Conflict can be described as something which is inevitable, but at the same time necessary and often required. Conflict offers us the opportunity to see opposing or different views from different perspectives, to bring understanding and awareness into the impact or the agenda of each party, and it offers us the opportunity to progress beyond our own current understanding.
However, often in organisations when conflict occurs, it becomes personalised and a position of war or unhealthy ground, instead of healthy conflict. The reason for it becoming personalized we will delve into next.
Often the content of the conflict has very little to do with an individual and is more about the meaning or association that the individual has with the conflict at the time it occurs. This has the ability to change based on certain events in that person’s life and how they are feeling at that current moment in their work life. It can also be based upon a person’s values, beliefs, internalisations or interpretations of the conflict which is at play.
What can be difficult and often dangerous in conflict within organisations is when it becomes a political positioning. This can result in those involved in the conflict working it out through political means, such as bringing others into the situation to validate themselves and using tactics to undermine the other person’s position by emphasizing their own. I am sure many of you are familiar with this and have had experiences of this happening to you in the past, and potentially even at this current moment may be involved in a conflict like this which you deem to be normal.
Whilst taking a political position or using tactics to ensure that you win may seem fairly helpful to your agenda at that current time, it can actually undermine the innovation, collective creativity and relational dynamics within an organisation. This then has a number of impacts on the individual team and at an organizational level.
Depending on your personality type, your way of getting things done, and your preferences for conflict and communication, you may assume that the way in which you are executing things is the best way for you and the most effective way. However, at an organizational level, having a number of these kinds of conflicts can actually result in psychological safety being disrupted and ultimately creates a culture that undermines vulnerability and communication.
When taking a political play rather than resolving something directly with those you are in conflict with, there can be consequences both on an individual and team level. On a team level you will ultimately be breaking future ties and trust with that team; either the team you’re in or you’re in conflict with. It then becomes a case of potentially something that is held against you as it lives on as conflict and mistrust. On an individual level, the result is internal conflict, avoidance, attacking and a change in behaviour. This can then be damaging in the long term if we continue that particular type of interaction and may end up repeating our history of conflict and conflict resolution and all the further consequences of those.
Conflict itself is healthy and helpful, however, how we choose to engage with conflict and how we process feelings, individual, team-based and at an organizational level, means that no impact goes beyond our group thinking and cultured defaults.
We all carry around a defaulted way of managing conflict in teams, that the groupthink provides a defaulted way to manage conflict. In organisations, the culture navigates and dictates how we manage conflict. Many of us forget that the culture is formed of the clusters of teams within that particular culture, and those consist of individuals, which also forms links between the individual, the team and the organisation, which is always relational. If we were to sacrifice the relational aspects of getting things completed by using tactics, then we can often lose the overall strategic purpose of working together and in the organisation as a whole.
When an organisation, team, or individual is overly focused on winning, we can negate success. When organisations use a hero mentality and promote individual or team winning, instead of joint or organizational successes, then it becomes clear that people are more motivated towards winning rather than succeeding.
THE OLD SAYING “YOU MAY HAVE WON THE BATTLE, BUT YOU’VE LOST THE WAR” COMES TO MY MIND FOR THIS.
This is so often the case where the operational thinker can get caught attempting to win the battle and in doing so, undermine the war. This also relates to when somebody with unprocessed insecurities or personal agendas can act out and become consumed by winning the battle, and completely ignoring the cost of the win to the overall successes of themselves, their teams and the organisation.
When we are uncomfortable with conflict and are unsure how to process it, we tend to act out. This kind of acting out that I have seen repeatedly present in organisations undermine their progress. Not only has it had the ability to hold back organisations at an organizational level, but it has held back team’s abilities to be innovative and creative and prevents the individuals’ ability to feel safe and feel like they can contribute equally.
Recently I spoke to a specific leadership team and explained to them how we very easily project our needs on to those we perceive as authoritative. But not only do we project our needs, we also project our blame, which I believe from my experience, comes from our development experience, where we began to outgrow relying on our parents and instead become autonomous and interdependent. However, for many people, whilst becoming autonomous and interdependent was inevitable, it doesn’t mean that their utmost needs in the past were met and resolved. This is why we carry these into every interaction, especially with authoritative figures or leadership teams, and fully expect them unconsciously to meet these utmost needs that our parents failed to meet for us.
This means that not every conflict is primarily about the conflict itself and not every win is always just about the win, as the emotions that drive conflicts and wins are often deeper than what may initially be presented on the surface. I don’t expect everybody to be doing a psychological evaluation of themselves or their peers, but what I do hope is that this awareness brings a deeper understanding of the layers that may be present to the conflicts that are occurring in organisations.
If an attempt is made to resolve them at just one level, this then leaves a vulnerability wide open, so therefore it is necessary to just attempt to resolve them on an individual level, which can be completed through performance reviews
It is difficult for humans to compartmentalize effectively, especially when told to only be their professional selves in work and personal selves outside of work. Sometimes this is not possible and ineffective as aspects of personal life will eventually bleed into work life. So, by attempting to resolve the conflict at just one level, this then leaves a vulnerability wide open, for example, through performance reviews. Therefore, by attempting to resolve them on an individual level it makes it potentially more effective in the long run.
At team level, when there is conflict and they are required to come to a conclusion, they are often encouraged to come to an agreement, as opposed to resolving the conflict. By doing this it often requires individuals to shrink and hide their views, for the overall development of the team, however, this ingrains the mentality that it is okay for certain individuals to take control and ignore others, as long as tasks are completed.
At an organizational level, noticing a conflict that keeps reoccurring and attempting to solve it through diagnostic means, ends up ignoring the purpose of the conflict and its wisdom. This is why change methods are often resisted, not because of changes and desires but because the approach that is being taken is aiming to resolve something by being diagnosed by those who are uninvolved. This allows individuals involved to be overlooked in the very way the very aspect they need to be involved in.
I compare this to being in a café and wanting to have a glass of water, but the café diagnosing that you need a 7UP, so they give you this instead. This is what it is like to take a diagnostic approach around the conflict that has a similar purpose, and usually addressing an unconscious need for the organisation. It will be resisted, but may actually look similar, and the person drinking it is aware it is different, but the server may argue that they are in fact both drinks so there is little difference, but in reality, it is clear that the experience of drinking 7UP versus water is vastly different.
To take my water versus 7UP analogy a step further, the presumption that people are looking to have a drink is part of the issue. What if the need for water was for another purpose and not to quench thirst; would 7UP still fulfil that need as well? This is where diagnostic approaches for organizational conflict fall short, as the needs aren’t being necessarily assessed accurately at the needs level.
In order to manage, support or resolve conflict, we need to first start by understanding the need that the conflict serves ad how the conflict supports us right now. You may be surprised what you find because often when people say “I don’t like conflict” they often use conflict to feel secure, safe, or simply out of habit because of their previous experiences. In an organisation, you may feel as though the power dynamics aren’t equally shared, so in this way, the conflict would be a way to win and lose.
YOU MAY FIND CONFLICT REPRESENTS SOME OF THE PERSONAL PLACES OR TEAM DYNAMICS THAT ARE OCCURRING OR PRESENTING THEMSELVES WITHIN THE ORGANISATION AND MAY NOT ACTUALLY BE SOMETHING WHICH IS RESOLVABLE WITHIN THE ORGANISATION.
This is why I lean heavily on relational dynamics and also why I believe that emotional intelligence and relational intelligence is required, to be able to support an organization, leading to its success.
At individual and organizational levels, it is the ability to understand ourselves, how we relate to others and the impact that we have on others that helps to leverage opportunity and engage in conflict as a tool for winning the war instead of scoring points on the battlefield.
WE NEED TO REMEMBER THAT IN CONFLICT IT IS OFTEN A BATTLE OF THE MINDS AND HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE INVOLVED. WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THIS TO BE ABLE TO INFLUENCE IT.
Often, we are able to influence people with the approaches that we prefer to be influenced by ourselves, however, if we are in conflict, those individuals may require a different style of influencing or shared meaning. It isn’t about limiting conflict or restricting it, it is about ensuring that it serves the greatest purpose of the organisation; the people in it and the team’s efficiency.
If you would like to discuss managing conflict in your organisation, email Team@silewalsh.com
Originally posted on www.silewalsh.com