Remember what your parents would tell you when you were a kid and had a fight with a friend? “Stop fighting! It’s not nice to fight!” Later, when you had your first important relationship, you found yourself regretting that you and your partner spent much of the time in silly fights.
And now, in a management position in an important company, it seems the situation hasn’t changed much. You still spend much of your time fighting or dealing with other people’s fights. In fact, most managers spend a significant amount of time dealing with conflicts, either as direct participants or as mediators in conflicts among their subordinates.
How much time? According to Edmundo Munguía, a management change consultant for Gedas North America, the large German IT firm, studies in the United States show that managers devote approximately 60% of their time dealing with internal conflicts! No wonder productivity is an on-going issue – one wonders when any real work gets done. Conflicts, of course, are not necessarily a waste of time. In some cases, conflicts can be constructive, and can lead to new and better ways of doing things. The problem, according to Munguía, is that many conflicts represent a waste of time and energy.
“The impact on the organization is huge,” says Munguía. “In addition to the waste of time, one of the visible effects is that good people can leave because they are looking for a place that, in addition to giving them a decent salary, offers them an environment in which they can be productive. Simply stated, conflict generates an important loss of intellectual resources.”
Intervention – usually by way of a conflict-management expert – requires members of the organization to first distinguish between necessary and unnecessary conflicts. Then a system is employed that enables the employees involved in conflicts to learn how to listen and communicate in ways that allow for serious negotiation-basically, a system like that starts with empathy. The employee learns to develop skills to be able to say: “What does the other person need to hear from me in order to be willing to enter into a fruitful negotiation?”
Conflict is caused by a number of reasons, but a typical situation that leads to conflict is when a person does not understand or fit into the existing organizational culture.
“It’s important for individuals to see that the goals of the organization are in sync with their own,” says Munguía. “Furthermore, it is also important for managers to understand that there is no single organizational culture. Each organizational subculture demands a different approach or philosophy.”
When managers act as mediators in a conflict, it is important that they empower the people involved to agree to a decision. “It is vital to listen carefully and to be neutral,” says Munguía.
Mediating consists of making sure that the conflicting parties base their negotiations with one another in terms of what is appropriate for the organization, above their own personal desires. To the extent that the employee identifies with the goals and philosophy of the organization, the easier it is for that employee to accept this approach to conflict resolution.
There are also international and cultural implications, as Munguía and many experts have observed. For example, in Mexico, managers often see empowerment as a threat and their approach to conflict resolution is to exercise their authority. “It’s an imposed resolution,” says Munguía, “and that rarely works in the long-term.”
In general, conflict resolution across cultures represents an even more complicated problem: in addition to lining up the organization with the individual, people have to learn the different cultural perspectives and what justifies conflict with another person. But that is a topic for another column.