93 - How to resolve the stickiest conflicts



_Every _business leader, executive, senior manager, and founder has faced this question at some point, yet coverage of the topic is full of tropes. At least, I couldn’t find much beyond that in popular literature. So I looked deeper.

Below you’ll find the best insights from decision scientists, management consultants, and psychologists.

My best-earned takeaways?

  1. Conflicts are about facts or values or both. But you better not mix them up.
  2. When you don’t know if it’s fact or values causing disagreement, assume it is facts.
  3. Asking ‘What would have to be true for this option to be the best choice?’ turns a factual deadlock into a search for missing evidence. Adversaries turn allies.
  4. Good conflict resolution, much like a tennis serve or an opening gambit, follows a process that can be learned and replicated. It is not alchemy.
  5. Don’t pay a technical expert for anything other than finding facts for you (unless that expert is a shrink). You decide your values.
  6. Value divides are much harder to reconcile. But most (even spouses) try to bridge them by collecting facts. All of them end in failure.

An entire morning has passed. Your quarterly strategy meeting has turned into a squabble between two (or more) warring camps. Nerves are frayed, frustration’s mounting. It can’t be hunger because the snack trays have been untouched. ‘Wow,’ a thought crosses your mind, ‘we’ve been so busy guarding positions we’ve forgotten to munch.’

Morose, you realize that you’re a lot more confused now than you were at the start of this meeting to resolve a particularly tricky issue affecting the future of your business. You may find strong opinions divided between continuing with a product line or sunsetting it, putting money into your company intranet or somewhere else, hiring people in-house or using a studio, and so on.

Whatever be the pickle, at this point, the situation could unfold in one of a few ways.

  • One vocal side has their say and pushes through their agenda, bringing the madness to an end;
  • You’ve had enough and as group leader use your position to impose your choice on the group, fully aware that this is suboptimal but unaware of any other way; or
  • You realize this is the stalemate of the year and call for another meeting the next week or month, hoping for more cogency the second time round.

A common yet undervalued skill in knowledge work is conflict management. We often understand it to be the special possession of those with a calm head and a clear mind. And we believe that the ability to resolve adversarial conversations and move forward together is the product of a personality trait rather than a skill to be sharpened.

Because of this belief, we do not work on our ability to disentangle conflicting views. We jump into the minefield, hoping to have the judgment to separate signal from noise. If we fail, we chalk it up to the specifics of the circumstances, not to our process—or the lack of it.

This week’s issue will serve you three examples about conflicts, why they arise, and how you can turn them into insights (most of the time).

The professional

“Do you find that company strategy meetings often descend into adversarial position-taking? Many people complain to me that it’s the single biggest block to strategy-making that they encounter. But getting around that block is a lot easier than you might think. The solution lies simply in posing a single question, which I believe is the most important question in strategy.

I discovered the question about 15 years ago in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a town of 7,500 inhabitants equidistant from Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. We had a group of about 10 executives from a mining company in a conference room, split evenly between mine management and executives from head office in Toronto. Everybody had an opinion — i.e. what was true — but given the wide array of experiences, technical knowledge, and organizational interests, those opinions were all over the map. We quickly descended into adversarial position-taking and I could tell it was going nowhere.”

This is the opening of a 2010 Harvard Business Review article by Roger Martin, author of the book Opposable Mind. In the mid-1990s, a young Martin found himself in a sticky situation as a consultant hired to bring clarity to Inmet Mining, a Canadian mining firm torn between closing Copper Range, a struggling copper mine, and continuing with it.

Before we get to the question that broke the deadlock for Martin...

Why do conflicts happen?

Disagreements revolve around facts and values. The two are easily confused—a conflict of values may be approached as a conflict of facts and heaps of data may be produced to no avail, or a conflict of facts be taken as a conflict of values and situational factors leading to a disputed outcome are ignored.

Factual disagreements can be settled by cold evidence; value disagreements, much less so. That is because facts are objective; values, subjective. Because of the nature of this difference, factual and value issues lead to different kinds of problems in a conflict. Yet, most advice on conflict resolution sweeps this under the carpet and proposes generic steps like avoid name-calling or listen to the other party or talk in person.

That’s like suggesting the best way to learn a tennis serve is to buy a racket, lob the ball in the air, and hit it over the net.

The question is: what separates a good process from a poor one?

The question

In that heated boardroom, Roger Martin did not know if the company executives and the mining managers were splitting hairs over facts or values, or both. There was no way he could. So, he assumed one.

He assumed it was a factual conflict. The question that followed that assumption was simple:

He took a tabled option and asked, _‘What would have to be true for the option on the table to be a fantastic choice?’ _In framing the question as such, he channeled the energy of the group, not just those who were pushing for the option in question, toward gathering missing evidence.

Let’s make this about analyzing irrefutable cold facts, Martin seemed to announce, instead of arguing with hot heads.

Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Decisive, who in 2012 interviewed people from Inmet Mining, from both sides that were hammering away that day–Richard Ross, VP of Treasury of Inmet Mining and John Sanders, general manager of the mine–narrate what happened following Martin’s eureka question:

‘The executives, asked to specify the conditions under which it would make sense to keep the mine open, started talking about production targets that would make it viable. The mine managers, asked to contemplate a scenario where closing the mine might be the best option, agreed that if copper prices didn’t recover, it would be hard to recommend continued operations.

The tenor of the discussion changed. There was still tension in the room, but it was productive tension. Martin’s reframing of the meeting had changed adversaries into collaborators.’

My hunch is that Martin being an outsider helped his cause. It is conceivable that it would’ve been considerably harder for someone from either of the bickering groups to make them hit pause in the middle of the heated debate and go exploring.

It probably helped even more that both parties–the executives and the mining managers—shared values. Organizations tend to have enough overlap in values even for opposing factions to commit to. But what happens when common ground is hard to come by? There are at least two other types of situations when that could happen, and sometimes with high stakes.

The social

In 1974, the Denver Police Department (DPD) decided to replace its handgun ammunition. The reason: the bullets they used were lightweight and did not stop armed suspects running away from shooting back. They had insufficient ‘stopping effectiveness’ (the ability to incapacitate and prevent the person shot at from firing back). The police chief pushed for the lightweight bullets to be swapped for hollow-point ones that flattened on contact and had better stopping effectiveness.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other minority groups challenged this recommendation on the ground that the proposed bullets were more lethal not just for suspects but for bystanders caught in the crossfire. Both parties were locked in a stalemate. The matter was brought to the Denver City Council.

The Council reached out to Professor Kenneth Hammond from the University of Colorado. Professor Hammond studied human judgment for a living. In a 1976 paper published in Science, Prof Hammond points at the adversarial approach the cops and citizens adopted and a common consequence of such an approach.

‘From the beginning both sides focused on the question of which bullet was best for the community. As a result of focusing on bullets and their technical ballistics characteristics, legislators and city councilmen never described the social policy that should control the use of force and injury in enforcing the law; they never specified the relative importance of the societal characteristics of bullets (injury, stopping effectiveness, or ricochet). Instead, the ballistics experts assumed that function.’

Asking an outsider what should matter to you

Notice in Prof Hammond’s recounting how the ballistics experts were asked to make judgments beyond the remit of their expertise. Ballistics experts knew bullets, not for what they should be used.

This is akin to an organization employing a technical expert, like a consultant, to help disentangle a sticky issue and the outsider making a recommendation by assuming what’s best for the client, instead of checking first. The City Council, as representatives of the public, should have specified to the ballistics experts the parameters on which bullets should be assessed, and then sought their opinion. They did not. Instead, they let the ballistic experts decide the parameters by staying mum about what was acceptable to them.

When facts and values are mixed up, those best placed to comment on facts (experts) comment on values instead, and those tasked with upholding values (the elected City Council who incidentally knew little about measurable properties of different kinds of bullets) argue over scientific facts.

What did Prof Hammond do?

The book Winning Decisions lays out his modus operandi.

‘Hammond set out to separate the factual opinions of people involved in the issue from their value judgments.’

He separated the objective properties of bullets (muzzle velocity, mass, shape, etc.) from the subjective concerns of what harm the bullets would cause in terms of ‘injury potential, threat to bystanders, and stopping effectiveness.’

With this separation, Prof Hammond set the stage for what eventually settled the matter. He told the ballistics and medical experts hired by both sides to stay out of the discussion on what weight to assign to the three parameters on which the bullets were to be assessed. And asked anyone other than the ballistics and medical experts to steer clear of a scientific comparison of bullets.

The experts ended up comparing 80 different bullet types. And the city council members, who among themselves disagreed on the relative importance of the three chosen parameters, agreed to weight them equally.

In the end, the bullet with the best overall score as per the agreed-upon parameters was ‘neither the old bullet they had been using nor the new bullet they had originally proposed.’

‘It turned out that the ballistics and medical experts selected by each side differed little in their scientific judgments. They had previously favored different bullets only because they differed in their personal value judgments.’

Imagine if the poor ballistics folks had stayed on as value judges for the cops and the citizens of Denver. They probably would have spent more time soothing frayed nerves than comparing different ammunition grades. This is common enough in organizations. We hand over all-encompassing remits to arbiters and are wonderstruck by what seems like obvious misjudgment.

You may be wondering, but what if the analysis had not unearthed a new alternative? Would both parties have come to a mutually agreeable conclusion? Perhaps not. But we’re not trying to eliminate disagreement here. We’re trying to reduce it as much as possible by putting in place a sound decision-making process.

It is rare that value differences are irreconcilable. More commonly, the values are similar, just stacked up in a different order. When that happens–when the value hierarchies of those divided don’t match up–they have to be prepared to make value trade-offs to break the logjam. This too happens often enough in organizations. As an up and comer you want autonomy to run projects and you want them to succeed with you at the helm. Your boss wants your projects to win too but she wants that a teeny bit more than she wants you to have legroom. So, both parties strike a deal. You give up a little autonomy, your boss gets her updates, you get to run the project, and both are happy.

We search for an alchemist when who we need is a (decision) scientist

Common advice on conflict resolution suggests that we go searching for mysterious arbiters with talents like calmness under pressure and good listening skills. When such an alchemist cannot loosen the knot, we accept that the situation is unavoidable. But we are none the wiser. We do not know what could’ve bridged the differences. More calmness? Better listening?

How about a scientific approach that can be verified and corrected? That’s what Prof Hammond showed the value of back in 1976. If a young Martin had known of Hammond’s work, he would’ve seen the locked heads of the miners and the executives coming.

The personal

When it comes to decision-making, most of us don’t have a process, we don’t remember training for it, but we’re sure we can give it a good shake.

No wonder the question of how to convert conflicting opinions into insights is one no one asks. Just this skill is enough to separate the best professionals from the rest. Yet, is this skill handy only in the boardroom or town hall?

Good decision habits are a loyal companion. They stay with you at work, in communal life, or in the bedroom. It is hard to be an excellent decision-maker at work and suck at it at home.

‘…I saw a couple this week and they’re having infertility issues. One of them wants to really get in there and use all the means possible that science and medicine can provide. And the other person basically is a more religious person and says, “If it’s meant to be, those are not things we decide.”’

This is psychotherapist Esther Perel suggesting what a conflict in values could look like for a couple. The wrinkle for this particular couple is agency versus acceptance. To the husband agency matters most; to the wife, acceptance of what life brings is paramount.

Yet, how does this (and most) couple attempt to smooth it out?

‘But they’re not discussing it like that, they’re talking about should they go for infertility treatment and when is the next IVF cycle. But what they really are talking about is that, and once you actually put it in terms of values it becomes much less a debate between them about who is passive and who is active, who gets things done and who is lazy and it becomes you’re bad rather than you’re different. That’s why values become really important in these conversations.’

We tend to braid facts and values. We aren’t aware of it most of the time. So much so that we may not be awake to what matters most to our spouse. This is how deep the value blindness runs.

The remedy is in building a sound decision-making process for conflicts. It may not solve all dilemmas in life but it will equip you to have the right conversations and ask the right questions, be it in the boardroom or in the bedroom.

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