Part 1 of this article discussed three problems with workplace conflict: it’s everywhere, there really isn’t such a thing as positive or productive conflict, and conflict management is at best a zero sum game (nobody wins). These three depressing facts are based on the work of Carsten De Dreu and the researchers that followed him.
The good news is that, even though we can’t avoid workplace conflict or make it productive by managing it, there is a lot we can do to minimize it. You might be doing these things already, but it’s worth explaining them and discussing how effective they are.
Care and feeding of your pet grizzly bear: workplace conflict
Imagine that you have a pet grizzly bear. I don’t think grizzly bears should be someone’s pet, but if I had one, I would make sure it’s as comfortable and well-fed as possible. De Dreu found that conflict is less destructive when it looks like this:
- People in the conflict should already trust each other and already know how to make each other feel safe, and
- The content of the conflict is focused on a task and not on a relationship, a person or a group of people, and
- The conflict should never be about personality, personal or group values and beliefs, humor or politics, and
- The intensity of these task and non-personal conflicts are kept at low or moderate levels, and
- Before everyone enters into the conflict, they are prepared to accept a less than optimal outcome
If your conflict conforms to items 1-5, then the best you can hope for is no destruction to relationships and maybe a neutral impact on decision-making.
Strategic avoidance, not complete avoidance
In most workplaces, we need to compete with our coworkers for scarce resources like funding for our projects, funding to hire employees, and even for the attention of our leaders. Attempting to influence the distribution of these scarce resources (trying to get what you need) by avoiding specific conflicts with certain people is a proven strategy. But remember, if you try to avoid all conflict, you’re probably never going to get what you need to do your job. This selective or strategic avoidance isn’t complete avoidance of all conflict. It’s a strategy to minimize the occurrence of some conflict to get what you need.
Leadership engagement and intervention
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this article, our opinions about workplace conflict are often based on out-dated and disproven research. We’ve been told “you shouldn’t avoid conflict,” or “conflict is good, as long as it’s managed.” We need to talk to leaders about the reality of workplace conflict: workplace conflict is harmful and conflict management is a zero-sum game, at best. Once leaders understand this, more resources can be directed at minimizing conflict, instead of at attempts to manage conflict with the misguided goal of salvaging or supporting the disproven benefits of conflict.
Everyday, organizational leaders can do a lot to minimize conflict. What can they do?
- First, leaders can become aware of potential conflicts that may impact the performance of their teams. To do this, leaders and their teams need to talk about conflict.
- Next, leaders can ensure their team members know how destructive conflict can be, and then make sure everyone understands their options for conflict: strategic avoidance or confining conflict to a very narrow set of circumstances (see above)
- Lastly, leaders can get ahead of conflict. When leaders collaborate and intervene with their fellow leaders to minimize conflict (through strategic avoidance or confining conflict to a very narrow set of circumstances) their teams don’t have to.
Conflict is part of normal life because normal life includes relationships with other people. The only way to remove conflict from our lives is to have no other people in our lives. I don’t know any one who exists that way. The world of work includes other people, and being in the world of work means conflict is unavoidable. Yes, sometimes conflict can rip a workplace apart, like a hungry grizzly bear rips through a fresh kill, but not all conflict has to get to that point. A little care and feeding might just turn a grizzly bear into a teddy bear.