A while back, I was working at our office with a president and a CEO of an Alabama-based company. During this meeting, the two of them got into a pretty heated discussion about a big decision. Both felt strongly about their positions, and these positions were very far apart. (Did I mention this was a big decision? It was a should-we-open-a-west-coast-office kind of decision or a should-we-sell-this-division kind of decision. Big. With big implications for the company.)
It soon became clear that we were not going to make any progress that day—and if we kept sitting there, it was only going to get worse. So I stopped the meeting. We didn’t finish the discussion; we didn’t reach a suitable “stopping point.” We just stopped. Things were not going to get better, but the disagreement had the very real potential to get bigger.
I suggested we regroup in several days.
What’s Really Important?
After the meeting, the CEO called me to vent. I listened patiently and asked questions where appropriate. I could tell he was getting heated up again, and he was still stuck in his position.
After a while, I asked him how important his relationship was with the company president. Without skipping a beat, he replied, “It’s extremely important, especially since we’ve been together for so many years.”
I knew that, but I wanted him to remind himself about it. I told him: “You two are really at a crossroads. In this situation, things are either going to get better, or the rift will get bigger. And that’s definitely not better. You can focus on your differences and continue to drive a wedge between the two of you, or you can figure out a way to work through this disagreement and make things better.”
And then it was as if I had helped him push a pressure-relief button. Almost immediately, his tone and demeanor and intent changed, and he said, yes, he wanted to make the situation better.
I’d seen these two company leaders have differences in the past, and I knew their working relationship was bigger than their disagreements. I knew this conflict could be just one more opportunity for them to work together and come out stronger on the other side. I knew they could get through it.
We’ve all had experiences in our lives where things don’t go as planned between two or more people. Disagreements happen all the time! They happen at church; during youth sports; while volunteering for a non-profit; during club or civic meetings; and, of course, there are daily opportunities for disagreements in the office.
I use the word “opportunities” here on purpose.
We all know that the easiest thing to do is complain to others, which tends to make the problem or disagreement even bigger. This does nothing to solve the problem, and, really, it’s just a lot of misdirected energy.
What if we all approached disagreements as “opportunities” to make things better?
It’s much harder, of course, to sit down with someone and work through issues and disagreements. But most often, it’s worth the effort. I’ve had many conversations with people who were thinking of leaving their current company altogether because of one disagreement or another. I remind them that changing jobs can be easier than resolving whatever conflict is in place, but often taking a leadership role and finding a solution that works is the smarter move.
Besides, if you’ve worked somewhere for a while—like it or not—you have a long-vested interest in that company. There’s often a personal cost benefit to working through shared disagreements.
So, this week or next week or whenever the next challenging situation comes up (because, sooner or later, it will), work to make that situation better—not bigger.
Do that, and you’ll do what you do better.