After several pallets of pricey parts were rusted and ruined in a rainstorm, two red-faced managers argued loudly over who controlled production space and who was responsible for the costly disaster. Each manager insisted he was right about what should have been done and who was to blame for the ruined parts. Neither knew how to break the standoff.
Standoffs in the workplace are common and costly. Like most, this one spread far beyond two managers’ dispute over production space. News of the incident spread to dozens of employees who talked about it for days when they should have been focusing on their work. Worse, departmental employees wrapped themselves up in the controversy and stopped cooperating, which crushed productivity. The demands of the business got lost in the ongoing conflict. This costly standoff schooled the organization on the importance of quickly resolving unproductive conflicts.
You can break an impasse in three ways: collaboration, accommodation, or compromise. Collaboration usually results in higher quality decisions that others will support. When employees are included in a decision, they are intrinsically motivated and often achieve surprising results.
Even so, there are occasions in a standoff when accommodation or compromise is the best or only viable way to move forward.
The following questions can help you decide what to do in a standoff:
- Is the problem urgent?
- Is the decision one that can be easily changed if it doesn’t work out?
- Is there willingness to consider a different stance?
- Is one side better qualified to make the decision?
- Is it important for your adversary, or others, to embrace the decision?
Collaboration. This gets people working together better than any other decision strategy. It can take time, so it doesn’t work well in emergencies—after all, when you’re trapped in a burning building, you don’t want rescuers collaborating for an hour about how to save you. In most other situations, though, it produces higher-quality solutions and more support for them.
Collaboration emphasizes connection and cooperation and can sound like this: “We both want to resolve this, but we can’t do it alone. Would you be willing to consider the success of the whole at the center of this decision, be flexible, and seriously consider each other’s ideas?”
The managers in the rusted-parts standoff could have compromised, but a weak solution would likely cause problems to resurface. One side could have accommodated the other, but the deferring side might not have felt committed to the decision. Since the situation wasn’t an emergency, the managers took time to collaborate to prevent another disaster. They involved their employees in the decision on how to share space, and because the resolution involved everyone, both groups were willing to support the decision.
Accommodation. Accommodation is useful when a decision is urgent because it ends debate. It requires both sides to accept that someone is better qualified to make the decision and a willingness to defer to that person.
For example, the IT department may want you to use its technology solution because it integrates better into the organization. As long as you get the results you need, it makes sense to defer to IT because of its company knowledge and expertise. If there isn’t a willingness to acknowledge or defer to expertise, a third party could help make that determination.
Compromise. Like a “hot meal” served cold, compromise can leave everyone feeling like what they got was barely better than nothing. It works best when time is a factor and you can easily revisit the decision. In spite of its drawbacks, when nobody will budge, compromise could be the expedient choice.
Compromise means someone gives up something in exchange for something from the other. It requires a back-and-forth to eventually produce an acceptable middle ground. If the managers in the standoff had compromised when deciding how to use production space to protect the parts, they could have settled the dispute for the moment. Without collaboration, however, their solution would likely have been weak and unsupported, requiring them to re-visit it later.
When you’re stuck in a stubborn standoff, collaboration, accommodation, and compromise can each get you unstuck and back to business. The latter two can do it quickly. And, in the heat of a standoff, compromise may be the only strategy that works. But always consider collaboration first; in most situations it produces better decisions both sides will support with better, long-term results.
Ascent Management Consulting is found at www.ascentmgt.com specializing in productivity improvement through innovations in leadership, culture, organization structure, and process redesign.