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Cold War Companies what to do when hidden conflict destroys

Cold War Companies - what to do when hidden conflict destroys

I once did some work for the production team of a very large manufacturing company. I was told by them with all seriousness that the marketing department, who were also responsible for new product innovation, were insane and deliberately designed products that were impossible to efficiently make. They were not, they said, on ’speaking terms’. On another assignment around a joint-venture that was going very, very wrong I had to keep two warring parties on different floors of the building, whilst I tried to help them find a way forward in a project that had massive potential benefits to both.

I find, in almost every organisation, levels of conflict that have somehow become embedded in the way the organisation does its business.  Sometimes a little conflict, provided it is temporary and well-managed can be useful - a stimulus for a better understanding of issues and creativity. More often though it is insidious, on-going and corrosive.  It may not even be labelled conflict - just seen as the way things are. I have come to recognise this as a kind of organisational ‘cold war conflict’.

Not all wars are fought with guns, tanks and bombs. The Cold War which existed as a struggle between Russian dominated communist states and the West between 1947 and 1991 was mostly fought with disinformation, political undermining, sabotage, and a refusal to engage in collaboration and surrogate conflict enacted through sport and third parties.

Within organisations it often arises from familiar fault lines between head office and region, front office and back office, sales and marketing, credit and sales, IT and everybody, HR and the rest!  It can arise easily in joint ventures and partnering arrangements where a natural tension can exist between the separate overall needs of the two or more parties involved and the supposedly aligned needs of the venture.

Conflict and discord of this sort are massive destroyers of value. Studies from the 1970s onwards have shown that 30-40% of a manager’s daily work can be involved in handling conflict. Ongoing conflict often arises from and reinforces the development of organisational silos which lead to the duplication effort, poor execution, opportunities for synergy lost, reduced economies of scale, poor alignment with the overall strategy, damage to customer relationships etc. etc.! Given that in 2006 the British CBI estimated that cost of ‘acknowledged’ conflict to UK organisations was £33bn. The figure for ‘unacknowledged, cold-war’ conflict is likely to be astronomical.

So why do we let this continue?

One of the reasons is that the ‘cold war’ rarely creates a ‘crisis’ - just ongoing frustration and coupled with this, leaders tend to be predisposed to focus on the urgent and immediate. Moreover, there may be a reluctance to label such behaviours as ‘conflicts’ or ‘disputes’ fearing that to do so would be undermining the wish for the organisation to represent itself as a harmonious ‘team’. Another reason may be that there is nothing obvious in the organisational toolkit for dealing effectively with these issues beyond leadership exhortation and demand. Things like team facilitation, coaching, leadership development don’t directly address the intra and inter-organisational nature of these ongoing problems. Moreover, these techniques don’t address the complex nature of the challenge, which as Christopher Moore* has argued, often result from a mix of structural, value, data, interests and relationship issues.

What could be effective are a set of techniques which were originally developed to enable effective mediation aimed at avoiding conflicts ending up in litigation. At their heart these techniques move away from the clutter of position, blame, history and judgement to an exploration of the individual underlying needs of those involved and a clarification of them for all parties. Leading on from this, a process of mutual problem solving can be followed which develops a more workable way of interacting and strengthens trust and openness amongst the parties. ‘Mediation’ might be a loaded word in this context with its implications of legal processes - but structured alignment building – may well be a critically important process and outcome for organisations seeking much more effective collaboration.

*Christopher W Moore:  Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict -May 2014

Comments on this Post

Tracey Skoyles on 22nd December 2016

Mediation may be a loaded word but it can be an amazingly effective tool to resolve issues that arise from today's world where remote communication mediums (emails and texts etc) can create huge disparity through misunderstandings, assumption and 'mind reading'

Jill Ezard on 2nd December 2016

This really resonates with me Steve. I have a few functions where this is happening because we have lost sight of the purpose of what we're all there for...has made me think differently about the conversations I need to have with them...

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