Does Your Company Promote Conflict or Encourage Tension?
Author: Adam Carroll, Facilitator of the IT Leadership Forum
If there was one class taught prior to joining the workforce that would alter the course of your work life forever it would be: Difficult Conversations 101.
In working with organizations large and small, the overriding commentary within teams and business units is “we don’t handle conflict well, so it’s generally just avoided.”
The by-product of conflict avoidance is tension.
Tension among teammates, business units, and even clients, if allowed to carry on for any length of time, is the reason that businesses struggle. Reason being, the more time that is spent feeling the tension, the less we remember the truth about what bothered us in the first place. Tension simply becomes the reason we don’t communicate well.
There’s a very simple litmus test to whether your organization encourages tension. You can tell it’s there by answering yes to any of the following questions:
- Is triangulation occurring? Are those talking about the conflict anyone BUT the two people that should be having the dialogue together?
- Is there someone (or multiple people) in your organization that others are afraid to confront because of some real or imagined “retribution”? In reality, the imagined fear of what will happen is far worse than having a candid dialogue.
- Are there issues that everyone knows should be discussed, but no one will bring it up in a meeting or in person? Often referred to as “the elephant in the room”.
Answer yes to any of these questions and your organization is likely guilty of encouraging tension instead of promoting conflict.
Now to some, the idea of promoting conflict would be considered a negative thing, so to create a label that would actually have a positive impact, let’s call it promoting productive conflict.
Productive conflict has one main aim: to create clarity and understanding among the parties involved.
It would not be a stretch to suggest that most conflict occurs because of one of the following:
- Mismanaged or unmet expectations (which are often not communicated well to begin with)
- A disagreement in how something was handled (created by two different viewpoints)
- Communication gaffes (created by a lack of understanding how someone else communicates)
- A lack of Shared Ownership (created by information, decision making and consequences)
- Someone on the wrong seat of your bus, but no one willing to confront the real issue
The Difficult Conversation Framework
An organization that is looking to promote productive conflict needs to give their teams a framework to follow for that difficult conversation. We encourage leaders to use the following bulleted agenda to have forthright, honest, and productive conflict:
- Issues and Rationale
- Ideas and Solutions
- Possible Reactions
- Response Strategy
The setup to the conversation might go something like this, “We need to have a difficult conversation, could we schedule ten minutes in the next day to have it? Or, if you have time, we could do it now?”
The conversation might continue like this, “The purpose of this conversation is to talk about how some of your comments are being received by others in the office. My goal is not to offend you in any way, but to help create a better working environment for all of us, you included. You have great ideas, and I often think they’re discounted because of your delivery. So my goal would be for us all to feel great about this conversation at the end. Is that fair?”
At this point you’re looking for buy-in about the conflict conversation and ready to open the dialogue with specifics. This is the issues and rationale portion of the conversation. “One of the main issues that I have is when I tried to offer feedback in a meeting, you immediately cut me off and interjected your own commentary. Candidly, I’m not the only one who is experiencing that with you and there are some of us who are actively avoiding meetings if you’re going to be there.”
“Because I think you are full of great ideas, I have some ideas of how to make this work for all involved. Are you open to them?”
“The actions I think would make the biggest difference to the team would be to allow others to fully express their ideas and opinions before diving in and cutting someone off. Because people aren’t feeling heard when you’re in the meetings, it seems like doing more listening would increase productivity. We still want you to share ideas, and the rest of the team would like to be heard as well.”
It is here that in your planning of this dialogue you should map out what the possible reactions will be. If the person you’re having productive conflict with is prone to outbursts and attacks, just know that is likely to happen. Maybe they’ll hold back but you’ll know they’re troubled by what they’re hearing based on body language or red blotches form on their neck.
Your response strategy could be to ask, “I’d like to know where you’re at on this. What’s going through your mind?” Or, “if you want to take time to think about this and chat later we can do that.”
Seven times out of ten the productive conflict session relieves that pressure that others were feeling as tension. Two out of the three times will likely create a realization that someone is not doing work that fulfills them, they’re stressed out by something else and it manifests negatively at work, or they’re just not the right fit. And the one time out of ten, you’re likely dealing with someone who has very challenging tendencies and has no interest in adapting to their environment.
No matter the outcome, being able to have this discourse is critical to the success of you, your team, and the organization at large.
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