Confrontation and conflict

Sep 24, 2015

We’re each leaving a trail behind us – our reputations and our effect on the world – as industry leaders, we should focus on making those as pleasant as possible.

If you have a leadership role in your organization – if you’re the place where the proverbial buck stops – you’re going to find yourself eyeball-to-eyeball with someone in-house, a client, or a consultant who is unhappy about something. The “something” could be work-related, or the person simply could have gotten into an argument at home before going to work and is itching for a fight.

You may be the boss and have the authority to say, “I don’t care what you think; this is the way it’s going to be,” but that is going to leave behind a very messy trail and reputation. Why do more and more people today seem as if they’re “just itching for a fight”? It’s nearly impossible to go into a meeting in any public forum from the United States Congress, a courtroom, a city council, or a planning commission meeting and not see the degradation of civility in our society. We witness it every day through examples of “road rage” on our streets and highways or fighting it out – horns honking and fists shaking – over a parking place at the shopping center. A bad attitude seems to be more common than not these days. I have neither the knowledge nor the academic credentials to tell you why we’ve devolved to this state, but I’ve taken it upon myself to work at remedying it in my own encounters. I’m increasingly running across people, young and old, who are saying, “How do I get away from this?” Returning to “the trail you leave behind” analogy, I believe this might be age-related. I’m finding older folks like me care; younger folks, less so. I’d like to make the case for why I think you should care, particularly if you’re young. People have long memories and, if you’ve worked out your aggressions by pushing back when pushed on, you’re building a personal brand of being part of the problem. That brand, or reputation, will be very hard to shed, making your job of leadership increasingly difficult. As I have become more conscious of these new rules of engagement, I’ve begun to watch for and study those who are pros at defusing conflict and reaching consensus on issues. One tactic I’ve used for years and have observed in others when faced with someone who is angry or just being disagreeable is to ask the person to “tell me more about that” in a genuinely curious tone. It’s non-confrontational, slows down the heat of moment, and delivers a very clear statement that “I respect you and what you have to say.” It does not imply “I agree with you” nor “I am going to cave on my position,” but it does provide an opportunity to listen to why the other person feels the way he or she does. Who knows: I may learn something by listening to the way the other person thinks, causing me to shift my position. At the least, the exchange will help me gain insights into how we’re going to negotiate a compromise that is acceptable to both of us. Then, there’s the termination discussion. This type of discussion doesn’t have to be about termination, as in dismissal. It could simply be an expression of concern when a person isn’t performing well. But the concepts and tone are the same. The person is performing poorly at their tasks. He or she doesn’t seem engaged sufficiently with the work, the team or the firm to figure out why and do something about it. You’ve concluded that the person no longer belongs with your firm. How do you have the conversation? Do you hand them their final check and say, “you’re fired”? After all, what does it matter to you? Once the person is gone, your problem is solved, right? Wrong! Every person who leaves your firm is part of the trail you’re leaving. If the person walks away disgruntled and angry, he or she is going to tell a lot of people about it. For years, prior to termination, I’ve used a very simple line, “You don’t seem happy here. Do you think you ought to look elsewhere?” With this phrasing, I’ve shown respect for a person who is clearly unhappy about something, and we’ve usually been able to work out a mutually acceptable exit plan. Occasionally, I’ve learned that the person was having a genuine problem with something or someone in the firm that I was able to correct, keeping a newly valuable member. When it is simply the end, I’ve reworded my line to say, “I can see you’re really not happy here. It’s time for you to find somewhere else where you will be happy. That’s what you deserve. Let’s work out how we’re going to make that happen.” Once again, I’ve shown respect for the person and offered to work out a gracious and honorable way for that person to move on. I sincerely hope you’ll try these ideas. First of all, it’s about time that each of us began to exert an effort to reinstate civility in our own lives and for those around us. Secondly, you’ll be leaving a trail of respect that will serve you well as a leader. EDWARD FRIEDRICHS, FAIA, FIIDA, is a Zweig Group consultant and former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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