The Politeness of Conflict

UBS is coming to grips with the loss its ‘rogue trader’ has inflicted on its balance sheet.  The latest tally is approaching $2.3 billion which is a stagger sum of money.  It is safe to say that the hows and the whys will be sorted through, and debated for the months to come.  The one description of Kweku Adoboli (the rogue trader) that struck me in the Wall Street Journal is how his co-workers described him as being extremely polite.  Being polite is certainly a favorable character trait especially when it allows you to hide $2.3 billion in losses.  Of course if he were a rude prick I’m sure lots of managers would argue to ‘only hire polite people, they won’t lose $2.3 billion’.     In reality it is deeper than an either or.

This incident reminded me of a article by Don Schmincke and Darryl McCormick titled “Is Politeness Killing Your Profits?”  In the article the two argue the point that when we are overly polite we end up avoiding open and honest constructive criticism which then in turns destroys the performance of the organization.  To take this concept further it seems that it is possible for the organization to value ‘politeness’ above all else which will then reward managers for the backhanded complement, and leads to passive aggressiveness behavior. Ron Ashkenas refers to this as conflict avoidance in his HBR Blog post “Is Your Culture Too Nice?”  Again Ashkenas argues that being too polite is going to stifle creativity and growth of the organization.

The utopian balance sought is to create a culture that is polite, engaging, collaborative, and thrives from conflict.  The conflict though must be rooted in the belief that each party is trying to grow the organization rather than protect a personal insecurity or revenge a prejudice.   Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes engage this thought in their HBR article “Want Collaboration?: Accept—and Actively Manage—Conflict”.  Messrs. Weiss and Hughes advocate building culture around embracing conflict to gain the performance advantage for the entire company.  The crux of achieving this they offer is establishing a common set of standards or protocol for how the organization responds to conflict.  In this way everyone has been trained and indoctrinated into the “right way” of dealing with conflict.  This best practice for conflict that the organization adopts details the approach, when to compromise, and when to estate the conflict higher in the organization where the process will repeat itself.

Theory of Constraints offers a solid framework to establish a culture that embraces conflict.  If every employee has the tools of the conflict cloud in hand they can embrace the conflict with the peer and find a win/win solution.  The conflict cloud starts with a common objective and builds upon the assumptions each party is making.  Together breaking the conflict to find a win/win will drive better solutions in the organization.  The process is very non-confrontational which is why most of us avoid conflict to begin with.  Tthe virtue of ‘polite’ is disarmed by the conflict process and each party is free to disagree and explain why of course without being rude.  It is no longer an attack on the person but a difference in method to achieve the same common objective.  By using the TOC Conflict cloud the conflict is no longer personal and talking about it becomes easy.   Using a tool like the TOC conflict cloud allows everyone in the organization can speak to a common set best practices as Weiss and Hughes suggest and still maintain a cordial, even call it polite interaction with co-workers.  It is only from this universal behavior towards conflict that the organization will grow and flourish.

It will be interesting in the coming months as the events at UBS unfold and become public to see who knew what and when.  Maybe had Kweku’s manager stepped up and had a conflict conversation using a conflict best practice, UBS’s shareholders would be $2.3B better off today.


conflict, conflict cloud, polite, team, theory of constraints, toc

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