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Conflict Management & "The Trousers of Time"

The works of Sir Terry Pratchett are, for me, a source of perennial amusement and wisdom and I thank him for the concept of “The Trousers of Time”. In short we experience “The Trousers of Time” when taking a mundane and seemingly trivial decision that turns out to have fundamental impact on how the future unfolds.

In many situations we cannot possibly know the impact that these day to day choices may have:

“If only he hadn’t decided to go to the library first that morning, he would never have crossed the path of the stampeding rhino.”

However, I would argue that in operational management we will routinely encounter situations where the seemingly small choice whether to address a conflict situation will, quite predictably, have a significant impact on how the future unfolds. Here’s an example.

New employee joins team. Team is required to man the office continually throughout the day so has very structured approach to break and lunch times. On day 1 new employee is 30 minutes late back from lunch.

The first leg of the trousers goes like this...

Line manager notices that new employee is late back from lunch. Thinks
“O that’s a fantastic start! I told him about the lunch break system. Looks like this one is going to
be trouble. Don’t fancy risking getting into an argument on his first day though. I’ll leave it for now.

On day 2 new employee comes back 30 minutes late from lunch. The rest of the team think “Here, that new bloke has been late twice now and we had to hang on waiting for him to man the phones both days. Line manager hasn’t done anything about it either – looks like we have a favourite in the making.”

Line manager thinks “I can’t believe it, he’s late again. If he carries on like this he’s not going to pass his probation. Dunno what’s the matter with the rest of them today. They keep looking daggers at me. Still, least said, soonest mended eh?“

On day 3 new employee comes back 20 minutes late from lunch. Line manager returns from lunch to find 3 complaints in her in box that the phones weren’t covered between 1 and 2pm. Thinks “That’s all I need, now the rest of them are dropping the ball.” And so it goes on and on.

The second leg of the trousers goes like this...

Line manager notices that new employee is late back from lunch. Line manager waits till the end of the afternoon when she had planned to have a first day review with new employee. Says “I noticed that you didn’t come back from lunch until 1.30 today. I’m not sure if I made it really clear that we have structured lunch breaks in this team so that we offer good levels of customer service throughout the day. Had you understood that?”
New employee says “O, I’m really sorry I hadn’t grasped that. My last team were really relaxed about lunch time and I guess I just assumed it was the same here. When do you need me to be back by?”

On day 2 new employee comes back from lunch at the correct time.

So when we are faced with the daily decision to say something or not, to approach a potential conflict situation or not, it could be worth having a think about “The Trousers of Time” and where each leg is likely to take us.