Giving Them the Problem

Much of our work as leaders and managers is concerned with working through conflict: communicating challenging news, giving tough feedback, or resolving situations where it seems like one or both sides won't be able to get what they want. Recent research by the Eckerd College professors who developed the Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) instrument suggests that a third or more of a typical manager's time is spent dealing with conflict and its consequences, and up to two thirds of work performance problems stem from ineffectively managed employee conflict.

Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, working through conflict effectively can often lead to innovative solutions, new insights, and even deeper relationships. However, even those of us who are well-schooled in conflict management principles occasionally find ourselves getting derailed under pressure. We are all humans, and the fight-or-flight instinct runs deep.

So when one of our clients, a senior executive in a Fortune 100 technology company, came to us recently with an example of successful conflict resolution, we were so pleased to see results "in the field" that we asked if we could share the story as a case study.

The principle our client, John, tapped into is one we call "giving them the problem." It's not a new concept; in fact, it's a standard negotiating technique, but one that can be repurposed for breaking through workplace stalemates. Let's allow John to tell us how it works:

"I wanted to let you know that I tried out that approach we talked about during our meeting a few weeks ago, and it worked great! You remember that my colleague Raj and I were not at all on the same page about how best to execute a significant and complicated software project: I believed we should do it in-house, and Raj felt we should outsource it. And, to be honest, both of us were basically avoiding coming to terms on the issue, with the result that it was causing conflict and confusion between our teams, who really need to work together.

"I ran into Raj at a meeting last week, and suggested that we schedule a some time to talk about next steps. I also suggested that we include our most senior team members responsible for this project, Sheila from my team and Mike from Raj's. Raj agreed, and when we got together later in the week, I opened the meeting by proposing that each of us list what we saw as the pro's and con's of the two options (engaging an outside vendor vs. pulling together a cross-functional team), and then try to agree on a strategy.

"Raj began by noting that each alternative had pro's and con's, and that he wasn't completely satisfied with the proposals from any of the three vendors who had bid. Then Mike spent about ten minutes listing pro's and con's he saw, and concluded by arguing that while we needed to define a good solution, we really didn't need to create it ourselves. He expressed doubts about previous cross-functional efforts, but said that if we really felt the in-house, cross-departmental option was viable and achievable, he would be ok with it.

"Having listened carefully to Raj and Mike, Sheila and I then expressed our personal commitment and accountability to leading a successful development and transition effort with and for our teams, pulling in resources from both teams and engaging contractors as appropriate. We also expressed our concerns, for a project as critical as this one, about trusting outside vendors to deliver on time and at a high level of quality. Then we asked Raj and Mike if they thought this kind of approach would work: we "gave them the problem" and told them we'd respect their decision.

"After some further discussion of the details, we quickly reached unanimous agreement to execute the project with a cross-departmental team. Furthermore, we agreed that the right next step was to meet with a broad group of stakeholders from across the organization to define their requirements, while also interviewing the future users across the company to ensure that we had a good understanding of their needs.

"I was then able to let my boss know the project was back on track, and that we had strong support and even excitement about the approach we'd decided on. Mike sent a note out to Raj's team to let them know about the decision and next steps. We got to the right decision, using the right process. Everyone felt heard, and the level of commitment is now very high. Thanks again for your help in seeing the advantages of this kind of approach. I look forward to using it on other issues in the future!"

The principle of "giving them the problem" is not particularly novel, but it's quite powerful when used effectively. Often we get stuck in vicious cycles of conflict because we focus so much on being RIGHT rather than on the needs and perspectives of the people on the other side of the table. If we create forums for dialogue, listen carefully, "give up the problem" by letting go of control, and then stay attuned to what others are saying, in many situations our fiercest critics can become our strongest partners. And, best of all, the relationship is not sacrificed in order to achieve the goal. (In fact, in the situation above the relationships were greatly enhanced.)

If you have similar experiences or other successful conflict negotiation techniques, we'd love to hear about them, including your own case studies. Send us a note:

"You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That's assault, not leadership." --Dwight D. Eisenhower