Steven's Blog


Institutionalize Confrontation

If you want to improve collaboration in your business, it should not be done by encouraging harmonious interaction. Rather, you must institutionalize confrontation.

No healthy organization is ever in harmony; it is constructive disharmony that is the ideal state. Natural tension always exists between individuals and groups in any organizations, and there is no resolution of conflict without confrontation.

Sales want hit products from R&D whereas R&D want freedom to pursue innovation, whether marketable or not. Lawyers often seek to eliminate all legal risk often at the expense of agility and speed while business managers want agility to seize opportunities. Manufacturing want predictability and consistency while sales and marketing want flexibility and speed for customers and markets. Conflicts always arise.

Unresolved conflicts only aggravate problems, generate resentment and mistrust of colleagues, and ultimately emerge as crises. In organizations with limited or no acceptable means of confrontation, silos emerge, problem solving becomes an exercise in assignment of blame, and strategic business objectives are compromised.

Conflicts between departments despite being eminently resolvable by their managers end up escalating, often landing on the desk of the CEO. One CEO told me adjudicating such disputes was taking a significant portion of his time that would be much better spent on leading and growing the business, to say nothing of lost value and effectiveness arising from collaboration. A company where confrontation is avoided is a company that underperforms, even if still profitable and successful.

Confrontation can be awkward and painful for some, but need not be when confrontation is institutionalized as a shared tool for improving business results. In the companies of my most successful clients, managers never allow conflicts to stand, and resolve conflicts via some agreed mechanism. In one of my client companies, managers routinely convene cross-functional resolution sessions according to a common framework based on agreed principles of conduct and a process.

So what are some of the agreed principles of conduct and processes of institutionalized confrontation? Below are six of the most common and their rationale.

  1. If you have a conflict with another department, you have to confront the manager of that department, even if you think the conflict is unresolvable. Most people don’t like confrontation. In Japan, avoiding conflict is considered a social grace. At the same time, I have found Japanese people in general to have a more acute sense of individual responsibility and obligation than people in other countries. The obligation to confront counters the natural distaste for confrontation and provides social cover. If a manager knows about the conflict and did not confront, that’s on him or her no matter the cause.
  2. If any manager asks another manager for a resolution session, he or she must oblige and hold one. This eliminates any concern for a request being rejected, and provides for a degree of empathy when on the receiving end of a request. After all, a manager will likely treat a request in the same way he or she would want to be treated when doing the same.
  3. Any conflict and the problems that arise from it must be described in context of how it affects business outcomes and customers. Any solution proposed must be justified in terms of best interests of the business and customers, not just the best interests of internal departments. Keeping the business and customers in front of mind forces an outward-facing perspective as opposed to one in which only internal grievances are addressed. Business outcome-oriented thinking forces collaborative solutions.
  4. No conflict is resolved unless both parties win. A resolution in which only one party wins is not sustainable. Resolution is no zero-sum game. Problems arising from conflict are shared by both parties, and each has an interest in resolution. “You need to lay the dead fish on the table,” a CEO told me about resolving shared problems. Another CEO told me, “You discuss the problem with your counterpart while sitting on the same side of the table, not hurling accusations from opposite sides.”
  5. In discussions, only talk about how you and your staff are affected by the actions of your counterpart. Never accuse your counterpart. Most managers and staff don’t want to unnecessarily burden colleagues when there is possibly a better way. Hurling accusations however tend to make people defensive and harden their positions.
  6. Agreed commitments must be documented and made public. Public promises are often kept. Private ones are often broken. There is research that supports this is the case. Make commitments public to everyone to better help managers and staff hold themselves and others accountable.

If you would like the complete list of the principles of institutionalized confrontation, drop me a line and I will send it to you.

If internal conflict, internecine political disputes, or turf battles are a recurring issue in your company, have a look at attitudes and behaviors associated with confrontation and conflict resolution. You will likely find adherence to few or none of the principles above.

If internal conflict, internecine political disputes, or turf battles are a recurring issue in your company, have a look at attitudes and behaviors associated with confrontation and conflict resolution. Click To Tweet

Whatever the state of your business, you are best off institutionalizing confrontation, so a mechanism for resolving conflict is available to managers before it is needed. As leader of a business, only you can make that happen, and it is in your best interests to do so sooner rather than later. In my experience, there are few better natural accelerants of strategic growth and business success. That success can be yours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.