Caveat Before we get into it, just a bit about my background. I am not an expert on leadership and conflict resolution and I don’t wish to be perceived as one. I am a simple software engineer turned agile coach. So why write on conflict? Well, for over almost 30 years of work, I have seen my fair share of conflict and how leaders handle them (or not handle them) and it still bugs me how conflicts are perceived. Personally, I find conflicts uncomfortable, but I know we can do better. We must do better. You should also know that I don’t take credit for any of this material. I learned this from others, especially from communities around self-management, from training in Nonviolent Communication, and from Tuff Leadership Training.
Conflict. Perhaps just reading the word makes you ill at ease? Did you just start to think about that insufferable person at work? If there is one thing you agree on with that… that… individual, it is that you should stay the hell away from each other.
When you are thinking about an ongoing conflict, what are you feeling? You probably feel frustration. If you were to dig a bit deeper within yourself, you would probably find a bunch of other feelings around the conflict. Perhaps sadness or guilt. Probably, you would find shame. Few things at work can elicit more shame than conflict. We know we should be rational about this, but we just… can’t. And leaders reciprocate by treating the conflict with the utmost secrecy. No, no, we can’t talk about conflicts because it involves individuals. Like it’s some kind of disease.
The conventional view of conflict in organisations
There is a conventional view of conflicts that leads to these thoughts and behaviours. I want to make it clear from the start that I don’t subscribe to this view. In fact, I think it is damaging to organisations, but let’s examine it anyway. This conventional view goes something like this:
- Conflicts are irrational. Conflict arise from individual feelings and needs, not from organisational needs. In business, we should always strive to remain rational. Feelings may cloud our judgement. Therefore, having conflicts is a sign of trouble. Where there is conflict, for example in a management team, other leaders or team members may believe the group is currently off balance or even dysfunctional.
- Conflicts should be avoided. Building on the previous point, since conflicts may affect our thinking and behaviours, they should be avoided. Conflicts are distractions from the real work that decrease our productivity and create concern.
- Conflicts are shameful. Given the previous points, the general thinking is that conflicts are only relevant to the conflicting parties and should not be spoken openly about. It’s confidential. Side note: Through first-hand observation and gossip, people around the conflict always seem to know about ongoing conflicts.
- Conflict is a people problem. Again, since conflict is an individual issue, the blame falls squarely on the people in the conflict. Rarely do we reflect on how the system around them contributes to conflicts.
- Conflicts should be managed by skilled people. Conflict is often such a sensitive issue we need to bring in a mediator, typically the manager of the conflicting parties or HR/People team.
Examining the conventional view
Although conflict may feel exhausting and emotional when inside one, I would argue against this view.
First of all, organisations are filled with people. I hope I won’t shock you now, but people have feelings and needs that influence our behaviours. Feelings and needs are important. So why do we feel a need to hide large parts of ourselves just because we are at work? It doesn’t make sense. Some people call it “The tyranny of rationality”. In this hyper-rational view of the world, we need to create and maintain distorted images of ourselves to our colleagues and leaders, spending a lot of energy.
Secondly, when people try to collaborate, there is always tension. Tension, conflict, and resolution is part of every model of group dynamics that I have seen. In fact, there is general agreement that you cannot create a deep collaboration (or teamwork) without conflict. That means that signs of conflict can actually be a positive sign for a group, under some conditions.
Thirdly, using a systemic thinking lens, most conflict are quite rational. For example, people having conflicting goals. People may simply have been pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. “If I don’t get that money, you will.”. The system we are in greatly affects our behaviour.
Finally, we seem to have forgotten that people at work are responsible grown ups. On every other area of life, responsible grown ups are expected to solve conflicts. Why not at work?
The progressive view of conflict
As you probably know, Alice and Bob had a conflict yesterday on how to manage security tokens. Just to keep you updated, they are working it out as we speak and will report back to us when that is done.–– A team leader
More progressive organisations have a different view of conflict:
- Conflicts are natural. Conflict may come from feelings and needs, but is one aspect of human interactions. Conflicts are part of our human condition. By embracing conflict, we can allow a richer picture of ourself emerge at work, outside of our rational self.
- Conflicts are not only expected but essential. In our interactions with other people, we sometimes go through phases where disagreement and conflict occur more frequently. Without constructive conflict, we can never evolve into a team, with shared goals and mutual dependency.
- Conflict is a resource for learning. We can use conflict to create better teams and better collaboration. We can clarify expectations of each other. What if we learned how to identify tensions early and use them instead?
- Communication on the progress of a conflict is useful. Most everyone already knows about the ongoing conflict. Trying to keep it a secret is impossible. It will only lead to misunderstanding and exaggerations. Instead of all that tip-toeing, what if your team manager said something like this instead: “As you probably know, Alice and Bob had a conflict yesterday on how to manage security tokens. Just to keep you updated, they are working it out as we speak and will report back to us when that is done.”? Suddenly, that knot in my stomach dissolved. I have even resolved conflicts with people with the whole team present, listening and mediating.
- Fundamentally, all conflicts at work can be resolved (some may take time). Some conflicts are certainly personal and hard to resolve, but we can choose to view all conflicts as possible to resolve in a constructive way. We need to believe this ourselves.
- We can expect grown-ups to resolve most of their conflicts on their own without the help of outside mediation. We’ve known how to do it since kindergarten. It may feel hard sometimes because we do it so rarely. With some training, it becomes easier.
There is one thing that both perspectives agree on: What we must never do is allow for a conflict to remain without resolution. The conflict will grow and fester. It can turn into an all-out war, but more likely it will remain but never spoken about. It will become a problem, not only to the people involved, but to everyone else that works with them. People will need to work around this and use their mental abilities to navigate this minefield instead of being able to focus 100 % on work.
What conflicts do you have? Big or small, I suggest bringing them up with the people involved and listen to each other. Start with the small ones, so small they almost don’t feel worth bringing up. They are good for practicing. Here is one way you can bring it up:
Charlie, I noticed we disagreed yesterday on the need for more diversity in the management team. After that meeting, I feel sadness and a bit of frustration. It is important to me that we are an inclusive and equitable employer. Would you be willing to talk about this with me over a coffee at 10?
Here are some questions that can be helpful in the conversation itself:
- Facts and observations: Do you both agree on the facts? What would you have seen and heard if it was caught by a hidden camera?
- Perspectives and feelings about it: If you listen closely, can you understand the perspective of the other person? How did they feel in this? How does it make you feel, hearing this now? Take turns.
- Needs: What do you need from the other person to put it to rest?
- Wishes for the future: How would you both like things to work going forward?
- Organisational learning: Can you now see why the conflict emerged? What forces contributed? As an organisation, what can we learn from this?
Don’t delay. Start treating your conflicts as resources.