Conflict Cookies: A Leadership Recipe for a Steamy Batch of Failure

I received some good feedback from the podcast last week about the concept of “conflict cookies”.  I thought I would share an excerpt from the podcast as an extra this week while you wait on the second part in the series.

Several years ago, we did an exercise in Cub Scouts where the kids cooked up a batch of cookies where they used salt instead of sugar in the recipe. The cookies baked like a dream and even looked delicious. But when we bit into them they were horrible and inedible. The ingredients really do make a difference in the end result.

I have observed leaders manage conflict in different organizations the right way and the wrong way. When a leader does not manage conflict well, they cook up a nasty batch of conflict cookies. This recipe is not a good one. You should not follow it. I want to share the recipe with you so you can avoid the disastrous pattern of not managing conflict well.

Recipe for “Conflict Cookies”:

  • First get a big bowl and fill it full of people that work together.
  • Next, add a teaspoon of conflict over an issue in the workplace. This teaspoon is the inevitable conflict that occurs when people work together. It is any business issue. It looks like a disagreement on a process, a time sheet, who gets the last cup of coffee, who has to do someone else’s work. It can really be anything.
  • Add a cup full of “making it personal” to the disagreement. The conflict stops being about a disagreement over a business issue and it becomes about the other person’s ability, intelligence, aptitude or even their personal characteristics. You can find a “cup of making it personal” in all human beings. Sometimes they are directing frustration at others and sometimes “making it personal” is just that. People have conflicting personalities or they just rub each other the wrong way when under stress.
  • Put in a full stick of “someone acts nasty to someone else” into the mix. This really makes the conflict cookie dough start to rise. This is when people act mean and nasty to each other. And what I mean by nasty is being rude, uncivil, passive aggressive or outright hostile. This looks like calling people names, slamming doors, walking out of meetings, backbiting, sabotage or full avoidance.
  • Add a pinch of public interest to the batter. Word gets around that there is a fight, and people gather around it and talk about it like it is a fight between two 10-year-old boys on the playground after school. Gossip and speculation become the output of the organization as people circle like vultures to see what will happen next.
  • Now the recipe calls for the application of heat. That heat is leadership. Heat is applied when leadership does nothing about the conflict. Leadership observes the conflict or is made aware of it, yet they do nothing to address the conflict and the bad behavior.
  • Let the cookies bake over a long period of time. The disagreement is long-running and escalates. It only gets worse and more out of control. This is really where the heat happens and the conflict gets baked in the organization. As that conflict cooks, the business becomes a secondary focus as the conflict becomes all the combatants thinks about during their day.
  • Resentment bakes into the team until people are cooked hard on the outside and warm on the inside. People begin to count the cost and feel the effects of the conflict. They feel like they are “on their own” in a hostile work environment. They resent person that they are in conflict with AND they resent the leadership that did not protect them from the hostility.
  • The conflict is done baking and the leader now gets to pull the treat they baked out of the oven. Conflict cookies are a hard-baked, burnt, foul tasting cultural norms that yield a cookie sheet full of hot steamy failure.

Here is what conflict cookies taste like:

  • Business results are short-term. Without a sense that a leader will provide a safe environment, productivity goes down and results are harder and harder to get. Everyone is focused on his or her own problems. The discretionary effort, creativity, and momentum look like flat burnt cookies.
  • People begin to leave the organization. Usually, it is people that get tired of getting pushed around. It is the talented people that get tired of the unchecked drama. The nastiest people gain power over everyone else. No one feels safe. No one speaks up. No one feels like the leadership or the company will protect them. No one will take a risk nor speak the truth for fear of being on his or her own.
  • The leader ends up with an organization full of people that are nasty to each other. The nasty behavior seems to be accepted as part of the culture. Making it personal and being nasty to other people can be very effective in getting someone what they want, especially if no one is checking this bad behavior. So the nasty behavior proliferates as people use it as a tool to get what they want. They do it again and again. It becomes part of the culture.
  • What leaders are left with is a broken organization that limps along because it is full of fear, anger, and resentment.

Here is the bottom line on conflict cookies. They don’t have to be made. If a leader chooses to address conflict then there is never any heat applied to the dough. The conflict never rises.

Leaders, you are paid to get results. Conflict can lead to results or disaster. But conflict is not intrinsically bad. Conflict is a natural outcome when gifted, passionate people get together to accomplish something. Productive conflict is how things really get done in an organization.

When conflict is managed by a skilled leader, it is a careful and intentional recipe of guiding people to engage in respectful disagreement about the issues and not about the people. Great things then start to happen. The outcome is clarity and honesty. Conflict becomes the means in which different ideas are smashed together into new and even better ideas. Conflict allows plans to be agreed upon and for people to get out of the way of the business. At the end of the day, if people can have a respectful conflict then they will feel safe to say what is on their mind. They will speak the truth to each other without reservation. Leaders know where they stand. It is your responsibility to manage conflict. It can be done. You can manage the tension between issues, people, and results. But it does not manage itself. It is all up to you.

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