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The cost of peace at any price

16 September 19

The word of Gold: when we face up to conflict and handle it well, the result is a stronger business. Why, in that case, are we are so tempted to avoid it?

by Stephen Gold

I’ve been engaged by law firms for many different reasons, but a recurring theme is that a conflict has arisen which bringing in an independent person will help resolve.

It is striking how often the reasons for disagreement have not previously been brought out into the open. One side seethes under its breath at underperformance, lack of vision, poor behaviour, or perceived unfairness, while the other is either blissfully unaware of the issue, or has concluded, rightly so far, that no one is ever going to do anything about it. The problem often feels especially personal in smaller firms, where the principals are constantly in close proximity.

It is ironic that although lawyers are so skilled at arguing a case on behalf of others, they often shrink from asserting their own views when they anticipate a difference of opinion. Conflict is seen as intrinsically bad. Keeping the peace is to be prized above all. 

In 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler, arriving home with the notorious “piece of paper” signed by the Führer, committing to peace in our time. That worked out well. “Appeasement” has ever since been synonymous with weakness and stupidity. 

I have referred previously to the work of  Harvard professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, and his conclusion that the most effective company boards are those which embrace conflict. Companies are best led when directors have an obligation to argue their case passionately, as long as they are motivated by doing what is best for the whole business, not a personal agenda, and get behind whatever decision is finally reached.

The seeds of resolution

The alternative to war is diplomacy. Henry Kissinger said that diplomacy isn’t like engineering — solving problems as they present themselves, moving on to the next one — but more like gardening: cultivating relationships, not for their own sake, but so they can be called on when you need them.

A leader’s primary task is to be a good gardener: planning, tending, nourishing, and where it’s for the good of the whole garden, deadheading. Leaders who cultivate conscientiously and win trust are in the best possible position to have difficult conversations when they need to. Not only is there no need to fear such encounters, avoiding them is a fundamental failure to do the job. The best way to create a big problem is to chicken out of dealing with a small one.

We live in a taxing world for diplomats in which populism is on the rise: Trump in the US; Salvini in Italy; Orban in Hungary; Bolsonaro setting the world alight, literally, in Brazil. Their opponents complain that these leaders, and others, are failing to act in accordance with the “rules-based international order”. Whether you agree with this or regard it as self-interested whining by the “metropolitan elite”, just as gardens need good soil to flourish, so successful societies need to be firmly planted in a rules-based culture which does not just talk about, but actively practises values promoting decency, transparency, fairness and respect. Business is an important part of society, and these imperatives apply emphatically to every enterprise.

Putting it into words

Big law firms are not immune from having to deal with aberrant or underperforming partners; far from it. But one reason why their leaders often find it easier to tackle them is that they have gone to the trouble of formally documenting what behaviours are expected, and the processes to be followed if they are not. It is less usual for smaller firms to have this degree of formality, but whatever the firm’s size, this is an exercise worth doing. Every statement of values will be different, but some values are universal: putting the clients’ interest first, the firm’s second and one’s own third; a commitment to mentoring and supporting colleagues; intolerance of abuse of power, or a lack of respect, effort, or integrity.

In putting yours together, ask everyone for their views. The greater their involvement, the greater their commitment to the outcome, and sometimes the most unexpected people have the best ideas. If you are doubtful about whether any particular statement reflects what you are trying to achieve, apply the “duck” test: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Incidentally, on the subject of quackery and conflict resolution, I note that Ainsworth’s Pharmacy, the homeopathic supplier endorsed by Prince Charles, is now selling tiny grains of Berlin Wall diluted in watered-down alcohol, to help people overcome barriers in their life, thus upholding homeopathy’s proud tradition of having made no difference at all, to anyone, since 1796. Call me old fashioned, but I think you’ll find what I’ve suggested is a better formula.

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. t: 07968 484232; web: www.stephengold.co.uk Twitter @theworldofgold

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