I was recently mediating a situation between two individuals. It was a very difficult situation because the problem had been going on for a long time, approximately fourteen months. These two individuals were fairly senior in the organization. However, their relationship was in turmoil. These two executives were acting like children and it became such an issue that the Human Resource group asked for help. Unfortunately, they waited a little too late. I am not exaggerating when I say that it would have been difficult for the situation to have been worse. The only thing these two people had not done is hit each other, although some threatening language had been used. One of the executives actually oriented one of their new employees by sharing negative information about the other executive, coaching them about what to look for, and then asking the employee to sit in on meetings as a witness.
There were two reasons why this effort was going to be a challenge at best. The first reason was a lack of trust. So much time had passed, with conflicts occurring without resolution or even understanding. Each of these individuals needed answers about what was going on. And true to form, both of the individuals made sense of these conflicts from their own point of view. To create meaning, they had to make many assumptions and fill in the blanks that existed. They chose this path, rather than listening to each other and trying to see things from the other person’s perspective. Amazingly, human nature generally shows that under stress and in ambiguous situations, we fill in the blanks incorrectly or exaggerate; usually toward the negative. In every situation, these individuals infused negative motives on the other person and provided opinions as facts to support their perspective. They also saw themselves as innocent, and did not seem to take responsibility. After fourteen months of this self-indulgent behavior, it is easy to see how they could not trust each other. Each saw the other person as a caricature, a villain if you will. And they saw themselves as saints. Their own self-interest was a barrier to building a relationship with the other person.
Self-interest was not the only reason why this was such a difficult situation. We should ask why they had never worked through these issues. Why did they let this go so far? Why did the organization as a whole allow this to keep festering? What prompted these problems in the first place?
A number of factors had an impact. Politics, reporting structure, geographic distance, dissimilar professional perspectives, personality and differences in communication style all played a role. But they created a bigger issue…Fear. Yes, the four letter word. Both of these individuals were fearful of something. One of them was new to the company and their role. They had a lot riding on their entrance into the company and wanted everything to go perfectly as planned. The other individual, who had just been told they were now reporting the first individual, felt as though they were losing freedom, and their relationship with the president of the company was being impacted by this new player. He saw his career being impacted by a new player and wanted to be viewed as he was previously. Both individuals acted out of fear or risk rather than opportunity.
The further down the road they went, more was at stake, especially when they painted the other individual as the villain and themselves as a saint. If they were to resolve this conflict, both of them would have to acknowledge their own challenges and faults. Fear can became a larger obstacle when trying to resolve a problem. This was added to the concerns that already existed; because this had gone on so long and had become very public, they knew people were watching, including the president. While we would like to believe that this would create the proper pressure to work through the issues, it actually creates the need for some people to protect themselves.
Unfortunately, that is what occurred in this situation. One of the individuals rose to the occasion and the other individual engaged in self protection, negative attacks, and breaking agreements. The irony is that this individual was afraid of looking bad, and in the end they lost the respect of a number of people because of their behavior. If they had resolved the conflict, they would have improved their image in the organization, their relationship with the president, and positively impacted their career and organization.