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Calming the Ripples and Waves of Conflict

waves splashing SI_FotorMost business leaders I know are great at focusing on what I’ll call “primary” conflicts, the challenges that arise from interpersonal issues, or have to do with making unpopular, bottom-line-driven decisions. What’s interesting is that many of these same leaders act as if primary conflicts occur in vacuums. They don’t recognize the secondary ripples these conflicts create and send out across departments and companies. When left unchecked, these secondary conflicts can and will undermine an organization’s health.

A closer look at the ripples

I use ripples here because it makes for an apt visual. That’s how secondary conflicts often start—a series of ripples that flow out from a specific situation. On one hand, they’re easy to ignore, as if they’ll just pitter out. However, these ripples have a way of creating new ripples in their wake, potentially leading to an unwanted wave.

Take the following story. A few years back, a Northwest software firm was in the midst of rapid growth in a short amount of time—doubling its workforce from 30 to 60 full-time employees in less than 3 years. Then the bubble burst. A series of layoffs occurred over the next year, with intermittent hiring at the management level in between.

Employees in various departments began joking about “being in the big meeting rather than the small meeting.” It was coded language: the “small meeting” was an abrupt exit interview, usually consisting of you and the HR manager. The “big meeting” was for “survivors.”

Consider the many ways a conflict resonates

This anecdote is a classic example of how a ripple begins. It’s human nature for employees to bandy together in times of duress. Using words like “big” and “small,” their covert lingo was something between light and grim, with a touch of gallows humor.

Let’s flash-forward. A year later, the company had less than 40 employees, down a third from where they’d been. A few more hires occurred, along with some organizational re-shuffling. Good news for long-term employees, right? Not exactly. Instead of feeling stable, their mood had irrevocably shifted. Gone were the days of hope and trust in senior leaders. Now the air was filled with paranoia, whispers, and even backbiting among some “survivors.”

I use “survivors” intentionally, because many employees felt a mix of grief and fear. Grief, because the company they once loved working for now existed in name only; fear, because they knew it was only a matter of time before they were called into a “small meeting.” Some employees went so far to refer to the rolling layoffs as “company-wide 9/11,” carrying a greater sense of dread to work every day. In the marketing department, which had seen the most turnover, employees bounced between cubicles to be sure they hadn’t missed a meeting invite, and even jockeyed for project status to appear more important. Meanwhile, members of the product department developed an “us vs. them” mindset, one that eventually saw the department reconfigured, redeployed and finally terminated.

Where are they today?

Believe it or not this company is still around. However, they have gone from an industry innovator to a company with less than 10 employees, and a rotating collection of contractors, many of who are offshore.

What happened? As I breakdown this situation, I see a fundamental failure at the C-level. By that I do mean leadership, but I also mean the Competencies that emotionally intelligent leaders lean upon in tough times: transparency, awareness, and adaptability.

    • Transparency: When the ship is hitting rough seas, an emotionally intelligent leader acknowledges the storm, and, to the best of his or her ability, is consistently honest and authentic about the future. Transparent leaders admit their failings, and by doing so gain the trust of their employees.In the case of the software company, after each group layoff, company leaders sent out communications implying that there would be no more layoffs in the foreseeable future, only to turn their back on this promise. Their reasons varied, from consistent sales underperformance, to larger economic concerns that were beyond their control. Where they failed was that their positive, reassuring messages fell flat against the reality of their actions.
    • Awareness: Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of shifting moods and mindsets among those they manage and lead, and also see and understand the ripples as they form. It’s not about squashing the ripple. It’s about receiving the ripple as does the shore, and listening to the message it carries.In this case, the message bloomed from one of distrust and worry, to one of fear, paranoia, and a survivor’s mentality that was more about self-preservation than it was about the company.
    • Adaptability:  Emotionally intelligent leaders are agile and open to the idea that there is more than one way to get things done. In tough times they don’t change the destination (e.g. creating innovative products that customers will love). Instead, they encourage collaboration and innovation to chart a new course, one that is more realistic to present conditions, while never sacrificing company values.

Where are your ripples?

Ripples typically occur in our blind spots, especially when we’re focused on fundamental, business-critical decisions. Remember that business is about people. Tune in to their cues. Check in, and not just during a standard one-on-one. Go out as a group for an offsite lunch, or plan something after work. Most of all, listen.

As with the ocean, you’ll know the size of the wave by its sound.  

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