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What’s Your Conflict Story?

Source | LinkedIn : By Robert Goldberg

Two founding partners of a technology startup asked me to resolve some of their conflicts. Hal initially convinced me that Dave was an antagonistic bully. Dave then convinced me that Hal was a scheming weasel. Yet when I met them individually, they both seemed quite pleasant. Was either of them right?

No, they were both wrong. Hal and Dave fell into the Fundamental Attribution Errortrap. The FAE is a cognitive bias, or thinking error, through which we ascribe other peoples’ irritating behavior to their personalities (i.e., ‘he completely took over the meeting because he’s a control freak’). But we attribute our own behavior to the circumstances we are in (‘No one was stepping up so I had to move things along’).

In other words, the FAE leads us to think our own motives are clean but our opponent’s motives are dirty. And it gets worse: Once we fall victim to the FAE we tend to see anything the other person does through that negative lens, which reinforces our damaging assumption. This would be amusing if it weren’t so destructive.

For instance, Hal thought Dave was trying to take over the firm because Dave called a few large clients when Hal was on vacation. And Dave thought Hal was scheming against him when Hal discussed sensitive topics with staff before their weekly meetings.

As I listened to Hal and Dave’s competing accusations, I realized that the source of their friction had little to do with their similarity to weasels or bullies. Rather, they were two strong-willed executives who sometimes felt threatened by their partner’s actions. This led them to blame the other for doing something against them. I suggested a process to get at the heart of their rivalry and provide them with tools to manage their differences without me.

Domains of Control

Our first step was to isolate where friction existed, and where it did not. This helped them see that they were actually aligned in many areas. We then discussed some areas of friction (these were low in frequency but high in impact) and how they usually handled them.

For example, their current standard was whoever took the first call cultivated a new client and got extra credit for the sale. This caused conflict and confusion. I said that until they clarified their procedures and decision domains they would continue to ‘box each other out.’ So we assigned either Hal or Dave as primary lead in key areas based on their strengths and interests, but to include their partner in key decisions. I asked them to practice this for a month to see how it felt.

What’s the story?

When we got back together, I was encouraged that they had asked each other for input through the month even if they were lead in a particular area. And they figured out an equitable process for handling incoming calls. This made me confident to dig a little deeper into their Fundamental Attribution Errors.

I asked them each to tell a story of when they were upset by their partner’s behavior. I asked them to focus on what happened, and to explain why their partner acted in such a fashion.

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