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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Groups in Conflict: How to Manage their Relationship

James Voorhees

You have a problem. Your team cannot get its work done because of "those guys." They simply won't cooperate. Say your team is in charge of network security and "those guys" are the server crew. They don't patch. They don't give your people the access they need. They don't let you update your antivirus clients. You can't do anything without a fight. Because of them you are ineffective. You can't do your job. And their leader, Madeline, is a real....

It could be any two groups. You could be the server crew, stymied by the router team. Or it could be software development struggling against testing and QA. The focus here is on IT and on groups within one organization, but it could be any two groups that interact frequently in the course of doing business, that find themselves in conflict more often than not, and whose interaction renders them ineffective, that is, unable to get things done.

Similar conflicts can be seen everywhere, not just within organizations. The Israelis and the Palestinians. Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia. Americans and Soviets during the Cold War. Blacks and whites in the United States. Town and gown in American college towns. The stakes in many of these conflicts are higher than those that are our concern here. But tools developed to deal with such conflicts can be useful to the leader determined to break down the walls that make his or her team unable to do their job.

The Concept of Relationship

One key tool that can be used is the concept of relationship as developed by Harold Saunders, distilling the experience he gained from working on a variety of conflicts over forty years. It provides a framework that you can use to analyze the problem and find ways to manage it. This framework is a mental tool that you can bring to each meeting, each informal encounter, each time you interact with the people on the other side. We'll also suggest some things you can try that might help change the relationship. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to find common ground with the other group, so that you can work together to get your jobs done.

A basic concept that lies behind the tool is that your problem is with a group of people, not just a box on an org chart. That may seem obvious, but it is often a greater conceptual leap than many of us might expect. We often tend to think that our frustrations are caused by, say, 'HR' or 'Marketing' or a competing company (such as 'Lockheed' or 'Booz'). In government, it might be 'State,' 'DOJ,' or 'OSD.' Like the helmets on the Storm Troopers in "Star Wars," this makes it easy to pretend that the opponent is mechanical rather than flesh and blood. But you can't have a relationship with your Roomba.

The tool also assumes that this problem is not a one-time thing. You are going to have to deal with these people again and again, over an indefinite period of time. This means that your analysis of the relationship can be updated and the measures you take to change the relationship can be added to, subtracted from, or simply improved. It also means your group and the other operate in the shadow of the future: any action, any dirt done or favor given, can be reciprocated. So, each group has a reason to cooperate beyond simply the sentiment that it’s good to play nice.

Now, on to this framework. There are five elements to a relationship: identity, interests, power, perceptions, and interaction (Saunders 2005).

This is how each group sees itself, both standing alone and in relation to the other. Your group’s identity has several components. Its members, taken together, have a set of characteristics: number, gender, ethnicity, education, and so forth. As part of an organization, it has a task or set of tasks that it was brought together to perform. It has a style of doing things: formal or informal, united or divided, argumentative or agreeable, egalitarian or follow-the-leader. The group will often have shared experiences working together. These things, and others, go into how a group sees itself.

They also shape the lenses through which one group sees the other. Who we are, and who we believe ourselves to be, drives how we deal with others. Is the group confident that it knows its job? It will approach another group confidently. Is the group divided; do its members lack confidence in one another? It will bring those divisions to the table.

When looking at the identities of your group and the other, your analytical task is to try to understand how each side sees itself. You know what the world looks like from your own shoes. You will need to step into theirs and compare the view.


There is a common line of thought that says that interests are defined objectively: Where you sit determines what you want. There is an element of truth to that. If you live in Delaware, you don't care much about California taxes. But real interests are partly subjective: they reflect what we want and what we fear. Even more, we often cannot know these interests ourselves until they come into question. For example, President Bush the elder, in all probability, could not have said that he would be willing to put 500,000 troops into the Saudi desert to liberate Kuwait until after Saddam Hussein invaded.

Once we get away from basic needs like food and shelter, we have to prioritize our wants and many of our fears. While I want a Ferrari, there are a few things that have a higher priority, for a variety of reasons (like price, things needed rather than wanted, competing desires, and my wife's opinion). Similarly, my group - any group - can have greater and lesser interests. Their interests will probably not be exactly the same as mine, but there are likely to be interests in common. When trying to improve the relationship, the task is to discover how each side defines its interests, what priorities are given, what interests the two sides have that conflict and what interests they have in common.

There are many ways to define power. It is one of those seemingly simple concepts about which social scientists have written volumes in their efforts to understand it (Voorhees 2002). It can mean the ability to get or do what you want. This is a simple definition, but adequate. If you want to lift a 50 pound bag and can, you are powerful. If your group wants to examine all router logs and can convince the router guys to give you access to them, you have the power. Power in this sense does not need to be coercive; a subtle influence can get you what you seek.

The relative power of two groups is important. Indeed, much conflict arises because one party has the power to frustrate the other. And vice-versa. There are also constraints to the power of both sides. They may affect each group equally, or one more than the other. In any case, it is important to find out what these are. Depending on the issues facing the groups, these constraints can be their budgets, the formal or informal policies of their organizations, or the wishes of those further up in the hierarchy. Taken together, these constraints form the parameters within which the groups must operate.

Your analysis, then, should tell you both what each side can do relative to the other and what keeps them from satisfying their interests.

Perceptions are how each group sees the other. It is commonplace that people rarely see each other accurately before they come to know each other. Instead, preconceptions based on the characteristics that help define identity and observations of the other's behavior are used to define the other group.

Consequently, misperceptions often run rampant. When two groups do not work well together, it is common to perceive that the other side is not to be trusted. Each action is interpreted in the worst light. You might ask how each group sees the other and then ask, why do they have those views?

What happens when the two groups encounter each other? They will have certain ways of communicating with each other. They might do it primarily at formal meetings. They find e-mail, the telephone, IM, or text messaging comfortable. It could be that informal meetings in the hallway, the cafeteria, or at happy hour are common.

Their experience with other groups will have produced patterns of interaction and "rules of the game." Meetings might be held every Tuesday at 2:00. One group might always produce the agenda, the other the minutes. Or they might just gather at that time and talk (not a best practice if the meeting is formal). Each group might always sit together, on its side of the table. Or the two might intermingle. Asking personal questions, such as "How's the family," might be common, or not done at all.

Remedies for a Relationship

You've used the framework to look at where things stand between your group and the other. You've begun to define the problem. What can you do to change things? Your goal is to change the dysfunctional relationship into one that works for both groups. The task is then to get the groups to work together.

You can work to change the way each group defines itself in order to foster something of a common identity. A simple way to begin this is to make sure that when the groups come together, they mingle. Instead of sitting across the table from each other - as one sees in pictures of international negotiations - they can sit side-by-side. They can share tasks, like taking minutes. One team might do it one week, the other the next. The more the two groups do work in common - the more they interact - the more likely it is that the elements of a common identity will grow. Familiarity can breed contentment.

As noted, the two groups assuredly have interests in common in addition to the interests that pull them apart. It has been said that an attack from Mars will produce peace on Earth. Why? Because the Martians make us realize that we have enough interests in common that we define ourselves as residents of Earth rather than black or white, Christian or Muslim, Russian or American.

The trick with two groups is to have both sides recognize what their common interests are. That takes listening and engaging in dialogue, not debate (Gerzon 2006). What's the difference? Debate is like football, you either attack or defend; each side wins or loses. Dialogue is like the Vulcan mind meld: each side listens for the concerns of the other and, where possible, incorporates them into its own picture. As Saunders put it, dialogue requires "treating colleagues with respect, listening carefully to their concerns and perspectives, and trying to find common ground for ways of thinking, talking and working together." (Saunders 2005). The result can be that each side believes the other understands and can address its views of the matter at hand. A shorthand approach to beginning dialogue is not to open a conversation with your conclusions or proposals. Save those for later. Begin with your interests and the reasoning behind a position that you need to explain. And don't imply that the concerns of the other side are neither important nor legitimate (Fisher and Ury 1983).

If neither group can do what it intends to, their power, or lack of it, must be about equal, at least in regard to the issues that have them interacting. It is important, however, to recognize the constraints that each faces. It may be that each has a power that the other one needs. Server administrators, for example, can control the access that developers need; developers write code that the company needs. Such differences can lay a foundation for a bargain and for work to ensure that both sides' interests are met. Or, the mutual need of both groups, perhaps for a larger budget to accomplish a joint task, may make the two groups effective working together.

Perceptions can change as the relationship does. The key to overcoming misperceptions is the fifth element of relationship, interaction. The groups must interact in a way that fosters trust. Just as identity changes with interaction that makes the groups more effective, so do perceptions. Your analysis should suggest the misperceptions the other group has of your own that need to be changed. That change is in your hands: you must be certain that your team doesn't feed the misperceptions. Given time, that is doable.

Once you see what the patterns of interaction are, you will probably find myriad ways of changing them incrementally. We have mentioned some before. Another might be to meet informally over coffee in the cafeteria or beer at happy hour. That can do much to change perceptions. Interacting in ways that foster trust is essential. Do not take action unilaterally; as Fisher and Brown put it, "Always consult before deciding." That is, when your action can affect them, ask for their opinion and take it seriously. Fisher and Brown give four rules of thumb for interaction that foster trust: Be predictable. Be clear. Take promises seriously. Be honest. Interaction that follows those precepts should help make your relationship with the other group one that allows both groups to work effectively together.

There is no guarantee that it will. You are dealing with people, after all. However you choose to try to change a relationship, show patience. You will not succeed overnight. After all, it is unlikely that the conflict was fiction. The idea is not to end conflict; it is to put it into a different, broader perspective, one that will let you get past the bottlenecks in your relations with the other group that made it hard to do your job.

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Fisher, Roger, and Brown, Scott (1988). Getting Together: Building Relationship that Gets to Yes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company.
Fisher, Roger, and Ury, William (1983). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books.
Gerzon, Mark (2006). "Moving Beyond Debate: Start a Dialogue." Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge for Business Leaders, 22 May 2006.
Saunders, Harold H. (2005). Politics is About Relationship: A Blueprint for the Citizen's Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Saunders, Harold H. (1999). A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts. New York: St. Martin's Press.
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