Peace through pain: finding beneficial outcomes through conflict
We humans it turns out are pretty complex. What we see above the surface is just one small aspect of who we are. This is the exact reason why conflict is such an organizational challenge. When we fail to make organizational relationships a priority, it becomes very easy to get into conflict because of a lack of trust, respect, etc. Consider the following graphic of just a few elements that makes human behavior such a challenge.
Conflict resolution is also one of the most difficult leadership competencies to master. Many are inherently uncomfortable with conflict. Understandably so when we consider the potential cost of conflict can be pretty high.
I’ve spent this month (June) really engaged in conflict resolution. From my experience, conflict is typically sparked by three things: personality differences, a lack of processes, and/or just bad actors. I include the or in this equation because conflict can actually be the result of all three things simultaneously or grow as the conflict advances. Let’s take a quick look at all three:
Personality differences. We often don’t realize the extent that personality plays a role in creating conflict. Whether you use MBTI, Personalysis, DiSC or any of the other personality assessments, the end-goal is always the same – to help others recognize our personality differences as gifts of strength rather than adversarial irritants. The greatest ah-ha from any personality debrief is the realization that for the most part people really aren’t out to irritate you, its just their natural tendencies in action.
The second most important thing to understand about personality is that in times of stress or eustress (learning) frustration, anger, etc., we are likely to flip and become the exact opposite of our own personality profile.
Lack of structure and processes. Believe it or not a lack of processes can be a significant source of organizational conflict. Be it unknown or unidentified barriers, role confusion, duplication, bottlenecks are all things that lead to conflict. The greatest difficulty with a lack of structured process is that it perpetuates rather than leads to any conflict resolution. As the problems continue so too does the frustration!
Bad actors. Lets face it, we work with humans and it is possible that we made a bad hire. I like to believe however that through frustration, pain, and stress (which might be stress at home) we are working with individuals who have spent too much time in their negative personality. Over time, they have just eroded into unhappy people who will find a way to appease themselves through their negative behavioral responses, and “hurt people hurt people.” This is why I like to remind leaders that your team members do not have to leave the organization to leave the organization.
Finding peace through the pain
We often make conflict about the person, not the situation. Often this perpetuates the pain and frustration that accompanies conflict, and likely will not ever be resolved. The bottom line is that with personal conflict there is always more than one truth. It can be difficult to find the truth because our perceptions, motivators, threat responses, etc., vary from person to person and that experienced reality becomes theit truth. I’ve heard often a leader who will say, “I just can’t wrap my head around their perspective,” or “I can’t get them to change their mind.” This approach requires others to adopt a perspective and/or outcome that may be incongruent to that truth. All while trying to do so when they are in a heightened emotional state.
Best case scenario is that we see conflict as an opportunity to uncover barriers, find new perspectives, and/or experience a new mindset. This is the beneficial outcome of working through conflict from a situation perspective. Here are few suggestions to make conflict resolution a bit less painful for all parties:
1. Don’t rush to resolution
Many leaders expect to have the conflict resolved in only a few minutes. If this has been a conflict that has existed for many weeks, months, or years it’s pretty unreasonable to expect this amount of emotional frustration to resolve in a few minutes. Work through these challenges in small bites, allowing time for processing new information. Its ok to take a break and resume in a day or two.
2. Allow for emotional responses "lean in"
Expect a potential emotional response. We are humans, as such it is highly likely that we will have an emotional reaction. As Bradberry & Greaves (EQ2.0, 2007) like to say, “lean into the emotional discomfort” that you might experience as you work through conflict with others. Allow them to have their own emotional responses, even if it is different from your own. If things get too heated, defer back to “don’t rush to resolution”!
3. Find and use specific examples
Be sure to provide examples and specific information. That is one of the greatest ways to approach individuals in a conflict situation. This provides something tangible for team members to grab onto for context. Additionally, the use of specific events and examples provides a level of certainty that it remains about the situation not about the person. If possible, try to find three examples. This demonstrates a consistent pattern of behavior, rather than a one-time event.
4. Respect individual archetypes
Because we are archetypes, we have our own unique approach to working through situations, tasks, responses, etc. As such our way might not always be the best way or the way that other colleagues approach a situation. Even with three solid examples, we cannot necessarily discipline others for their own unique approach to events. We can, however, bring these differences to light -to the benefit of parties, seek understanding, while respecting our individual differences. Part of great leadership means authenticity. Allowing for team members to be their authentic self is just as valuable.
5. Avoid the one outcome strategy
Don’t get hung up on one outcome. If we get stuck in a one-outcome paradigm, one, it is usually felt as a mandate or order. This is counter to what we need as adults, which is rationale and an ability to have personal autonomy. Secondarily, this often creates a winner and loser situation. This winner-loser situation sets up a sense of failure, rejection, and more pain.
6. Embrace the good fight!
There is a place for healthy conflict. It comes in the form of brainstorming, ideation, creativity, and innovation, and improves team relationships. Often, leaders experience a heated conversation among the team and rush to judgement. If you have a really great, high-functioning team healthy conflict is a great way for the team to generate endorphins!
7. Practice, practice, practice
Finally, if you find conflict conversations challenging, you're not alone, and practice having them! Prior to a conversation, collect your thoughts on paper, and practice it. Getting your thoughts onto paper is one of the most beneficial things you can do. Practicing at least the opening narrative will also ensure you're feeling comfortable and it will help set the stage to promote comfort for your team member.
Organizational conflict can be one of the most challenging events that leaders face. If its loss of productivity, loss of respect, sabotage, or worse workplace violence unresolved conflict has a very high price. Conflict does not have to be a terrible event or difficult to resolve. Remember to take time for everyone to gather perspective taking and treat the situation, not the people. Whether it’s personality styles, a lack of processes or policies, or simply people behaving as people, we have solutions!