Dealing with conflict at your firm
Leadership coach Blaire Palmer considers the options for accountants who have butted heads with their co-workers. Should they stay, go, or cut their adversary some slack?
Many of us have experiences working for bad bosses. One of my former editors at the BBC stuck a post-it to my back which read “I am Satan’s Mistress” so I’m no stranger to poor behaviour myself.
On Any Answers, an AccountingWEB reader recently asked for input following a series of disagreements with the partners in their firm over what was ‘best’ for the client.
The reader was asking for advice about how to handle conflict with more senior staff. “This is not just a simple technical argument but fundamental basics being ignored,” said the anonymous reader.
Stand on someone else’s mountain
Most of the advice from the AccountingWEB community took the reader’s side. We always see such stories through the eyes of the person telling it. It’s worth keeping this in mind whenever you listen to your staff, your clients or your misunderstood children. It’s not that the person telling the story is lying, it’s just that we are rarely the villain in our own lives.
We judge situations based on our own view of the world where we are often the only one behaving in a reasonable manner. When others behave in ways we would never behave their actions seem confounding. If we were in their situation we wouldn’t act like that.
But is that true? If we had their life experiences, their genetic make-up and their key influences wouldn't we end up just like them?
This is important because, as a coach, I’ve met many disgruntled employees who tell me about the poorly conceived decisions of their bosses. I find myself shocked at the stupidity and short-sightedness of the senior leadership until I get to know them. Then I realise that their decisions were not stupid or short-sighted. They were faced with difficult choices and chose the least bad option.
Before leaping to the defence of the person who tells the story, go and stand on someone else’s mountain. This means look at the situation from different perspectives. We each view the world from atop our own mountain where things look a certain way. But when we step on to someone else’s mountain and look at the world from their perspective we often see things differently.
If you find yourself in conflict, set aside your own view of the world for a few moments and see things through their eyes. As the author Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
Who is the common denominator?
Conflict requires two parties. There’s the other person. And there’s you.
In all of our interpersonal relationships we are 50% of the dynamic.
Tension between colleagues and differences of opinion are a normal part of life. But if you find yourself always in conflict, always perceived as a trouble-maker, always the one who can’t get along with people, you’re the common denominator. It might be time to look within.
Do you need to become a better listener? Do you need to be willing to compromise or give way on occasion? Do you need to accept that sometimes you are wrong? Do you need to become more of a team player?
It’s hard to admit that you might be the problem. But even if you aren’t, as 50% of the dynamic it’s possible that by changing how you respond to conflict you change the whole script.
Seek a 'values fit'
Having said all of that, on-going conflict about fundamentals could be a sign that you aren’t a good fit for your firm. Even if partners aren’t actually breaking laws, you may still feel that the firm’s values aren’t your values.
When we apply for a job we often look at salary and benefits, job title, size of the firm or size of the budget you’ll have at your fingertips, but we rarely really understand the values of the firm prior to accepting the offer. And that’s because it’s hard to know what a company stands for until you work there.
Of course, you can check websites like Glassdoor for reviews and you can ask colleagues for the low down. You should ask questions at the interview about what the company stands for and see their staff handbook to get a sense of how they treat people, including clients.
We don’t often do enough research at this stage, acting as though it’s our job to sell ourselves to the firm but not expecting the firm to be under the same scrutiny by us. But even with that approach, you can still find yourself out of sync with the company once you start working there.
In that case, move on. Life’s too short to spend your career in a place that’s a bad fit. Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is.
It’s what two female partners recently did at KPMG when their complaints about a male colleagues bullying fell on deaf ears. So Maggie Brereton and Ina Kjaer decided to quit the firm and started their own firm, EOS Deal Advisory, with the values that reflect the change they wanted to see in the profession.
Good healthy arguments over matters of principle are what leadership is all about. And many companies welcome challenge from all levels in the firm. But if you realise there are fundamental differences in belief at a core level there’s no shame in moving on.
If more of us stood up for our values in this way, firms that continually compromised their ethics simply could not continue to do business.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...