5 Min Read

Becoming a Bomb Technician

5 Min Read

Becoming a Bomb Technician

Not long before the pandemic, I was at a business dinner where most of the participants didn’t know each other.

As we went around the table with introductions, there was the usual assortment of CEOs, managing directors and the like. When my turn came, I announced I was a bomb technician, which certainly got everyone’s attention. And my claim was true enough, for I’ve spent a good deal of my career as a consultant defusing bombs that might otherwise detonate in boardrooms and executive teams:

When the board chair wants the CEO dead, an activist investor is threatening to burn the house down, or a senior executive is plotting against one of his colleagues.

When such bombs detonate, they can inflict great damage, destroying massive amounts of value and often putting many jobs at risk. And just like the bomb that a terrorist might detonate on a crowded subway or train platform, these business bombs often require professional intervention because of the extreme risk.

Such bombs don’t just happen overnight . . .they are the culmination of many things that went wrong, often over an extended period of time.

If, at some point along the way, someone had redirected the tension, war might not have erupted between the CEO and board chair, the investor with an activist position might have been a strong ally in designing competitive strategy, and the executives trying to defeat one another might have been united in advancing the organization’s objectives.

Over the past 15 years of doing this work, I’ve identified specific actions that individuals can take if they see trouble brewing. These steps can have a powerful impact on preventing downstream conflict:

1.    Listen. In the majority of major conflicts I’ve seen, the parties don’t feel heard . . . even though they’re sometimes yelling at the top of their lungs. What is required is deep listening: By all means hear the business concerns they raise, but even more important, try to deduce the personal concerns behind them. When those aren’t addressed, it leaves people feeling frustrated, which can lead to the heavy artillery being brought out.

2.    Validate. Once you understand the individual’s concerns on a deeper level, take care to validate their legitimacy, whether you agree with them or not. People are far more receptive to new ideas if they believe that their listener understands them. Without that validation and understanding, individuals can feel isolated and threatened, both of which are precursors of conflict.

3.    Cross-validate. Perhaps the trickiest of all, it’s important to take the foregoing actions with both parties in a potential conflict, and then surface that they both have legitimate points of view. This might seem challenging, particularly if the viewpoints are diametrically opposed. I’ve found it useful to put forward this simple premise: “Both of your ideas are equally legitimate and equally illegitimate.” When this thinking is shared in a neutral way, it has the effect of validating both positions, which is often what’s needed to resolve differences. In many circumstances, the parties themselves will find rapprochement.

If you see friction in your board or team, don’t wait for the circumstances to devolve into bomb-throwing. Above all, don’t be a spectator. Be a bomb technician, and keep everyone safe.

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