Workplace conflict is like driving in rush hour traffic. On an icy day. With low visibility.
Some drivers speed along, weaving in and out of traffic. Gesticulating as they go. Blowing through red lights.
Other drivers clearly would prefer not to be on the road. So, they crawl along at a parking lot pace.
Naturally, the normal drivers (you and I) are driving the appropriate speed for the conditions, watching out for everyone else, hands at 10 and 2, no distracting noise/phones/kids in the car.
We are the ones that have to either get out of the faster or slower driver’s way. Or to choose to hold our own, not letting them pass, blocking them in, riding their tale or practice sign language.
It’s only reasonable that any near-miss or accident is primarily the fault of the other drivers. Because we were just trying to get where we were going. We’re not nuts. They are.
I’ve never met a driver (regardless of age, ability or capacity) who didn’t think that their driving was the most reasonable approach to the roads!
Just like how an average driver is persuaded that their approach to driving is the most reasonable, most leaders believe that their approach to conflict is the most reasonable.
Which is why it is so confusing to get rear-ended. Or to rear-end someone else.
It clearly wasn’t our fault.
But what if we could improve how we drive?
Would we be open to learning about it?
How you relate to conflict, confrontation, and healthy tension matters
Leaders have different ways of relating to conflicts. They have different ways of addressing necessary confrontations. Some understand health tension. Many don’t.
What’s your approach?
Fight or Flight– or Find Opportunities
You’ve heard this before:
Fight Mode: In conflict, some leaders do their research, prepare their complaints or rebuttals. They rehearse their speeches. They review their options. They pull together allies. They go on the attack.
Of course, the word “retribution” never crosses their mind. But justice does.
Ultimately, there is a fight on. That means a winner or loser. They know they aren’t losers. Which means they need to win.
Flight Mode: Others go into flight mode. This most often looks like avoidance. Topics or people are sidestepped. If a concern is brought up, the issues are denied.
Allies may be found. Factions formed. Safety in numbers.
If issues are addressed, resolution often stops at the point of catharsis. An airing of grievances.
Perhaps pull out an all-purpose apology and hope we can all move on.
But there is no tolerance or openness to really explore a resolution.
Finding Opportunities: Some leaders recognize that conflict is usually an opportunity for growth. While they probably didn’t want the conflict – they stay curious. They are respectful. They explore personal responsibility.
They aren’t interested in finding fault. They are interested in finding ways to grow.
What is your tendency in conflict?
I’ve noticed the ability to enjoy an ocean swim is closely associated with how the ocean is perceived.
Swimmers who are convinced that there is a line of sharks and sea monsters just waiting to pull them in – never seem to have any fun. In fact, they rarely really get in the water.
Swimmers who are convinced that they’ll enjoy themselves and that they’ll return from their swim tired and happy – do have fun.
The actual experience doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s the perception of what might happen that often makes the difference.
I’ve found that most workplace conflicts are often more about perception as opposed to what actually happened.
In fact, of the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with: I can probably count on one hand (maybe two) the number of clients who perceived the problem similarly.
Instead, leaders often anticipate a problem or response and react to their own anticipation. Not to what actually happens. The feelings of these reactions are real. That gives credibility to whatever it is they believe has or will happen.
These errors of perception may be due to a lack of trust. They might be due to projecting personal history or experiences into a situation. They might be due to listening to poor advisors who are happy to see a pot stirred.
The leaders who do the best are those who seek to proof test their perceptions. They seek the objective. The observable.
They allow their perceptions to be corrected. Even if these perceptions are about themselves.
How do you relate to perception in conflict? How likely are you to accept as “fact” something that is a rumor or rushed conclusion?
Whether or not a leader believes that he or she has power or control in a situation often impacts whether they choose flight or fight.
Whether they avoid conflict or go on the attack.
Because leaders often do have more power, they are more likely to choose attack options.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case.
Sometimes their personal history, their upbringing, their experience causes them to miscalculate the amount of power or influence that they really have.
Regardless, personal power or perception thereof impacts how we tend to relate to conflict.
Are there some situations where you tend to avoid addressing issues?
Are there others where you are more likely to assert yourself?
Beliefs About Healthy Tension
You can’t get stronger if you don’t stress your body.
Too much physical stress leads to injury.
Not enough physical stress leads to couch potatoes.
It’s the same with conflict. Or healthy tension in the workplace.
Too much, too frequent, too intense, disrespectful conflict can lead to damaged trust or relationships.
However, regular healthy tension leads to better decisions being made, deeper trust and stronger organizations.
Healthy tension is the willingness to appropriately challenge (or accept a challenge) to the status quo. To avoid groupthink. To utilize accountability. To address poor behavior or performance directly.
Healthy tension is often an expression of honesty delivered with respect.
It requires the existence of trust. It requires a leader with a healthy self-image – who aren’t threatened by a challenge.
What are your beliefs about healthy tension? Do you need more of it? Less? How would others describe your relationship with tension?
When Conflict Is Needed
I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. One of the classic elements of the sport is that most gyms incorporate sparring into normal practice times.
They schedule in conflict.
As a result, practitioners grow fast. Classes aren’t just theory, forms, and katas.
It’s the real thing.
Some people spar too hard. Some people don’t spar hard enough. But over time, everyone learns the balance.
That’s only possible in the context of conflict. In this case, respectful, “others-minded” conflict.
Healthy tension is the idea that conflict is needed at times.
It is appropriate to hold staff accountable for their performance or attitudes.
It is appropriate to hold vendors accountable for the service they were paid for.
It is appropriate to rock the boat at times. To challenge groupthink. To not accept easy answers.
It’s not healthy if this never happens.
Being “nice” sometimes hurts people.
What are your thoughts on when conflict is needed? How about who can bring it up? What happens if it feels like someone is too forceful or disrespectful? What happens if it feels like someone isn’t asserting themselves enough?
Conflict is inevitable. But it is also necessary.
Creating healthy conflict or healthy tension in your meetings and workplace is important.
It can only happen if you are comfortable with tension. If you can hold off the need for quick resolution or avoidance of the issue for long enough.
If you can model respect. But allow an appropriate amount of struggle.
We all need to grow in how we relate to conflict. Some of us need to learn to be more assertive.
Others need to learn to be less. Or how to adjust to the situation or circumstance we are in.
But we should never seek to remove or avoid all conflict.
That leads to an atrophy of strength. Poor decision making. A lack of accountability or performance.
It’s also not honest. Everyone doesn’t agree all the time. We don’t all have the same values. We don’t all share the same understanding of things.
Sometimes it needs to be hashed out. The best leaders learn to handle and guide this.
Sometimes they push too hard. Sometimes they don’t push hard enough. But they never stop practicing.
If you could just change one thing about how you relate to conflict, what would it be?
What impact would that change have?
What do you need to do to ensure that this change happens?
Take good care,
Would You Like Your Team to Improve How It Relates to Healthy Tension?
Maybe your team tends to push too hard in conflict. Maybe conflict is avoided and no one pushes hard enough. Maybe there is a mixture of both – with some voices overriding others.
Would you like a team that is able to quickly identify and address issues of real importance? Would like to improve the quality of decision making? Would you like to remove second-guessing or parking-lot “after meetings?” Would you like your whole team to learn how to respectfully enter into healthy tension?
If so, contact me to schedule a complimentary strategy session. We’ll explore the four key strategies for helping teams operate well together.
Contact me to learn more: email@example.com or 907 522-7200.
Conflict & Leaders: How to Harness Conflict To Build Better Leaders and Thriving Teams
My new book, published by Business Expert Press, will be available this March!
I go into detail about how to utilize conflict to help build a stronger and more stable team. Nearly all books on conflict resolution focus on interpersonal relationships. However, most organizational conflicts can be resolved through how the organization is structured, led or managed.
If you are interested in being notified when the book is available – or any special offers or prices that I’ll be able to offer – just shoot me an e-mail with “Add me to your book list!” in the subject line.