Life Would Be So Easy If You’d Just Do Things My Way!

by Susan Spero

It seems that there are very few universal truths anymore. People and situations change quickly and often. Individuality and diversity tend to speak louder than homogeneity and consistency in most organizations. Identifying oneself as outside of the norm is an important behavioral model for many employees today.

There is, however, an ironic discrepancy that often shows up in the teams and departments of many organizations. A manager may have collected the most intelligent, technically skilled people in their field who have all of the right experience and lots of motivation to perform well. If, by contrast, those co-workers have “personality clashes” and lack the skills to negotiate healthy work relationships, their technical expertise is almost irrelevant. Their chances of success and productivity are slim or none.

Two of the most frequent reasons that management consultants are called in to a client system are to

a) mediate between two warring employees, either boss-subordinate or two peers, or

b) coach an entire group or department in how to pull together and work as a healthy, productive team.

Why are these types of interpersonal conflicts so prevalent? The causes are numerous, but the most common sources of friction include:

1. Very different personality styles and preferences, as measured by instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory,

2. Disparate levels of experience and confidence, causing some people to hold back, while others try to dominate and gain control of situations,

3. Conflicting needs and priorities, which are often exacerbated by dwindling resources, business downturns, layoffs, etc., and

4. Individual “baggage,” stressors or agendas that people bring in the door each morning, that have more to do with their personal lives and background than current work situations, but that directly impact co-workers with their “toxic” by-products.

Any time you collect a group of more than ONE person, you have the potential for at least occasional conflict. [Some people can have an argument with themselves, alone in a quiet room!] But it is not these intermittent episodes of a “bad hair day” that managers and executives lose sleep over. It is the insidious effects of long-term battles on the adversaries themselves, as well as on all or most of their colleagues who share their work environment.

Unfortunately, it rarely works to have one person try to convince their nemesis just to “sit down, be quiet and do things my way!” There are, however, some proven steps that leaders need to take when addressing these sorts of issues.

1. Begin by defining the problem. This is sometimes done by the manager, the Human Resources person, an outside mediator and/or coach. When possible, get input from the people directly involved in the conflict, either individually, or together in the same room. Some questions that help frame this defining process include:

a. What do you think are the issues or sources of conflict between you?

b. [If relevant] What do you see as the causes or historical background for this situation?

c. What would things look, sound and feel like if the relationship between you were ideal, or at least improved?

If the conflicting parties are in the room together, it is important to set up some ground rules about how to convey opinions and how to listen, so as to avoid the further escalation of tensions.

2. Summarize and draw conclusions from the information gathered in the first step. Look for themes, similar concerns on both sides and for concrete, specific issues to address. Depending on the people involved, it is best to do this with all of the involved people present. When tempers are too hot, this is not always possible.

3. Based on the first two steps, make decisions about remediation options. Determine if it would be most helpful to

a. Mediate and coach together the two or three people who seem to be at the center of the conflict,

b. Coach, train and strategize with the entire team or department, so that they work together to improve relationships, change disruptive patterns and learn to coach and support each other, or

c. Advise and support one or more of the individuals involved in a one-on-one setting, based on who is most receptive to coaching and who is most motivated to reflect and explore new options for communicating.

The specific skills and strategies which are explained, modeled and practiced must be tailored to the nature of the conflict and the needs of the people involved.

4. Develop a specific plan with decisions and agreements that emerged from the remediation options you choose. This should include

a) WHO will do WHAT for WHOM, HOW and by WHEN,

b) what are the specific steps taken by each person,

c) what will be the concrete measures or behavioral indicators that mark progress, and

d) WHO will follow up HOW with WHOM by WHEN to assess that progress.

If these elements are not clearly delineated and agreed to by all of the relevant parties, the preceding steps have been a waste of time, and little or no improvement will occur.

Ideally, the people involved will use the tensions between them to learn about themselves, creatively solve problems and possibly identify a new “our” way to replace “my” way. In most cases, they will at least find an acceptable middle path that provides for some flexibility between their diverse viewpoints, styles and needs.

If Spero & Company can be of help to you with any of these steps, feel free to give us a call. You can reach us us at 303-671-9030 or email us at

© 2005, Spero & Company Consultants, LLC

Other articles by Susan Spero:

Implementing Change: Lessons Learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

6 1/2 Reasons to Hire Us

POWER THINK: A Tool for Triggering Creativity, Enthusiasm and Solutions!


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