A more practical approach to conflict

The most important lesson I learned as a CEO is this: Relax and wonder — R&W — about the wondrous vagaries of our human condition.

Interpersonal conflicts and disagreements between senior executives are plentiful in any organization, large or small, and occur even among individuals whose roles are distinctly separate. So how can a CEO/manager best hope to cope with the dissension and disruption that accompany conflicts among members of a leadership team?

One approach is to remind team members that the task at hand is never one of deciding who is right, but rather one of determining what is right. However, as helpful as such a simple admonition can be, it is often hard for individuals to put such lofty advice to practical use in the midst of heated discussions.

We assume that reason will prevail when making thoughtful judgments about matters important for the success of a company, but too easily, we forget that we carry around cognitive biases that cloud our judgment and make us, as Dan Ariely tells us, “predictably irrational.” What is more, we suffer from the illusion of believing that we know far more than we actually do.

Perhaps we would do better as CEOs or managers if we were more understanding of our proclivities and foibles. Therefore, consider first recognizing that conflict is unavoidable and then managing that conflict practically and philosophically.

On the practical side, begin by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and how they are expressed in the collective interaction of the group. To the extent that a CEO can do so, studying and increasingly coming to know those individual and collective characteristics can be among the most important tools leaders will have at their disposal.

A great deal can be gained by orchestrating the balance among and between individuals. In any leadership team, each person will exhibit different talents and varying liabilities, and it is incumbent on any CEO to assess when that individual’s “balance” is tipped too far toward the latter.

On the philosophical side, this approach seeks to build awareness of the fact that all of us are different, and that there are strengths in harnessing those differences. It urges us to “relax and wonder” by seeing conflict in that light, rather than being consumed by anger, frustration, or despair over the unavoidable dynamics of individuals in groups.

By being students of the human condition, we can become better stewards of our organizations, our colleagues and ourselves. As I stated in an earlier column, you must understand that what one person sees as boldness, another will see as arrogance — people see the same situation in different ways.

It’s your choice. You can view conflict among members of a team as being dysfunctional, or you can harness those differences by orchestrating a balance among strengths and weaknesses for greater productivity. So, start with “R&W” — relax and wonder about the wondrous vagaries of our human condition.

Luis Proenza is president emeritus, the Trustees Professor of Higher Education and the Economy, and university professor at The University of Akron. He also serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.