Friday, February 28, 2014

Conflict resolution - Perhaps we should be more childish!

It is natural to want to avoid conflict, but it may not be the best way. You may be surprised to learn who had the courage to stand up in the face of anger and constructively work to resolve a conflict, and who had not. (Photo: Henrik MÃ¥rtensson Yep, that's me. Model: Ida Stranne.)
You should not decide until you have heard what both have to say.
–Aristophanes, c. 446 AD – c. 386 AD
I have seen two interesting cases of conflict resolution recently, showing off two very different methods of resolving conflicts.

Even more interesting than the different approaches, is who chose which approach. Read on, you will be surprised, or maybe not.

Case 1: Scream and make up

In the first case, two people worked together on building something, but they had different ideas, and constantly got in each other's way. They took a break, and decided to go out together, to let their tempers cool off.

When they came back, the conflict had escalated to the point where they were screaming to each other, and one of them left to go home.

About ten minutes later, the person who had left came back, apologized, and said he wanted to make up and be friends again. He said he valued friendship more than the thing they had been trying to build.

It took a few minutes, but eventually, they were both talking. A few minutes after that, they continued on their project, and it worked well. Since then, the two have worked on more projects, and worked very well together.

Case 2: Repress and remove

Repressing the message by removing the messenger has short term attraction, but it does not solve the problem. It often creates new ones. The problem is that excercising power is much easier than excercising courage, good judgement, and empathy.
The second case was in a sales network team. A recruiter who used personality profiling in his work asked another team member to take the test. The idea was that if the second person took the test, he would then be comfortable acting as a sales agent for the first person.

For this example to work, I need to delve into the background first, so you understand the full consequences of the repress and remove tactic used. I am sad to say, repress and remove is as common as it is costly.

It should be noted that the recruiting agent had sold his services to more than 400 companies, and tested more than 14,000 people. The recruiter claimed that his test was an infallible way to identify top talent, the very brightest and smartest people.

In this case the second person happened to be a top performer, and according to other tests, both personality and IQ tests, friendly and a borderline genius. He was exactly the kind of person the recruiter claimed to be able to identify.

When this person took the test, he ran into some difficulties:

  • It was an ipsistic test. Ipsistic tests are designed as counseling aids. They do not yield results useful for comparing different individuals. For example, a very stupid person with little empathy could get a score that says there is a 50-50% balance between intellect and emotion, but so could a very intelligent person with high empathy. (Job applicant tests usually use the Likert scale.)
  • The test forced test takers to prioritize two different statements, without knowing the context. The test was an online questionnaire designed so you could not skip a question and continue. 
This is downright stupid. For example, "X is a letter" and "I need to breathe" are both true, but to prioritize them, you need to know context: Are you teaching a child to read and write vs. are you suffering from oxygen deprivation. 
Intelligent people do consider context! It is a hallmark of high intelligence and empathy, and yet, the test was designed to barr such people from even completing it.
To put it bluntly, to complete the test, the test taker would have to fake being less intelligent than he was, which he refused to do. (In retrospect, the test taker admitted that hiding his intelligence would have been a lot smarter.) 
Approximately a third of the questions were designed this way.
Not only was the test fake, it faked the wrong type of test!

There were more problems with the requitment method. The recruiter had a method of identifying the ideal personality profile for a particular job. What he did was to profile employees with the same or similar jobs, and then create a profile based on averages from the ipsistic test scores.

You may note there are two things wrong with this:
  • If your ideal profile is the average of what you have got, you will get more average! Real top performers will be way different from the average, and have no zero chance of passing the test, unless they are lying their way through it.
  • Computing an average score from the results of an ipsistic test is an excercise in idiocy, because ipsistic test scores are not comparable from person to person.
There were other things, like failing to make a distinction between introverts and socially selective people, which is important if you want to identify top performers. The recruiter also cited examples of customer satisfaction as evidence of the effectiveness of the method itself. This is entirely bogus. For example, an astrologer may have many satisfied clients, but astrology itself does not work.

Now we get to the interesting part:

The test taker went to the recruiter and asked why an ipsistic test was used for comparative testing. The recruiter promised to explain why, if the two could have a meeting, but then made a complaint to the team management. Exactly what the recruiter said, the test taker was never told.

The team management then used an intermediary to tell the test taker that the test taker was expelled from the team. The team management would tell the rest of the team that the test taker had decided to quit the team.

There was to be no action against the recruiter, who had fooled more than 400 companies into using a test procedure could not identify, and even excluded, the people they were looking for. More than 14,000 people tested, and misclassified by a flawed test.

Considering that finding real talent, or not doing it, can be the difference between surviving and going down in burning flames, I'd say the repress and remove tactic can have pretty devastating consequences.

Who did what?

I wish adults could act more like children: Ethical, courageous, and prone to do the right thing, even when it is difficult.
You might not be too surprised when I tell you the team management who chose the repress and remove tactic included:

  • a CEO
  • a board member
  • a management consultant specializing in investigation dysfunctional management teams.

You may be more surprised when I tell you who the two people who, despite anger and screaming, managed to do productive work and strengthen their friendship:

  • Two eight year old children playing Minecraft
I have seen a child go and make up, even though he was so afraid he was crying. Still, on his own, he made the decision to resolve the matter in the best way possible. He knew what was the right thing to do!

I wish there were more childish people in management and leadership positions. Perhaps, we would then have better ways to resolve differences, and a better future for all.

What do you think? How should we resolve workplace conflicts? What is required to make a solution effective, rather than just talk and wishfull thinking?

If you have an opinion, please do comment.