Can’t Get Along With Others

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: You mentioned a top reason people are fired is that they can’t get along with others. Can you talk more about that and conflict?

JM: Oh I could talk about conflict for a long time. Because it’s basic. Keep in mind that all of my work revolved around people, human nature, and teamwork or a lack of team work. And I could tell you story after story of experiences I had with people who were in great conflict. So it’s been a major part of my work always. Every company, every situation. And I think that’s one of the reasons why my work was so effective, is that I was focusing on helping the top people learn how to communicate, learn how to relate, learn how to handle differences, learn how to handle conflicts between themselves and their peers. It was all focused on the human side of management. The typical business training that most people get is not focused on any of those areas much. Now they are, a little more, but it’s still lacking. In the 1950s and 60s—let’s see, I got a job as a Carnegie instructor in late 1954 so my consulting work grew in the mid to late 1950’s—I would say up until the 1960s with some companies, I was not allowed to use the term ‘human relations’. I just naturally used it because I focus so much attention on human nature and human relations and I can still remember a couple companies that said something like, “We don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no such thing as ‘human relations’. You do your job or you don’t.” But going back to the issue of not getting along with others, I can be very specific here and say that in company after company I worked with, there would be a person who was in a fairly high level position—might be a department manager, might be a top executive—and they might be extremely well-trained in their area of functional specialty, like let’s say marketing. The head of the marketing department is generally very skilled and knowledgeable in all kinds of areas relating to business, and he might be very skilled in application, but in case after case, when people had to be let go, it was because they couldn’t get along well with other people. In other words, a marketing person may have come up the line, may have started as a salesman, then became a sales manager and he was learning more and more about the broader aspects of selling, the support needed in marketing, which includes advertising and public relations. He might have worked his way up very diligently and be a hard worker, but in the position that he was in, frequently he would fail, and the more I was around these people who were let go, I found that the reason was—gee, he really knew his stuff, he was a good man, he did good work, but he just couldn’t get along with his peers. And this is backed by studies I’ve seen. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen surveys done by business periodicals such as the Harvard Business Review where they would make a study from, let’s just say a thousand executives or department managers that have been fired, and they would find out from the companies what the reasons were for letting them go. My memory was something like 70-80% good people were let go because of their lack of ability to get along with other people.

BW: You’ve observed many people in organizational environments and managerial positions and you say this is a common problem. Why is that? Why do these people have difficulty getting along with others?

JM: That’s a good question. I think if we want to get into that area, we would need to go into lots of different areas. And obviously, we can’t do it justice in this small setting, but just for a general overview and make a few key points based on my experience, I think one of the reasons is: people who are highly trained, well-educated, and/or they’ve had successes on their way up, tend to have pretty big egos and they feel their way is the best way. I think this is one of the obvious areas. And so I could go back to something we were talking about weeks ago and say that in many situations the major problem is big egos. A sense of importance, a sense of superior expertise, status and position. For example, the heads of finance can be very egotistical, because they are managing the money so they can have the attitude that everybody should pay attention to them and do it their way. And also, let’s be honest, most of us like to outdo others or triumph over others. And certainly, our education can condition us to want to do so even more. For example, a graduate program might have gradually gotten a student to believe that he was now an expert, even though the training can be very contrary to the realities of life or a certain business environment. And so this person would often fail because he would think that he was the expert and the people in the company weren’t. To make matters worse, there is little in our traditional education that helps us handle conflict. Very few of us has learned how to discuss differences and work out helping each other and communicate well. A case in point: every now and then, one of the universities or schools would ask me to be on the committee for a person getting their degree in a business area. So I had a chance to associate with quite a few professors. And I found that the majority of the professors that I was relating to, did not know how to communicate. And that is a broad term—communicate—which needs to be clarified. One is certainly they have never learned how important it is to listen fully to another person’s viewpoint. They’re so wrapped up in their own viewpoints, their own perspective and beliefs, they want to superimpose them on the other person. They could care less about the other person’s perspective. So my point is, the professors themselves don’t understand what is good communication and can’t even communicate well. There is very little in the educational system that helps people communicate well and manage conflict. It’s gradually changing, but still, in terms of the educational system in general, there is very limited training in this area.

BW: You mentioned a department head, the head of finance, and his sense of his importance. I would imagine the different departments or functional areas within an organization or company was a great source of conflict.

JM: Yes. And that’s a good starting point. An example of conflict that shows up often is between the managers of functional areas. Picture an organization. You have a president, an executive vice president, and then usually six or seven of what we call functional executives. For example, the senior executives of sales, marketing, finance, engineering, manufacturing or production, and human resources. And so in each of those areas, it required certain kind of personalities and certain kinds of skills and abilities. And the differences were very natural. For instance, if you’ve ever been around engineers, you find that there’s a pattern in how they think and how they operate. An engineer is trained to be very precise, well-organized, very accurate—there’s a whole range of things that a good engineer becomes skilled at in order to be a good design engineer or building engineer. In say planning, they’re trained to be specific, precise. Now on the other hand, a salesman has a very different, but equally valid orientation. A salesman operates on his intuition and ability to interact with all different kinds of customers. If you are in the office of a sales manager, and you say to him, “What kind of plans are you laying out for next week?” He may say, “I don’t have any plans. I’m going to go out and talk to the customers. I don’t need a plan.” Compared to an engineer, he may seem disorganized, may seem to do nothing systematically. And so if you have an engineering manager and a sales manager trying to work together, they often have major conflict in a natural way. Let’s say you have a problem in a company where sales are going down. Well, the sales manager will tend to blame the product, and engineering and manufacturing will tend to blame the sales department. The sales manager will try to get the engineering manager to see that they need to be improving their designs of the products in order to meet the competition with the argument that the sales department knows what the customers want. And the engineering manager, by the same token, would be just as aggressive, and say I’m a highly trained engineer and this is not the way to design a product, and that the sales department don’t know how to sell properly. So a lot of it was naturally differences of opinion. And so many of the battles go back and forth because of the difference of their focus and specialty. And this is compounded by the differences in training and experience that they have acquired over the years so they’re kind of set in their ways. And a person can be very talented in his specialty, like let’s say the head of engineering could be an outstanding engineer, but frequently he has not learned anything about relating to people, relating to people who are not engineers. He has not learned anything about how to communicate with others and so on. And it all has to with the human areas of relationships. And our education, in general, doesn’t focus on that.

BW: You mentioned, each of the areas required certain kind of personalities and certain kinds of skills and abilities. And the differences were very natural. Are the root of functional differences, really individual differences?

JM: Yes. I would say the main source of conflict is really individual differences. Every single human being is different from the other. There are naturally similarities. But basically, every person is different. There are individual differences in personality, temperament, energy, background, talents, education, that sort of thing. And differences in thinking. I don’t think I’m generalizing, but every person thinks differently. That’s been my experience. Every person has a different viewpoint, a way of looking at things. For example, even when people believe the same thing, they often have different interpretations. That’s a complex area in itself, so just for this topic, we’ll stick to the practical. So every human being thinks differently, sees things differently, and consequently feels that their way of doing things is the best way. And so a lot of conflicts occur primarily because he or she doesn’t know how to accept the other person’s differences and communicate. It’s a very vital area. So one of the most important things, we’ll say with couples, is for them to understand the differences in the other person. And they need help in that. Secondly, they need to accept the differences. Third, in accepting the differences, they need to stay away from trying to change the other person to be the person that they want them to be. These are many of the specifics. They need to understand each other’s skills and abilities and how to use them together. I’m working with a couple right now who are working their way through it, slowly, step by step. And their relationship is growing and improving all the time, because both of them are willing to work on it. So when people talk about there being a gender difference, it’s a generality of the fact that they don’t really understand each other, accept each other, and know how to work together. So they call it a gender issue. When you put any two or three people together, each one is a totally different person, with different habits, different ways of thinking. And so what happens normally in organizations, is that conflict develops because—we’ll say one person is constantly complaining, “Jim and Harry don’t work the way that I do and I have been arguing with them trying to get them to change their habits.” What he’s not realizing is that Jim and Harry are different personalities and different personalities need to learn how to work together. And the beginning point is to accept the differences and learn how to blend the differences into teamwork. Because in a good team, every member of the team is different. For a business example, years ago at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, I was working with the chief administrator and one of his department heads. Whenever they got together, they fought. And one day when they were in the midst of that, one of them turned to me and said, “I don’t really want to be fighting. Would you be willing to help us learn how to break away from conflict?” And I said “Yes, if you want to and if Chuck, the other fellow, wants to. I’ll help you learn how. It’s gonna take you months.” And both of them said, “Months!? Can’t you tell us right now how not to have conflict?” And I said, “No, it’s going to take more time.” I saw that each of them was very different in temperament, personality, type and level of knowledge, mental abilities, everything. So early on, I told them that this was what I was observing and I said, “My view is that if you two learn to understand each other’s differences, and don’t resist them and fight, if you two learn the skills and abilities that are different in each of you and learn how to put them together, nobody will ever beat you in the banking field.” Well, both of them said, “Ok, let’s go.” So over the course of two years, among other things, I helped them to do this, and at the end of two years, these two men were like one person.

BW: So it’s clear—conflict is inevitable.

JM: Oh yeah. Conflict is inevitable. There’s always going to be conflict. Just like we described. Because of differences. The challenge is, can you work through conflict in a healthy, productive way? If you can, then through it comes growth and change. I think it was Wrigley, the gum company guy, who said something like, “If two persons agree on everything, then one of them is unnecessary.”

BW: So there is such a thing as healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict. Necessary conflict versus unnecessary or destructive conflict.

JM: Right.

BW: On the subject of unhealthy conflict, I know that every person and every situation is unique, but did you find that the same tendencies kept coming up? One thing I’ve observed in people who have a hard time getting along with other people -there’s a lot of judgment, criticism in the sense of being self-righteous.

JM: Oh gosh, a lot of judgment, criticism, blame, you name it. In fact, those areas are a big part in the breakdown of relationships. Not only in business, but in marriage, among families, kids, schools, churches, everything.

BW: So judgment and criticism.

JM: That’s just two. You can take judging and break it into many parts, and you can take criticism and break it into many parts, and you can take blame—because a lot of people when things don’t go well they look for somebody to blame.

BW: A scapegoat.

JM: And if they’re competing with another executive they’re going to try to get the other executive to be on the spot. This whole area of relationships, how people communicate, how they behave, how they affect each other is a central part of everything everywhere.

BW: Most of us spend more waking time at work than we do at home. It is one of our biggest contexts for change. What are some simple things that people can start with that will help them get along better with other people?

JM: Wow, that’s quite a question. I would have to say, I don’t know. Because it depends on the individual. Like if the individual, we’ll say an executive or manager, is weak with communications with his or her men, then the answer to your question is one way. If the person is a good communicator, but he is demanding more out of the people than they can possibly provide, then there’s other items. So there’s no way, in a sense, for me to answer that question because it depends on the person. A key part of my approach and my protégés’ is that we are situation-oriented as well as person focused. Each situation and individual is unique.

BW: Maybe a better way to frame the question is, how can people help deter unhealthy conflict, for example, conflict escalation?

JM: Obviously for the purpose of discussion we have to generalize and simplify things quite a bit. Conflict tends to escalate when a person loses face or is about to lose face. No one likes being wrong. So even if you strongly disagree with someone, give the other person respect. Listening is very important. Listen carefully. Try to learn another perspective other than your own. Try to have empathy for the person and what they are going through. Take time to reflect and think. And word things carefully. Avoid emotional reactivity. Conflict is connected to emotional reactivity. A lot of it can be repressed. The person you are dealing with may not understand or be aware of the underlying emotions or the underlying experience that caused them to have a fixed viewpoint. But they can get into a big argument over their viewpoint. It’s tied together with emotions. So I paid a lot of attention to that in my work. Conflict also tends to escalate when people dig in their heels and they insist on being right, no matter what. They’re not willing to accept or work with differences and make compromises. In many cases, the truth of the matter is, is that they have had no training in how to do it. There’s very little in our education that helps people learn how to handle conflict in a productive way. So if you don’t have the training in how to do it, you’re going to fight all the time.

BW: But some people, regardless of their training or lack of training, just can’t seem to let go of an issue, so the conflict festers or escalates.

JM: So yeah, forgiving is important. Have a forgiving spirit. Learn to let petty grievances go. That doesn’t mean compromising what’s important. You can still stand firm in your convictions and values and have that attitude. But as we already said, for the purpose of discussion, we have to simplify and generalize quite a bit. All of this can be very complicated by the fact that people have egos or personal agendas or questionable motives. And we need to use our common sense here. We are talking about relating with relatively well-adjusted, relatively healthy people who want to work it out, who do have a genuine desire to work at improving relationships. Both parties have to be committed to change. When you’re dealing with someone narcissistic, mentally ill, with sociopathic tendencies, chronic addiction, criminals, huge egos, various pathologies—that’s a whole different ball game.

BW: Now there are situations that are not workable, not negotiable. Sometimes there is no resolution to a conflict and people have to go their separate ways.

JM: That’s true.

BW: So it’s not like in every situation you can resolve the conflict. For example, a wide difference in values.

JM: That’s true. If you look at, let’s say, a corporation like Enron, that collapsed some years ago—huge—and thousands of people were out of work and if you think of the values, that the board and top people were operating from, they’re totally different than the values of say Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, who in the past when I was working with them, was very involved in community service. The values are totally different. One of Enron’s values is, although they would never admit it, is greed. If you are in such an environment, and have an awareness of what is going on, then you do have to make a choice.

BW: The people you walk through life with, they have to have the same or at least similar values, otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

JM: Otherwise you’re in conflict.

BW: Constant conflict that can’t be resolved. And it can also mean having to severely compromise your values, which can mean dying spiritually and becoming depressed for some people.

JM: But as far as organizations go, we need to clarify that organizations are made up of humans so there’s never going to be a perfect company or perfect situation where your values line up exactly. It takes courage and maturity to stick out a less than perfect situation. It’s a mark of immaturity to always be looking for the perfect situation or opportunity or relationship.

BW: But you do need to use wisdom and discernment. Maybe you’re meant to stay there to help the company become better and transform, or maybe you have to leave.

JM: That’s true. You do need wisdom and discernment to know that. It takes wisdom and discernment to know is this a workable situation or am I going to be trapped on a sinking ship?