Running to Mom (or Dad)

Conflict is a part of the fabric of Corporate life.  Divergent backgrounds, personalities, objectives, and priorities pretty much guarantee that at some point you'll find yourself in the midst of a battle with a superior, peer, or subordinate.

As a senior corporate manager, I came to expect it.  If an employee somehow managing to avoid all conflict, they weren't invested in the company, and probably were not a long-term keeper.

But I also recognized there was plenty of room for legitimate (and unfair) disagreement.  The trick is -- how to handle them.

When you enter into the realm of conflict management, there are many avenues open to you.  A few examples from among them:


  • Roll over and give in to your opponent's demands
  • Directly engage in negotiating a compromise
  • Get a neutral third party to broker a compromise.
  • Redoubling your efforts to win, and strengthening your arguments or coalition.
  • Try to discredit or otherwise damage the credibility of your opponent.
  • Take your disagreement up the chain of command.

The order I've arranged these options span the least to most risky choices.  Notice that I placed running to Mom/Dad (Taking your disagreement up the chain of command). last.  That's because, in my experience, it is often the riskiest and trickiest option to use successfully.

Why is that?

Because bosses, by the nature of their positions, hate to get involved in these kinds of conflicts.  They take emotional energy, waste time, and almost always seem like the should have been resolved without our direct involvment.  And we usually ascribe some of the blame for the situation to both parties, regardless of who is right and who is wrong (if that can even be determined).

Which means, even if you're dead right in the context of the conflict, you could still lose.  Maybe a little.  Or maybe a lot.

Likely casualties, when escalating a battle to superiors, include:  your reputation, favors owed, your next raise, promotion or lateral move, and in extreme cases, your job itself.

And yet, appealing to a higher authority is sometimes the only viable alternative.  In my last post 

"Me and my Big Mouth, er, I Mean Email"

I described a situation where I escalated a vitrolic email to my boss in an attempt to get him to settle a major conflict I had with a peer.  I ultimately "won" that battle.

But I left out part of the story.

My boss sat on the issue for months, taking no action.  During that time, bad feelings between our two organizations simmered just beneath the surface, occassionally boiling over.  Cooperation between the business units eroded. Nothing happened with the conflict, in fact, until it looked like the entire corporation would be in violation of SEC reporting rules without settling the issue.  As I'm sure you can guess, the situation had taken on much greater significance by then, becoming a career altering situation.  Definitely for one of us, if not both.

I managed to "win" that battle, but ultimately I lost something in the process -- my boss's respect for my ability to manage through conflict.  And probably a knock against his assessment of my intelligence.

Today, I would still handle the situation the same way.  Why?  Because my opponent gave me only one other option -- total capitulation.  Under that set of choices, I decided that fighting back -- even to the point of running to Dad -- was my best option.

So here is my advice when you find yourself in a situation with a persistent and seemingly unsolvable conflict:


  1. Exhaust your other options first.  Make sure you can't achieve a reasonable settlement of the dispute without taking it "upstairs."
  2. Lay the groundwork carefully.  Try to be objective about the correctness of your argument, or get someone else to validate it.  Make sure you're behavior in the matter is beyond reproach -- something you wouldn't be ashamed of seeing on the front page of the newspaper.
  3. Assess the likely risks you're taking.  How is the boss likely to react to being dragged into this mess?  Base your assessment on previous behavior, if possible.  Make sure the risks are worth taking.
  4. Play to win.  Use political capital with influencers.  Stack the deck in your favor.  Do whatever you can to make sure you win this high-stakes poker game.  When you go this far, you at least want to have the final judgment on your side.  While both of you may get dirt on you, the loser will almost certainly have more.


Run to Mom/Dad only as a last resort, reserving it for only the most critical of conflicts to resolve.  12.3

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Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013)-- note, the ebook version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time at Amazon for $4.99.

These novels are all based on extensions of my experiences as a senior manager in the world of corporations.