December 15th, 2017
Good leaders are great at resolving conflict. Great leaders keep conflict from arising in the first place. Here’s how they do it.
In engineering “friction” can be defined as any waste of energy that has been harnessed to produce work. Entrepreneurs grow wealthy by reducing the economic friction between buyers and sellers. In business there is a form of friction that all too often kills plans, wastes energy, and ruins friendships: people fighting with each other.
I’ve investigated my fair share of work place squabbles. I almost never found two-legged villains at the heart of the problem. Instead I discovered hard-working, well intentioned people that had unintentionally allowed a disembodied demon into their midst: Ambiguity.
In one instance a sales department and shipping department were at each other’s throats. Both sides were convinced that they were the victims of a combination of incompetence and evil intentions on the part of the other. After scraping away the rancor, I discovered that the sales department was upset because product was not being shipped “on time.” Shipping was fed up with getting a flood of orders late in the day that they could not possibly ship without working into the night. The real problem was that both sides were operating from entirely different assumptions about what “on time” meant. I quickly brokered an agreement: any order received by shipping before 2:00 PM would ship the same day. Later orders would ship the next. I wrote the new policy down and distributed it. When the ambiguity disappeared so did the problem and the rancor.
I have often argued that a trait that distinguishes great leaders is an ability to creatively use the tension produced by ambiguity. Great leaders don’t live in a black or white world. Instead they love shades of grey. However, this trait is most effective when applied to strategic decisions. It is ambiguity surrounding execution that so often leads to disaster. Business execution is like an intricate, multi-faceted relay race. Ambiguity about who is passing the baton to whom by when almost certainly means that the precious baton will hit the floor and the postmortem recriminations will begin. In business, “crisp execution” is the Holy Grail, and crisp execution relies on eliminating ambiguity.
Again and again I’ve brought warring parties together and patiently heard them out. Then I would politely make a request: “Where’s the paper trail?” In almost every case there was none. All I had to work with were verbal communications based solely on memory, open to an almost infinite variety of contradictory interpretations. This internal friction was usually not the result of either incompetence or bad intentions. It was the result of people operating from entirely different assumptions about their respective responsibilities.
I have developed a tactic to eliminate the problems caused by ambiguity before they can arise. While my memory is still fresh, I summarize in writing everything that was agreed upon in a meeting or phone call and send it to all the participants. I make sure to invite everyone to either “sign off” or get back to me if my summary is either incorrect or incomplete. I also copy everyone not at the meeting that may be affected by our decisions in order to avoid “blindsiding” them further down the road.
We often hear that success is largely a factor of how many friends we make. However, success also depends on how few enemies we make. Clear, written communication has proven remarkably successful at keeping my enemies to a minimum. This discipline also forces me during meetings to focus on negotiating clear, unambiguous, mutually agreed upon action items. This in turn moves the meeting, project or sale along much more quickly.
The vast majority of internal squabbles are leadership problems rather than people problems. It is management’s job to make sure that the process by which people enter into agreements is formalized without becoming burdensome. When disputes arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding, it is management’s fault for not having the policies, procedures, and processes in place that prevent such conflicts in the first place.
In our own company, we made it clear that we had zero interest in refereeing “I said, she said” disputes. It was our policy that substantive meetings should always produce an internal “contract;” and that these contracts should be clearly written, mutually agreed upon, and meticulously kept. Staying on top of this process took discipline, but in the long run it paid off handsomely in increased productivity, team work, and perhaps most importantly, morale. Once our people discovered that without the proper documentation their pleas for “justice” would fall on deaf ears, they quickly adapted and disputes were practically non-existent.
The first step to removing crippling ambiguity is overcoming our distaste for writing and learning how to write clearly and unambiguously. A commitment to follow up “soon” is ambiguous. A promise to follow up at 3:00 PM on November 16th is not.
The second step is overcoming the misconception that creating a paper trail is a waste of valuable time. My typical summary takes three minutes to write. These communications not only make things run far more smoothly, but have saved me countless hours in ex post facto conflict resolution.
Step three is overcoming our tendency for using ambiguity as tool for staying off the hook. Ambiguity in business is often connected to our fear of accountability. We resist making clear commitments because someone may hold us accountable if something goes wrong. Much of human interaction, consciously or unconsciously, is an attempt to hold others accountable while avoiding accountability ourselves. We crave wiggle room and plausible deniability. As a result, we often default to ambiguous commitments like “I’ll try” rather than “I’ll do.” Only by courageously embracing accountability in our business and personal lives can the friction of ambiguity be successfully overcome. If you want accountability from others, you must offer it first yourself.