May 2018

A Macro Look at Managing Conflict

By Ron Hewett

Most leaders have had some formal training on conflict management in the workplace. The discussions generally focus on techniques and strategies when working one-on-one with a difficult employee or colleague. This training is essential, but I have found that leaders also benefit from a broader perspective on conflict management when dealing with teams.

The following is a discussion that I have developed over the years and shared hundreds of times with leadership groups and individual executives during coaching sessions. It has always provoked "ah-ha" moments, and I believe you will find it to fit well into your leadership toolkit.

After retiring from the U.S. Navy, I taught high school for four years in Virginia, and served as the department head for the Naval Junior ROTC unit. One day, our principal, Mike Campbell, asked me to lead a task group to determine how we could improve the overall discipline in the school. He explained that our school had been singled out for declining academic performance, and improved classroom discipline was determined to be a critical need.

Mike was no shrinking violet. He had been an NFL running back, and on more than one occasion he and I had waded into a melee of students to stop fist fights. I understood the gravity of the situation and quickly put together a team of teachers who had concerns and ideas about discipline improvement.

We began with a review of classroom discipline statistics and found that 25% of our student population (1,600 students) had disciplinary infractions within the past year. However, only 5% had multiple infractions. We agreed that our priority would be to address the latter group of students first.

Several recommendations came out of our effort. In the years since, I have shared what we learned with a number of leaders who recognized that their organizations were suffering from the impact of a few poor performers. My hope is that by sharing it here, you will also be able to use the results to your organization's benefit.

Every day we go to work and 75% of the people we deal with, clients and colleagues alike, are an absolute pleasure to be around. Unfortunately, 5% are nearly always difficult to please. Their actions pose a risk to morale, and they are constantly contributing to a toxic environment. They may be frequently tardy, unresponsive to correction, disinterested in the performance of the team, or constantly mouthing off. You have probably seen some of these behaviors in your workplace.

The subtle key to the morale of the entire organization lies in how you handle this small group of interlopers. If you continue to accommodate their behavior and give one warning after another without consequences, that behavior will not change. We see this in military units, classrooms, and industry. Worst of all, how you handle these few is quite visible to the 20% of the group that are not necessarily the 75% good performers, and not quite in the bottom 5% category. That 20% is waiting to see what you will do. If you continue to be lenient, they may ask, "Why should I strive to be like the 75%, when I can get away with how the 5% perform? What's the use?" Now you have a real problem on your hands — 25% of your organization could begin underperforming, dooming you to failure.

If you meet the challenge head on and deal with the underperforming 5% in a professional manner, such as explaining your expectations, counseling, providing an improvement plan and applying proper discipline, they may respond positively. But, don't count on it. Experience and statistics show that they are more likely to relapse and continue with their previous disruptions. In business, separation from the organization becomes a viable option after you have given them a chance to improve. Check with your HR Department.

Is this heavy-handed? Not if you hold the welfare of the team as a priority.

I had a business associate that had just taken over as a plant superintendent in a failing operation. Production and quality were poor, and morale throughout the union workforce and management team was low. He was searching for ways to energize his workforce when I explained to him the need to first address those few poor performers that have such a domino effect on the rest of the team. One month later, he confirmed that he had identified two foremen that were constantly causing problems on the floor and with the management team.

He called the two aside and gave them the option to get on board with improved performance or they would have to move on. They opted to quit, apparently thinking their actions would be supported by rank and file. They made a bad assumption. After hearing of the departure of the "5%," other labor leaders, rank and file, and managers streamed into the superintendent's office the rest of the day saying, "Those guys should have been let go a long time ago!" The plant soon became profitable, with significant improvements to production and quality.

As leaders, we should always be on the lookout to identify good performance and provide proper recognition. However, when you sense that there are poor performers impacting your team, be prepared to take immediate action. How you handle that 5% will determine whether or not the "on the fence" 20% will join the 75% based on how you lead. You will be much more successful with a 95% buy-in.