Monday, 27 August 2012

Making Conflicts@work, Work!

Making Conflicts@work, Work!

An L&D leader at workplace once asked about various ‘real issues’ that instigate or cause conflicts. This was to add a more practical and real-flavor to an impending ‘Conflict Management’ workshop that he was planning to conduct.
As I sat down to pen my thoughts, I scanned through all the prior experiences where I was either directly involved or witness to conflicts. Conflicts both of the simmering, brewing types and of the warfront types. Conflicts both of the ‘natural and obvious’ category and those that were implanted for vicious reasons.  
Conflicts. What made them happen? Could they have been avoided? Some conflicts that left us wounded and bruised. Or was I actually glad about some other conflicts (that they happened)? Conflicts were we fought, debated, deliberated and disagreed but ended up wiser.  
Allow me to walk you through some common conflicts in most dynamic organizations. Definitely not an exhaustive list for sure. However, definitely a list for us to brood over, introspect and be aware about. You never know, one of these conflicts could be lurking round a corner. One of these might actually be operating at a ‘latent’ level around you.
·         The conflict between a manager and his team, when the manager insists on delivering the project on a particular date, and the team believes that it’s too tight a deadline.
·         It could also be about the scope of a project. The manager feels that the team should definitely work on information areas A, B and also C and D (to delight the client). The team however disagrees and believes that it’s an overkill. “When all that the client wants is information area A and B, why are we even bothered about looking at C and D?”


·         Indiscipline happens to be the most common cause of conflict on the floors. A star performer thinks that till the time he is meeting and exceeding his targets, he can get away with anything. He may often feel that being on the calls (on the floor) shouldn’t be a big deal, stepping out for a couple of hours should be fine, tailgating is over-rated, etc. “Am I not meeting my targets? So why all this fuss?” 

·         Promotions, shifts/transfers to a different team, secondment or even the possibility of getting preferential shift timings or PLs are common causes of intra-team rivalry.
Objectives/ Appraisals:
·         Conflict between manager and Direct report on assessment against objectives and more commonly against readiness for promotion.
·         Conflict within a manger when he or she is expected to implement decisions, policies and procedures that he or she hasn’t bought into.
·         And perhaps a corollary of the above point i.e. Conflict within a manager who feels he isn’t allowed enough leeway to implement things he is very passionate about.
Personality Types:
·         An introvert team member may feel that he is constantly getting sidelined by an aggressive and outspoken colleague – in terms of stakeholder visibility, access to more high-level projects or even better ratings.
·         Aggressive, highly directive managers/leaders bring about an air of autocracy. They want everyone to follow their instructions to the T. They would want their teams to be exactly like them – in thought, in intelligence, in beliefs, in creativity, in action.  They aren’t open to suggestions or an alternative approach (unless it is directed and enforced by the client himself). They end up creating an environment of suffocation and resentment. A breeding ground for conflicts.
·         A weak leadership that leaves too many gaps and holes, doesn’t lays down precise vision, mission, milestones and success criteria is another sign of emerging conflicts. The team isn’t well informed and there is a general lack of transparency. It could be both on a project/client front and also about internal organizational developments. This could pave way for assumptions, ambiguities, grapevine and eventually a state of chaos with too many erratic, contradictory decisions leading to conflicts.
·         Our often subconscious beliefs in stereotypes are another major factor. Stereotyping people based on their race, religion, nationality, gender or at times even cities (the most popular one being the perennial Delhi-Mumbai debate) can often lead to major conflicts.
·         On a similar line, being insensitive about issues like religion, politics, prior work experience, age, marital status and physical appearance is the most needless way of getting into conflicts. What’s humor to one may not be appreciated by others. The best approach, ofcourse is to be straight and empathetic, and avoid any kind of dry, dark or below-the-belt humor.  

Lack of clarity/communication about the precise goals:

·         An example of inter-team conflict could be the one between Operations and HR. The Ops may continue to feel that the recruitment team is not as passionate or quality-conscious (in their screening) and keeps sending them bad candidates. On the other hand, the HR could strongly feel that the Ops are being too ‘closed-out’ in not offering them enough rationale for rejecting good candidates. They may even feel that the JDs are too vaguely structured, too unrealistic or the process tests are too stringent.
·         Another most common grudge is the lack of passion, urgency, commitment, response and action accorded to most support processes like IT, Finance, HR and Admin. It once again boils down to empathy, communication and setting processes and best practices. What’s priority to an Ops team may infact be just perceived as a BAU by the IT.  And if everything is escalated as a priority, how is IT expected to rank relative priorities?  

·         Most conflicts may remain subtle, on a slow-flame for long periods. However, Escalations have a tendency to fuel-up most of these conflicts. The blame-game brings out the minutest of conflicts between the client and the delivery teams. Scoping, resourcing, assumptions, transitions - all aspects come to the fore. Within the delivery, it’s then a fight amidst the transition team, the project manager, the resources, the quality assurance and at times, even the vendors.  

As indicated earlier, this is just a laundry list of possible conflicts brewing around us. Run through the list once again. It’s ironical that most of the frameworks that were introduced to increase employee engagement are the most common causes of conflicts – SMART objectives, appraisals, feedback, rewards & recognitions, promotions, hikes. Perhaps that’s human behavior at its truest. People don’t really like the idea of being filtered, screened, and segregated or being pitched against each other. Even the most rationale folks find it difficult to accept the most logical defeats.
Despite our gradual evolution and acceptance of the Darwin’s principle of ‘Survival of the fittest’, it’s difficult to accept, when it works against us. But then, we don’t we see the athletes in a race track coming to blows after a race? The losers simply step aside and let the winners bask in glory. Why then in the corporate world, isn’t this Darwin principle taken as it comes?
Simple – because the athletes know their goal post and have no one else to blame. Things aren’t as clear and Black & White in the corporate. The people in the corporate world would be much more receptive, if they were conveyed their shortcomings in as many words. If their goals were set as objectively as possible. If they were constantly shown their progress dashboard rather than an end of the year report card. If they were coached and asked to buck up, rather than be coldly informed about their pace at the end of the race. In our quest to be good, nice, humane and popular – most managers shy away from conveying the tough message. And that, I believe is the single largest reason for ongoing conflicts in organizations. Not the presence of competitive performance and progress evaluation mechanisms, but rather our inability to use them effectively as enablers rather than water-tight structures.
A Conflict, just like some other complex words like Competition, Bureaucracy and Reservation, is often associated with negativity.  But think again, and most of these concepts, are the cornerstone of a fair, equal and efficient society. The now despised Bureaucracy is the foundation stone for the now progressive sounding Meritocracy. Wasn’t Reservation all about ‘Equal Opportunity’ at its outset? A society, organization or ecosystem sans any conflict, competition, bureaucracy or reservation is nothing more than a stagnant pond. Dead wood!
Most of these concepts, shouldn’t be killed or uprooted, but rather be nurtured carefully. Conflicts need to be approached based on the importance of issue & relationship at stake and resolved (or nurtured) accordingly. Rather than shun Conflicts, let’s take them head-on. Let’s pre-empt them, encourage them and create a fearless culture of creative conflicts. A culture with no dummies, sycophants and yes-men. But rather an innovative culture that breeds conflicts. Where everyone has a unifying goal, but do not think alike! 

As it goes in a popular commercial, just like ‘Daag’, Conflicts Achche hain!



  1. An awesome post,I must say. The way you have analysed the Conflicts is commendable.

    A must read for all the managers and the associates working under him..!!!

    I truly believe that Conflicts aache hote hai, if one has the ability to resolve it with paitence, diplomacy and with little care, not to hurt others self-esteem:)

  2. Glad you liked it Gayatri! Looking forward to more creative conflicts in the team! If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking :-)

  3. Good post! Strongly agree with the last stanza which presumably carries the gist of the topic! I believe diverse opinions leading to creative conflicts within teams are also helpful to develop thought leaders for the future!
    Rakesh Nair