“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
"There’s a fly in my soup, Captain". The Chief Engineer said, visibly upset.
"And I blame it on you" continued the Chief Engineer.
Everyone in the dining room stopped to look over where the Chief Engineer and Captain were seated. Some even looked back into their own soup to check for flies. Not me. I was a young Cadet, only few months into my career and this was the first major conflict I had seen on the ship which otherwise was about giving orders and following them- no questions asked.
The Captain squinted his eyes in confusion "Come again?"
"I know you told the Cook to put a fly in my soup" the Chief Engineer’s voice was raised and agitated.
Long story short, some very unpleasant words were exchanged and it ended in everyone finishing their dinner early. The Chief Engineer was replaced in the next port.
Leading up to the ‘fly in the soup’ incident were small warning signs which made sense when I looked back. It started with arguments about the ship’s RPM or the fuel figures, and at times the engine maintenance. Both the Captain and the Chief Engineer had been complaining about each other in their absence. Meetings had become a ‘blame game’ setting. Eventually things came to a ‘either him or me’ standpoint between the Captain and the Chief Engineer.
As I felt then, and as I feel about it now- it was all wrong. There are more such examples- from physical assault on board (fishing vessel Captain Billy Haver), to mutinies (HMS Bounty), these otherwise capable professionals let small conflicts get out of hand.
The 'Drydock' Conflict:
Years later, I was in a similar dining room for the daily-repairs meeting at a Chinese dockyard. This time I was in command of the ship and was concerned about getting the ship back on schedule. Just then, the Fourth Engineer came into the meeting with a worried look. He informed us that a weak spot had been found on the fuel tank boundary when the steel around the tank was being sand-blasted.
The Superintendent, the Chief Engineer and I checked out the weak spot for ourselves. Now we found ourselves in a dilemma; we could go ahead with the repairs, and it would cost us three extra days; or, we could leave it unattended, and risk the weak spot springing a leak during the voyage. We got the technical, operations and the commercial team in the office on a conference call, right there in the dining room.
The Technical Manger fired the first salvo "How the hell did we miss this spot during the pre-docking gauging?"
Me: "They gauged this bulkhead but they must’ve missed it."
Operations Manager: "OK now that we have to deal with it, what’s the plan?"
Superintendent: "We need to repair it."
Commercial Manager: "Are you out of your f**** mind? We’ll have to rearrange the booked cargo for another ship. No way!"
Technical Manager: ‘"And the additional repairs and stay in the yard will make us overshoot the drydock budget!"
Chief Engineer: "Look, you got to take care of these things from the office. I don’t want the fuel leaking into the cargo holds at sea- and then we have to deal with it."
Me: "And the leaked fuel could damage the cargo."
Commercial Manager: (pounding his fist on his table now) "We already had so many delays with this bloody ship…and you always put me in this position where I’ve to say sorry to the shippers!"
Me: "I don’t like the news either but we need a solution. We could delay for now but we may have to stop the ship again for repair few months down the line. My recommendation is we do the repairs. I’ll personally see to it that it gets done as early as possible."
Chief Engineer: "Yeah. About the budget, we’ll discuss here and see if we can shift some of the docking jobs to be done by the crew. No promises but we’ll sit down and discuss."
Technical Manager: “OK I’ll speak with the Director and get back to you within the hour."
During this debate, there were colourful exclamations, raised voices, subtle humour and heated exchanges which I’ll save you the trouble of reading. Finally, we did get the approval to get the additional repair done. Yes, there was a price to pay for the delay, but we were assured of the safety of the cargo during the voyage. Months later when I met the Commercial Manager in the office for a briefing, he let me know that despite the tough discussion that day, he was pleased with the outcome. He also realised this when he had learnt that another ship had sprung a fuel tank leak during the voyage and had to be taken off service for repairs, causing massive disruption and embarrassment to that other company.
To Argue or Not to Argue?
Arguments are inevitable in today’s workplace. Whether they are productive, like the ‘drydock’ one, or destructive like the ‘fly in the soup’ case depends on how leaders steer conflict in the right heading. Firstly, is everything up for discussion? Should every decision be debated upon? Should we remain polite in a conflict, or freely express our emotions? When should you stop arguing? What if you can’t seem to come to an agreement? What if you feel the other person is personally attacking you? What if one can lose their job if they argue too much, or oppose the more powerful person in the conversations? Will I look weak if I give in? The questions that run through our minds during a conflict at work can be quite challenging. The words and tone a person uses might press one of our ‘hot’ buttons.
For most people, conflict means stress, and that in turn triggers a flight, fight or freeze response. Research shows that high conflict relates to low team productivity and work satisfaction. On the other hand, task based debates help teams to understand the topic from all perspectives.
Avoiding or suppressing conflict is not good either. Avoiding debate all together restricts the options available on the table, and often to unsafe or unproductive outcomes. On the Bow Mariner, the Chief Officer ignored the safety concerns of his junior officers during routine tank cleaning operations. A while later, an explosion sank the ship and took the lives of twenty seamen. Unresolved conflicts lead to resentment, and poor work morale- leading to a ‘fly in the soup’ kind of outburst at some point.
Just as each one of us has a unique world view based on our experiences, we are conditioned to conflict in different ways. It starts with childhood - if our parents permitted debate, or was it order and comply, or would they give the silent treatment when in disagreement. We would be further conditioned by the environment in our schools and workplaces. Peers argue differently among themselves than in a subordinate-superior debate. And of course, ‘over-thinking’ introverts argue differently from the more vocal extroverts. Whatever our background, we need skills to be able to handle and manage conflict productively as each situation demands.
Productive Conflicts need a Suitable Environment
First and most important - the leader needs to set up the right environment for constructive, healthy debate, and even allow them to become intense, heated discussions. The right environment for this is where teams have high levels of openness and trust with each other. Leaders should provide team members with psychological safety; leaders should say it in very clear terms (and follow it up) that they will not be side-lined or tagged as a ‘negative person’ for their differing views. Leaders also need to reduce the power-distance effect of a superior-subordinate relationship during a debate to allow the free flow of views. Leaders need to remove the fear and stress of conflict from the workspace.
What leaders must not do is incite fear to suppress conflict and to control their team members. Leaders must neither create conflict for its own sake, or promote a ‘divide and rule’ toxic environment for inducing productivity or competition. Research shows that such high conflict environments are counterproductive to the team’s goals.
Keeping Conflicts under Control
The next task of the leader is to control responses during a conflict- as soon as they become aware of one. They must ensure the conflict stays focused on solving the problem at hand and does not escalate into a personality clash. The leader must ensure that the tension does not escalate; here, the use of humour helps. Appoint ‘a devil’s advocate’ so they have the permission to be creative in bringing up opposing views. I also recommend that the leader gives his final opinion towards the end of the debate; going in early discourages team members from coming up with more options. The below ‘Telegraph Model for Manoeuvring Conflicts in the Right Direction’ is an aide-to-memory for leaders for facilitating healthy debates on board.
The Telegraph Model for handling Conflicts
Bring more information to the table and list all possible outcomes (not just two diametrically opposite choices). During a closed room debate, I find a whiteboard to be very helpful tool to help keep the team’s focus on the issues to be systematically sorted out. If you’re unable to come up with an agreement at the end of the meeting- narrow down the options and revisit the discussion. Of course, if the issue is time-sensitive, the leader must make the decision based on all the inputs gathered during the debate.
Keep your Conflict Skills ready at all times
Conflict situations can arrive without warning. We were once manoeuvring into a harbour with a Pilot on board. We had completed the Master-Pilot exchange and had established a good rapport with the Pilot soon after his boarding.
Half an hour later, the officer-of-watch announced loudly for everyone on the Wheelhouse to hear: “Our planned speed here is 6 knots. Our current speed is 9 knots”
Pilot: “Never mind. It’s OK”
Me: “We’ll need time to reduce the speed before we approach that turn. Best if we keep the speed as planned.”
Pilot (pauses, checks his watch and then looks up): “OK let’s bring to dead-slow ahead”
I wish I could say that all conflicts can end with such a quick and positive outcome. I’ve also had the experience of workplace conflicts which did not end well, or were left unresolved. Once we’ve learnt from these experiences, it’s time to move on. Playing those moments repeatedly, or criticizing oneself does not help anyone.
- Create the right environment well in advance before conflicts start occurring at your workplace.
- Manage conflicts constructively using all tools both active and passive, with a fine sense of balance.
- If you feel the conflict is getting out of hand, seek help from an external mediator.
- No matter how the conflict ends, move on.
- Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, Captain VS Parani, Whittles Publishing
- Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Laurie R. Weingart, Task Versus Relationship Conflict, Team Performance, and Team Member Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2003, Vol. 88
- Explainer Video: How Management Teams can have a Good Fight, Harvard Business Review