A Short History of Conflict on Teams
In my 26 years of consulting I’ve had to deal with a lot of conflict and became known as the go-to for high end conflict. Consequently, I’ve seen the meaning and role of conflict evolve from fixing it to focusing the energy in constructive ways. For instance, traditional workplaces treat conflict as something to be ‘resolved’. ‘Disappear it’ or worse, ignore it. Fear of conflict amplified to the point where employees were afraid to attend conflict resolution seminars. They were being singled out as the problem. It is rarely the case and more likely to be the result of bias in the metrics or in the decisions. Ignoring the conflict develops either depression (a biological expression of repressed expression) or endorsed bullying behaviour (aggression). For instance, Uber’s HR excused bullying in high performers according to former employee Susan Fowler.
From a neuroscience point of view the typical response to conflict is fight, flight, or freeze. The good news is that by developing capacity to observe and navigate using your emotions you can achieve flow. Flow places focus is on the problem, instead of destroying the relationship or the person accused of causing discontent.
Seeing the Source of the Conflict Deepen Understanding
In today’s multi-cultural interdisciplinary reality, diverse perspectives are critical for better solutions. It is more useful to recognize the energy in conflict as a creative force that can be directed toward constructive, inclusive solutions. To do so means digging underneath the surface signals to work with the source.
Conflict arises from many sources but these are the ones that surface most often.
Emotional explosions (or withdrawal) happen when someone has been triggered by something like a past memory. The question is ‘what was the trigger?’ Cues can range from something in the environment to a word. Words have meaning with many associations. Meaning is not necessarily shared. For instance, the word ‘vision’ can trigger animosity between different thinkers. Use of an innocent word in casual conversation can trigger an emotional response that has nothing to do with the situation.
Mini-Process Tip: When working with your team if you see two people being hard on each other (conflict) ask what triggered it. Was it a word? If yes, then do a quick Mindmap on a flip chart or white board. Place the word in the middle then ask for a word that each person associates with the word in the centre. Note them all. This is not a time for debate or judgment. Making the meanings visible allows you to collectively agree on what meaning you’ll work with in the discussion.
Unmet expectations: At home, this looks like “who let the dogs out”. At work it looks like poor performers or what you asked for wasn’t delivered. The mismatch between what was expected and what was delivered is never resolved by blame-finding. Instead, apply open-ended questions to verify that you share the picture of what accomplishment looks like in advance. This gives everyone a chance to seize opportunities without needing to seek permission. Once you’re in the muck of the angst the best way is to look at the problem together to determine changes.
Rigid Positions: when two people believe they hold the exclusive rights to being right there is a head-on collision. When participants notice that’s what is going on, one can pause the conversation to explore underlying interests. It only takes one person in the situation to make the decision to step out of the pattern of conflict. At the source might be two interpretations of the same facts. And sometimes a fact is disguised as an opinion. Discernment is important here. Discernment increases as higher levels of conscious awareness develop.
Mini-Process Tip: Take a Time-out. Let the intensity subside; allow time to reflect. On return, without resorting to blame or judgment, ask for constructive insights and observations. Then calmly move forward.
As you gain enough curiosity and confidence to explore what shows up on the surface, you will build trust on your team. Embracing differences and understanding their value benefits everyone. By gaining capacity to have the difficult conversations performance naturally strengthens. Diverse perspectives keep group thinking from falling into a rut. The space is open to speak of the unthinkable risks that are possible, not probable, but high impact.
Read the post on the YVR Startups blog (below) to gain a simple process for turning tension into a compass.