In fifth grade I volunteered to be a part of my school’s conflict management team. This was a group of students, whose sole purpose was to walk around the playground and look for kids in conflict and then walk them through a process for resolving their differences. When I entered zookeeping, I quickly learned that not all animal people like conflict, or deal with it the same way. I often hear things like “confrontations make me uncomfortable” or “it’s not that big a deal, it’s just who they are”, maybe even “nothing will change, so what’s the point” or worse gossip runs rampant! If you add the common myth that “the most successful teams have very little conflict”; then conflict in the workplace tends to get a bad rap. However, teams or organization without productive conflict, tend to struggle with what Dr. Liane Davey refers to as “conflict debt”1 and it can have huge impacts on work culture, engagement, retention, productivity, good decision making, even team members overall well-being.
Merrian-Webster defines conflict as competitive, or opposing action of incompatibles, or the mental struggle resulting from incompatible, or opposing needs, drives, wishes or external or internal demands.
Conflict can be derived from several situations, but the most common conflicts generally result from:
- Poor communication
- Personal differences
- Lack of trust
Depending on one’s personality style or preferences as well as life experiences, societal/cultural beliefs (non-religious), we often handle conflict one of five ways2:
The first three (avoidance, accommodation and competition), usually result in “conflict debt” or “destructive conflict” maybe even “artificial harmony”. Compromise is great when done appropriately. Collaboration is the most ideal method for handling conflict in the workplace. However, in most workplaces’ collaboration is extremely challenging due to us being uncomfortable with tension and disagreements.
According to Patrick Lencioni, conflict occurs on a continuum between destructive conflict and artificial harmony, in the middle is what he defines as “productive conflict”.
‘Productive conflict’ is passionate, unfiltered debate that can help resolve issues not create them and allows the team to be more honest and open to problem solving, without causing destruction based on competition, politics or pride.3
Productive conflict takes time and practice, and there are few things to consider when handling conflict in a collaborative or productive manner:
- Awareness of your conflict style and response preferences– Productive conflict is a skill set and like any other skill, it requires awareness of one’s current skill level, and creating a plan for developing the skill to the desired level. When we understand our “comfort” response to conflict, we can see how we may have been contributing to the situation. We can also decide a head of time how we want to approach future conflict. Understanding our values and priorities can provide important information to how we handle conflict. Example: if I tend to value harmony, then I may lean towards avoidance or accommodation methods. When I know this, I can reframe what it means to be ‘in harmony’ instead of sacrificing my voice in order to keep those around me calm to; voicing my needs/ perspective respectfully and being respectful to their needs/perspectives simultaneously. Ultimately, one must understand themselves, before they can start to understand others.
- Connect with the person(s) in a respectful and calm manner– Whether it’s asking to take a short break during an escalating conflict situation, or scheduling a meeting to discuss a difficult topic, make sure you go into the meeting calm and respectful and stay that way throughout the conversation. Choose a location that is private and/or neutral space if possible. Focus on the issue or behavior, not the person. If they start to escalate, take a deep breath, speak calmly and re-focus back to the topic. Often, I find, if I can remain calm, then the person I am speaking to will generally remain calm or return to calm if they escalate. Validate what they may be struggling with. The goal is to be open minded and connect with them as a person, rather than be right or have all the solutions. I once heard someone say, “when they are in conflict, they look at the other person and remind themselves that they are someone’s loved one (child/ spouse/ parent/sibling) and they ask how would I want someone to treat them in a similar situation?”
- Gather as much Information as possible by asking open ended questions. Use questions that start with “what”, “how”, “when”, “where”. Avoid “why” questions as they tend to escalate or derail the conversation. Clarify statements that seem vague or general. Ask about how they see the situation impacting them, their work or their team. What concerns or struggles are they experiencing? What feelings are coming up, with regards to the situation. Diving deep into emotions isn’t necessary, but simply being able to name the emotions and recognizing how those emotions are impacting the situation is hugely beneficial. The goal here is to gather not only facts but information on priorities, values and yes even naming emotions.
- Listen to understand, rather than respond– actually listen, paraphrase what they said, validate that you understand. Silence is okay, learning to embrace the silence is a skill all its own. The goal is to simply listen. If there are multiple people involved; ask that others do the same, give everyone a chance to speak and listen. Then paraphrase what was said to ensure understanding, give them a chance to clarify or correct information. The best decisions/ solutions are made when all voices involved are given time, space or representation. When we try to cut corners to speed to a decision or solution, we miss valuable information or perspectives, which costs us more time in the long run.
- Collaborate on a solution– when all parties have had a chance to share their sides, clarifying questions have been asked, and all sides have listened to understand, often the real topic of conflict or what is at the crux of the issue, will come to light. From there collaboration towards a win- win solution for all can occur. Conflict is often unproductive, because the true issue isn’t being address, we tend to get lost in the minutia of politics and pride. When we can get everyone’s perspective, we can then identify the priorities, discuss possible outcomes of each solution and how to overcome potential challenges along the way. The result is a solution that has buy-in and is more likely to be successful.
Ultimately productive conflict isn’t about eliminating conflict from the workplace, it about working through conflict (even when uncomfortable) in a collaborative manner that allows those involved to be heard, understood and a part of the solution. The more we practice the skill, even in “small” disagreements, the better the work environment, team function, decision making and individual well-being of both humans and even the animals.
To learn more how to improve your productive conflict skills, check out our upcoming Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict Workshop on October 6, 2022.
Until next time,
- Davey, Liane. (2019) The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. Page Two Books, 10.
- Kilmann, R. H., & Thomas, K. W. (1977). Developing a forced-choice measure of conflict-handling behavior: The “mode” instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37(2), 309–325.
- Lencioni, Patrick (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass, 202-206