Editorial: Infighting

Jun 20, 2014

Mark Zweig offers six pointers that will help resolve conflict inside the company.

Professional services firms such as architecture and engineering companies are owned and run by smart people. I’ve said it before – as someone who got his terminal psychology degree vicariously through his ex-wife – that the average IQ of principals and top managers in an A/E/P or environmental firm is probably in the top two percent, or higher, of the overall population. The problem with that is that when you put a bunch of these people together in one place (i.e., the office), they don’t always get along. Different people have different ideas about the direction of the firm, their priorities, what the other guys’ priorities should be, and more. In some cases, there are even wildly different values and belief systems, which further complicates the situation. Fundamentalist Christians may be working alongside atheists, hardcore conservative Republicans next to diehard liberal Democrats, northerners next to southerners, “logical” men with “intuitive” women, “thinking” engineers with “feeling” architects. You get the idea. These are smart people with different histories and in some cases radically different orientations. That’s good and bad. It may make for a more creative, diverse workplace. But it can also lead to conflict and infighting. Lots of it. So what can you – as the CEO or top manager of your unit – do to combat this? Here are some thoughts:
  1. Get everyone’s input. People like to share their two cents. They want to be heard. Yes, it is a problem in our business culturally. All owners and managers want veto rights on all decisions. You cannot give them that or it will paralyze the company, but you can fully listen to their input.
  2. Keep everyone focused on the overall company goals. The business plan – with a worthwhile mission and inspirational vision – is really critical here. People have to see how achieving these things is going to be valuable to them. You need to be sure you have a plan, that everyone knows what it is, and then be the head cheerleader to sell the thing to everyone in the organization. If the real goals of the business are appealing to a broad range of people, you can minimize the negative effects of internal disagreements.
  3. Respect the other person even if you disagree. This is critical and it’s not always easy. You may be a staunch Republican and just can’t agree with your Democrat partner. So you point that out and try to sell or cajole your partner constantly. This isn’t good. It contributes to the division in your company and really isn’t relevant to doing what you have to do, which has to be directed outside the company to your clients and customers.
  4. Be honest with people. It’s hard to do. When people fight with each other you need to bring them together. You need to let them each know you care, listen to their concerns, and fully air out their differences. But if you agree with one or the other on a course of action (and we’re talking about the business here, not politics, religion, or child rearing!) you need to let it be known to all. If you are the “boss,” it’s your job to decide who/what is right and act accordingly.
  5. Show your appreciation for all. Everyone wants acknowledgment for their efforts and accomplishments. Give praise when it’s due so people realize that you can see what they’ve done. This, too, isn’t always easy. Everyone is busy and you aren’t always with the people who are making it happen.
  6. Bang heads together if you must. Sometimes two people – in spite of your best efforts – will simply not be able to overcome their differences and can not/will not get along. I have even had cases of this with husbands and wives who worked together, side-by-side, in the same business. You may need to confront both at the same time, together, and point out how their behavior is damaging everyone else’s morale. And if repeated attempts to do this fail, one of the two may need to go do something else and that may be OK.
The point is, you will have conflicts. It’s OK if you stay calm and work to find a resolution. When you have strong people who deeply care about the company, I’m sure almost anything can be resolved. Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com. This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310), issue #1061, originally published 6/23/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.