Alastair Campbell recently said he smoothed Tony Blair’s notoriously difficult relationship with Gordon Brown, describing himself as applying “the ointment in between the joints”.
He also said that the difference between running the country and any other organisation is the amount of people you affect and the constant
Addressing a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development conference last month, he said: “The country is run by doing what you do. Those who build the roads, drive the lorries, everyone has a role in running the country.”
Credit where credit is due. But what happens when the top people in our industry have difficult relationships? Everyone encounters difficult people, and has to manage this.
Mr Campbell’s attitude to conflicting personalities is that you just have to get through it Đ and that you can be a successful organisation if you do.
“That kind of stuff happens. How many books are going to be written in the future about that [Blair and Brown’s relationship]? But they are human beings. It goes back to that fact. Through it all, what’s happened? We won three elections in a row,” he said.
Proof that however strong the personalities at the top of an organisation, you can make the relationships work. But how?
A workable solution
David Harrison, managing director of Harrison Management Consulting, says that you need to find common ground.
“You’ve got to find mutual objectives. I always ask people what success looks like for them as an individual. They always answer that they want a project to be on time and on budget. But really, what does it mean to you personally?
“Is it respect from a client or colleagues as well? It’s about being able to articulate what you want. ‘This is what I think we should do to be successful’ and together you find the common ground. For Blair and Brown winning the election was a shared major goal,” he says.
Mr Harrison explains that those in our industry may be more likely to come to blows then in other sectors. “Construction people are very task-driven and there are a lot of specialists who are controlling what they do and it can lead to conflict,” he says.
He suggests carefully considering who you hire when thinking about the mix of people.
“[Too often] we tend to select people on their experience and knowledge skills rather than their personality,” he says, adding that personality should be taken into consideration.
If you are in the more likely position of having to manage an existing group of people, find out about their styles, says Jo Causon, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute.
“I always encourage creative sessions. Get the group together and you will find you have extroverts and introverts. It is part of the manager’s skill to recognise the different types and how to bring them out,” she says.
If conflict does arise between people, stick to the facts and try not to get emotional. “Concentrate on what you see rather than what you feel, so you are not attacking the personality.
“There is nothing wrong with criticism as long as it doesn’t get personal,” Mr Harrison says.
He adds that dealing with difficult people is like solving a problem. “You’ve got to really understand the problem to start with before you can solve it, and then you have to look at it constructively.
“Define the problem, understand the root cause, jointly solve the problem and then think positively and come up with a mutual solution,” he says.
Ms Causon advises having a post-conflict conversation as soon as possible. “Plan for the conversation. You are looking for a win-win. Put time aside to have it and remain calm. If it’s with difficult clients try to do it face to face,” she says.
If you come across someone who is very agitated, keep calm. “Some people are explosive and you’ve got to let them get down off the ceiling and then talk to them,” Mr Harrison says.
Mr Campbell says you have to accept a certain amount of conflict. “Politics is like any other collective activity, it’s a team game. It doesn’t mean they are all going to get on all the time. You have to stick together.”
Different ways to resolve conflicts
Management consultant David Harrison explains the different types of personality might need different approaches:
"There are driving, expressive, analytical and amiable types of personality. More often one particular type of personality is dominant, but people can adapt their style of management to suit the situation and place more emphasis on another type.
"However like elastic, when people stretch it creates a tension and sometimes if it stretches too much when the pressure is really on it can snap and they bounce back to their natural style.
"There are several styles of conflict resolution:
"Competitive: these types of people are quite common in construction. Some people want to win at all costs and this can be useful when urgent decisions are required.
"Collaborating: is the more useful type particularly for partnering style contracts. You try to think about the needs of everyone.
"Compromising: If you have a deadlock and a deadline looming then sometimes the parties have to compromise however its more useful to trade compromises - you should aim for both parties to compromise and trade their compromise. you have to give up something it’s about trading. If a deadline is looming it can be that the cost is not sorted out.
"Avoiding: Sometimes you can make things worse by trying to sort it out and its better to walk away and let things calm down. It can escalate if it’s not sorted out.
"Accommodating: Where you say OK to the other person’s view. Some people can be difficult to handle. If they have a bit of power and it’s a viewpoint that isn’t about a critical issue it sometimes can be better to accommodate than if you take them on. You could lose out if you do. But in the long term accommodating is not necessarily the best outcome."
Alastair Campbell’s thoughts on work-life balance, Clinton and Bush
Alastair Campbell lists Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern as top leaders. He says: “They are pretty impressive but they are all human beings – Bill is pretty human. Tony and Bill understood the currents of change ahead of them before others,” he said, speaking at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s annual conference.
But he recognises the need to keep your feet on the ground as a top politician. “The job of Clinton or Blair is the blue ribbon. Our MPs think you’ve gone a bit Hollywood - you get to hang out in Washington and those guys go back to their constituencies and get grief.” He credits Blair for having a good sense of what he does and how it will affect people’s lives.
“Tony understood that most people aren’t obsessed with politics. You may have people in the organisation who are not natural supporters. They think they can do a better job than the leaders. He said the middle classes liked him because ‘I am the middle class’.”
He puts a lot of emphasis on communication. “Clinton is the best political communicator I’ve ever seen. He is a detail merchant. He said ‘never stop communicating, never stop listening’.”
Mr Campbell also likes George Bush. “Someone once said George Bush became president by writing a lot of letters. He writes little hand written notes to people. It’s hard not to like him on a personal level. He has this Texan image which means he’s stupid he’s gone a long way by letting people think that he’s stupid but he’s not,” he says.
If things are going wrong then try not to get too sidetracked, Mr Campbell says, referencing HMRC losing computer discs. “If things are going wrong – stay focused on the stuff that matters.”
But he does suggest looking carefully at your firm from time to time “Do a strategic analysis of your operation. Never assume that it’s right.”
He also encourages top people to get out of the office. “Tony’s diary was a nightmare but he’d say ‘right I want to get out and to go the midlands or Scotland’. The Westminster bubble is a bubble and it’s claustrophobic.”
He says he’s a bit envious of Mr Blair for his ability to bounce back. “Tony had a way of recovering from things. I’d speak to him at the weekend in the morning but by the evening he would have played tennis, watched the football, played with Leo and he was invigorated. It’s a great quality to have. I would just crash.”
He adds that he doesn’t have much sense of work-life balance. “I’m a workaholic. I’d like to think that I don’t drive the people who work for me as hard as I work. You’ve got to realise that people have their limits. Exhaustion is a problem. And I suffered from depression.”
“I really just did the job at home. I became very antisocial - I very rarely went out for dinner. I just decided I’m not going to do it. Tony did but it’s part of his job. My holidays were interrupted. I think I have balance now but the kids are leaving home now.”