What is Your Firm’s Conflict Style?
The answer to this question gets more important as time goes on. An increasingly competitive legal industry is forcing firms to deal with critical issues around compensation, client credit, succession, and other hot button issues.
Some firms have management committee and/or partnership meetings where important and challenging issues are raised. These are discussed thoroughly, dissent is welcome and heard, and creative solutions are reached. This describes a collaborating conflict style, as per the graphic below. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in professional services firms. More often than not, the internal workings of committees, practice groups, and partnerships reflect an avoiding conflict style.
The visual is reflective of the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) measure the relative frequency with which a participant uses five different modes of conflict behavior. While the TKI does not make a distinction between interactions in different contexts, and based on the TKI assessments I’ve had professional services providers complete, these professionals are not different from the general population. However, when asked specifically to reflect on their conflict mode within their firm, results skewed significantly towards avoiding mode.
So why would professional services firms be bigger avoiders than other organizations? Much of it has to do with management structure. Unlike corporations, where layers of formal reporting structures provide a framework for accountability and giving and receiving feedback on all levels, the hierarchy in these firms is informal. Even members of the management team will wonder, “Who am I to tell this principal how to staff a new matter?”
The billable hour is another culprit. Dealing with conflict takes time and energy. In most organizations, putting a thorny issue behind a team would be considered a productive day. But using up a large block of billable time for an internal discussion at a law or accounting firm strikes partners as anything but productive.
The portability of business—rainmakers can take a book of business down the street should they be offended—and the old-fashioned notion of collegiality, where partners pretend all is well in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, also come into play. When markets shift and profitability declines, deferred maintenance is exposed. And when issues are exposed but not addressed, the credibility of firm leadership suffers, and trust deteriorates.
The good news is that a shift from avoiding to collaborating doesn’t mean more meetings, just different ones. Groups that tackle issues and effectively manage conflict don’t spend their time together going around the table and reporting out or listening to one person present: they put an important issue on the agenda, set the expectation for full discussion, and make it safe to disagree. Leadership in this context means having the courage to stand outside of the culture of the firm, force the difficult conversations, and be prepared for a temporary decline in popularity.
This perspective is part of what we do at Catapult Growth Partners. Interested in finding out more? Click here to set up a complimentary call to discuss how your firm’s conflict style impacts your firm.
John Childers understands the decision-making challenges within organizations of all sizes and offers his clients a highly developed expertise in group facilitation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 310–347–5329.