Topgrading Method for Resolving Conflict

Dramatic Scene:  General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch was super frustrated that two top executives could not get along. The press was picking up the internal strife, and the GE stock declined accordingly. Jack asked me to work with the two to get them to play nice, and one month into this engagement I arranged to meet with the two in Manhattan. When secretaries learned that we’d be meeting, they were so worried that there would be a blow up that the press might video tape and put on the nightly news that they literally evacuated an entire floor of a skyscraper. That was totally unnecessary, because the Topgrading approach to conflict resolution had already worked its magic, and within a month the two executives’ teams were meeting to implement what everyone concluded was the best possible resolution.

Background: In our extensive experience assessing and coaching CEOs and other top executives, we’ve, of course, become very aware of what sort of developmental activities top executives need, and I’ve written about “listening skills” as one.  Another is conflict resolution. Oddly enough, the actions a manager might take to listen better are very much the same as the actions to take to both prevent and resolve conflicts.

In a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, an extensive report by Stanford Graduate School in conjunction with The Miles Group showed what 200 CEOs (and other top executives surveyed) want:

Conflict Photo














The Topgrading method of preventing and resolving conflict is like Topgrading for hiring in that there is a deceptively simple solution.  For Topgrading hiring, the “CliffsNotes” method is to administer the truth serum, conduct the thorough Topgrading Interview, and verify all conclusions in reference checks arranged by candidates.

The Topgrading “CliffsNotes” method to prevent or resolve conflict is to get both sides to use active listening to understand each other’s position to the other’s satisfaction … and then work out a resolution.

How you can deal with differences YOU have:

Let’s personalize this a bit. Suppose you have a significant difference of opinion with a subordinate, peer, boss, customer, or for that matter, spouse. Use active listening to begin to resolve the differences. Active listening is “playing back” to the other person their point of view to their satisfaction before offering your differing perspective. If every leader would use the play-back technique 10 times daily, they would be viewed as a better listener (duh!), more understanding, fair minded, a better leader, and better at PREVENTING and RESOLVING conflicts.

When conflicts occur between two on your team, you (or a consultant) can serve as the third party to coach the two to find a good resolution and become better team players. You get the two parties to play back the other’s point of view, and the heat and animosity diminish.

“Play back to their satisfaction” is a deceptively simple approach used by many diplomats and marital counselors. This technique assures that both sides will fully understand the other’s side because both have to state the other side’s view of everything before continuing with explaining their views.  That’s the good news – mutual understanding is necessary for constructive resolution.  The bad news is that it is sometimes not sufficient to resolve conflict. Resolution might not be possible because if one of the managers is a hopeless C Player, the goals of the two are in stark conflict and the boss won’t remove the incentives to go in different directions, or there is deep personal animosity that might have come from, say, back stabbing.  Replacing one or both managers is sometimes the only way to get a resolution that is high quality.

Caveats aside, a lot of the time conflicts can be prevented just with the use of active listening by both parties — perhaps with your meeting with them to require active listening.  If the differences are significant, oftentimes they can be resolved and the executives, company, and shareholders all benefit.  I’ll explain how Topgrading Professionals solve conflict problems, but managers can use the same principles. The GE scene was real, but confidential, so here is a hypothetical example of how to help two warring parties achieve resolution.

When two people on your team are in conflict: Let’s make you CEO. The head of Manufacturing and head of Engineering fight each other daily. They hardly talk, because you drive hard to get new products on the market, but Manufacturing says Engineering comes up with unbuildable products and Engineering says Manufacturing can’t build products that make money because they are set in their old ways. You or your COO might handle the conflict resolution, or outsource it to a consultant.  Either way …

1. Meet with each individually. Ask their points of view, why resolution is important to the company, what they are willing to give or give up to achieve the resolution, and what they would ask the other to give or give up. And this is important: Ask each to guess what the other’s responses to those questions will be.  Generally both parties have a one-sided view in response to the questions, and this exercise shakes them up. Their predictions of the other’s responses to the questions turn out to be off! This motivates them to learn the other’s point of view.

2. Engage in serial diplomacy to delete inaccurate perspectives. Like a statesman or marital counselor, go back and forth to the two individually, shaking them out of their rigidity by proving they were wrong in their predictions. As a hypothetical example, suppose Manufacturing predicted that Engineering would say that they (Engineering) were not interested in meeting with Manufacturing during design stages, but it’s not true – Engineering wants to meet with Manufacturing throughout design to be sure Manufacturing can build it.

Both parties typically are about equally inaccurate at predicting what the other would say are goals, actions, what they are willing to do, etc. There might be five or six individual meetings until both are much more realistic. As their predictions prove inaccurate and “truth” is introduced, negative emotion is cooled down and both become more willing to listen to the other’s perspectives. It’s just normal for all of us to listen to the other person AFTER the other person has clearly stated our point of view to our satisfaction. It works!

The head of Engineering might have come from a company that had great results with Six Sigma, and had been blasting away at Manufacturing for living in the 19th (not even the 20th) century.  The smart-ass comments motivated Manufacturing to push back instead of considering adopting some best practices such as Six Sigma. The serial diplomacy might help Engineering understand that smart-ass comments are dysfunctional, and might help Manufacturing finally agree to at least consider launching a Six Sigma initiative. There are no guarantees, however; as suggested above, if the head of Manufacturing is determined to avoid best practices, you as CEO might have to dictate changes or change the head of Manufacturing.

3. Engage in serial diplomacy to drive toward a balanced resolution. It’s more back and forth. Essentially, both should give, give in, or give up quite a bit in order for both to finally agree to resolution. Guess what – when groups are warring, the nature of the resolution frequently becomes more about process than specific programs. Sure, in this case Manufacturing might agree to explore Six Sigma and Engineering might agree to stop taking pot shots at Manufacturing, but the ongoing resolution will likely involve commitments to be sure the other’s perspectives are fully understood.  “Let’s use active listening BEFORE we have a conflict” is the mantra.

SUMMARY: “Listening” is the biggest deficiency of top executives and although the principles of active listening are easily stated, it takes a commitment by the executive to do better. From decades of experience, we’ve learned that executives who improve from a rating of 6 to an 8 in listening are perceived as much better leaders in general – much better at strategy, holding people accountable, and yes, better at preventing and resolving conflicts.

Published September 4, 2013


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