Once upon a time, there was a man who befriended a wolf. The man fed the wolf and allowed it to sleep by the fire, while the wolf guarded the man’s cave and helped him hunt. This gave the man great power in the village. Until one day, when the man forgot to feed the wolf and the wolf ate him. The morale of the story is that you must keep feeding, or managing, your wolf if you want to remain alive.
The same story could be told about the conflict that is ever present in any organisation, company or community. It is an intrinsic characteristic of humanity regardless of time, place or culture. Conflict manifests itself in all human activity and every relationship we create. Conflict is always with us and yet the human race has time and again demonstrated breath-taking incompetence in mismanaging it.
Take the example of the England cricket team and Kevin Pietersen. Four years ago, England were the number one cricket team in the world and Pietersen was euphoric having played a key role in smashing the Australians in the Test in Adelaide. Scroll forward to October 2014 when Pietersen has just published his bitter autobiography exposing deep fracture lines amongst the team and the England cricket ranking has slipped to third in the world.
What happened? Simple, England forgot to manage the wolf.
Managing conflict is far from easy. It requires a balance between the creative conflict and tensions, that drive innovation, competition and development, and the destructive toxic conflict that does real damage within organisations. Everyone should be able to manage conflict, but the reality is that not everyone can.
Managing conflict is all about managing individuals from the quiet worker bees to the talented high maintenance individuals like Kevin Pietersen. The science and techniques needed for conflict management can be taught but the skills take time to develop. It’s about getting the feel for people and having the ability to “keep your finger on the pulse”, making minor adjustments accordingly. What works for one individual may not necessarily work for another.
Just remember, motivated, engaged and empowered individuals who feel they are making a positive contribution are generally more productive, while isolated, anxious and disenfranchised individuals are more likely to generate conflict. I rest my case with KP.
Now go out and manage your wolf.