Very few people enter into an argument thinking they’re wrong. In fact, the more I believe I’m right, the harder I fight to get what I want. But is it always the best strategy? Regardless of who is right, are there larger goals that a conflict resolution strategy should be serving? It can be tempting to try to win every fight, or to settle disputes through a hardline approach each time. But conflict – or the wrong resolution – can sometimes take more from both parties (even the winning one) than a victory or a simple end to a dispute can give. It’s crucial to consider how the decision to fight or concede, over what, and with whom, will fit into bigger, more long-term considerations.
A “Win” Can Actually Mean a Greater Loss
I once worked with a manager at a large insurance firm. His department was insurance litigation, and he was in charge of handling and settling lawsuits. Despite the fact that this department had the lowest payouts for settling cases, the company was bleeding money. The majority of funds being spent were all in one area: litigation.
It turns out this manager had a policy of never settling minor claims where injuries were questionable. Instead, he wanted his attorneys to take them to court every time. Many of these cases, a budgetary review discovered, could have been settled for under $2,000 each. But he was encouraging his people to spend ten times more to defend these cases in court. His refusal to compromise was winning the company more cases, but they were losing money in the long run. People who would have been happy to walk away with a nominal amount simply for their pain and suffering instead had to hire attorneys to take their cases to court in a process that was costly for both sides. What’s more, after taking time out of their schedules to testify, giving up private financial information in discovery, and submitting themselves to long, often intrusive depositions, it was no surprise that many of those policyholders decided to take their business elsewhere after the case was over.
Even when you believe you’re in the right and that compromising is simply “caving in,” keep in mind that people who argue about principles generally only prove that they have a lot of time and money to waste. When applying this principle to your business life, consider those situations where you’ve taken a hard line and refused to back down. Sometimes, even if you have all the facts and resources on your side, a small compromise is better for the long term, when the resources it takes to hash out a dispute to its bitter end (be they tangible resources, like money or time, or intangible, like morale) drain more from you or the company than the victory gives.
You Still Have to Work Together the Next Day…
Successful conflict resolution isn’t always about winning wholesale, or making sure each side walks away with exactly what they want; those are often impossible end goals. It isn’t even wholly about ending the clash at hand – be it between two employees with combatting ideas on workflow or between rival businesses each threatening the livelihood of the other – though that should be a result. Instead, conflict resolution should aim not only to put an end to the conflict, but to do so in a way that will result in a strengthened and renewed relationship that can last a lifetime.
For a leader, one strong-minded decision can lead to problems down the road when the possibilities for compromise aren’t considered. Take a case where you have two employees who both want to take vacations at the same time, and you can only afford to let one take the time off. The decisive solution would be to say, “Well, the one who has seniority gets the time off,” because it follows logical reason. But what if the other employee just put down a nonrefundable deposit on plane tickets? It might be easy to say, “They shouldn’t have done that until they knew for sure,” but that adversarial position is going to cause problems in the long run. It could lead to ongoing resentment that will ruin your ability to work with that employee – not to mention resentment between the employees themselves that could compromise their ability to work together. Before a decision is made in wholesale favor of one side, consider the alternatives. Would the senior employee be willing to wait a week if you gave them one extra day? Is there a way to allow both employees to work remotely a few days of the week, so they can both have vacations at the same time?
A decisive “no” should only be the option when there are no other possible choices. Try to think of it from the other party’s point of view and determine if a small compromise would garner a better long-term relationship between the two parties even if it’s not the most “fair” one by the books. Even a token effort to prove that both sides have been heard will help you reach a better solution for everyone involved: one that makes employees feel as if they’re on the same team, with each other and with you, and not as if they are opponents.
One thing that can often lead to misunderstanding in the workplace is when employee culture clashes with company culture. The key to preventing this is aligning everyone at the company to support the company vision. Our Culture Connection Program is a great way to get everyone at a company on the same page, and cut off conflict at the pass.