It was an important moment in my career as corporate HR specialist in a large industrial organisation. I was leading a competency management project and got half an hour to present my results to the HR management team. The HR director Peter* was the former operations director. He was appointed to bring order and efficiency in HR and was sceptic about new HR projects. I was well prepared, but not for what happened during the meeting.
I knew I could expect resistance from the recruitment manager, Mia. For my project I fostered free choice for managers to participate or not. I was convinced that “you can’t make the grass grow by pulling on it.” Mia believed more in clear rules, zero tolerance and control for non-compliance. My own manager Josy came to my rescue when Mia kept defending her view. The conflict between Mia and Josy escalated, fueled by their ambition to take over the activities of the other.
At a certain moment Peter intervened. He said: “Well, I don’t know exactly what you two are fighting about, but clearly one of you is too many.” He said it with a smile. The quarrel stopped immediately. Mia and Josy felt caught as pupils doing something wrong on the playground. The rest of the team, all men, joint in a silent coalition with Peter. They took a distance from the conflict as if it were a cat fight and had nothing to do with them. I was appalled by Peters lack of empathy. But I was also in awe for his way of ending a difficult conflict and installing a clear norm in his team. I respected his strong leadership.
It’s only recently I came to rethink the situation and its consequences. My project suffered from the unresolved conflict. HR kept speaking in different tongues to its customers and lost credibility. The conflict between Mia and Josy continued to fester till both finally left the company. They left a mess of poorly integrated HR practices and defensive team behaviors. The price of shutting the conflict down abruptly was huge.
Peter could have taken a different road by saying: “Waw, I feel the tension rising. You seem to have struck a sensitive chord. This could be important for all of us. Let’s make some time to explore this further. Tell me more!” By doing so he would have created psychological safety in his team to discuss difficult and personal topics. The other team members would have felt empowered to join the conversation. Peter would have discovered an important value conflict within his team that had relevance for the whole organization: how to empower managers and employees?
* Names are fictional.