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Blog - Smooth Operator – what “The Night Manager” can tell us about handling conflict

Smooth Operator – what “The Night Manager” can tell us about handling conflict

Posted by Andrew Rundle - Associate Learning and Development Consultant 30/03/16

The Night ManagerSunday evenings at 9pm BBC1 ‘The Night Manager’ has to be my favourite television drama at the moment. Great story, fantastic acting and some amazing settings make this a great watch. In episode 4 (don’t worry this is not a spoiler alert) there was a rather awkward and difficult confrontation in a restaurant. Major Corcoran (Corky) the nasty and slippery henchman to the evil villain, decided to launch a verbal and then physical attack on the staff much to the horror of guests and staff alike. The trigger for this outburst was a lack of lobster! (Don’t you just hate that?) The erstwhile hero Jonathon Pine brilliantly takes charge of the situation removing the offending individual and using all his charm and charisma to calm those who have witnessed/experienced the incident.

By coincidence, I was reviewing a model for dealing with conflict in the workplace and how different approaches are used to deal with and manage situations. Being the reflective type I couldn’t help thinking of how Mr Pine had demonstrated a classic case of ‘Smoothing’. Put simply rather than tackling the issue head on or avoiding it altogether the situation is managed by downplaying what is happening in order to ensure harmony is maintained – on the surface at least.

In ‘The Night Manager’ I was able to observe this skilfully applied. The matter was addressed calmly and confidently in a non-threatening manner. The instigator was removed from the area and the other participants were communicated with quickly and effectively. Their confidence and nerves were restored with an apology and a free meal. Jonathon Pine had recognised a problem and speedily rebuilt short-term relationships in order to preserve the status quo, thus allowing him to continue with his own agenda. However, what this approach does not address is Corky’s unacceptable behaviour. I have listed below some of the potential risks Mr Pine might have experienced had he applied the ‘smoothing technique’ to every scenario:

  • He could be seen as part of the problem by failing to provide a long-term solution to conflict situations.
  • Perceived as somebody who does a dis-service to colleagues by not working with them to raise awareness of their behaviour and how to change it.
  • Risking or compromising bigger team or organisational objectives in order to prevent conflict surfacing.
  • Ultimately losing the respect of other friends and colleagues and seen as somebody unable or unwilling to tackle difficult issues.

I recall a real life example of inappropriate 'smoothing' linked to a team that I was indirectly supporting. This group had a night out to celebrate a particular achievement. Unfortunately, things did not go to plan. Drinks were consumed and before you knew it insults were being hurled. It was worse than at a Donald Trump election rally. Once the dust had settled, individuals were spoken to and tempers and relationships calmed. However, it transpired that this was not a one-off occurrence. There had been a catalogue of other minor tiffs and disputes that had been smoothed over. The reason for this willingness to turn a blind eye was down to the fact that the catalyst for the problem was a highly valued employee who brought unique skills to the team which the organisation did not want to lose. Nothing had been done to address the unhelpful dynamics and the result was a series of issues that escalated to a point where the team was irreparably damaged. On reflection, this was an example where the ‘smoothing approach’ was not appropriate.

As with any workplace conflict, consideration needs to be given not only to the short-term gains but also to creating a more sustainable culture where conflict is managed effectively. ‘Smoothing’ definitely has its place in a manager’s kit bag of skills but if you do favour this approach then be aware of its limitations and consider a range of approaches to best suit the needs of the situation.

You may also be interested in our blog on Avoiding conflict by valuing difference or our Repairing Working Relationships coaching.

Andrew Rundle - Associate Learning and Development Consultant
Andrew Rundle - Associate Learning and Development Consultant

As part of the Focal Point Training team, I draw on my extensive HR experience of providing specialist input on all aspects of employee relations, change management and organisational development. When I am not training or coaching, you will find me taking my cocker spaniel for country walks, in the kitchen cooking (making a mess as my wife describes it) or attending a local pub quiz.

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