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THE 1/9 STYLE: AVOIDANCE
The first, and by far the worst, of all conflict "management" styles is one that is frequently adopted by junior managers in the presence of intimidating superiors. It's the old yes-man style that editorial cartoonists are always ready to ridicule because it plays into the popular belief that every Big Business is composed of a dictatorial boss and a horde of minor toadies who want his job, and are willing to kiss ass for thirty years to get it.
Actually, this business-bating prejudice on the cartoonists' part is not entirely off base—at least not with regard to middle management's readiness to go along with anything the Big Bad Boss says. You see this all the time in big companies.
Example: At a team meeting of investment counselors in a major international bank, top management seems unanimous on a new investment strategy. The bank will begin extending loans to various Third World countries who are already deeply in debt, on the expectation that future oil discoveries will enable the debtor nations to eventually pay back all principle and interest. The one conflicting opinion in this meeting is that of a young investment counselor who fears that one of the already debt-ridden nations is a bad risk. The vice-president for international investments asks for opinions all around the table. What does the doubting Thomas do?
If he's a practitioner of the 1/9 conflict management style, he simply avoids the potential flare-up. He looks down at the table and defers to the general wisdom. Or, if he's gutsy enough to test the waters but not dive in, he raises his hand meekly and says, "The debt repayment schedule seems a little optimistic to me, but I guess there's risk in everything." Translation: You fools are getting us in way over our heads, but I don't want to make waves, because I don't want you to think I'm a troublemaker, and anyway you're older and wiser so maybe you do know best.
That's a pretty confusing message. But it's the best possible message you can deliver when you adopt the 1/9 style. We call it the 1/9 style because it leaves one party (in this case, the dissenting but intimidated manager) with one point out of ten, and leaves the other party or parties (in this case, the majority-opinion top managers) with an apparent nine out of ten. The numbers here refer not to any objective reality, but to the way the individuals involved feel about the encounter after it's over.
Here the dissenter feels he's lost badly, because he never got to express his opinion, and the others feel they've won, because the team has "agreed" to do what they intended to do all along.
The advantages of the Avoidance style are immediate and very clear cut. When you back away from a potential flare-up, or when you express a modest, qualified dissension and then defer to "wiser" counsel, you achieve the immediate advantage of avoiding trouble. You preserve harmony, save time that might have been spent in fruitless discussion, and maintain an ostensibly good working relationship with the team, which might serve you well in future encounters. In addition, you avoid taking on responsibility for what might have happened if your weird idea had been adopted—and you get to share the responsibility for what will happen now with the other members of the group. You get to be seen as a nice guy, a team player.
And what the hell, you might have been wrong. Maybe the problem you thought about will go away. Comforting, isn't it? That's why Avoidance is practiced so often, especially in the lower management ranks. But it's a deadly tactic, built on the crackpot idea that conflict equals disaster, and that preserving harmony at all costs is a necessary function of team motivation and management. Here are the disadvantages of adopting a 1/9 style:
1. No input. The group is deprived of the benefit of hearing what might be a valuable opinion, and the 1/9 practitioner is himself deprived of the opportunity of contributing to the joint decision. Since the decision is reached minus one member's potentially valuable input, it is necessarily going to be less creative, less synergistic, than it would have been with that input. So everybody loses.
2. No credibility. The anti-business press would have you believe that top executives like yes-men. Not true. I've never yet met a successful business person who wanted to be surrounded by characters without minds of their own—or by characters who were afraid to speak those minds. The first thing a 1/9 stylist hamstrings in situations like the one I've just described is his own credibility. And that's the one thing none of us can afford to lose. Gary Cooper got away with grunts and "Mmms" and head-nodding because his horse didn't really give a damn. Try that style in a business meeting and you're going to come off looking like a horse. Or part of one, anyway.
3. Instability. The 1/9 style might work once or twice. It might actually cut down on the aggravation that you're afraid of. But it's impossible to maintain it for more than a handful of meetings. Unless you're working with a roomful of clones, eventually somebody's going to say, "Jim, you agree with everything Mrs. Ryerson says. Do you have any ideas of your own?" Maybe the question won't come out as tartly as that, but
I guarantee you it will come out. And you'll have grunted yourself right into a hole.
4. Demotivation. Again, unless you're a manager in a clone factory, you want the people you work with to speak up, to give you input, to get Involved in creative solutions so that your quality and productivity and all the rest of those good things go up. You can't expect them to do that if you don't do it yourself. With them, with your peers, and with your bosses. There's nothing more demotivating to team performance than a manager who "doesn't want trouble." Remember that people may be ignorant, but very few of them are downright stupid. You can blab all you want about Involvement, but if they see you zip your mouth shut every time your supervisor says boo, they're going to nod "Wimp" and zip their own.
Now, all of these problems will arise even if your "going along" strategy proves to be the right one in the individual instance. Even if the majority is proved right and you were right in shutting up, you're going to be wrong in the long run, for the reasons I've stated. If it turns out that your cockamamie minority idea was on target, you're going to be in the ludicrous position of thinking "I told you so" and not being able to say it!
You'll notice that the example I've been talking about here is hardly a hypothetical one. You know there have been meetings like this one, in every major international bank, and it stands to reason that some young manager somewhere must have thought, "This Brazil loan is for the birds." Why didn't he or she speak up? And if he did, and was shouted down because of an unpopular opinion, has the current debt crisis proved his wisdom, and is he now president of the bank? I doubt it. It's so much easier to just let things slide, so much easier to avoid than to confront—until you 1/9 yourself right into bankruptcy.
How do we change this common style? How do we fight the natural tendency to let others do the talking until we're all picking up unemployment insurance together? We do it by practicing those Assertiveness techniques that I talked about in Chapter 7. My advice for the manager who feels trapped in a 1/9 conflict management style is simple. It's to reread that chapter, and to focus especially on learning to identify your individual rights in a given situation, and on learning how to express your opinions even when—maybe especially when— they conflict with those of others in your working teams.
Assertiveness techniques do not make conflict go away, but they do help to move the conflict in a positive direction. If you are able to state your own differences of opinion in a calm, direct, and nonaggressive manner, you have a reasonable chance of transforming potential hostility into a discussion where Involvement really happens, and where Creative Problem Solving has a home. You also—and this is far from incidental—have a much better chance of getting others in your group to do the same. In fact, that's one of the major side benefits of using Assertiveness to modify a 1/9 style. It gets other people motivated to assert themselves, too—and the ultimate outcome of that benefit is the synergistic, 9/9 style that every good conflict manager wants to achieve.
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