times when my inner critic was telling me I needed to challenge the situation rather than skirt around. I now think my appeasement approach meant that a lot of the time I was neither meeting my own needs nor the needs of the situation.
In today’s ultra-competitive world, my preferred approach would have even more challenging outcomes than befell the companies I was then involved with. While today we are moving towards solving more issues through dialogue than confrontation, there are situations where we simply have to deliver difficult feedback that the recipient(s) may not like. My dilemma as a manager would have been how to do this in a way that would motivate rather that add fuel to the fire. I am still learning and don’t always get it right. I learned a lesson on this at a recent forum, which I’d like to share with you.
The ‘bad apples’
A business owner recounted how certain employees believed the owners were profiting by claiming the Covid-19 wage subsidy from the Government and not passing it on to them. This perceived injustice amplified a sense of resentment that had been held for some time by a very small group – one might characterise them as the ‘bad apples’. As a result of this belief, their work rate slowed even further. While management knew that the behaviour of these few individuals had always negatively affected the performance of employees around them, the issue was never was given the attention it needed as the company had other bigger strategic goals to pursue.
Neither was it a priority during the initial lockdown – there were many other fires to put out – and it was only until after the return to work that it came into sharp relief. The company now needed to rapidly improve performance to get back to break even and then start making some margin again. There was no avoiding it. The business owner would have to address the issue.
Getting the message across
Here is how she handled it:
1. Gathering all the staff together, she addressed the concerns of the disgruntled employees and explained that the business needed the subsidy to stay open and be able to pay them
2. She outlined the effect the lack of motivation of the small cohort was having on the company’s chances of survival. She didn’t name anyone but let it be known that she knew where it was coming from
3. As well as delivering the message that the negativity had to stop for existential reasons, she embarked on an initiative involving all employees to improve general working conditions through small investments in painting and cleaning up workspaces
4. She also adopted a lean approach involving employees implementing ideas to improve productivity and create a more enjoyable and efficient workplace.
Benefits of adopting a balanced approach
Since then, the atmosphere in the workplace and general mood of the employees have vastly improved. Productivity is back to pre-lock down levels despite higher absenteeism due to some employees having to self-isolate after coming in contact with infected members of their communities.
The frustration of the ‘good apples’
In the course of dealing with the issue, the owner had discovered that the better performing employees wanted the others challenged for their negative attitude towards the company. Many of them felt the feedback was long overdue and their overall positive reaction may have as much to do with the leader grasping this particular nettle as it has with their greater involvement in the improvement process.
Not an either/or solution
The business owner said the whole thing taught her the benefits of not adopting an either/or solution. She accepts that there are times when you have to address difficult issues but that these kinds of messages can be accompanied by initiatives to involve the whole team in coming up with their own solutions and then given the resources, freedom and authority to get on with the job. It’s about achieving a balance of carrot and stick.
She was happy to report that the particular employees who were the source of the discontent are now performing much better as she has worked hard to include them in the overall employee-led improvement process.
She was quick to add that she understands this is a journey and that further investment of her time and energy is required until it becomes a more permanent culture change. She was excited that her role is evolving more to facilitate the conditions for others to grow as leaders rather than trying to keep the infantry in line through confrontation or appeasement.
I believe the cider she produces from that barrel of apples will yet be a good vintage.