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© Source: Anke Sommer
Der Konflikt ist ein unterschätztes und gefährliches Massenphänomen in Unternehmen. Dort wo sie sind, kann kein Frieden sein.

A conflict in the guise of normality slips into the system, its danger for the company unrecognised…

As a company consultant, I now know a great deal and learn more with every job I take on. The perennial issue in my practice, sadly, is conflict. Recently I asked myself what the worst thing about these conflicts is, as a successful entrepreneurial couple sat exhausted in front of me. They were drained from all the irrational battles they had fought, from the feeling of being trapped, at the mercy of the enemy who was once a happy co-founder of a good business idea.

None of that remains, only mistrust and an inexpressible over-sensitivity towards the other business partner. And lots of rage, blind, destructive rage…

Well, the answer to my question about the worst aspect of conflicts is the loss of rationality, linked to the mechanism of sitting out conflicts, closing your eyes to them, and only coming to seek help – if at all – when huge sums have been swallowed in the conflict’s maw and the business is close to its END.

Why do people sit out conflicts instead of nipping them in the bud?

The answer to this question lies in the loss of rationality. What is undertaken in the early stages of a conflict to explain and clarify the situation gradually moves into the background over time. The focus moves to the ‘enemy’, who is none other than the colleague, the business partner, a member of staff, etc. This is how the enemy enters the company, and where there are enemies, there is war. If it involves partners in a jointly owned company, the war takes place in the company, and causes damage that takes place directly at the company’s heart.

Staff are infiltrated, i.e. drawn in, gently at first, in an attempt to win their support for one’s own side. The larger the scale of the conflict, the stronger the movement to balance it out. What is actually a matter between the bosses is borne by the staff, because the bosses are now absorbed in mutual destruction. The destruction is hidden behind a screen of fairness. The object to be fought is presented as the unfairness, the meanness and the irritating and inappropriate manner of the opponent – but that is only the foreground. The company itself is damaged because work is not completed, meaningless e-mails are set back and forth, long conversations are held about the ‘terrible’ other side, and strategies are developed to throw the enemy out of the company. All of this takes up valuable time that is lost to the company and its goals. To put it in a nutshell, a great deal of capital is lost.

Darkness creeps in

The emotional level rises with every minute of the conflict. The longer the dispute lasts, the more emotional the situation becomes. As the emotionality increases, rationality – i.e. sense and reason – decreases in proportion. That is what makes conflicts so dangerous. If you assume that emotionality is always expressed loudly, think again.

A long time ago I was mediating in a conflict when one of the participants, a director, suddenly went quiet and drew me quickly to one side to whisper a question in my ear. At first I thought it was a bad joke, or that I had simply misheard – but then I was forced to realise that it was meant seriously. The whispered question was, “Should I cancel the killer?”

Of course the murder never happened. The gentlemen are still managing the company. The emotion was taken out of the conflict and the working relationship restored.

It would be a waste of time to wonder whether the man’s question was simply rhetorical. The question itself shows the danger that lurks behind each conflict. Normality is shifted towards irrationality. What seems incredible to an outsider is normal within the conflict situation. It’s a mistake to think that you need criminal energy or the genetic makeup of a tyrant to lose control during a conflict.
This is what I have learnt through countless facilitation sessions in conflict situations in companies.

The war within German companies – this must stop!

What would I wish for on the topic of conflict – from the viewpoint of an experienced consultant?

I would like to see a stop put to it: a stop that emerges from sensitivity towards conflicts. I would also like to see acceptance of the fact that the wise expression “Conflict makes people blind” was invented with good reason. I would like to see that getting help is not viewed as a mark of weakness, but as a sign of restoring rationality. Another point on the list would be that conflicts should be viewed as an underestimated and dangerous mass phenomenon in companies that can’t be cured by tightly woven method plans. Conflicts are among the most normal scourges in the world. Every negative needs an individual treatment that isn’t focused on the conflict but instead on regaining sense. That only happens outside the field of war, for in war, whether cold or hot, it’s all about power and powerlessness, top and bottom, life and death. Only when the focus is directed towards ending the negative situation will the participants leave the battlefield. If the focus is on right and wrong, we are still in the middle of the battle.

Peace can’t exist in war

The sooner we realise that conflict is not part of everyday company life, but instead a ticket to war, the quicker we realise that everything we know offers no protection against conflicts – because you should never underestimate the stealthy effect of conflicts in leading to the loss of sense and reason. As a result, our knowledge no longer plays a part once the level of emotionality rises. Unfortunately that is a normal effect. That also explains the shame that almost all conflict participants feel in the course of its solution. However, shame does not help us to progress: what’s necessary is the realisation that, from a certain point of development in a conflict that has gone on for years, internal attempts to help often end in failure. At some point, even the strength to end the friction is lacking. In this phase, random outbreaks of the conflict occur.

Sight only returns once it’s all over…

Conflict participants can often only see the business and heath damage that the dispute has caused after the emotion has been drawn out of it. In this phase, when normality is being restored, they often ask how they could have let things go so far.

There isn’t really an answer to this question other than to explain it by the loss of rationality. Knowing that the focus can only lie on one point at any one time offers an explanation of the fact that peace and war cannot coexist. Only one or the other is possible.

Every entrepreneur should therefore be aware of the fact that conflicts, taking sides, living out power and powerlessness, are part of a field of war. There can never be peace in such an environment.

So the lesson is: put an end to any conflicts in your company. If the loss of rationality has already gone too far, fetch help in putting a stop to it. Because when peace reigns, your company can develop to fulfil its potential, but this is impossible in a war situation. War causes damage that has to be borne.

Chocolatiers loves chocolate – consultants their successes

The biggest success for me as a consultant is to experience the transformation of a relationship that is contaminated by conflict. This process often takes place across a distance that is initially created. It takes time. It has high points and low points. The longer a conflict has been permitted to rage, the worse the mutual ‘allergy’. If a state is reached where the participants can simply work together without being at each other’s throats, a great deal has been achieved.

Similar to the conching process in making good chocolate, the consultant needs great sensitivity and the conflict participants need patience. It’s not always necessary for someone to leave for the company to function properly. No, what has to happen is the removal of the disruptions that have occurred – at all levels of the company – wherever the conflict has had its effects: and this requires patience and consistency. Because even if the conflict partners were all to leave, that doesn’t mean that the conflict itself is over. It would simply be taken up by other people within the company and would continue be lived out.

I wish you peaceful relationships with each other. I would be pleased to help you in putting an end to your conflicts and creating a peaceful company culture.

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