When Good Conflict Goes Bad

"For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate." - Margaret Heffernan

The 50 –year partnership of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger is a fascinating study for many reasons, but especially in terms of how they communicate.  Buffet has described it as having a comfort and ability for “intense discussion” that comes from a “complete lack of envy.” That sounds ideal, but for many people in partnerships this can be very difficult to achieve and maintain. 

Most leaders see the value of constructive conflict and welcome being able to test their thinking, especially about major decisions.  . In order for a partnership to be a healthy and thriving each partner must add a different perspective and be willing to advocate strongly for their position.  Sometimes, though, this healthy conflict that is so critical for a thriving business partnership can turn into something that becomes destructive to the business, the partners’ relationship, or both.  With very rare exceptions, the partners with whom we have worked have expressed that the most valuable part of their partnership is having someone with whom to vet complex issues; someone whose opinion they respect. The value is not just coming to a decision, but the vigorous discussion to get there.

Recognizing the signs

What if these heated discussions become viewed as personal attacks or the discussion becomes circular and partners begin to avoid the issues, or each other?   It can make sense to have a cooling off period, and often during these periods it is natural to seek out another perspective.   Sometimes this can be a reality check and result in a breakthrough or at least open up a different approach for possible resolution.  But problems arise when the outside perspectives start to take the place of direct communication. This is a clear sign that the issue is moving away from constructive resolution.  Often the outsider chosen is one who can be counted on for support, and factions begin to take root.  The further this goes, the more difficult productive conversation becomes.

Lack of transparency also makes the situation ripe for misinterpretation and deeper division between the partners.  At worst, it erodes the trust needed for the partners to thrive. Finding out that your partner has been discussing your issues with others can feel like a betrayal.  If there are discussions with others, it must be done, if not together, then with the knowledge of the partners in conflict.

Too often, it is only in retrospect that partners see the action taken, or avoided, that led to serious damage to their partnership.  By recognizing the signs in real time, partners might achieve their version of the Buffet-Munger ideal.




TAGS: Mediation


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