In Conflict Resolution, Focus First on Reaching an Agreement

“It’s about fighting for fair and equitable treatment”, said T. Boone Pickens recently about the $700 million in damages he is seeking for future losses related to bids that his wind power company, Mesa Power (web site is offline), lost in wind power auction in Ontario recently. Mr. Pickens contends that NextEra, a Florida energy company, made $18,600 in donations to the ruling Labor Party in Ontario and that donation unfairly tilted the bidding process in NextEra’s favor for certain wind energy licenses. In essence, Mr. Pickens is saying the auction process was corrupted by the donation.

“Fair and equitable treatment”. We all want that, don’t we? We all desire to be treated fairly and we all want fairness in our personal and professional interactions. But what is fair to one might not be fair to another.

When people get into protracted fights based on principles, usually they are fighting for what they believe to be right or fair. For example, one of the driving forces for the American Revolution was the concept that we were being taxed by the King but didn’t have a voice in Parliament. “No taxation without representation” was the slogan. In essence, as a people, we felt we weren’t being treated fairly. So we revolted and went to war with England and gained our independence.

In our increasingly polarized society, the concept of fairness is at the center of the cultural storm. Generally speaking, one side believes that equality of opportunity is all that is needed to say that we have achieved fairness in our society. The other side believes that equality of results must be realized in order for our society to achieve fairness. Trillions of dollars have been taxed and spent on this basic conflict in our society and there appears to be no end in sight.

Small business owners will find that fairness is at the core of most conflicts. But if what constitutes “fair” cannot be agreed upon, then the fallback is to find a resolution that neither side thinks is “fair” but one with which they are willing to live. We do this through the concept of finding an agreeable tradeoff with which both parties can agree. As a small business owner, there will be times when you’ll need to shift the conversation from who is right or wrong to neutral terms where the resolution is found in each side giving up something in order for both parties to reach an agreement. Those who are less mature will hang onto their need to be right, which is why I enter many conflict resolution meetings by stating that everyone must give up their right to be right. “We’re going to look for a solution”, I’ll often say, “not figure out how to make sure everyone’s opinion of what is right is fully satisfied.”

Sometimes, employees fight over mutually exclusive things – such as who gets a particular office or who is responsible for cleaning the employee kitchen or who gets next Friday afternoon off. Many of these conflicts arise because clear policies, roles and responsibilities are not articulated up front by the business owner. For example, space issues can be resolved with a few clear rules. In the company I owned, the rule for having a private office was simple: If your job duties required you to have confidential conversations or if you managed confidential information on a near daily basis, then you got an office with lock and key. So sales got cubicles and most managers – not all – were put into offices. For example, our marketing manager received a cube because that position didn’t have confidential conversations on a near daily basis (at least not in my company) whereas the HR Director did get an office for obvious reasons.

The Bible also speaks to fairness in a number of passages. Fairness is the result of accepting the words of God and living an upright life (Prov. 2:1-11). In fact, Proverbs itself claims that it was written to impart, among other things, fairness (Prov. 1.3). When fairness is lacking, life becomes tenuous and uncertain (Isa. 59:9–11). In Matthew 20.1-16, we learn two things about fairness: A) that if you fulfill your part of a contract, you are being fair and B) whatever God does for us, it is out of His generosity, not out of any obligation of fairness.

The concept of fairness implies an accompanying justice. For example, if I loan you $100 and you pay it back to me, your payment is both fair and just. But if you give me $100, that is charity, not fairness. In our way of thinking, charity is not a fulfillment of justice. The reason the workers complained in Matthew 20.1-16 is because those who worked less received the same pay as those who worked more. We can infer from the reading of this passage that the workers felt the owner of the vineyard was being unjust, unfair, not right in his dealings with the workers. And in our American legal system, it would be illegal to compensate at the same rate for both levels of work. But since this story is really meant to teach us a core lesson about God, I think it’s better to ensure that God’s generosity is highlighted here and not press this story too far to create an unreasonable theology of compensation for business owners. One can only deduce so far before stepping out of bounds. And from this story we learn that no matter how hard we work for the Lord, He really owes us nothing, so any goodness that is given to us is a result of His gracious generosity. Let’s not presume on God. That would be sin.

To sum up – when you find yourself in a conflict, do the following things:

  1. Try to understand what the other party feels is “fair”
  2. Try to reach a tradeoff that creates an agreeable solution where both sides give a bit in order to get to a resolution
  3. Don’t be led to believe that when you have fulfilled your part of an agreement, you have somehow been unfair
  4. And remember, it’s often not about being right, but about finding a resolution

Unlike Mr. Pickens, small business owners don’t have the deep pockets to fight for what’s “fair and equitable treatment” in protracted legal battle. Instead, they often settle for what they believe is absolutely not fair or right, but the tradeoff decision is consciously made: we tradeoff being treated unfairly so that we lower our costs and recoup our energies into growing our businesses.

Fairness really is a moving target. This is why we focus on reaching an agreement.