How do you manage conflict? Are you improving your relationships with your directs? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Charalambos Vlachoutsicos
What do you do when the other person simply won’t budge from an entrenched position in which they have a great deal of personal and professional commitment? How do you bridge the gap between your position and his?
Most people try to win the other person over to their point of view by argument. The trouble is, in many cases they don’t have all the facts to fully understand why the other person doesn’t agree. What’s more, the gap may be down to differences in values or cultures that are not particularly amenable to reasoned arguments. Whatever the source of the differences or gaps, when you can’t win by reason, you start to get angry at what you see is the other person’s lack of it, which gets mirrored, and so the gap only gets wider.
The key to avoiding this dynamic is to stop trying to get the person to change and instead get them to open up. The information you get may well encourage you to moderate your own position and thus open the way for a mutually advantageous cooperation. Make them understand your constraints and get them to see what they have to gain by what you propose.
Of course, sometimes, no amount of understanding is going to get the other person to budge and you’re going to have to force progress. At this point, you have to work to bridge the gap in such a way that their main concerns are accommodated so that you can communicate and cooperate productively in spite of and within the limits of your differences. Typically, this involves talking responsibility for the action you wish to make while being prepared to share the payoff and the credit.
Once the gap is actually bridged and you move forward you will pretty soon see that your interactions generate change. Through the give and take of communication, all sides come to feel that at least some of the differences between them are actually smaller and easier to live with than they appeared to begin with.
I built perhaps my first managerial bridge when, fresh out of HBS, I joined our family’s business. Immediately on joining I realized that our warehouse constantly remained out-of-stock of at least five of the thirty-odd products our company carried. This not only caused a loss of sales of the items missing but also had negative repercussions on the sales of all of our products because it drove many customers into our competitors’ arms.
I went to our warehouse and met with the manager who was a very loyal, trustworthy person who had worked with us for many years. He was about 60 years old, knew all our clients personally and had a wide network of potential clients in the market. I asked him why he believed we faced this problem.
He answered that it was because our suppliers took a long time to deliver our orders and, given the global nature of our supply chain, there was nothing we could do about it. I talked to him a little about the notion of forecasting what amount of each product we would need to carry as minimum stock, in order to cover our sales during the time required between the date of placing our order and the date it would reach us.
His reaction was fierce: “If you want predictions go to the Oracle of Delphi,” he told me. “In Greece we do not know what will happen from one day to the next, so we cannot make predictions of how much of each product we will sell.” He would not budge.
Faced with this attitude, I stopped trying to get him to change. Instead, I asked for a worker, some red paint, a brush, and a wooden ladder. I obtained from the accountant the average monthly sales of each product, added a security margin of 20%, converted this quantity to the volume of space required for each product, and drew on the wall a thick red line at the point where the pile would probably be enough to cover sales of the product until our next order arrived.
I assured the manager that I respected his view that predictions in Greece were risky and — this was critical — assured him that the head office would take responsibility for whatever risks were entailed by my attempts to forecast “All you have to do is, whenever you see a red line appearing on the wall behind the stack of any product, is inform me”. Finally, I promised him a bonus for each day our warehouse carried stocks of all our products.
The immediate impact, of course, was fewer stock-outs. But the longer-term and more important benefit from the improvement was that the warehouse manager and I started talking more. He took to visiting me at my Athens office and to ask my opinion on other problems our Piraeus shop faced and to make useful suggestions on how best to address them. Thanks to my action in bridging I had been able to move from talking to the manager to talking with the manager.