Conflicts of demand

Avoid needless conflict

A successful investment banker turned professional sports executive, someone both level-headed and highly capable, wearily told me recently that “I spend all day fighting with people”. An otherwise enjoyable position was becoming draining because of the constant friction with agents, politicians, employees, unions and more. He’s not alone in feeling this way. Conflict and dissension can cast a pall over the best of jobs.

There are three broad types of work-related conflict. The first type involves negative ongoing personal relationships that poison the work day. Those are beyond this discussion and sometimes the only solution is for you or your nemesis to leave. The second type is a byproduct of people competing for the same seemingly scarce resources. There is no personal rancor (at least for starters), and the other people are not out to get you, but they want what you have or want. When it’s a zero-sum game – you both want the contract, the promotion, or more of the money or resources – there is room for conflict that can escalate and generalize.

Annoyed by the Bureaucrats

Then, there is the third, most common type of conflict, one which is mostly avoidable. This is when otherwise reasonable people are in conflict because they have different priorities on an occasional or permanent basis. It occurs when doing your work without external deadlines conflicts with others who have different views about deadlines. Specifically, others inside or outside your organization need your product prior to a real deadline – they need to review what you did, order what you need, budget for what you need, or take care of anything else that prevents your product from going out the door. They are providing you a service, yet you perceive their expectations or rules as frustrating your need to focus on other things or get your role accomplished without interference. So you attack them – they are rigid bureaucrats, they aren’t dedicated to working late to make things happen, or they don’t understand the big picture and real priorities.

Much of the time, the people in those positions can’t accommodate you – they are locked into policies, or they have larger concerns than your ridicule or disapproval of them, such as being fired for not doing their jobs properly. Even if you can cajole or bully them into making exceptions for you, you will be causing them extra or frantic work, turning them into unneeded antagonists who could find numerous ways to make your life miserable.

Take two corporate attorneys that I have coached. They play the role of watchdog, making sure that a program, policy or advertisement produced by their corporations does not violate the law or produce vulnerability to a lawsuit. Inevitability, they are attacked by corporate managers who did not build the time into their schedules to have their output reviewed. However, no amount of abuse will sway them from the only reason they are employed by the corporation: to prevent legal problems. They are good people trying to play a support role who instead are treated like the enemy.

Releasing the Tug-of-War

On occasion, we have all experienced frustration with rules, bureaucracy, and obstacles to our working up until our personal deadlines. However, that shouldn’t stop us from anticipating most interruptions and demands of this sort and planning accordingly. These are some basic steps to cut down on needless friction:

Start from the goal and work backwards. Figure out when your output must be sent out. Think through now who else will have to see it and how long they will need to review your work. Then backup your own deadline for completion to precede that date. The point is to build in the slack to anticipate that you may have to make changes, so that you can make them with neither panic or resentment.

Curb your autonomy. You may have chosen to run your own company or have chosen your profession precisely because you like to be your own person and do things your own way. Or, you may be a creative genius who never put much stock in structure, details, or deadlines. That’s fine, but you may also be disinterested in some of the legal or procedural details or financial implications of your work. By being aware that others have developed an interest or proficiency in something you don’t care about, you may actually appreciate the necessity of their roles. In fact, you may even come to be grateful to them and considerate of their needs.

Know the real enemy. The person enforcing rules and deadlines or needing time to review your product did not make the rules or reporting requirements. Often, he is not at liberty to bend or waive them. There is no point in badgering the front line person – and it’s beneath you to do so.

Try the Golden Rule. Have you ever sent out invitations for a wedding, party, or fundraiser, and bristled as others waited until the last minute to respond? Remember how it felt? That’s how your watchdog feels. Your delays send her into rush mode, wreak havoc with her deadlines, and most of all create slowdowns or bottlenecks along the chain – for which she will be blamed. You might try putting yourself in her shoes. The way you treat her may result in her occasionally making exceptions for you or helping you through when you really need it.

Work life can involve gut-wrenching conflicts with high stakes and bitter, long lasting prices to pay. The day- to-day conflicts around timing and priorities can usually be avoided or defused with proper planning and mutual respect.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the June 2010 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.