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Conflictual Situation among Counterparts in a Pharmaceutical Company - CS EN


Presentation of the difficulties of collaboration between colleagues and of the mediation strategy adopted to help overcome this.

Framing the context - Narrative

Alpha (name changed) is an enterprise which is owned by a major pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. The initial business of the firm was to render technical services such as facility management exclusively to the owner.

The Management of Alpha consists of Chief Operating Officers (COO) representing the major business streams, a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Tarik, team head “Controlling” reports to the CFO.

In the year 1997, the owners of Alpha decide to expand Alpha’s business activities. The plan is to change from a group internal service provider to a competitive service company which offers its products to third parties, too. In the same year, the Management of Alpha decides to upgrade the existing business software release (in the following called “SAP”) in order not to lose maintenance support from the license. Management considered this to be a good time to adapt the software transactions to the new business needs and to add sales module of SAP “SD” in (=sales and distribution) in order to support the new business cycles.

The CIO was nominated as project leader, Tarik since he was very familiar with the business software regarding the finance and controlling modules “FI/CO” was nominated as stream head for FI/CO modules. Additionally, he was entrusted to implement the SD module, since the sales function was still vacant at that time.

One year later in 1998, the new software release went life. At the same time, the CFO left the company in order to follow other interests outside Alpha. I was offered the job and took over. Together with me, Sara started her career with Alpha as Sales Controller. Sara, who was recruited by my predecessor was mainly responsible for analysing and reporting sales development. She and Tarik reported directly to me.

In line with the new business objectives of Alpha as an independent company, the focus of the business has significantly changed from “cost allocation” to “third party billing”. Hence, Management required a Sales Information System which is able to provide a customer, product and market-related data.

In one of the first, the bi-monthly finance meeting I stressed the point that Alpha has now a new mission and it is the responsibility of the Finance department to provide relevant data in order to accomplish the business goals. I assigned various tasks to my direct reports: Tarik had to produce reports which were to provide detailed information about the profitability of rendered services on different levels of aggregation. Sara had the task to produce reports showing the profitability by customers, markets and businesses and services. A deadline was agreed and minuted by when the tasks were to be completed.

In the followings Finance meetings, I ask my subordinates about the progress of the tasks, but no progress was reported. Tarik used alleged reasons to excuse the delay and started to blame her colleague for the postponement. He claimed that the reports are available and it is only a question of tapping the system to get the required information. One should be familiar with SAP but obviously, Sara is not able to manage it. Sara, on the other hand, argued, that she knows well how to use SAP, but the system is not set up in a way to retrieve the required data. I realised a communication problem: it is one’s person’s word against another’s and I had no clue who of them was right and who not. I myself joined Alpha only a couple of weeks before, far too little to understand thoroughly all business processes. A fact was that the meetings with my direct reports were disappointing in the sense, that we beat about the bush and didn’t produce valuable results. I couldn’t tolerate any longer to be put off by my team heads. This communication problem needs to be solved for the sake of the company and its goals.


Identification of potential for effective resolution by mediation

I liaised with the HR department (HR = Human Resources) and asked for advice what to do in such a situation and how to solve the problem. The HR Manager proposed not to be involved personally, due to many reasons. Firstly, I was relatively new to the company and shouldn’t give the impression that I cannot handle interpersonal conflicts. Secondly, if HR gets involved in this conflict, the issue may seem more important than it really was which is not good for my reputation and thirdly, if I could solve the problem by myself it would strengthen my position sustainably.

The HR Manager proposed several communicative practices for the argumentative interaction with my subordinates. We agreed to use a combination of mediation and arbitration. I would start with mediation in order to let the opponents “empty” themselves and learn most about the root causes of the conflict. After having gained enough information and being ready for making a decision I am to play the role of an arbitrator in order to direct my subordinates towards business goals. In order to be ideally prepared for this difficult conversation, the HR Manager handed over training documents to me, which were used in the company to support managers in difficult conversations. I went back to my office and started reading the documents. I wanted to be prepared thoroughly for the conversation with my subordinates and decided to prepare a guidance for myself with important points to be considered.


Analysis of parties and issues and elicitation of real interests

First of all wanted to learn more about the characters of the two counterparts which may help to understand better the conflict. I scanned the personal records of Sara and Tarik and found the following:

Sara, a woman, married, is Swiss. She studied business administration at the university in St.Gallen and worked as a Region Controller in an international Swiss company. She has good experience with SAP, particularly with the SD module.

Tarik, male, is Swiss too, but originally born in Turkey. Tarik, who has both passports, the Swiss and the Turkish, is divorced from a Swiss woman, understands but doesn’t speak Swiss dialect. Tarik is a certified accountant and very open to business changes. He is sort of “techy” and likes to customise business software. He was instrumentally involved in the recent software release change and business process implementation. Sara and Tarik are more or less the same age.

In terms of Alpha and it’s business processes and supporting software modules I needed to get more in depth information. I scheduled a meeting with the CIO. He led the project regarding technical implementation of the software. The CIO took part in all project meetings so he was supposed to have more details also from another sub- streams.

He confirmed that the business requirements were fully driven by Tarik. The project team also urged to consider the implementation of the sales module SD, but Tarik was positive to offer solutions with the Finance/Controlling module in order to kill two birds with one stone: accomplishing the cost allocation request and sales requirements.

I considered the advice of the HR manager to step in the role of a mediator to get as much information as possible from my direct reports in order to gain a picture of the underlying problems and then to decide what needed to be done.


Focussing on dynamics

I invited Sara and Tarik to a meeting in my office, informing them about the reason of the meeting and to be prepared to answer topic related questions. The meeting was scheduled for 1 ½ hours.

Sara came on time, whilst Tarik was 7 minutes late. He apologised for the late arrival, he was on the phone. I opened the meeting and explained the topic. I told my direct reports that the Management expects from our department to see results regarding sales and cost reports. Management is somewhat concerned since we were not able to deliver anything. Immediately, Sara and Tarik started to shift the blame from one to the other. Tarik blamed Sara saying that he had told her several times how to retrieve the data from SAP but obviously she doesn't understand how to do it. But no wonder! On the one hand she is new with the company and on the other hand, it needs some time to understand the business processes. B.Tuckman's team development stages “forming, storming, norming, performing” came to my mind. In the storming phase, hostility prevails, defensiveness and little or no willingness for collaboration and contribution. The tension in the group increased.


Singling out opposite argumentative strategies

I stopped the argument and asked Sara to describe the situation from her point of view. She repeated what I knew already, namely that SAP sales module does not generate reports as expected. Then I handed over to Tarik and listen to his explanations. Again the same statements. Allegedly, all reports are available, the fact is, claims Tarik is, that Sara does not know how to use SAP.

During the discussion, I noticed, that Tarik was more relaxed when talking to me but became aggressive when answering Sara’s questions. I derived from that behaviour that Tarik obviously felt somehow attacked by Sara. According to the CIO, the different business requirements have been considered in the release change project. Tarik had nothing to hide and hence nothing to fear. This needed further investigation. I stopped the discussion and proposed another meeting with Tarik and the CIO in order to learn more how the SAP project went. Tarik seemed to be relieved and agreed immediately.


The meeting with the CIO was relaxed. During the discussion Tarik explained that the former CFO (my predecessor) advised him to clearly focus on the Finance/Controlling part of the SAP project than on SD, disregarding the future business orientation of Alpha, since the major customer was still the owner of Alpha which needed to be satisfied.

This statement was not in line with the explanations I got from the first discussion with the CIO, which is understandable. Although the CIO was part of the SAP project his focus was a smooth release change and not to challenge the results of sales reporting. On top of it, there was little time for him to look into the other software streams, let alone to get involved in business process analysis of the SD module.

Yet, Tarik's reactions still confused me. What drives him to become aggressive towards Sara, whereas he stood relatively quiet when we had the discussion with the CIO? I called a friend who’s woman is Turkish in order to learn more about Turkish behaviour.

I learned from the two discussions with the CIO and the Turkish friend that the issue of misunderstanding was twofold: firstly, there was a business problem. The ERP- system was set-up according to the business requirements of controlling and monitoring internal business transactions. Tarik was instrumentally involved in the business re-engineering project as project leader for the controlling business process. He followed the instructions of his boss to focus on FI/CO and engaged himself to achieve the set targets. Secondly, there was a human issue. A couple of years ago Tarik came from Turkey to Switzerland. He tried to adapt to his new cultural environment, married a Swiss woman, behaved fair, worked diligently and wanted to deliver excellent working results in order to be appreciated by his Swiss colleagues. As project leader, he did an excellent job. And now, all of a sudden, his new female Swiss colleague tries to tell him what he is to deliver and also tell him between the lines that he did a lousy job. This brings Tarik in a precarious situation. He does not want to lose his face because he didn’t devote appropriate attention to the sales cycle when customising the business processes in the ERP-system. Deep in his heart, Tarik is a Turk and for Turk men, it is inconceivable to admit a mistake, especially in front of a woman.

But much more relevant for him as a Turk is the fact, that he fears to become “humiliated” in front of a woman. This is unthinkable for a Muslim.


Identification of potential for effective resolution by arbitration

I scheduled another meeting with Sara and Tarik. I started repeating to my direct reports, especially to Sara, the findings from the previous meetings with Tarik and the CIO. I stressed the point that Tarik had clear instructions from his previous boss to focus on the Finance/Controlling modules and not on sales processes. Due to limited resources and time constraints the SD module was implemented but with a limited reporting functionality.

Then I came back to the task to produce sales reports for Management. I asked my direct reports, what the next steps are and by when we can deliver what has been requested.

Tarik immediately offered his help. With slight adjustments in SAP, one can produce all the sales reports which are requested. It might take one week to customise the system accordingly and an additional cost of some 30’000 CHF. I told them that I’m happy about the frank conversation and that I will take up the request for system adaptation with the CIO. Tarik smiled because he kept his face.

Intercultural Communication Mediation Pharmaceutical Business