Handling Conflicts…the Abe Lincoln Way

We hung up the phone thinking “whew” that call sure got hot. An irate customer? A demanding boss? A frustrated sales rep? Nope. It was an internal planning meeting between sales and marketing for fiscal year 2010. Not all such meetings, of course, are this animated but this one sure was. And that’s not always a bad thing but in this case people left with some hurt feelings and damaged relationships. I’m sure you’ve seen your share of heated conflict in the workplace. Here are some typical hot spots:


executive and line management, engineering and QA, tech support and development, manufacturing and operations, and finance and just about everyone. Conflict is healthy but how you handle conflict can be the difference between success and failure in achieving your business objects. Here are just three tips that have worked for Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President. I recently read a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns and cite examples of each point below drawn from Lincoln’s life.

Never use email for emotionally charged issues

Kearns writes about the time Lincoln was very angry with General Meade for not pursuing the confederates after beating them at Gettysburg. She reports that “Lincoln held back, as he often did when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle. In the end, he placed the letter in an envelope inscribed: ‘To General Meade, never sent or signed.’” Lincoln saw that expressing anger in writing is never productive. He did convey his sentiments through his team but in verbal form not written. Lincoln got his point across, changed Meade’s behavior, and ultimately modeled for his staff how to handle conflicts.

Stick to the issue. Don’t personalize matters.

Lincoln selected cabinet members who were formidable rivals of his such as Salmon Chase (Treasury Secretary), Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War), William Seward (Secretary of State), and Edward Bates (Attorney General). Most of them excoriated Lincoln prior to his election because they felt he was not the best choice for the country. Conflict continued and tempers flared within his cabinet even up to his re-election. In speaking with one of his opponents, Lincoln states “You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I. A man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him.”

Allow for the possibility that you are wrong

In a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln admits being wrong on a strategic military route during the Civil War to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. This was an important victory. President Lincoln wrote, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.” Lincoln was exceedingly humble yet tenacious in finding the best solution even if it meant admitting he was wrong.

I hope this gives you a few tips that might help the next time you’re in conflict with someone in the business setting. Please share with us any stories or tips that you’ve found helps turn conflict into constructive action.

11 Responses to Handling Conflicts…the Abe Lincoln Way

  1. jeremiah Okello April 21, 2009 at 7:17 am #

    This is surely a good reference, sridhar we are a consultancy firm in Nairobi, Kenya and we have centers that are doing teleprospecting, and telesales and we are currently looking for clients, do you have any way you can help us, you can send me an email in private.thanks a lot in advance.

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