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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-May-06


Friday 12-May-06

Conflict resolution and the guy at the top

I heard recently from a friend about two companies that are working together, but the relationship is under a lot of strain. Both are big players though the basic relationship is customer and supplier. A core perceived problem is around how the customer manages the supplier. The supplier feels 'micromanaged' whilst the customer's experience is such that they do not trust the supplier.

After a lot of acrimony, there was a big joint meeting to clear the air and move forward. Truths were told and better collaboration was exhorted. But something happened -- or maybe did not happen -- that makes me suspect that there will be no substantial change. The two senior managers involved stood on the stage together in a show of unity. And then they told the assembled teams in no uncertain terms: you have got to get on better.

What is wrong with this, one might reasonably ask. The senior managers are standing up together, demonstrating unity and commitment. The danger sign, however was in their distancing themselves from the problem.

It is easy to grit your teeth and stand next to an enemy -- politicians do it all the time. It is another to accept that you, yourself are a part of the problem, which the managers did not do. One in particular has a rather aggressive style and the behavior of his staff towards the other company is a direct reflection of this. When making your customer happy can bring down the full ire of the big boss, people learn quickly to keep customers at arm's length.

In saying 'It's your problem', the senior manager is sowing the seeds of failure. First, he is also saying 'It's not my problem', absolving himself of guilt. This allows him to not change. His people, seeing this, get a mixed message -- his display of unity is thus taken as false manipulation and, as in the way of these things, they will no doubt follow his lead.

My expectations are, sadly, that little will change. There will be lip-service and hope, but the aggressive senior manager will still require tight control and proactive customer support will be a vain hope for others. Perhaps there will be more smiles for a while, but the customer's trust has changed little and their desire for greater transparency will still be seen as micromanagement by the supplier.

When fundamental philosophies differ, conflict is inevitable. Resolution of such conflict requires fundamental changes in thinking, especially at the top of the organization. Without this, either conflict will continue or there will be irreconcilable breakdown.

Your comments

Looks like typical knee jerk reactions. And adding insult to injury, those corporate political cronies are getting paid lots of money to do that too.

Sort of reminds me of the days at high school when we were taught the value that racism was a bad thing. Somehow just saying that 'you cannot judge a person by the colour of their skin' was supposedly a way of proving that racism was bad and should not happen. Of course racism can never be a good thing. But the point was, its was hopelessly simplistic and superficial, and I think, irresponsible and ridiculous teaching. Its a complex issue, with a long history and persists in the present, in more subtle forms.

Fortunately for me and you, we can appreciate the enlightenment of life experience and observations like yours.

-- Colin

Dave replies:
Leadership is not easy as sometimes you are can be trapped in a double-bind. Sadly, I was proven right and little changed in practice. The senior manager's reputation survived, but the relationship didn't.

The point that "the guy at the top" has to recognize and deal with their part of the problem is a basic principle of change in the practice of family systems theory. The pioneering psychiatrist Murray Bowen, MD wrote about applying this principle in administrative systems in a 1972 paper "Toward the Differentiation of Self in Administrative Systems (1972) which is published in his book of collected papers, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. In that paper Bowen writes about managing the original NIH research that involved housing whole families with schizophrenic members in the hospital to do family research. You can imagine the complications between families and patients, families and hospital staff, hospital staff and medical professionals, hospital administrations and the research project. Bowen spells out the principle that if that if there was a problem in any of the above, it reflected a problem in him as head of the project and that is where he went to work. (see www.programs in and links therein, especially

-- Laura Havstad, Ph.D.

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