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My lessons in conflict management…

Today I had an altercation with one of my staff members. I had assigned her some work, and when I reviewed it, I found she had done a shoddy job. So naturally I called her attention to it and reprimanded her. ‘What is this?’ I demanded.

 But her retort was very rebellious. She flounced out of the room saying she could do no better and she was fed up of doing thankless jobs.

 My reaction in turn was that of considerable annoyance. Her quality of work was deteriorating by the day, now I had to put up with bad attitude to boot. I was tempted to ‘show her who was the boss’ and  toyed with the idea of ‘letting her go’. But wisdom prevailed, and I didn’t react at the moment.

 Later, I was reading about how JRD Tata dealt with conflict with Abdul Bari, the fiery, intemperate president of the Tata Steel Workers’ Union.

 In 1938, when as the newly appointed head of Tata Steel , he met Bari, JRD was upset, to put it mildly, as he listened to Bari’s angry and quite unjustified onslaught on the management. That evening, JRD must have wondered how to deal with this man of violent emotions, liable to explode into equally violent anger.

 Yet, when the next morning JRD met Bari face to face for a further round of meetings, he found a shift in his view of Bari. ‘I found to my surprise that I could not help admiring and even liking this extraordinary man, uncontrolled, but totally honest’, JRD recalls.

 ‘As I greeted him with a friendly smile and shook hands with him, I saw a change take place in his face which I interpreted rightly, as

I found out later, as astonishment at finding not only that I felt no resentment for his violent attack on us the previous night, but was genuinely friendly towards him. We laughed together when I gently asked him whether we really deserved his lambasting of the previous evening, and he replied, ‘Tata Saheb, I am really sorry, but when I get onto a platform I get excited and can’t control myself!’

 An unlikely relationship based on mutual regard developed between the gentlemanly chairman and the aggressive union president.

This anecdote demonstrated three wonderful principles of conflict management :

 The first is the way in which we regard the ‘adversary’ in our own mind. If we feel scorn, or hatred, or fear or anger, it will surely get communicated through word and body language. We can challenge the other party, but if we threaten or insult, we are already taking the first step to ensure a breakdown in communication.

 The second is the actual communication should be made with zero animosity. This requires an effort to replace angry thoughts about the “damn fool’ with ‘her intentions are not bad’ and genuinely look for the positives in the person.

The third is a readiness to compromise, not on principles, but on approach and methodology.

 So later, the ‘new me’ called her to my office and explained: ‘Look, I know how hard and sincerely you work. Its my shortcoming that at times I find faults, and don’t appreciate you enough.’ (This was true).

At this point she interjected smugly, ‘I know about that.’ But her stand had softened.

‘I think you are a good person and I value your work. But I need you to improve the quality of the jobs you do, and now please redo this in the way I explained.’

She was quite mollified, and went away with a positive frame of mind.

How do you deal with conflicts in your life?

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