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How to Resolve On-the-Job Conflict, Part 3

June 28, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

For our series on the theme of conflict at work, we asked leaders in high-intensity fields to share their solutions to workplace power struggles by sketching some scenarios they’ve dealt with in their daily routines. Last up: human resources executive Cindy Ballard.

Photo courtesy of ICM Partners.

Some talent agents are probably just like they’re depicted in old movies—they yell, throw things, and fire assistants right and left. International Creative Management, one of the top Hollywood talent agencies in the world, hired human resources veteran Cindy Ballard to squash that stereotype—and the workplace culture from which it arose. “I’m really fortunate that our agency has a better reputation than others,” Ballard says. “We’re more collaborative and team-based.”  

Still, before Ballard became ICM’s Chief of Human Resources in 2018, the HR department was “very transactional,” she says. “[Executives] would just call down— ‘I need a new assistant!’ We do have an old guard that grew up in this business, and [when I joined] I … had to sit with them and say, ‘Times have changed.’” 

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Ballard pushed to achieve gender parity in the company’s workforce by 2020, a goal she has already accomplished, and she’s hiring to make the company more diverse and inclusive. She has also initiated a student-loan matching program and coverage for fertility treatment to attract and retain up-and-coming agents. “The new generation wants a respectful, open, accepting culture,” she says.

Below, Ballard outlines how she has handled on-the-job conflict over the course of her 30-year career—and offers expert advice on how to manage it.

The conflict: When you’re initiating a tough talk…

“I had a really tough conversation recently that wasn’t just difficult for this person on a professional level but also on a personal level,” Ballard recalls. “I could tell they were nervous, and I said, ‘I know this is going to be hard. We’re going to get through it. I’m invested in you.’”

The resolution: Be direct and transparent. 

“I’ve seen this a million times with executives: when they’re managing a conflict, they talk in circles,” Ballard says. The result is a confused employee. “You can be warm—that’s about body language, tone, eye contact—but you still have to be in the message.”

The conflict: When you’re dealing with high drama…

Ballard recalls an incident earlier in her career in which two executives were shouting at each other, and it was getting nasty. “So I told them, ‘OK, time out. We’re going for a walk,’” she says. “My goal was to get them out of the situation.”

The resolution: Diffuse the tension.

Whether or not a conflict involves a screaming match, a key step to resolving it is to turn down the emotion. You can start by showing the struggling parties that they are being heard. “I seek first to understand,” Ballard says, “which feeds into my natural tendency to ask a million questions: Tell me why you’re upset. What happened? Now they’re talking and engaging and calming down.”  But if you’re going to ask questions, Ballard adds, you’d better listen to the answers. “I play it back to them: Can I stop and confirm that this is what I’m hearing you say?” 

“I’ve found that if I stay very calm and positive, it disarms the other person,” she says. “It’s hard to [act angry] when someone’s looking at you and not engaging in the same behavior.” 

The conflict: When an employee undermines your authority… 

In two instances, executives at ICM went over Ballard’s head to complain to the firm’s managing partner—her boss—about the new corporate ethos. “My boss had me join the meeting in both situations and said, ‘Everything Cindy has told you is correct. We’re evolving the company, and you have a choice: You can be here and act respectfully. If you can’t, then I don’t care how much money you bring into the agency—you can’t be here.’”

The resolution: Make sure your boss has your back.

“Support from the top is critical,” Ballard says, so be clear that you and your boss are on the same page from the start. Had her manager wavered, the disgruntled executive would have walked away with mixed messages and a loophole for behaving badly. 

The conflict: When you want to offer guidance…  

One of Ballard’s go-to questions in a disagreement is, Are you open to an opposing viewpoint? “Then I say, ‘Can I coach you for a minute? Can I give you feedback?’,” she says. Many struggling agents, especially women, have reacted favorably. Those who feel out of step with the changing culture are often appreciative. “I’ve had some respond, ‘I’d love to be coached. I know times are changing. These are my tendencies—I grew up in a man’s world.’ ”

The resolution: Pitch in to solve a problem.

All parties in a dispute have to get involved to solve it, even if one of them is empirically more “at fault” than the other. Some people need help finding the tools to deal with it. If they refuse to engage? “That’s when Firm Cindy comes in,” Ballard says. “‘How can we ever resolve conflict if you’re not open to coaching or opposing points of view? And if you truly aren’t, then is this conflict solvable? Do you want to be known in the organization as someone who’s not working well with others?’” At the end of the day, “the company has an expectation,” she adds. If someone can’t rise to it, Ballard will let them know that there may be a bigger problem at hand.

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Patti Greco is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She was previously Cosmopolitan's digital entertainment director and a staff editor at New York Magazine and Vulture. Read more of Patti's posts.

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