Friday, November 6, 2015

The hidden cost of conflict

There are all sorts of conflict between human beings. At this time of panic and confusion because of the financial crisis, they have become more exacerbated than ever. If conflict can be defined by the friction that occurs when two or more people or groups try to occupy the same 'space' at the same time, the possibility that this happens in this current moment of chaos, is great.

This 'space' can be physical, in the case of two people hurrying to catch the last taxi on the rank. It can be emotional when the parties involved want to occupy the same historical territories. It may be a fight due to psychological incompatibility of positions, assessments, interpretations or ideologies. And they are usually expensive.

With all that is going on, the short fuses are abundant and lead to dysfunctions in our organizations. Contacts between people become more stressful and rules of coexistence less clear. Relationships, production, plans, customers and consumers and finally society and the environment - all suffer.

Because of the fact that conflict has been a central part of human society since the beginning of recorded history at least, we could hardly find someone who had never suffered personal loss due to it. The problem is not the conflict itself but how we perceive it and deal with it. Well understood and worked on, conflicts are drivers of positive and necessary change. Otherwise, they may cause major losses and delay our best plans despite noble intentions. Often it is not the best idea that prevails, but the strongest or better supported ego.

In the context of companies, the list of victims of conflict is great - lost business opportunities, breakdown of partnership, demotivation, high turnover of people, bad customer service and even sabotage, litigation, harassment and serious aggression. They say that people do not leave companies when they resign. They leave unpalatable bosses or colleagues.

In the breakneck speed of change and the gap between what we really do and what we have to do, we run out of the time needed to understand and manage the day-to-day conflicts. The lack of time also leads us to a superficial and symptomatic treatment of them without comprehending their true causes. This leads most to just pretending they did not happen, they either try to run away from them or smother them with false positivity. The situations that unsolved conflicts produce, sustain and grow as become organizational cancer.

Generally we only try to solve them when they are too difficult or too expensive to solve. As the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake." The only problem is that the earthquake has already done its damage.

Almost always, the biggest losers of major conflicts between economic interests, governments and religious traditions are the society and the environment. Millions of ordinary people are ground up by wars and poverty caused by the intransigence of relatively few so-called leaders. Species and forests continue to disappear, the sky becomes darker and weather warmer - often by the clashes and infighting of these 'leaders' who are not willing or able to reach deals for a sustainable world.

The benefits derived from understanding how to prevent and deal with conflicts in a systematic way are huge. The good thing is that conflicts expose the problems that need to be resolved and often point to the people who need to enter, leave or change their positions in  organization.
Imagine a kind of 'egometre' in your company able to measure the cost of exacerbated egos and their effect on the monthly numbers. Conflicts definitely impact on the balance sheet. The problem is that they are difficult to measure and therefore ignored in the name of rationality.

We should always seek to understand the hidden complementarities and the apparent incompatibility. There is a story of the fear that a king of the current state of Gujarat (west coast of India) had when large numbers of 'Parsis' started to migrate from the current Iran. They were practitioners of Zoroastrianism who had been expelled by the Muslims.

To show that there was no room to share with so many people, the king sent a large glass of milk full to the brim. The Parsi leader's response was to return the glass with a little sugar added with the message: 'We can live together like milk and sugar'. So it has been to this day. It's not such a bad idea.