Feint, jab and uppercut in office scraps

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`Tell me, have you had any good fights recently? Have you bared your bloodied fangs and sunk them into a snarling opponent from a rival department yet?" These were the opening words of my first appraisal as a departmental manager in the electronics industry and reinforced the message that ability to survive in interpersonal conflict was regarded as a key criterion for success. I replied that there must be other ways to get things done. "For your sake, I only hope you're right!" came the worried reply.

And perhaps both of us were right. The business press is full of boardroom battles and the casualties resulting from them. In the recent shake-ups, in both retailing and the City, enough senior heads have rolled to line each side of London Bridge, and probably much of Tower Bridge as well.

If conflict appears more likely, then ways to manage it had better be added to executive tool kits. Conflict is not necessarily bad; it can bring clarity at times and lead to useful outcomes. Horace commented that, "adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it".

What skills should the successful executive learn in order to win in times of conflict?

First, know the causes.Organisational conflict often stems from unclear or changing objectives. On to this fertile ground fall seeds of conflict ranging from competition over scarce resources, turf issues,different attitudes to rules and regulations to basic personality differences. Tense times and a shaky bottom line act like the gardener's hose.

There are a number of stages in the development of a full-blown row. Typically, minor differences of opinion will have been simmering for some time before developing into issues and standpoints. Try to intervene before a difference becomes an issue. Battle lines are drawn at this stage and egos suddenly are at risk. Once something has become an issue, those involved are likely to see each other as stereotypes: "They would say that, wouldn't they!" People only hear what they want to hear.

As a result, hostility and mistrust increase while the protagonists seek allies. When it gets to this stage, not only individuals but the whole business can be put at risk.

Tactics to deal with conflict either appeal to logic or emotion. If the issue is over facts,get agreement on the collection and verification of data,then get both sides to discuss their perceptions of them.

If the conflict is emotional, different tactics apply. Get both sides talking to each other, preferably on neutral territory. Get feelings out into the open but don't take sides. Once the feelings have been shared, try to steer those involved into recognising their common ground and shared goals. It is amazing what pointing to a common enemy can do to repair relationships.

But suppose you are personally involved and reasonableness has not worked. As your "High Noon" approaches, how do you prepare?

t Analyse your own feelings. If they stand up to scrutiny, then in all likelihood so will your arguments.

t Ask whether you really want to go through with it. If your opponent holds all the strong cards or uses extra rough tactics, this might not be the right time to confront.

t Work out your own moral ground and stick to it. Having to compromise your principles is the worst defeat.

t Be ready to challenge unreasonable assertions, otherwise your opponent gets a point.

t Keep cool. There is nothing so undignified or so damaging as an argument that spirals out of control. If you plan to show emotion, keep it under control.

t Let the other person show as much of their hand as possible before you show yours; only then try to dislodge the flow of their argument.

t Establish a good line of argument yourself and stick to it. A case that is built on facts but backed with emotion will be hard to dislodge.

t Seek out what is reasonable for both parties. There may be some area of common ground and if you are unreasonable you probably won't succeed.

And finally, decide what you want to achieve from the confrontation. If you annihilate someone they will just seek revenge. Better to seek a solution which will leave both parties with respect for themselves and each other. Not easy, but necessary if you are to work together in the future.

John van Maurik is a consultant with PA Consulting's Sundridge Park Management Centre and author of `The Effective Strategist' (Gower).