We all know that individuals and groups within organizations often see things differently, have different perspectives or possess different information. Further, we know that these differences can be the source of tension, stress, and ineffective teamwork within the organization. So, it’s in the organization’s interest to stay abreast of and address these differences as much as possible. I’ve always wondered, though, why this process is called “conflict management.” After all, isn’t the thing we’re trying to “manage” actually agreement? Shouldn’t our approach be founded on a spirit of agreement management?
Lest you think I’m getting caught up in semantics, let me relate a story that I was a part of several years ago. A client’s plant experienced an increase of employee lost time because of back and leg strains. The plant manager sought to address this issue by developing an edict: No employee to lift or even plan to lift anything that weighed 55 pounds or more. The plant’s union leaders laughed at the new policy, telling the plant manager that it was unenforceable. Further, they told him that if he was obtuse enough to attempt to enforce it, they’d file grievance after grievance. The plant manager insisted that it was managements’ prerogative to establish such employee regulations and that employees found to be ignoring the edict would be disciplined. At that point, there was, indeed, lots of conflict to manage. But what if management hadn’t felt the need to resort to “policy” based on an assumption that employees would disagree with management’s goals to reduce worker injuries and would resist any behavior change unless consequences were brought to bear? What if, instead, management assumed that it and the union had common ground and just needed to … manage agreement?
In this case, management might have sat down with the union, presented the evidence of the increase in strained backs and legs, then asked, “How can we, together, reduce these employee injuries?” Had this been the approach chose by management, might the conflict have been avoided to begin with?
I’m sure readers can relate their own similar experiences. Organizations of all descriptions experience conflict, sometimes in large measure, simply because they don’t proactively seek to manage agreement.
So, how does an organization go about proactively “managing agreement”? First, it needs to identify those groups, teams, and functions that are likely to have different goals and objectives. Sales and production. Management and labor. Headquarters and the field. Then it needs to get the teams together to talk about the differences in their goals, as well as differences in their outlooks, perspectives, and information. Those groups and teams need to talk about those differences in terms of how they keep the organization as a whole from effectively carrying out its strategy. Finally, the groups would benefit from brainstorming options for achieving their own goals while helping enable others to achieve theirs.
It may sound a bit “warm and fuzzy” and it’s definitely not easy to carry out. It takes patience and very good listening and team skills. But the results are worth it. After the “strained backs edict” brouhaha, the plant manager (with some good coaching) and the union got better at managing agreement. Several months later, the plant manager brought up the issue of grievances that were leading to payments to employees who were passed over when overtime was being distributed. In the past, this issue would have certainly led to both parties digging in their heels. In this case, though, they kept talking. The discussions weren’t easy or short, but they resulted in an approach for distributing overtime that was consistent with the contract, reduced grievances, and reduced payouts for misadministration of overtime.
The secret is to manage agreement early rather than waiting to manage conflict later.
Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.