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Managing conflict constructively

1 February 02

Engage in inter-office battles only when positive and necessary

by Westwood, Fiona

Solicitors might relish conflict, but we must engage in inter-office battles only when positive and necessary, says Fiona Westwood in her ongoing series examining practical solutions to common office problems

For lawyers, conflict seems an inevitable part of our working lives. As a result, we have become inured to its effect on ourselves and other people. “Normal people” are astonished by the tone of the letters that we write to each other and at the aggressive behaviour that we have become all too familiar with. Even the most routine of client files seems to become antagonistic and polorarised. Gone are the days when we helped out fellow solicitors to ensure that both sides completed the matter with the minimum of aggression.

Whilst we may have to be willing to battle for our clients’ rights, we do not have to adopt the same approach when we work with people within our firms. Many of us have come to dread partners’ meetings with their history of bad behaviour and point scoring.

Some conflict is inevitable given the type of work that we do. Also, some debate is necessary if we are to run successful firms. Accepting that conflict is embedded in the work we do, we need to develop ways of managing it without causing distress. In this article, I will concentrate on dealing with internal conflict, albeit that many suggestions may apply equally to client situations.

Establish when conflict is positive and necessary

Professionals are by their nature independent. We are trained to argue and debate and stand our ground when people disagree with us. However, we must distinguish between when such an exercise is useful and when it can be extremely damaging to our relationships with other people in the firm. We should not be in the habit of arguing for arguing’s sake.

Handling conflict is never easy. Even those of us who appear to relish a good argument can feel drained at the end of a day of endless debate and discussion. However, it would be naive to imagine that we can eradicate conflict forever. Most people work better under positive pressure, as we need to stretch ourselves and be stretched to produce our best work.

Just as too much conflict is exhausting, the absence of conflict is also a cause for concern. It can imply that people are too comfortable with their jobs or simply do not care. However, conflict to be healthy has to be constructive. Strong partnerships can cope with debate and arguments. Creative tension can produce very powerful solutions. For example, I do my best work with people who challenge me, force me to debate my point of view and justify my stance. These are often people, from other disciplines to my own, who “think differently” from me.

We need to seek a balance between no conflict and too much, between positive tension and negative aggression. Where we have damaging conflict, the underlying causes need to be dealt with and not ducked. Otherwise, issues will fester affecting the dynamics of everyone’s relationships as other people, even those not directly involved, feel the resulting tensions.

Define acceptable behaviour

It is important therefore to establish parameters of acceptable behaviour. Professionals have a powerful impact on other people and how they respond. We can all think of firms who have developed their own identity – unpleasant and unhelpful; commercially astute; gentlemanly and old fashioned. People within these firms become comfortable with behaving in a certain way and copy it themselves. People, who are not comfortable, simply leave.

Partners in particular must be wary of this – they will set the behaviour of the firm. If they adopt a confrontational style with each other, their staff will mirror that in their behaviour. Because we are so used to conflict, we may not be aware of how uncomfortable it can make other people. Some people hate conflict of any sort and will leave the firm, rather than work under that pressure. More worryingly, when conflict becomes the norm, our whole attitude to work and our relationships adopts a similar stance, often resulting in stress and health problems.

Regardless of how confrontational a situation is, there is no excuse for belittling behaviour or personal ridicule. If people have a significant concern this should be aired directly with the people concerned and not talked about behind their backs. Standards of behaviour must be set by the partners in particular.

Don’t avoid conflict

Most firms will have at some point to deal with underlying tensions. Some partners may feel that others are not pulling their weight, others that the firm needs to generate more profits and others that life  is becoming too unpleasant. Unfortunately these issues will not go away, but will fester and surface often at the wrong moment.

It is important therefore to deal with the conflict on open terms and in a planned way. We need to identify the underlying causes – the real problems that need to be addressed. These are often fewer in number than the apparent problems as unhappy and frustrated people cause problems for problems’ sake. However, identifying the real issues may open up some fundamental concerns around relationships and/or profitability which do need to be aired but in a constructive way. Professionals are skilled at picking destructive holes in ideas and decisions. Even when they intellectually agree with what is proposed, they will disagree with it in practice as it cannot surely apply to them!

Depersonalise issues

We have established that lawyers are trained to debate issues. It is essential that where debate is required that we depersonalise it. We should not, for example, wait until one of our female partners is pregnant to try to agree a maternity clause in our partnership agreement, nor wait until the senior partner wants (or doesn’t want!) to retire to start talking about succession issues.

It is important therefore to deal with specific difficulties in a structured and informed way. As we would with any client problem, we need to prepare fully for any discussion, working from established facts and hard data rather than subjective opinions! From that basis, we should aim to use people’s debating skills to generate a range of options and then analyse them objectively. Lawyers have intellectual abilities which allow them to think conceptually. These should be harnessed in a positive sense, rather than left to generate esoteric points of debate. Similarly, often people do not realise until it is too late the damage that has been done by a subjective and irrational argument.

Win the war rather than the battle

Partnership requires the skills of a parliamentary lobbyist – knowing who to influence and when! Within the firm, there will be a number of key people who influence the behaviour of others. They should be tackled one at a time to establish their agenda and aspirations. They should be supplied with as much objective and accurate information as possible, so that no one should go into a partners’ meeting, where key issues have to be agreed, unprepared.

Influencing skills to be successful have to be subtle. They include empathy, the ability to listen, to communicate well and directly and to build long term relationships. In many of these situations, we are seeking to influence people over whom we may not have direct authority. We need to be able to gain their commitment and buy-in to what we and the firm are seeking to achieve. We also need to remember that partnership is an enduring relationship based on trust. Sometimes longer-term objectives have to be preferred over shorter-term objectives. To manage conflict constructively we have to be clear about what we are seeking to achieve. Too often, people concentrate on winning the battle and end up losing the war! We need to treat these situations as we would any negotiation. We should not concede a point without asking for something in return.

The best influencers resemble good chess players, in that they think strategically and long term, and are able to remember the interaction of relationships. They appreciate the importance of losing “a pawn” to win a longer-term advantage. This longer-term approach is particularly important in partnerships where future relationships are the key to a profitable (both monetary and quality of life) firm.

How to do it?

  • Don’t avoid conflict – creative tension can be valuable
  • Tackle it directly and get to the underlying problems
  • Set standards of acceptable (and unacceptable) behaviour
  • Be positive and open with everyone
  • Debate a range of options, keep discussions objective and impersonal
  • Work out the key influencers and tackle them one at a time
  • Remember the long term and don’t get distracted by immediate battles
  • Don’t be a soft touch – get something back in return
  • Remember that future relationships are the key to a profitable firm

Fiona Westwood runs her own management and training consultancy specialising in working with the professional sector. A solicitor with 20 years experience of private practice, she established Westwood Associates in 1994.