Reframing Our Relationship With Conflict

We sat down once a month to review the reports of accidents that had occurred the preceding month.

The assessment of preventability was an invaluable learning opportunity. We knew we weren’t going to eliminate all accidents; some were inevitable given the nature of the work.

Our purpose for the review was to gain knowledge so we could more effectively manage the conditions that caused the accidents. Conflict management merits a similar process and mindset.

Consider for a moment these statistics from the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work:

"If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of 100 people, there would be 61 Asians; 12 Europeans; 14 from the Americas, both north and south; 13 Africans; and 1 Australian. 50 would be female and 50 male. 14 would be unable to read and 1 would have a college education. 3.3 would have access to the Internet. 11 would be gay or lesbian. 25 would live on less than $1 per day."

With that level of diversity of ethnicity and sex, let alone thought, opinion, and perspective, conflict is a given.

In their book Interpersonal Conflict, Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot define conflict as the: "expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other parties in achieving their goals."

Fresh Tracks, a team development company, notes: "Conflict arises from differences and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict."

These two items sum up my experience with conflict at every place I’ve worked. Same with you? Or something different?

I’ve seen managers twist themselves into pretzels trying to resolve conflict. Some want to be nice and willfully ignore it; others want to attack so they can win or prove others wrong.

Research from Linda Putman and C.E. Wilson showed that a manager's place in organizational hierarchy influences how they handle conflict. They prefer to confront subordinates, smooth it over with superiors, and compromise with their peers and colleagues.

Diversity and difference are here to stay. That means conflict is here to stay, too. To make our lives less anxious and to open doors to personal and organizational growth, how about we quit fighting or ignoring conflict, and make friends with it instead? I think of conflict like kale—not my first choice but definitely good for me.

"Teams need conflict to function effectively. Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought out. Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks."
~ Liane Davey, Psychologist & Business Strategist

Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior and one of my favs, was an early advocate of making conflict work for, not against, us. Conflict is useful for bubbling up and resolving problems, learning our styles for managing for disagreement, learning to appreciate differences, finding alternatives, providing feedback, clarifying diverse points of view, and inviting all voices to be heard.

Follett identified how the tension of opposites is an integral part of conflict, saying, "values when put together look different from the same values considered separately, for in the act of comparison there is a simultaneous view of all values.”

Conflict forces us to deal with the paradoxes of life, love, and leadership: avoid and engage, soften and harden, open up and close down, etc. As leaders, we can have a robust relationship with conflict—and still be a nice person.