How to win by avoiding a fight
by Merritt Clifton
Circa 1996 a relatively young, very dynamic, very successful humane society had a really nasty internal split underway. Some of the warring factions asked me to umpire a meeting that looked to me like setting the scene for a bloodbath.
Ain’t no way I was going to get caught in the crossfire. I could have ended up deaf with my eyes scratched out in about the first five minutes.
Instead of attending, I hijacked their e-mail list and sent them all the following essay.
No one resigned, no one was fired
To my surprise, and theirs, instead of killing each other plus anyone who got in the way, they actually used it as a blueprint to work out their differences. Nobody resigned, no one was fired, the friction was resolved, and the organization is today much bigger, stronger, and more effective than ever.
The founders and dominant personalities are also under the illusion that I must be some kind of expert genius at human relations –– whereas, my major accomplishment in that regard is usually to attract all the bricks that people had intended to throw at others.
The ladies themselves were the facilitators, communicators, and peacemakers. All I did is change the prism through which they viewed the situation, so that the lighting and the reflections were different, and among them they had the grace to do the rest.
Rather than dispel their illusion, though, I keep sending this mini-essay out to people in similar situations, all over the world, and keep hearing back from some of the most unlikely places that it has helped.
Ego: I’m for it
One thing I always hear when investigating any kind of internal conflict within an organization is that someone claims the problem is someone else letting “ego” get in the way of the mission.
Typically voiced in discussions about how to resolve the conflicts within organizations is the admonition that “We should not let ego stand in the way of…” whatever the speaker recommends should be done.
That always pours gasoline on the embers.
Ego is a vital facet of human nature. It is always going to be involved in leadership, in decision-making, and in feelings of being ignored, excluded, unfairly treated, etc., by dissident minorities –– and ego cannot be successfully denigrated or invalidated.
When a person in a leadership role argues against “ego” in the activities of subordinates, it comes across as, “Your feelings don’t count.”
That makes the subordinates unnecessarily resentful.
“That person doesn’t listen to me”
When a person in a subordinate role claims a leader’s ego is the problem, what is really being said is, “That person doesn’t listen to me.”
When board members conflict over “ego,” at issue is plain old-fashioned animal dominance: who gets to mark the territory.
The very word “ego” is usually used as a weapon, the idea being that the person accused of bringing it to the table is somehow automatically wrong.
That’s backward. “Ego” becomes an issue when people feel that personal investments of time, money, and emotional commitment are insufficiently appreciated, and when those feelings exist, addressing them effectively is paramount–much like feeding the cats and dogs when the cats and dogs are hungry. You either have to feed the cats and dogs, or they raise hell until you do.
Leave sanctimonious speeches about “ego” at home
My own feeling is that the word “ego” and sanctimonious speeches about “ego” should be left at home, while real issues involving ego should be brought to the table and dealt with in a respectful manner.
Usually, the only real problem is a misunderstanding –– but denigrating talk about “ego” makes it worse instead of better.
There is nothing wrong with having an ego, meaning a sense of self: reinforcing a positive sense of self, as regards kindness toward animals, is why all of us are in humane work in the first place. “Compassion” is just a short word for all the ideas embraced in “a positive sense of self, as regards kindness toward animals.”
A workplace is not a home
Also worth a word of caution: many people bring to their interactions in humane work a set of social skills and responses learned in the home –– and, too often, in a dysfunctional home –– instead of those learned in the workplace.
That is a perennial problem, because a humane society, even if all-volunteer, is not a home-and-family, but rather an especially difficult kind of workplace, much like a hospital, where part of the job necessarily involves sharing the emotions and skills that most people use most of the time in home situations.
If you find yourself in a conflict involving humane work, it always pays to ask yourself, “Am I responding to this as a home issue, or as a work issue?” If you catch yourself responding to it as a home issue, you may have unintentionally made a mistake, albeit probably with the best of intentions.
Recognizing & accommodating our own animal nature
Some observations about gender politics may also be worth considering. Organizational psychologists have been aware for about 10-15 years now that the dynamics within organizations consisting mainly of men and organizations consisting mainly of women are extremely and sometimes dangerously different.
The key difference is that within organizations consisting mainly of men, conflict is externalized, ritualized, and generally worked out without doing harm to the organizational structure. Everyone knows where everyone else stands, what the conflicts are, and who the dominant apes are.
Dissidents figuratively get their heads beaten in, and are fired or pushed into resigning, but there does not tend to be much confusion about goals, tactics, and purpose.
There also are relatively few hard feelings among losers within internal debates, because of the extent of externalization and ritualization. Conflicts tend to be handled as “playing field” matters, not as war, and there is an ethic of sportsmanship (usually) that calls for winners refraining from gloating, while saying encouraging words to losers.
Women take a different approach
Within organizations consisting mainly of women, there tends to be less formal hierarchy and more emphasis on communal decision-making (“consensus”), with more concern about maintaining internal harmony.
This strategy works well within families, but can be catastrophic within organizations, where 1) some people do in fact have more knowledge and experience than others, and also must be legally responsible for the actions of others, and 2) real conflicts of perspective tend to be temporarily subordinated to maintaining the superficial appearance of unity until people of dissident outlook feel so repressed and ignored that they explode.
Then, typically, they step outside the rules of procedure, with staff and volunteers lobbying the board, department managers not trusting the executive director and/or board with information, etc.
The outcome is not “playing field” conflict, where issues are resolved within set rules and losers are comforted, but rather out-and-out war, where anything goes, stealth tactics predominate, and losers are left for dead.
Male, female, games & conflict
Primatologists explain the gender difference in handling organizational conflict by pointing out that male animals of all sorts continually dispute over status, and have evolved all sorts of mechanisms to keep such disputes from becoming mutually self-destructive. Conflict, to males, is viscerally perceived as a game.
Female animals, on the other hand, engage in conflict primarily to protect themselves and their young. If they have to fight, it’s life-and-death.
In institutional conflict situations within male-dominated organizations, the questions we always have to pose (and ask ourselves) are:
A) Is this fight over an issue, or just over status (ego)? and
B) Is someone exacerbating the situation with inappropriate chest-thumping?
Re-externalizing the conflict
Often the resolution is found by re-externalizing the conflict. I once saw a very bad internal conflict within an organization resolved when the leaders of the warring factions got into a video game against each other during a break. Company softball games and golf tournaments often serve much the same purpose, by giving men an opportunity to separate personal issues from the workplace.
Within female-dominated organizations, the questions to ask are:
A) Has someone been ignored or slighted? and
B) Are the tactics in use here really appropriate to the nature of the conflict?
Usually, B) really means, “Did I treat so-and-so unfairly by going behind her back?”, and A) really means, “Did the person who went behind my back do so because she felt her concerns had been ignored?”
Asking the necessary questions
There can be a lot of very bitter feelings under such circumstances, and the last thing the people involved may want to do is meet quietly and privately to get on a better footing. Yet often that is what is most necessary.
Humane work is a female-dominated field, and is correspondingly perennially struggling with the female-associated set of problems, compounded by the fact that in this field we really are dealing on a daily basis with life-and-death matters.
There is not any escaping the problems, but if there is adequate will to achieve resolution, asking the necessary questions can help start the process.