Before You Go – Resolving Intractable Conflict

I hope you enjoyed this series on intractable conflict.  As humans, we have feelings, opinions, observations, all fueled by our experiences and values.  Things I find rewarding, you might not care for.  Likewise there might be things you feel strongly about that don't really matter to me.  While values seem to be relatively consistent in societies, shaping the acceptable norms and mores, they aren't always universal and it is when we fail to appreciate differences for what they are, we end up in conflict.

In doing research on conflict management a few years back, I found literature from the remarkable cultural anthropologist, Montgomery McFate, gave me considerable insight into the challenges.  Of all her works, her article, "Does Culture Matter? The Military Utility of Understanding Military Culture" changed the way I approach many difficult situations as a leader.  McFate's work on cultural intelligence led to the creation of the Human Terrain System, ultimately establishing units within the United States military that help us understand our adversaries.  As McFate even quotes Sun Tzu in the first paragraphs of her paper: " If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."

Today, in fact, I happened to be listening to an interview on NPR with Vanessa Gezari, that was amazingly well timed.  The book she authored, "The Tender Soldier", has its basis in issues associated with the Human Terrain System, and so I plan to run out and get a copy.  But part of the interview covered the reasons for establishing and utilizing this project, and it definitely points out our own need as leaders to fully comprehend the perspectives, the values, and the beliefs of people we may have to contend with, primarily to aid in our communication with those individuals, but also to avoid issues that may exacerbate our negotiations.

Some emergency service leaders who read this may be saying, "That's nonsense; why do I need to 'understand' their culture? If I am the chief and I tell them to do something, they just need to do it."  And time and time again, look at the times chiefs are brought in from outside of an organization, or only have exposure to one part of a large organization, and then conflict occurs because they underestimate the signals they are sending by doing (or not doing) certain things.

I'll give you a little example.  Culturally, I would hope that nobody actually believes that any bean counter someplace would think it was a wise idea to deny benefits firefighters who die in the line of duty.  So when the decision was made to simply not provide benefits to the survivors to the Prescott (AZ) firefighters who died in the Yarnell fire, do you think they anticipated the backlash that would come from that?  Whomever made that decision without taking a moment to consider the repercussions really underestimated the reaction, not just from the locals, but from people around the nation and also with the firefighting community.  Legally, they have a case; these individuals were not employees, technically.  But the callousness of the decision and how it played out was, frankly, stupid.

The individuals who made the decisions, I'm assuming, were looking at the legalese of the situation and did not factor in how emotion and culture was going to impact this situation.  I would imagine that if it goes to court, if the survivors can find a sympathetic jury, they'll get what's coming to them and more, simply because people, even in this time where public safety seems to be get slammed daily, still respect and value our service.  I said it before in this series: you may very well be right, but you are going to get crushed in the court of public opinion.

Likewise with the issues in some of the management/labor fighting going on right now, only conversely so.  There is a perception, wrong or right, that some of the union firefighters in our nation are "overpaid crybabies" and this wasn't even said by a civilian, but a member of our own brotherhood (I'm assuming, but after 64 comments arguing the points, who's keeping track of who is who?).  Just read the comments in that article I linked and tell me we don't have issues of intractability brought on by an understanding of all the perspectives.

So to wrap things up, what I am asking for you to do is this: if you plan on leading others, the first place you have to go is to those people and listen to them.  Understand their side of the issues.  I didn't say you had to agree with them, but just listen, without being defensive or judgmental.  If you feel like defending a comment, don't.  Just listen.

The nest step is to listen to all the other sides, the people you work for, the people you serve, the people who serve you, and anyone else who might have a stake in the situation.  And again, just take notes and listen.  Fight the urge to comment, defend, etc.

Then with all this information, start reading it and making more notes, especially if you had questions or felt like you needed to say something.  Why does so-and-so feel the way they do about a certain issue?  Why do we make the crews do this?  Why do we make the officers do that?  Then, go out and this time, ask more questions and get to some of the root causes, or at least the perceived causes for what the issues are.

By continuing to drill down, you will start to realize a few things.  One thing is that sometimes we do things in an organization that aren't based on anything other than "That's the way we have always done that."  Something you can learn from Lean Management (I made it easy and gave you the link to Key Principles of Lean Six Sigma for Dummies) is that anything we are doing that doesn't add value to what we are doing for the mission is considered wasteful and a insult to our colleagues.  Get rid of processes or tasks that don't do anything for the necessary end product.

Another thing is that people will see you asking these questions and realize, you are on their side too.  We SHOULD be on the side of our internal customers as well as our external ones.  After all, it is they who have to deliver the service.  Why would we want to aggravate them?  Give them the resources they need to do the job and respect them, they'll be happy, and the result is the people we serve will be happy.  While we all want more money (I could use more money), I will GUARANTEE that having a responsive, respectful workplace where they feel valued will make up for at least some of the billions they think they should actually be paid.

Ultimately, though, by doing these things you establish two beachfronts in what sits at the heart of most intractable conflict: people will resist negotiating in good faith with you if they feel disrespected or misunderstood.  It goes back to trust.  If you have a good relationship with your people, they will begin to trust you, especially if you show you can be trusted.  And by asking questions and drilling down to the core issues, you should begin to really understand what the problems are, which are the main factors in misunderstanding.

There is nothing simple about resolving conflict. By failing to understand adversary culture, by ignoring the symptoms that our organization is dysfunctional, or by believing we can just bullshit our way through the issues and tell people what we think they want to hear, we create problem that are sometimes unfixable.  As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching: "All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in which that is small."  If we can solve our challenges at the base, and deal with them before they get big, we have saved ourselves significant heartache and effort later.

I want to leave you with two final quotes that will help you see the situation for what it is.  Again, Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching:

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

Before looking at others for the source of the problem, look inwardly at your own contribution.  If we can see our own failures, biases, and misperceptions for what they are, sometimes we can solve the issues before they even come to be major ones.  And finally, Napoleon Hill said this:

"The starting point of all achievement is desire. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desires bring weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat."

If we really want our organization to succeed; if we really want to solve the problems and make our own lives easier; if we truly want what is best for the people we serve, it is going to require effort.  Real, true, concerted effort.  And this isn't a one-man show.  Leading means convincing others to add their strengths together to build a bigger whole.  We must leverage the talents that surround us, keep the zealots and the haters negated, and work to the best solution so our organization can continue to do the right things.

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