Most of us run a mile from conflict in the workplace and that's not a good thing, says US author, mediator and leadership thinker Mark Gerzon. By ignoring or repressing friction points on the job, we risk having the problems harden into something Gerzon calls cold conflict. It's hard to identify or flush out in the open so it can be very tricky to deal with - but deal with it we must. Conflict is part of the human condition. Leaders everywhere need a suite of skills to guide them in such a sensitive arena, Gerzon argues in his latest book Leading Through Conflict (Harvard Business School Press). Today, he points out, with more than 63,000 transnational companies, comprising 800,000 subsidiaries, employing more than 90 million people and producing 25 per cent of the world's GNP, the need for mediation and negotiation skills permeates every part of society.
Beyond the old authoritarian model, you can still expect lots of conflict from the new flatter workplace, says Gerzon. Even military and intelligence operations are looking at new softer approaches to solving crises. Speaking from New York, where he spends a lot of time working with the United Nations and is co-director of the Global Leadership Foundation, Gerzon discussed his approach to handling conflict at work.
Q. What is your family background and where did you come in the family, given birth order is sometimes said to have a bearing on mediation and negotiation skills?
A. It was an immigrant family. I had two brothers and one sister and we had all the cultural conflicts from having a European background in the US. My mother was Christian and my father was Jewish. I was a middle child and my close colleagues - and many other people in the field - are middle children too. If you are the eldest you are between your parents and siblings, and an only child is between the parents.
Q. Do you think recent international incidents - for example, the release of the British sailors by Iran last year - are indicators of a new softer approach to conflict?
A. This is where I take a toolbox approach. Most leaders, particularly those unskilled in dealing with conflict, think they can use one tool. If anyone came to repair your house with one tool you wouldn't hire them - you want someone with a complete toolbox. You need different tools for different problems. There are hard tools versus soft tools. What the US has relied on are hard military tools when soft tools were needed. The British used a very good array of soft tools [with the Iranians].
Q. Why is there a change occurring in the US attitude to conflict resolution?
A. The intelligence establishments sooner or later develop intelligence. The US's reputation is plummeting and ... with the intended aim of making the country safer it has made our country much more endangered.
Q. In your book you write about an incident that took place in a tobacco company. How did you handle working in such an environment?
A. It's an interesting place to go with business. It's a really good example of what I would call an inherent conflict in the business. Many of the conflicts in business are not inherent, they are the result of not using skilful means to deal with conflict. With [the tobacco] company, it's the very nature of what they are producing. It destines them to incessant conflict, and they have had conflict and lawsuit after lawsuit.
Some employees can't cope with this and they leave, but others decide for other reasons that they will continue to work in these companies. And that's where the rationalisations come from. They all have their own reasons - such as there's a market for these products and always will be, so it's best if it's in sensible hands, we have campaigns to raise awareness, and so on.
Q. Are there forums you don't want to work in?
A. I do very little with [the tobacco] industry or anybody who is not working with the best interests of the community. Sixty per cent of my time is spent in community work and with the UN. I stopped working with tobacco companies very quickly when it became clear they were unwilling to learn. They were trying to empathise with their critics but would say "we cannot stop producing something because that makes the shares decline". They are examples of managers within the box definition of their role, so they will do a good job but not look beyond that.
Q. Are workplaces changing to allow more dissent?
A. There's much more use of horizontal teams and awareness that you can't give top-down orders and get efficiency. You can see high-performance teams replacing that top-down model. The challenge is that once you stop having that
structure you have to deal with conflict in a creative way.
Q. What has the response to the book been like?
A. I was expecting a strong response from companies dealing with external conflicts, and I have found just as much if not more [interest] in dealing with internal conflict. Companies are so big, and they are starting to fragment and come apart. They are successful and growing and flourishing and have spread into other countries, but that very success means it will be more challenging to keep these structures going.
Q. Is there a gender difference apparent when dealing with conflict?
A. I've written a book about the changing face of American masculinity and, generally speaking, I find women are better at dealing with conflict than men. Women can be conflict avoidant, but generally they are far better at dealing with emotional trauma and conflict. The rational process of dealing with conflict isn't very creative, but once you get into the emotional area, women are more creative in dealing with it.
Men take sides and positions and stick with that side despite consequences. In general in business we tend to avoid conflict and get along and there's lots of cold conflict. In the political sector it's vicious conflict, but more apparent. The critical thing is that there have always been mediators and negotiation experts. What makes my approach different is that everybody needs to know these skills. You can hire me, but what do you do when I'm not there? My work is building and bridging between leadership and the skills of a mediator. If you know these skills for dealing with conflict, you will be a better leader.
Q. What is cold conflict?
A. It's much harder to deal with. The analogy I use is that you need to warm up and cool down emotions. It's like a cooking range and what happens if it's too cold or too hot.
My advice to leaders for many corporate cultures is: heat it up and give it the attention it deserves. When I work with politicians, they need to cool it down so you can be reactive.
Q. Are there any companies that deal with conflict well?
A. I see the successful creative companies building conflict into the way they operate. They may call it brainstorming, or solving problems. They say, "we want the best ideas, regardless of the way it was in the past."
The most successful companies are rewarding that friction. It's about productivity and not paralysing. They specialise in saying "we don't know".
Q. You write about understanding the way others view the world, but how do you negotiate when those around you don't acknowledge there is a problem? For example, how do women make men understand what it's like to experience discrimination in the workplace?
A. The first thing I would say is that if you were a man interviewing me you wouldn't be raising it. Men generally think gender shouldn't matter - or race. There's this idea about what should matter and what shouldn't.
One of the reasons [it's not discussed] is that we don't know how to deal with the conflict. As men we find it difficult; particularly between men, there's a drive to feel we are on a team together. We want to be liked and admired by the team. The last thing you want to do is cause conflict on the team and not be a team player. But turn to creativity and innovation. If a company can do the same thing next year and flourish, then they would have no reason for conflict. But you need change, and somebody has to be the maverick and troublemaker and say "this isn't working" and cause conflict. It can be creative or destructive. So you need to build the skill level of your team to deal with conflict.
Fairfax Business Media
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.