Why Do We Never Think Of Managing Conflict Situations?


Wednesday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. – Sun Tzu

Many of you reading this have probably read Sun Tzu’s quote and nodded approvingly.

An slightly more amusing one comes from a play by Wole Soyinka I read decades ago: “…in time of trouble it behoves us to come together, to forget old enmities and bury the hatchet in the head of a common enemy”

All I remember about that time was, alongside being involved in plays, I saw my first Siamese cat and ate my first battered prawn.

But, we digress.

Let’s talk about children instead.

Children are interesting: little people with boiling emotions simmering close to the surface.

They haven’t learned to protect themselves yet with a thick, hard crust that keeps everything under control.

When they’re upset they erupt, emotions flowing through gaping cracks, anger everywhere.

And the thing is when we grow up we’re not really that different.

Yes, we hide it better, but underneath the surface those emotions swirl away, still hot and turbulent and ready to come out.

But for many years our theories of management assume that people are really rational.

I have been recently introduced to the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World edited by Jonathan Rosenhead and in the first ten pages he points out that the way we make decisions misses something very important.

If you have any experience of markets, for example, you’ll have heard people talking knowledgeably about decision making under things.

Like decision making under risk and decision making under uncertainty.

With risk, you know what could happen and will happen if one of those things did happen.

Sort of like betting on horses.

With uncertainty, lots of things could happen but because there is some kind of pattern you can be more confident that some things will happen rather than others.

Sort of like the weather in the next day or so.

Anyway, Rosenhead has a paragraph that describes this using quite technical language that brought up images of the recent Jurassic Park movie, which I then tried to explain to the little person sat next to me.

When you make decisions under risk it’s like having to make a decision about a dinosaur fossil – it’s pretty safe and just sits there and you can poke it and prod it and nothing’s going to happen.

Decision making under uncertainty is like having to make a decision about a live T-Rex, but one that’s been thoroughly sedated and is sleeping in front of you.

Not quite so safe, but you’re confident nothing bad is going to happen.

Real life decisions, however, involve dinosaurs that are wide awake and looking at you menacingly and end, as most of the movies of the genres do, in conflict.

And so really we should spend a LOT MORE time studying how to make decisions under conflict situations.

And the picture above is a start at mapping the relationship between conflict and outcomes.

Let’s try it with experiences with kids that you’ve either had or likely will have.

If you and your child end up in a shouting match you both lose.

It’s no fun and you could just end up stomping away from each other.

That gets increasingly likely as they get older and bigger and more bloody minded.

If you can still dominate them you might win – but it’s not going to make them feel better or leave you feeling good.

That’s the thing about battles – no one wins.

What happens if you avoid conflict – but use emotional blackmail or passive-aggressive methods instead?

Again, no one ends up happy. Bosses that try to avoid conflict rarely have happy staff – all that bottled up emotion gets let out somewhere else – where it doesn’t do any good.

The best way to resolve a conflict is not to fight and to have both parties win.

Which is why Sun Tzu’s remedy is at best temporary.

If you defeat an enemy without fighting you still have an enemy.

You need to think better.

And so perhaps the best quote that sums up the approach you could take when trying to manage decision making under conflict comes from one of those little people again – probably from a programme they watched on telly.

“Daddy,” said the little person, “how do you defeat an enemy?”

“I don’t know. How do you defeat an enemy?”

“By turning them into a friend.”


Karthik Suresh

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