Avoiding Hugh's Law By Using Functional Conflict

Hugh MacDonald

I spent the better part of the last 30 years working on mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, outsourcing arrangements and complex organization projects of all kinds.

Over that time, there is one thing I learned over and over again: 50 percent of complex organization projects—especially joint ventures and outsourcing—fail.

They "fail" in that they do not achieve all of the benefits that were planned when the deal was crafted.

I've called this Hugh's Law.

Forewarned is forearmed. And, there is a simple solution to Hugh's Law: good governance supported by a good workplace relationship.

Workplace relationship management (WRM) is different than customer relationship management. The focus on WRM is on your internal clients and external partners. The goal is to have a relationship that surfaces truth—one where conflict is considered functional. It allows tough issues to surface where they can be dealt with.

Conflict: The Key to Relationship Management

The goal of good relationship management is to be unconditionally respectful and communicate with honesty. I remember working with a new senior executive who had just joined a firm where I was assigned as his human resources business partner. He came to me one day shaking his head and asked me if the executives and managers in the company didn't like one another. I asked why he thought that might be the case and he said, "Simple, they don't tell each other—or their employees—the truth."

He was right. Sometimes it takes more effort, and more time, to tell others the truth. We've all seen managers who give their staff, year after year, average reviews to avoid having to provide more challenging feedback. But the problem with not being open and honest, especially with vendors, partners and clients is that issues are left to fester and get worse. By moving them to the table and dealing with them, not only does the problem get solved, but a good, effective relationship is created.

Giving Conflict a Fighting Chance

There is a Chinese proverb, bu da bu xiang shi, that roughly translated means,"Without a fight, we don’t really understand one another." This is undoubtedly true. Lewis Coser, one of the seminal thinkers in the field of conflict analysis, certainly agreed. He argued in the '50s that conflict is neither negative nor positive in itself. It is not conflict, therefore, but our reaction to conflict that is good or bad. Without some conflict, no one would challenge the status quo.

Conflict is highly functional. It surfaces truth and allows problems to be identified and managed. Looking at it this way, conflict is necessary to grow and learn.

Like the civil servant whose job it is to speak truth to power, one of the most important tasks of an HR or any other relationship manager is to uncover and surface workplace conflict—not to cover it over or ignore it. Only then can we analyze it and do something about it.

In short, relationship management is not suggesting a group hug when things go wrong, or focusing on the positive to the exclusion of all else. It certainly is not about having a fancy lunch or going to a ball game. It’s celebrating when it makes sense to do so. And, having a tough, respectful conversation when it doesn't.

Want to know more? Visit HR MacDonald Training and Development.