Series on Dealing with Difficult People – Conflict resolution

Difficult people do exist at work. They come in every variety and no workplace is without them. They are often involved in various conflicts at the workplace (both major and minor). A good leader is someone who is capable of diffusing these conflicts and one who can lead all the people to work harmoniously with one another.

Annette Innella is the new senior VP for Knowledge Management at Concord Machines. She knows her proposal to establish a cross functional knowledge management committee is progressive thinking for this old-line manufacturer.

Bob Dunn is a senior and respected member of the organization. He is the general manager of the Services Group, which has in the time since he joined brought in half the revenue for the entire company. He’s just returned from a two week trip around the globe to gear up his troops to beat revenue targets again, despite shrinking budgets and hiring freezes. He has been handling a lot of assignments and has gathered up a huge workload with very little help from anyone else. He has also had a problem recently in his family wherein his son was arrested for drunk driving and possession of alcohol as a minor. All this has led to a lot of stress for him. And what does he see when he gets back? An email from Annette requesting that two of his best people devote half their time to what he calls her “idiotic” Knowledge Protocols Group. ‘He’s carrying the company on his back, and she’s throwing nonsense at him’, he feels.

Bob finally breaks down and as he sees Annette coming into the lunchroom with one of her high profile consultants, he starts screaming at her. He throws his lunch tray against the wall and stomps out, leaving Annette stunned.

Bob is a gruff and has a hot temper, but his staff loves him. He is one of the only big shots who ever sits down with the common staff and talks to them. The HR director however is incensed; Bob’s never been a team player, he complains, and it’s time he learned a lesson.

CEO Jay Nguyen is in a bind. Bob is his top manager; he brings in all the money. And even though future revenues are going to have to come from somewhere else, Jay is not totally behind Annette’s initiative in the current business climate. He can’t afford to lose Bob, who is the company’s highest revenue getter. He has been assigning more and more workload to Bob in order to meet the company’s profit margins. But if he reins in Annette, it will look like he’s condoning Bob’s outburst.

The big problem at this company is not Bob Dunn’s behavior; it’s Jay Nguyen’s. Jay has clearly been for some time busy with fundamental issues about the company and its future. But, equally clear, he has failed to share his thoughts and concerns with the rest of his top management team. No wonder Bob finally broke down, he’s been put in a untenable position. His CEO is pushing him to focus relentlessly on the near term even as other executives are being urged to look out toward the horizon.

So, while Jay deals with the immediate mess, he needs to do some deep-and fast-thinking about where he is taking the company and what he wants from each member of his executive team. And when he needs to meet the team and lay all his cards on the table. CEOs can’t have secret agendas.

As for the current situation, healing the wounds is going to take careful listening and straight talk. Jay needs to sit down with Annette Inella, apologize for his own miscommunication, and then let her speak her mind, no matter how long it takes. She needs to know that he empathizes with her and shares her shock and disappointment at Bob’s tantrum. But once she’s had her say, Jay needs to deliver a hard message.

Assuming that Annette knew about the financial pressures facing the company, her decision to suddenly launch an initiative that would distract the business unit was unconscionable. It may also have been that Annette, who is rather new in the corporate world, may be the wrong person for the job at hand. If Jay truly has serious doubts about her capabilities, as he seems to, he is going to have to bite the bullet and guide her toward a decision to be reassigned or to leave the company. It may be possible to have a B-list person manage an effort that is already up and running, but when it comes to spearheading a new, critical initiative, you need nothing less than top tier talent. Jay may need to cut his losses with Annette.

As for Bob, Jay needs to reinforce the message that what he did was a big mistake and that he needs to apologize to Annette- in person. More important, though, Jay needs to tell Bob how valuable he is to the company. Bob is too important to be allowed to feel alienated by this incident- or even to be distracted by it. And then Jay needs to change Bob’s marching orders. He needs Bob to delegate day-to-day decisions and firefights to his lieutenants; Bob cannot, and should not, continue to do everything himself. Moreover he should be given some time off to deal with the personal issues he is facing at home.