How smart managers build bridges

Published 09 November 2012 12:47, Updated 21 November 2012 06:56

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What do you do when the other person simply won’t budge from an entrenched position in which they have a great deal of personal and professional commitment? How do you bridge the gap between your position and theirs?

Most people try to win the other person over by argument. The trouble is that in many cases they don’t have all the facts to help them understand why the other person doesn’t agree. What’s more, the gap may be due to differences in values or culture that are not particularly amenable to reasoned arguments.

Whatever the differences, when you can’t win by reason, you may become angry at what you see as the other person’s lack of it, which gets mirrored, and so the gap grows.

To avoid this dynamic, stop trying to get the person to change and instead get them to open up. What they say may cause you to temper your own position, opening the way for co-operation.

I built my first managerial bridge when I joined our family’s business. I found that our warehouse was constantly out of stock of at least five of the 30-odd products we carried.

This led not only to a loss of sales but also had repercussions on the sale of all our products because it drove many customers into our competitors’ arms.

I went to our warehouse and met the manager, a very loyal, trustworthy man who had worked with us for many years. He was about 60, knew all our clients personally and had a wide network of potential clients. I asked him why he believed we faced this problem.

He said it was because our suppliers took a long time to deliver our orders and, given the global nature of our supply chain, there was nothing we could do about it. I talked to him a little about the notion of predicting the amount of each product we would need to carry as minimum stock to cover our sales between the date of placing our order and the date it would reach us.

His reaction was fierce: “If you want predictions go to the Oracle of Delphi. In Greece we don’t know what will happen from one day to the next, so we can’t make predictions of how much we’ll sell.” He would not budge.

Faced with this attitude, I stopped trying to get him to change. Instead, I asked for a worker, red paint, a brush and a wooden ladder. I obtained from the accountant the average monthly sales of each product, added a security margin of 20 per cent, converted this quantity to the volume of space required for each product and drew on the wall a thick red line at the point where the pile would probably be enough to cover sales until our next order arrived.

I assured the manager I respected his view that predictions in Greece were risky and – this was critical – assured him head office would take responsibility for whatever risks were entailed by my attempts to forecast. “All you have to do is, whenever you see a red line appearing on the wall behind the stack of any product, is inform me,” I said. Finally, I promised him a bonus for each day our warehouse had stock of all our products.

The immediate impact, of course, was fewer stock mistakes. But the longer term and more important benefit from the improvement was that the warehouse manager and I started talking more. He took to visiting me at my Athens office and to ask my opinion on other problems our Piraeus shop faced and to make useful suggestions on how best to address them. Thanks to my action in bridging, I had been able to move from talking to the manager to talking with the manager.

Edited version of an article in the Harvard Business Review.

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