Conflicting Goals

Conflicting goals make room for performance failures


Most people do not set out to fail. On the contrary, most of us regularly attempt to succeed; but at times we do fail none-the-less. The role of a supervisor is to get results through the efforts of other people, so an important question for supervisors is, “Why does a specific performance failure occur?” There are a lot of reasons - knowledge, skill, motivation, etc. - and key among them is something called “goal conflict”.

We live in a complex work-world with multiple competing demands. We must be safe, fast, cheap and valuable all at the same time. It is humanly impossible to make all of these goals #1 at the same time, so we make cost-benefit tradeoffs and “choose” which objective is the most important at the time given the pressures of the environment/culture that we are in. I may choose to “hurry” because of time pressure, but in so doing sacrifice safety and quality.

As a supervisor I need to understand the drivers behind employees’ performance failure before I can adequately help them become successful. What “tradeoffs” did the employee make that produced the failure? Did his desire to “please” the supervisor outweigh his calculation of his own skill-level? Did her perceived pressure to produce outweigh the thought to evaluate hazards associated with the task and take precautionary action?

Unless we as supervisors take the time to evaluate the conflicting goals that drive employees’ performance, we will be less effective in reducing the opportunity for failure.

The Secret to Conflict Resolution -- Stop Compromising

We hear the word “compromise” anytime we turn on the TV or read a newspaper article about how the U.S. Congress should fix our fiscal woes.  Talking heads and Joe Public alike beg for more compromise to fix the situation.  Is it possible that compromise is what is putting us in such a predicament?  Compromise is based on giving up something you want, thus it is based on “losing”.  As that term suggests, I give a little, you give a little, and we meet somewhere in the middle at an agreement.  While compromise sounds like the best way to get unstuck, it actually leaves both parties feeling unsatisfied, almost as if they gave up too much.

To truly resolve conflict we suggest another “C” word -- “Collaboration”.  To collaborate, two or more parties must brainstorm ideas to fix a problem.  The goal, in the end, is to walk away with a solution that is more likely to truly “fix” the situation over which the parties were at odds to begin with.  The process is really pretty easy.  First, the two parties must come to an agreement on a goal that they both want to achieve.  Once that goal is agreed on, they brainstorm ways to get them to their shared goal.  No giving up one’s beliefs or buying into the other guy’s beliefs, simply agreed upon strategies that can get both parties what they have agreed that they both want.  The task then is to choose one solution that both parties have already agreed will achieve the common goal.

Let’s look at an actual conflict that shows how this works.  There was a state in the Southern U.S. that was having violent clashes between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life groups.  The state’s governor knew he must do something before more violence led to somebody’s death.  He told his assistant that he wanted the leadership of both groups to meet with him so they could come to some sort of agreement to stop the violence.  His assistant, thinking the governor had lost his mind, questioned if getting these two groups together in the same room was wise, but the governor insisted.

When the meeting did occur, both sides were at each other’s throats from the moment they arrived in the meeting room.  The governor eventually created calm so that he could address the restless crowd.  What he told them was surprising even to is staff.  He said, “As you all know, we have a significant teen pregnancy problem in our state.  We rank 49th out of the 50 states in teen pregnancies and 50th in the number of teenaged abortions.  What I need from you is to help me solve this problem.  I need your ideas for cutting back the rate of teen pregnancy so that we can cut the number of abortions in the state.”  Both sides instantly changed their demeanor.  After all, the vast majority of abortions are performed on teenaged mothers.  If they could solve that problem, their debate would become moot.

For the next few weeks both sides met and came up with a strategy to lower the pregnancy rate of girls in their state.  They worked together, civilly to reach a common goal, and in the end, they lowered the teen aged pregnancy rate over 50% in their state.

How about you, how does this work in your world?  Can you find a common goal to work towards rather than trying to determine what you are willing to give up, and therefore feeling unsatisfied?  Stop compromising when you are at odds with your co-worker, spouse, or neighbor and find a way to create an action plan that gets you both to a mutual goal.  If only they understood this in Washington.