Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conflict Resolution

This story of conflict resolution is not as poetic as Miyamoto Mushashi’s duel at Ganryu Island but at least nobody died

Yesterday the spurious firing of some circuits in my neural network had me recalling an incident from a decade ago and giggling like an idiot. It's quite the funniest "how-not-to-do-it" management /conflict resolution story I know. Let me start at the beginning…

In the nineties I served for several years on the Council of a well known British learned professional society and for one year I was Chairman. During this period there was a backdrop of low-level ideological friction. The society was modernizing and had appointed a full time CEO who was continuing to prosecute an agenda of change. However this was not to the liking of many of the old guard council members who wanted to see the society remain as a low cost organization in its traditional style. Tensions increased over a period of years and finally it was decided to discuss the issues over a council meeting dinner to be held one evening at the annual congress.

Probably all the council members were aware that trouble had been brewing and this was going to be a difficult meeting. Nevertheless they all duly trooped in to dinner with not much joie de vivre one chilly December evening. Discussions started over the meal and wine was served. My job as Chairman was to maintain orderly proceedings in an impartial manner and minimise any conflict. In retrospect I would have done things a lot differently but then hindsight is always 20/20. As we skirted around the peripheral issues, the alcohol consumption increased substantially, maybe even alarmingly. Even so you’d think that a group of highly educated and allegedly sophisticated individuals could hold their liquor and conduct themselves in a mature, gentlemanly, manner. Well the events of the evening certainly blew that hypothesis to shreds. As the core agenda items were brought up discussions became a succession of bloviations, accusations and insults. Despite some entreaties by me, logic and politeness went out of the window and all attempts at constructivity were in vain. Finally tempers became so frayed that the CEO announced to the Council “you’re all a joke” to which one member, a combative American who was about as subtle as a lead pipe retorted “FUCK OFF, FAT BOY!”.

Now that level of sophomoric insult was the end of the dinner. Instantly! There was a momentary silence while the gravity of the epithet sunk in. Then the society’s secretary shrieked “MD, stop them, they’re going to fight”. As it happened I was sitting between the two protagonists so I put my hands around their shoulders and “Gentlemen, I suggest we adjourn” (or something equally jejune) and we moved outside and the proceedings were concluded.

The aftermath of the meeting was profound. Immediately afterwards there was a lot more drinking: most of the members were traumatized by the events of the evening and tried to anesthetise themselves from reality. One individual who had given up smoking a decade previously went off in search for cigarettes. But the resonances of the FOFB slur continued for a long time. The CEO went very quiet and eventually resigned invoking an interesting legal sequelae which took a year or so resolve. Other members disappeared back to their labs and were eventually replaced in the society by new blood. At a personal level it was my swan song as I was due to rotate off the council at the end of that year and my work there was done, constitutionally speaking. To this day the FOFB meeting is discussed by society alumni in the same way other generations talked about The Blitz. In retrospect it’s actually a hilarious story. Throwing around terms of revilement like FOFB in usually polite (and quite repressed) British society is so outrageously shocking that a humorous aspect becomes apparent. But other than the fact that my attempts at conflict resolution were an abject failure, the incident also taught me two things: (i) if a contentious issue ever arises between two parties, the likelihood of it being resolved while the consumption of alcohol occurs is minimal and (ii) lurking behind the urbane veneer of many academics and intellectuals there is an aggressive neanderthal waiting to go on the rampage -so don't be surprised when one pops up.

FOFB indeed!

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