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Hiren Surendra Shah

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The cost of inter-personal conflict
by Hiren Surendra Shah   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, October 19, 2007
Posted: Friday, October 19, 2007

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Though not formally from HR, this article was written from life experiences and was published in the the September and October 2007 issue of HR Magazine “Management Compass”

How daily tussles in office can be avoided and resolved

In management, it is said that it is better to get willing co-operation rather than grudging submission. One of the major distinctions between a boss and a leader is that a leader is able to inspire better teamwork and group dynamics towards the objectives of the company. Even from an individual perspective, since a majority of hours are spent at work, work relationships automatically assume critical importance. Just as intangible assets like brands, business processes, goodwill etc have tremendous value which cannot be numerically determined unlike tangible assets like plant and machinery or land and building, one wonders what value can one impute to a harmonious work ambience?

This is particularly more relevant in the 21st century, which is expected to be extremely stress-prone. Putting it differently, what is the cost of inter-personal conflicts?

Need for dexterity

I started working with my father in 1987 in a lighting company which he had turned around. He had been trained in the management of the Sixties where “the boss is always right” was perhaps blindly and strictly followed. The personal computer was becoming increasingly popular in those days and we bought one. Without knowing even the basic inputs, he tried to dominate on how the computer was going to be implemented. He wanted to get me involved in other areas of business as well but since nobody knew anything about computers in our company at that time, it was my primary responsibility and I wanted to devote full time to it. There was a furious argument during which I took a firm stand about devoting full time, which proved right later on in addition to other computer-related issues. Finally, when I was done with the financial accounts, the software people said that except for one non-standard report, I had done everything right. Since I was proving right all along, I insisted on doing that right as well but as the provision for changing the coding was not there at that time, I had to start from scratch again as according to the views of the software person “I was 10 per cent away from perfection”. My father, not being a persuasive communicator, tried to prevail upon me that it was futile to do the whole thing again just for one report. I was adamant because of all my previous successes. This time unfortunately my father proved to be right because of his management experience — he was trying to convey that “The good is the enemy of the best” or “One has to strive for excellence, not perfection” but could not do so. Doing the whole thing again cost us dear as it snowballed into endless delays for other group companies as well and what could easily have been achieved in six months took two-and- a-half years and we could not venture into other areas of computerisation which ideally, should have happened as fast as possible. This is what can happen when simple conflicts are not dealt with dexterity.
It would not be out of place to mention here what Pakistani captain Imran Khan said some time back on television, “As captain, I could only advise fast bowlers because of being a fast bowler myself. I never really knew what to say to batsmen, wicketkeepers or spin bowlers. I told Richie Benaud (Famous Australian spinner) to speak to Abdul Qadir (Pakistani leg spinner in Imran Khan’s team).” This coming not only from Pakistan’s greatest cricketer and captain but perhaps one of greatest captains and all-rounders of all time. One wonders why like Imran Khan, people cannot abstain from intruding in areas which are beyond their domain expertise and if they have to, they should at least have the basic inputs at least.


Cost of conflict can also be put in a somewhat tangible manner in a different way and that is likely to be common to all companies. The well known author Dale Carnegie, in his book How to stop worrying and start living, has said, “If you took blood from the veins of a day labourer while he was working, you would find it full of ‘fatigue toxins’ and fatigue products. But if you took a drop of blood from the brain of an Albert Einstein, it would show no fatigue toxins whatever at the end of the day.” Carnegie says fatigue has more to do with negative emotions such as fear, anger jealousy etc than work per se.

Research shows that in the long run, continuous negative emotions have a strong bearing on aging. Recently, some well-established software professionals made front-page news for taking up organic farming as they could not cope with office politics. Such tendencies can be minimised by the top management by being tough but fair and promoting as much transparency as possible. I used to be the executive assistant to managing director in a washing machine company. There was a phase when a few presentations prepared by the junior staff were hijacked on the way by middle management, as a result of which there was a lot of heartburn and justified anger. I had to firmly convey the grievances of the junior staff to the commercial director and fortunately, the situation did not go out of control. The principle of unity of command, which states that each person should have only one boss sometimes proves disadvantageous in some situations because that one boss can do a lot of mischief he wants to. It is better to have an ideas meeting where all can contribute freely and the principle can be followed for execution.

At Microsoft, Bill Gates encourages people to write to him directly. Then he either directs them himself or redirects them to people who may be able to help them. This can reduce a lot of conflict because the person with bright ideas or execution must be transparent to the top management. It is better both ways — the management knows where the real talent lies and the person concerned does not have to worry about his contribution not getting due recognition. Management books are replete with examples of people who are angry at not getting due credit because of lack of transparency.

Dealing with arguments

Incidentally, Dale Carnegie’s other book How to win friends and influence people is regarded as one of the best books to reduce friction and conflict. One of Carnegie’s favourite line is ‘You can’t win an argument’. That maybe true but in many management situations, one has to take a strong stand at times. At times conveying one’s position in writing with the facts and logic is a good strategy. At other times, smart repartee may put the argument in one’s favour. In one of my previous companies, my boss, who was doing very well and got several promotions, was not given commensurate enough compensation, with arguments like ‘You are living with your parents and so well off… What is the need…?’ My Boss’s reply to that was, “If I had been a beggar and staying alone, would you have paid me double the amount due to me?” The chairman’s son smiled and was bowled over by the smart retort even though it was against his interest. This actually represents an argument of vested interest which are very difficult to argue rationally. I once faced one gentleman in a train who refused to budge from my seat despite my showing him a confirmed ticket. He presented a totally absurd argument, “I have an RAC ticket. What’s the difference?” For a while I was nonplussed at his ridiculous stand and did not know what to say. Then I got a bolt from the blue. Mr Manmohan singh had been appointed Prime Minister the previous evening and so I told him “The difference is the difference between Sonia Gandhi and Mr Manmohan Singh. Mr Singh is a thoroughbred Indian and has therefore become PM. I have a confirmed ticket and so the seat is mine. Please get up”. Argument and conflict were averted. Everybody around started laughing and a couple even clapped. The gentlemen had no alternative but to leave. However, vested interest arguments can be quite dicey in other situations — ask people who have to deal with bribe taking government servants who do not budge once they have made up their minds.

What is an argument? Two or more people express their opinions and those opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion that those thoughts harden into mental positions. Many of these positions can either be formed out of our own myopic view of issues because of limited exposure or because of other prejudices. At least for some arguments, it would be well to remember that most truths are paradoxical-
A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.

— Thomas Mann

All maxims have their opposites, and proverbs should be sold in pairs a single one being half the truth.


That is why in Zen meditation they say, “Don’t seek the truth. Just cease to cherish opinion” This would depend upon the issue and the type of argument but is worth keeping in mind.

Conflict in the corporate world often arises because of not being clear about one’s goals. In cricket, Rahul Dravid being able to hold one end with his singles and twos enables the Tendulkars at the other end to get on with the fours and sixes. Similarly it is better to separate change and routine management as far as possible. Perhaps that is why Bill Gates handed over the CEO’s job at Microsoft to Steve Ballmer and took on the title of ‘Chief software architect’ in addition to remaining chairman. Such bifurcation of roles should happen at lower levels as well. Practical management, where a lot has to be achieved in very less time, is a lot like one-day cricket, but there are test match situations in between, which require concentrated effort without interruption. If they are also faced with one-day strategy, the result is bound to be dismal and conflict prone.

Apart from the complimentary synergy explained above, which relates to the type of problems, there are others where people’s strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. Based on a 40-year research, Gallup organisation has developed 34 themes or talents or strengths and they strive to bring two people of diverse talents work together so that one person’s strength can balance the other person’s weakness. Among the strengths that are directly related to reducing conflict are adaptability, communication, connectedness, empathy, harmony, relator etc. However good relations are not considered an end in themselves and they are encouraged to team up with people of opposite talents — achiever, activator, command, competition, focus. This way both inter-person and intra-person conflict can be reduced and one can practically achieve the balance between being task- and relationship-oriented, which is taught in MBA schools.

Right Perspective

As the saying goes, ‘The deeper the water, the calmer the surface’, or ‘Still waters run deep’. The depth has also to be gauged correctly. The former managing director of Procter and Gamble, Gurcharan Das once said that a good CEO is one who knows all the details of his company without losing sight of the big picture. The details may be significant in the sense that a small spark can cause a big fire or a small leak can sink a big ship and therefore it is better if the CEO checks all the management control systems thoroughly. However, if too much analysis causes paralysis, he loses sight of the main objectives. That can be like missing the wood for the trees. Normally what happens is that short-term goals often clash with the long term objectives. I read about a new procurement manager who, in order to impress the top management, tried to be rough with the existing suppliers and squeezed very impressive terms. For a while his cost-cutting seemed impressive but he could not last for more than a year and it took the management years to mend relations with suppliers. Similarly, many production managers go overboard in using plant and machinery to show impressive production figures but this is counterproductive in the long run. An organisation should follow the principle of the funds flow statement to avoid this kind of conflict — it uses short-term funds for short-term purposes and long-term funds for long-term purposes. Separate the short-term goals from the long-term goals. This is unfortunately more an exception than the rule in most companies.

Communication in conflict

Though communication is supposed to improve relationships, it often does not end up that way. Many a time the conflict increases directly in proportion to the verbal exchanges. George Bernard Shaw once said that “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Osho had put it very aptly, “When the husband communicates, the wife misunderstands, when the wife communicates, the husband misunderstands, when both of them speak, they end up arguing and when both are silent, even that is misinterpreted.” If this can happen in a marriage, it can happen in any relationship. A psychiatrist had once said that he does nothing except make the members of a family sit together and listen to each other without interruption and very often, the problem solves itself. This is the significance of being “a good listener”. In management it is said that people should not react but respond and being trained to be a good listener automatically takes care of that.

The discussion forums on the internet are very convenient for exhaustive discussions as the other person is forced to read one’s complete view before answering. Even if he wants to, he cannot react. He has to respond. Some people would still be aggressive but it reduces friction considerably. Maybe brainstorming can be done there to the extent possible and the execution is taken up during actual meetings.

Even responding cannot help at times when some of the basics of thinking are not clear. Some people have a habit of jumping to conclusions and making sweeping statements, despite the fact India is be a country with a great spiritual legacy and the very essence of spirituality is that one should not be judgmental as it can spawn conflicts. Sometimes, even trained psychologists and psychoanalysts fail to read a person correctly.

The manner in which something is communicated also goes a long way in reducing conflict. There’s a narrative of a father, who tried to get his son to wash his hands before eating, without much success. He took his son to his doctor friend, who educated him on what germs were, showed them under a microscope and further showed a video film on what could happen to the body if it got infected with those germs. After being oriented like this, the child started washing his hands on his own. Though it is said that wise men learn from the mistakes of others and fools from their own, very often man ends up being a fool because learning is not imparted that way. Whether in personal or professional life, if experiential learning is imparted like this, the chances of reducing conflict are much greater.

Role of trust in conflict

In corporate life and self-help books one is encouraged to trust people, which is supposed to go a long way in reducing conflict. One of the reasons behind Dhirubhai Ambani’s success was his ability and willingness to trust people. A book on leadership by Harvard University emphasised that one should “Trust but verify”. People are different in a variety of ways and it is highly unlikely that they would respond equally to the same level of trust. People are also changing all the time and it is not necessary that the person who was trustworthy yesterday would be equally trustworthy today. The future is not always an extension of the present.

Autocratic bosses

There are also cases of people being fed up of their immediate autocratic bosses. That is why it is said that people do not leave a company but a particular boss or an individual. turning a blind eye to autocracy tends to prove counterproductive in the long run and if the top management is not in a position to stop it, there is no other alternative to bid one’s time before leaving the company.

One of the best ways of reprimanding is to follow the philosophy of the great Chinese Philosopher Confucius, who said that just as lighting precedes rainfall, anybody who has to reprimand a subordinate should also be able to give counselling thereafter. This is similar to a concept called ‘maintaining hundred percent closeness and hundred percent distance’, which I learnt in a workshop conducted by stress expert, Dr Rakesh Chopra. The phrase itself removes any doubt about what exactly one is required to do. Playing both roles may not always be possible for all the people as it requires both an aggressive temperament and communicating ability. There is nothing wrong even if two different people perform the two roles as long as it makes the employee more effective.

Commonsense in conflict

Last but not the least, the most important thing in management, commonsense, can also go a long way in reducing if not eliminating conflict. It is easy to say “Don’t let the trifles get you”, but in strenuous situations, a small incident is enough to spark a big row. We will come back to the personal example from which we started off (Management Compass, September 2007). Like many other young people in the mid eighties, I had fallen in love with the personal computer at the cost of everything else. My father tried to put it in perspective once: “Your computer may produce reports faster, accurately and neatly and losses may look very nice in your printouts, but in reality, losses are never lovely and one has to be proactive to avoid them, whereas your reports are more of a
postmortem.” That argument had sound logic.

At another time, when I would insist on leaving early to be near my beloved computer, he would tell me about how hard he had struggled in his early days in Bombay where he had to change a train and two buses after getting up at 5.30 in the morning and therefore wanted to leave at his own time. Everything cannot be argued with cold logic, however true it may be, as punctuality in this case. Fortunately, I had the
good sense not to argue over those issues. One always has to remember that a human being is more a creature of emotion than logic and depending upon the type of argument, one has to know when to use the heart, when to use the head and when to use both and also, when the heart stops and head begins and vice-versa. It is said that
common sense is most uncommon and in the context of conflict, it can certainly be true .

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