Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conflict Resolution 6: The Type-A Solution


Measure twice, cut once. -Old saying-

Two well-respected authors in the field of conflict resolution, Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, have eloquently codified the types of mistakes people make in large-scale public disputes. A mistake I often see is what they refer to as the Quick Fix, and in business settings, what I call the Type-A Solution. The Type-A Solution has been employed in a range of venues from small, two-person conflicts to larger departmental and multi-faceted disputes. It goes something like this:

Phase I: A conflict comes to the attention of management. The manager (or the management team), taking insufficient time to understand the issues at hand and the positions of those involved, declares a solution, unconcerned with the ramifications. Perhaps this is done out of frustration with the problem or with having to make a decision under time constraints. It also could be done out of anger. (“If I have to stop this car and turn around, you’re both in big trouble!”)

To be honest, I have to admit that making a "quick fix" can be tempting. Certain personality types are particularly prone to this mistake (we don’t need a show of hands, but I think you might know who you are). The consequence of a Type-A solution is that the disputing parties feel invalidated, unheard, and misunderstood by management; thus, a climate of us vs. them is created. The problem continues to smolder underground and then flares up with a vengeance. However, the disputing parties then have something they can agree on. They usually will agree that you and your solution are a major part of the problem, if not the entire problem. So, lets do a status review: First, you had a problem. Second, your Type-A solution allowed the problem to escalate unabated. Finally, and worst of all, you end up on the playing field as a participant, not as an advisor.

Phase II: As Carpenter and Kennedy explain, after implementing such a solution, you could find yourself in the unsavory and disadvantageous position of having to “sell” it to distrusting and maybe even hostile stakeholders. You'll also have to defend it against the usual crowd of spectators not to mention that you'll appear vulnerable to those who could benefit from your current weakened state. In one fell swoop, your status as a respected and impartial arbitrator will plummet to that of an untrustworthy outsider who is attempting to enforce a unilateral (and possibly half-baked) plan of action. To make matters worse, your motives will also come under suspicion. Oh brother, talk about a reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, what I then see happen quite often is a knee-jerk reaction and another hastily hatched Type-A Solution. Now, I think even the sleepiest students way in the back of the auditorium can see this train leaving the station.

Pop quiz: Can you think of a current international conflict in which we’re seeing the Quick Fix in one form or another? Discuss amongst yourselves. What are your options following such a situation? There is always the time-honored choice of walking away, stating that you provided a solution; how could it possibly be your fault if it’s not working? Second, you could continue selling the plan (or its sequel, the new and improved Plan II). Finally, you could take a deep breath and identify the primary, secondary, and, if needed, tertiary stakeholders, and begin to engage them in discussion and negotiation. Allow them, without your influence, to negotiate a solution that they agree to. My experience is that agreement and consensus will occur over time. If you go about fixing the situation in this way, you will have maintained your neutral and/or advisory position.

- Ian -

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Conflict Resolution 2: Attitude Adjustments


Attitude might not exactly be everything when dealing with conflict management, but it sure plays a big part. The most productive attitude in addressing disputes, especially in the initial stages, is one of letting go of resentment toward the other party. Regardless of what events have transpired, or what emotions have been riled up, trying to remain in the present, as psychologists love to say, will ensure a more peaceful interaction and result. This involves conscientiously focusing on the present situation and not on old feelings and suspicions, regardless of how valid they are or how tempting it is to ruminate over them.

Dredging up problems from the past will only complicate the situation at hand. Trying to prove past points is not only moot, but a recipe for failure. If the other party brings up past problems, shortcomings, or former poor attitudes, be vigilant in making a smooth shift back to the facts and data regarding the current situation. Some venting and fuming over past incidents is to be expected. However, until the current issues are essentially agreed upon, progress toward a current plan of action will stall.

One positive technique to resolve conflict in its initial stages is the “When You Do____ , I/We Feel” statement. This means commenting on how you feel when the other party engages in a specific behavior or activity. It reduces the potential for the other party to feel attacked or accused. In other words, you state the facts in terms of how their actions affect your feelings and not by assigning blame. For example:

Example A. CORRECT: "When you do system A instead of system B, we feel that quality is compromised." (Statement of fact)

Example B: INCORRECT: "When you use system A instead of system B, quality is compromised." (Blame)

When you don’t use the word "I" or "we", the statement essentially puts the other party on the defensive (Example B). In one case, you are honestly stating your feelings about poor quality. In the other case, you are blaming them for poor quality. The last thing you want is to put the other party on the defensive in the early stages of conflict management. Remember, they can just as easily get your defenses up. Blaming will result in a stalled negotiation, if not worse, and will reinforce the past negative feelings that you are attempting to overcome.

Try this attitude and technique sometime in a simple, neutral situation-you might be surprised with the results.


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