Human beings have always debated issues and tried to convince others of their position on a particular matter. Ancient philosophers spent their entire lives pontificating over trivial and complex matters. Rhetoric was an indicator of one’s intellect, leadership and vision.
Today, as societies become increasingly complex, conflicts between ideologies are bound to increase. Step by step, companies have become increasingly multidimensional. As a result, conflicts arise in one’s personal and professional life but for the sake of this article, the latter is of prime importance.
Three sides to every story
Rampant double talk exists in corporations. On the one hand, companies seek to position themselves as progressive and open-minded to external stakeholders (potential employees, media, small individual shareholders, academia…). On the other hand, management views those who ask questions and rebut the institutional imperative as troublemakers. So which school of thought takes precedence?
Larger and older firms have a higher propensity to assume that the company’s ways are correct and irreproachable. Realistically though, the long-lasting companies turn out to be the ones that shatter their business models, anticipate emerging trends and embrace new technologies.
A couple of years ago, a national bank was at a succession crossroad. The media, employees and analysts all expected the more conservative senior executive in charge of retail banking to take over. His financial results were stable and his track record impeccable.
On the flip side, the investment banking head had seen his division take a beating as a result of Russia’s debt default and the LTCM debacle. Management had to choose one man as the successor. Who was chosen? Despite what everyone thought, the investment banking head emerged on top because he took bold risks and encouraged public debate to steer the bank’s direction. In hindsight, the company made the right decision.
Avoid tunnel vision
Smaller firms tend to suffer from another cancer; such firms tend to have less of an operating history. Moreover, the founders and original managers are usually running the show. Going against any generally accepted tenet is seen as blasphemous. Why fix what’s not broken?
After all, would you have the moral conviction to urge a young Steve Jobs to open up his operating system to every computer maker just because that dropout from Redmond was doing so?
A fight is worth fighting when…
Picking your battles
Recently in the dot-com economy, many young founders were attached to their original visions and therefore mortgaged the company’s future in order to maintain the status quo. Today, these firms are no more.
One way to ensure that this does not happen is to bring on your “board” individuals who have the courage and conviction to test the young genius that runs the offense. This said, the board member cannot reinvent the company to suit his vision.
To many, conflicts connote a derogatory meaning. Many seek peace, harmony and coexistence, and few like to see heated debates that eventually lead to anxiety and discomfort. Yet these same people sometimes display a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.
What’s up doc?
Many factors explain this split personality. It often boils down to a highly idealistic sense of justice, very little to do with oneself but more to do with an overall system. It is easy to be quiet and allow for injustices and inequality to take place, especially when it does not involve you.
Even the most diplomatic people seem to be confrontational in the eyes of colleagues. But by carefully choosing your battles, you can emerge as a fair, effective, ethical, and strong manager. How you determine whether the battle is worth fighting is the real challenge.
The consequences of the issue at hand must justify the political rhetoric and potential warfare. However, rhetoric is positive, warfare is not. It is thus of utmost importance that the issues remain clear. It is very easy for previous skeletons to creep out of the closet. This is a slippery slope and is equivalent to corporate suicide.
A sharp counterpart would immediately pounce on the fact that you took your eye off the ball. And for all intents and purposes, the ball remains the issue at hand and nothing else.
How can you emerge as a sound manager and avoid becoming a slick politician when there are always two conflicting forces at play? Firstly, one cannot always bark up the same tree. It is necessary to keep previous arguments in the back of your mind, but if your future position is a reflection of previous debates, then you are nothing more than a politician, not a solid manager.
Secondly, while you cannot flip sides, you must be able to distance yourself from previous debates if your views have changed or if new circumstances change your perspective. While many may pounce on this, you must be driven by the same fundamental greater purpose and raison d’être, but be free of any bias when discussing a specific topic.
Don’t get personal…
Professional, not personal
The third thing to remember is that one should never make matters personal. If you are convinced that you are right, then you need not sling any mud or make personal attacks. Mud is slippery and once you slide down this path, then you are the loser. Never jeopardize your perspective by taking the focus away from the conversation and shifting it elsewhere.
Perception is everything
Perception is what makes or breaks careers. It leads to promotions when they are unwarranted and explains dismissals when they are least expected. Things are not always black and white; perception is largely subjective and could never be accurately predicted. Even if your audience never casts their vote, in the forum of public opinion, whether or not you think you are right is irrelevant.
You need to be perceived as right for good to come out of any dispute; otherwise, you are a troublemaker. This is one sign that the battle is not worth fighting. It is thus crucial for you to understand the jury as much as you must know your adversary. And even then, there is no such adversary within a company. The adversary is really a teammate or coach who shares your passion. The real victory has little to do with your trivial debate. You are both losers if you let your debate stand in the way of the greater goal: success.
All of these factors are useless if you fail to accept what has led to the downfall of many great leaders. There is no absolute truth — no such thing as right or wrong. Managers and business leaders in particular are often vilified in the present but vindicated in hindsight. While one may derive some satisfaction out of a retroactive vindication, saying “I told you so” is only detrimental once the verdict is rendered and the damage is done.
Balls and Strikes
Unlike some athletes that emerge as winners and others that walk away as losers when the game is over, business is a continuum with no end and no real beginning. Furthermore, sports scores are carved in stone when the game is over.
Since success (however you define it) is the ultimate victory, all you should care about is driving in the run and not belting it out of the ballpark. And even if you do not drive in the winning run, just avoid being the third out so you leave the chance to someone else. This is where teamwork comes into play. Remember one thing at all times: arguing balls or strikes, or whether you should bunt or not, is secondary to ensuring that the runner touches home plate.
Bottom of the 9th
Being perceived as a fair and ethical manager is the equivalent of having a man on base with no outs; in other words, you are ahead of the curve. If the facts are on your side, then you just moved your teammate into scoring position without even taking a swing. But swing you must in order to present the facts. And when bats swing, egos get bruised and conflicts tend to arise. This is when matters get dicey, as any previous incident of corporate warfare looms over your head like an out.
Suddenly you find yourself with 2 outs and a full count. What do you do? This is where the men get separated from the boys.
Internal struggle, external target
What happens to this specific count is trivial. After all, the season runs over a 162-game schedule. At-bats are a dime a dozen. Whether you swung when the manager told you to take the pitch or froze when you had the green light to make contact is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Different scenarios call for different strategies.
When push comes to shove, only the championship matters. You can debate strategies all night long, just remember that the manager is in that position for a reason and the man at the plate is there for another. Mutual respect, trust and an unparalleled desire to win are what will make the end goal come to fruition. It is now you at bat, so keep your eye on the ball and keep the inning running.
Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com.