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Practitioners

Spotlight on… Dennis M. Dennis

By August 11, 2011 No Comments

Title: Founding Principal
Company: Care Full Conflict, LLC
City: Redmond, Washington (world headquarters for Microsoft and Care Full Conflict, LLC)
Web site: www.carefullconflict.com
Phone: 206-369-8732
Years in this position: 4
Years in conflict training: 30+

What inspired you to pursue a career in coaching, training or consulting?
As an undergraduate I was deeply involved in the emerging field of community mental health. One of the key strategies of this approach was using a consultation model to create healthy systems and organizations as a means to preventing certain types of mental illness. Later, as a graduate student in psychology at Purdue, I took courses in the Krannert School of Management where I learned that applying knowledge from social science research could help leaders create highly effective organizations while improving the health and satisfaction of employees. My mentor introduced me to the practice of consulting with organizations and many tools of the trade. One of these tools was the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument which had recently been developed while Kenneth Thomas was doctoral student in that department. Though I have served in various roles through my 40-year career, the consulting process has been a mainstay in my professional toolkit.

What do you like most about your career?
My career as a consultant allows me to fulfill several important values. It offers continuous learning opportunities, exposure to a wide variety of novel settings, an opportunity to help others achieve meaningful goals and a balance between autonomy and close collaborative relationships with wonderful people.

How do you measure your success?
As someone who grew up in near-poverty I was initially determined to “make a good living” for myself and my future family. Though I am pleased to say that I have helped raise three healthy and successful daughters and thus met my initial goal, my measure of success has always been how I feel at the end of the day about the contributions I made to others and to society. Consulting has provided me an opportunity to make a difference while making a living.

How do you stay on top of your field?
I believe staying on top of yourself is prerequisite to staying on top of your field. By that I mean I must remain healthy, centered, and self-aware in order to remain effective.  This is not something one can accomplish in graduate school and then ignore. We change, we grow, we develop, and sometimes we decline. It is critical that we maintain our self-awareness and understanding of who we are, who we are becoming, and what we bring to the consulting relationship on any given day.

I try to maintain a balance between staying in touch with the needs of organizations and leaders in the real world as well as the latest scientific, professional, and technical developments. Both are important if one wishes to consult with others. Kurt Lewin is credited with saying that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” On the other hand, I once heard someone at an industrial-organizational psychology conference say that “academia is where the rubber hits the sky.” My credibility as a consultant depends on me being able to exchange lofty ideas that can help others gain a new perspective on their situation while keeping my feet planted firmly on the ground.

What other resources do you recommend? (Books, magazines, web, etc.)
My response to the previous question was not very specific so I will make a few concrete suggestions that work for me. But remember to consider how you learn best and how you replenish yourself. Each of us learns and rejuvenates in different ways.

Because I am a psychologist and HR professional I read psychology, HR, and management journals, like Consulting Psychologist and Harvard Business Review. The Wall Street Journal provides a good general overview of the world from a different perspective. It isn’t necessarily right or the one I always advocate but it does give me an idea of the perspective some of my clients. And it sometimes illustrates problems that organizations create for themselves.

Read trade journals newsletters, and magazines for the industry you are working in as a consultant. This will provide you a sense of what professionals in that field think are the most pressing issues. It will also help you communicate as you become familiar with the vernacular of the client system.

I like to learn with others so I attend seminars, conferences, and at times I have formed study groups.

The web is a powerful tool, but it is important to manage one’s time on the Internet and also to critically evaluate the quality of the material. This is true of any medium, but the web has far fewer filters and therefore has highly variable scientific or factual rigor than peer-reviewed journals or publications edited by professional journalists.

Tell us about a situation where you witnessed or were able to help an organization achieve a constructive conflict resolution.
Because of my experience in human resources, executive outplacement, and leadership development I am often called upon to assist a company trying to decide what to do with an executive who has “derailed.”  This term evokes the image of wrecks I experienced when playing with my electric train set as a child. Even then I knew that the track, rumpled carpet, and/or the operator (me!) may have contributed to the derailment as much as the locomotive itself. I draw on this childhood image to remind myself to take a systems view. I encourage the client to do likewise.

Whatever the client decides about this particular case, I hope they will learn something of value and decide to make enduring organizational changes. Especially if the focal executive is retained, then they can see how factors beyond his or her immediate control may have contributed to the situation. This approach reflects the maxim that a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved.

Sometimes the situation is already “FUBAR” (Fouled Up Beyond All Repair) by time I am called in. Because of the cost of turnover and risk management considerations, I try to determine the probability of successful retention of the executive as well as the cost-benefit of retention vs. separation. It usually helps to walk the client through this 2 X 2 decision matrix (retain v. separate X cost v. benefit). At some point I usually also work with the derailed executive using the same matrix to help them see the bigger picture. It is not uncommon to have both parties come to a similar conclusion independently. If there is concurrence regarding the preferred outcome, we can proceed to negotiate the terms of either retention or separation.

An important advantage of this approach is that it demonstrates respect for the executive while providing a focus for constructive problem resolution.

Regardless of the decision (retain v. separate), I like to have all parties go through a brief conflict coaching preparation using the CDP-I.  This serves to develop skill, promote awareness and set expectations. While I will use the CDP-360 if the goal is retention this is not advisable if separation is likely.

Corporate general counsels tell me the cost of defending wrongful termination lawsuits is very expensive even when the company prevails. Thus, the client company sees this approach as a high value risk-management investment. It is also the right thing to do for the executive regardless of which way the decision goes.

Although I have not always had the opportunity to follow up with both the company and the departing executive (if that is the result), those cases where I do have follow-up data clearly indicate the benefits of using the CDP as a tool in the proceedings.

What has been most successful for you when selling CDP or BCC?
Like most consultants, I dreaded “selling” my services, much less products like an assessment instrument. Then one of my graduate students in the OD program who had formerly been a sales rep for a Fortune 100 company made a class presentation describing the “consultative selling model.”  This model was palatable because it described a sales process based on the consultant establishing a collaborative relationship with the prospective client to clarify their needs and identify value added solutions that the consultant could provide. Understanding this model made me much more comfortable with, not to mention more competent at, what I was already doing. A brief summary of the consultative selling model can be found here.

Almost 20 years later I “sold” that graduate student on the value of the CDP to his practice and he was a participant in my very first CDP certification class in 2005.

What trends or changes are you seeing in workplace conflict? What do you think is the cause?
Workplace conflict is certain to remain a major challenge if only because of rapidly increasing diversity in American society. The diversity arises from multiple dimensions, including age, gender, ethnicity, political views, multi-disciplinary views associated with professional training, and many others. Simply put, there are increasing numbers of potential differences among the members of society and organizations.

Power imbalances and status hierarchies are fundamental factors. These dynamics are often associated with the dimensions of diversity noted above and precipitate conflict.

The Great Recession has led to increased tension around “entitlements programs” (social security and Medicare) as well as concerns about different total compensation programs for government employees and private sector employees. We are likely to see increased conflicts involving public employees as we are now seeing in Wisconsin and other states.

Perhaps the single greatest factor contributing to increased conflict in the future is economic disparity, both in the United States and throughout the world. This has been well-documented by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2010). In their book they provide solid evidence that practically every indicator of health varies inversely to the economic disparity for a given nation (state). Even “trust of one’s neighbor” is lower in nations (states) that have higher economic disparity. In a similar vein, one wonders whether the greatly increased disparity in pay between CEOs in the United States and their employees over the past 25 years plays a role in trust and conflict within organizations.  An animated 3-minute presentation of this research can be found at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level

What do you think is the biggest mistake companies make when dealing with conflict?
Companies want conflict to go away as quickly as possible. This causes leaders to deal with symptoms rather than underlying causes and thus serves to perpetuate the conflict and assure that it will resurface repeatedly. Common tactics include denial (maybe it will go away), removing one or both of the parties, or a false resolution based on a compromise that does not consider underlying interests of the parties.

If you could give companies one piece of advice regarding conflict resolution, what would it be?
Create a culture where conflict is accepted and is seen as a core responsibility of every member of the organization. All conflict has a beginning. That is the time when it is most amenable to a constructive resolution.