Conflict management begins with a thorough analysis

Source: Management Scope (March 2015); Interview: Gert van der Houwen – Text: Leonard van den Berg

Lawyer and mediator Barney Jordaan believes conflicts are beneficial and can even lead to a better future. “The key is to understand the dynamics of conflicts”.

Barney Jordaan likes to call himself a recovered lawyer, because after graduating as a lawyer—which you can tell by his way of communicating—he switched to mediation and conflict management, a choice he has never regretted. “I strongly believe that your mindset is where it all begins. By nature, we tend to avoid conflicts. Our first reaction when faced with conflicts is either fight or flight. Probably our reaction is a combination of learned behaviour and the way our brain works. You notice that throughout our lives, not only in our private, day-to-day life, but also in business and in the links between organisations. Conflicts remain a taboo subject. The standard reply when asked about an on-going conflict? “Conflict? What conflict?” Either we deny conflicts and run away from them, or we react disproportionately, without considering the possible consequences. Seeking a solution both parties can agree upon is often the last step we take, after all other options have been exhausted.

What exactly do you mean by ‘conflict’?

“Definitions vary. The riots by Feyenoord supporters in Rome or the bloody terrorist attacks we see on TV, that is what we label as ‘conflicts’. However, those are just consequences of conflicts. We tend to look at the outcome, not the underlying reasons. Conflicts are mainly the feeling that the other party is not meeting our needs, not listening or not respecting us. At that stage all we need for the situation to escalate is a simple trigger. That escalation—the physical fights, arguments, even divorce—are merely a consequence of the conflict, not the conflict per se”.

Do conflicts by definition always carry a negative connotation?

“Not at all. A difference of opinions and interests can actually help us move forward. It comes as no surprise that companies doing better than average are often managed by people who are very good at encouraging people to share their differing opinions with one another, and who subsequently manage to reach a consensus. These managers appear to reduce risks for companies and boost results and business value. That is very different from the traditional ‘let’s-all-get-along’ or ‘I-am-the-boss-and-I-decide’ approach. These two strategies result in decisions being made based on a limited amount of information and very few ideas. They are far more dangerous for companies than conflicts”.

So, no boardroom disagreements but rather boardroom dynamics?

“That’s right. The idea is to take a set of different ideas and find the best combination. Getting a good insight into those dynamics and taking action is a true art. However, the person raising the conflict needs not necessarily be the person achieving consensus. Different parties can be involved in the process”.

Jordaan believes this has clear advantages. “By explicitly highlighting different insights, people feel more involved, because they were consulted beforehand. But there’s more! Opposing views raise more questions but also, and mainly, result in surprising answers and insights. These allow you to make better decisions than managers with a big ego who believe they should be the ones proposing all the solutions. After all, you wouldn’t want to risk making a wrong decision because you refused to listen to differing opinions, right? The key is not to choose a solution straight away, but to analyse the problem first. Once you’ve realised that, you can truly opt for the right solution. You can go through the entire process, from problem analysis to devising and discussing possible solutions, choosing the best option and finally, implementing it”.

To illustrate his point, Jordaan draws two identical pyramids next to one another, with a large overlapping chunk at the bottom. The pyramids are the two parties and the tips are the areas where the parties’ opinions differ entirely and where emotions magnify contrasts. The lower parts symbolise the deeper interests and needs of both parties. “The key to success when dealing with conflicts is not to focus on the tips of the pyramids, the harsh differences, but rather to concentrate on common interests, the lower area, where the pyramids overlap. Examples of common interests are good labour conditions, efficiency, a pleasant atmosphere at work and a healthy future. The larger the overlap, the easier the process. That being said, the added value lies not in the overlap but in the differences. This approach allows you to open up the conflict instead of jumping to solutions. Forget solutions--solutions are the easy way out. Instead, try to understand the conflict and get rid of it”.

An example hot off the press: the debates and injunction proceedings on the wage cuts at V&D.

“To me, that seems like a typical case of jumping to solutions without prior discussions. Effective negotiations should always start from a common ground. At that stage, all underlying interests should be tackled, from job security and remuneration to continuity. That can be very difficult and it calls for very smart negotiators on both sides, or good mediators. You need people who can say, ’Look, it’s not about what happened in the past, you should focus on the present and the future’. I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, or who is the strongest from a legal point of view. The focus should be on both parties’ business case”.

Aren’t employees always at a disadvantage compared to investors who are after easy money? Aren’t short-term solutions always preferred over long-term ones?

“If people have the legal means to claim losses from investors, that’s great. The possibility to resort to legal action does not expire when you opt for mediation. However, mediation can give both parties an opportunity to heal old wounds. That has nothing to do with the survival of the company. The aim is mainly to check whether there is enough common ground to move forward together”.

The clash between the V&D trade unions and investors looks like a conflict between the old world of trade unions and the new world of money and power, with the latter being very unevenly distributed.

“That is definitely true. The question is, what else can we do and how is it going to solve the problems? After all, you can’t undo the wrong decisions that made the company run into difficulties in the first place. How do you deal with the consequences? And what can you do to benefit both parties? Power is more than money and resources, it is also the possibility to solve other people’s problems.
Of course investors could say, ‘Never mind, just let the company go bankrupt’. But is that really in their interest?  At the end of the day, all parties need one another. And if the pyramids share no common ground, it looks as though there is nothing the parties can build on together”.

Do companies generally understand the added value that conflicts bring?

“Unfortunately not. Conflicts remain a taboo. But a good conflict can actually be very beneficial. The key is not to prevent or properly manage conflicts, but to use differing insights as assets. Conflicts are not a bad thing per se, but the problem is that they are often managed incredibly badly. I’m not sure who came up with this, but a wise man once said, ‘Conflicts are inevitable, combatting is a choice’. You choose how to deal with it. In this view, emotions, old habits and old wounds can stand in the way. And let’s not forget money. There is nothing more emotional than money”.

Why is it so difficult to keep emotions out of the equation?

“As human beings, we like to think that we are rational, but in reality, we are anything but. As Daniel Kahneman once said, ‘There is no such thing as a rational person. By nature we are all irrational’. Let’s face it, we rarely think rationally. I once sat on an African elephant, an enormous, strong animal, and when I saw the photos it struck me… Who was in control? I seemed to be, but of course I wasn’t. On the surface, I may have seemed rational, but below there was a lot of pure emotional power. That applies to conflict management too. Once we let our emotions play their part, the elephant loosens up. The worst part is that during conflicts we often do not calm our own elephant, but instead, we provoke others’ elephants. We have a lot to learn from the African jungle. Male giraffes can fight fiercely using their necks as weapons, sometimes until one of them literally breaks. Yet once the fight is over, they calmly eat from the same tree”.

That calls for a different mindset though.

“Yes, it does. The hardest bit is not learning from tricks or looking for solutions. The most difficult part of it all is letting go of prejudices and emotions that stand in the way of progress. As Mary Parker Follett, one of the early management thinkers, once said, “Conflict is not necessarily an outburst of violence, it is simply a situation with differing insights that is difficult to resolve. War is the easy way out. Peace is much more difficult to achieve”.

Become an expert! Meet Professor Barney Jordaan during the 5-day ‘Negotiating to Create Value’ programme. This programme enables you to design optimal negotiation deals. The next edition starts 27 May in Ghent.

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