CEO Boomer Consulting Inc.
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How to Ensure Workplace Conflict Contributes to Firm Growth

The accounting profession is in the midst of unprecendented transformation, and this may lead to some conflicts within firms, especially among members of the partner group. Conflict can be constructive if it's handled the right way. Jim Boomer tackles this topic to help your firm move forward.

Feb 26th 2020
CEO Boomer Consulting Inc.
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The accounting profession is in the midst of unprecedented transformation, and many firms are changing their leadership, processes, technology, talent structures and business models to better prepare themselves for the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not always smooth sailing, especially within the partner group. Partners may butt heads over the future of the firm and best practices, or even struggle to communicate effectively, even when they want the same things. And when the partners can’t work reasonably well together, it’s practically impossible for them to achieve results that contribute to the success of the firm.

Naturally, when a diverse group of diverse people gets together to make a decision, there will be conflict. Conflict isn’t always bad; sometimes it can be constructive. The key is resolving inevitable disputes in a way that allows the partners to move the firm forward.

Task Conflict vs. Relationship Conflict

The partner group can face two kinds of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict.

Task conflict involves disagreement about the content of decisions and differences in viewpoints, ideas and opinions. Task conflict might arise when partners disagree over the interpretation of facts or how to deploy resources for a project.

The most effective partner groups promote task conflict because it can be beneficial to decision making. For example, the partner group might have a rule that they don’t start a meeting with a vote but instead begin by discussing the issues. This helps flush out all available information and then lets the partners work through differences of opinion.

Relationship conflict involves interpersonal incompatibility, and it usually results in tension, annoyance and animosity among partners. For example, two partners might have very different personal tastes, political preferences, values and interpersonal styles.

Effective partner groups avoid escalating relationship conflict by focusing on behaviors and issues rather than individuals. This can be the most challenging part of managing conflict in the partner group, but it’s crucial. When a debate becomes personal, people naturally become defensive, and healthy conflict turns into an argument.

Emerging Leaders vs. Current Leaders

Another common source of partner conflict stems from a transition in the leadership group. Seasoned leaders might scoff at the priority the next generation places on work/life balance because current leaders had to “pay their dues” and work long hours to achieve goals. They may prefer traditional services, billing practices and marketing methods while the next-gen leaders are excited to do things differently to succeed in the future.

Neither group is wholly right or wholly wrong.

Seasoned professionals need to think back to earlier in their own careers so they can better empathize with what the newer partners are thinking, feeling and doing.  Remember, these up-and-coming leaders bring a fresh perspective, new ideas and skills that are important to the future of the firm. Leverage these to the firm’s advantage by considering how their ideas might fit into how you’ve traditionally done things. Coach and mentor the next generation but also challenge them by stepping back and letting them push new services and strategies forward. 

Emerging leaders need to understand a few things about those that have come before us. Remember, they have years of wisdom and professional experience that smart business professionals can and should tap into. Understand that it’s difficult to let go of something you’ve been doing your whole life. Appreciate everything they’ve done to help the firm reach its current level of success and present new ideas with respect.

The sooner the partner group stops throwing daggers at each other and starts focusing on the positive aspects that each partner brings to the table, the sooner everyone can start blending perspectives and preparing for a successful future together.

Conflict Management vs. Conflict Avoidance

Conflict management is not conflict avoidance. When we avoid conflict, we limit the opportunity to collect valuable information that can help with decision-making. For example, the partners might go with the first suggestion offered to avoid a confrontation, even though it’s not the best decision. Partners need to have opinions, and they need to be heard.

Conflict can be healthy if it’s managed correctly, so don’t avoid confrontations and hope problems will go away on their own. Adopt a set of values for how partners are expected to conduct themselves. If one or more partners can’t live up to those expectations, it’s up to the Managing Partner to work with them to correct the problems. If all else fails, as difficult as it is, partners who consistently violate the group’s standards might need to find a new group to play with.

A shared vision and strategic plan can help a diverse partner group operate with consensus, improve accountability across the firm, and ensure the firm’s resources are dedicated to activities that will impact the firm’s success. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help if your partner group has trouble getting on the same page. Sometimes, a neutral third party can help get partners on board with a shared vision and strategic plan.

Conflicts are inevitable, but you can’t lose sight of the larger goal: running a healthy and growing firm.

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