Dealing with Organizational Conflict: An Example from FWI
Earlier in this book I described a situation at FWI in which many of us, myself included, relinquished accountability. We all denied the roles we had in either creating the situation or impeding its resolution. Communication shut down, resulting in an atmosphere of distrust and anger. I called a meeting to address the issue, but no one would engage in discussion. People refused to speak their mind about the issues involved, no matter how much I prodded and pleaded.
What I wanted to hear from the people in my organization was their honest assessment of what they were experiencing, what they felt was at the root of the problem, and how they would like to see it resolved. As we had done in the past with other challenging issues, I thought we could approach the issue logically, going through the steps and collectively reaching a decision. But that didn't happen. So I went back to the drawing board and once again asked, "Why?" An important piece was missing—something was keeping people from claiming their accountability in the situation and moving forward to a solution.
I realized that the problem really came down to trust. Before, the inherent tension between sales and editorial/production had always been mitigated by trust. When that trust is lost, however, competition overpowers cooperation. The problem had run so deep and for so long that neither side trusted the other—and what's worse, there was little trust in management to solve the problem.
We see a similar dynamic in organizations with unions, particularly with multiple unions, as in the airline industry. The pilots want something (usually more money and job security), the flight attendants want something (the same thing), the aircraft mechanics want something (ditto), and they all know they can't have it all at the same time. And many of them don't trust management, who they may see as wanting to keep wages low and profits high to fill the company coffers and pad executive bonuses. In these cases, negotiations often seem doomed before they begin.
When it came to the situation at FWI, the distrust made my employees unwilling to communicate. Distrust breeds fear—for example, fear of looking foolish, or fear of possible retribution. It was enough to keep them silent. And that was a huge problem for me as CEO. After all, aside from the role I played in this particular problem, my larger responsibility as a leader is to set the context—to create an environment of trust and communication. And that meant the first person they needed to trust and communicate with was me.
Taking the first step toward resolution, I first looked at my own role in the situation—first from the perspective of a person who seeks to be accountable in his relationships with others. I ran through the exercise: How had I ducked out on the people who needed my guidance and support, and why? Then, I looked at my role within the larger responsibility I had as CEO. How had I fallen short? Why had I pushed off the management problem on the general manager? What structures needed to be changed within the organization in order to facilitate communication? In my mind, I was clear about my objective: to move our company out of the funk and back to a trusting—and fully accountable—environment.
Next, I looked at the problem from the perspective of the other parties involved:
The production and editorial staffs were angry and resentful toward the sales and marketing group for not pitching in to help and having no empathy. Furthermore, they had lost trust and confidence that management cared about the issue and was interested in a solution.
The sales and marketing group didn't see any problem at all since it was their job to bring in business—so what if it meant the editorial and production staff were overworked? It was a "good" problem to have.
The editorial chief felt powerless to fix the situation, had lost confidence in me, and was angry with the GM.
In turn, the GM considered the editorial and production staff to be complaining about what was a short-term problem, and he protected the sales group's right to sell as much as possible, no matter how it was impacting the lives of everyone else.
I held another meeting, but one I felt was better designed to alleviate fear and regain trust. I went directly to the editorial staff, alone. I sat among them in their space. I shared my observations about the previous meeting, and how I was concerned that no one felt comfortable enough to speak their mind. Next, I took full accountability for my role in the process.
I let everyone know that I wanted to effect change, but I couldn't do it in a vacuum. I needed their help, which meant their giving me their honest assessments of the problems they faced and potential solutions. Finally, and most important, I told the group that what we discussed would be confidential, that I would do my best to be an impartial listener, and that no one need fear retribution. It was a long meeting. It wasn't easy getting things started; people still felt a bit ill at ease, but eventually the problems, concerns, and feelings began to percolate to the surface.
I believe the three things that were most important in putting them at ease were (1) choice of venue; (2) acknowledging my role in the conflict; and (3) showing a genuine desire to hear them out. More than anything, the team simply wanted to know that management—me in particular—was taking their issues and concerns seriously. They had had this chance before, yes, but they didn't feel safe in putting themselves on the line. Now, they were sufficiently reassured, and the words began to flow. And within thirty minutes, the group was suggesting ideas for moving past the situation.
This was only the first step. After my meeting with the editorial staff, more conversations, and further reflection, I understood that this conflict had revealed a larger problem within the organization: the system for supporting accountability needed to be changed. It led to a restructuring of our company, one in which a new management team would have cooperative responsibility across all areas of the business. The team developed a cross-functional communication plan that allowed for improved resource planning. In other words, everyone would be armed with better and more frequent information, have a deeper understanding of each department's needs, and experience better advocacy at the managerial level.
Changing the structure was done with specific intentions: to improve communication and managerial effectiveness, and to set the stage for increased trust. I'm not depending solely on the structure, however, to ensure that these things happen. People are responsible for the success of an organization, and certainly the team I have in place is charged with these things. As am I.