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How to Resolve Work Conflict in Your Favor

When something goes “wrong” in an organization, at home, while driving, etc., the first response tends to be, “whose fault is it?”

There’s a fundamental error to this instinctual first response.  Once we move to finding fault and point the finger, we focus on uncovering what’s wrong with our antagonist.  We lash out at them, ponder how to minimalize their influence or eliminate them entirely, or we simply seethe in our anger.

And when there’s blame, there’s no learning

Instead, open minds close, inquiry tends to cease and the desire to understand the larger environmental influences and additional factors at play diminish.    

When we operate in an environment like this, our natural instinct is going to be to cover up our errors and hide our real concerns.  We withhold information and shrink from accountability.  Because of this, important information that may have otherwise been revealed is hidden and we’re left making important decisions with poor or incomplete information.  

Think about it- if you’re in an organization where the Board of Directors is upset about declining profits and the VP or R&D and the VP of marketing/sales respond by pointing fingers at each other.  They then miss the chance to partner together to brainstorm how to jointly fix the problem. This distracts from the learning opportunity and, in turn, can precipitate an environment driven by fear.  

The organization then takes longer to problem solve.  This costs time and time is money.

Conflict is Healthy

Here’s the deal- at its essence, conflict is not a bad thing.  In fact, we need conflict to help us identify challenges, fix them, and evolve as a society and as a species.   Great things can arise out of conflict- new beginnings, a fresh way of looking at things (when important information is unveiled), a renewed appreciation for what you have.  Think about times that you’ve experienced conflict, what positive outcomes have you experienced as a result?

How do we Productivity Manage Conflict?   

Management researchers who study conflict in teams have concluded that conflict is productive, as long as teams stay away from the personal and emotional aspects of conflict.  When teams focus on “task conflict”- or, strictly analyzing facts, staying away from emotions and personal values, a productive conversation focused on solving the challenge at hand can ensue.  They note that this approach doesn’t dismiss emotions and emotional differences.   Openness is required and a curiosity to explore the emotional reaction and what led to it, rather than sidestepping it.  Team members must all be focused on solving the problem rather than “winning.”  

Hmmmmm… I don’t know about you but I’ve never heard of or been in an organization where the above can occur.  Whether it’s because we’re time crunched or we don’t have tools in place to facilitate strong co-worker relationships and an environment that embraces trust, it’s very challenging to find this kind of environment in the corporate world.  Sometimes that’s the challenge when listening to psychologists who have never operated in a corporate environment.

In my humble opinion, after my 13 years in industry and my time learning about and seeing the magic of personal accountability through coaching, I believe the answer starts with your individual reaction.  Fact: you can’t control how people respond around you.  

But you can control how you choose to interpret, respond, and lead by example.  

And since you’re reading this article, you’ve already proven that you’re curious and open to learning.  So here’s something that can help.

Learning to Control Your Response

Here’s the sequence we all go through when exposed to any given stimuli:

Thought -> Feeling -> Reaction

If you’re in a meeting and your blood starts to boil, stop, take a breath, and think about what led you here.  What assumptions are you operating under?  What interpretations have you made?  What’s a possible alternative?

A Common Conflict at Work

Here’s an example of the above. Shipra and Tom are both directors.  Shipra oversees marketing while Tom oversees sales.  It’s important for the organization that they work together to meet the expectations of a new product launch.  Pressure is high and timelines are tight.  In the past, Shipra and Tom’s relationship haven’t always been easy because their styles are so different.  Shipra tends to be more detail-oriented and likes to spend time exploring alternatives before making a final decision. Tom likes to drive quickly towards an outcome and needs little information to make a decision.  This innate difference has caused them to both get irritated with the pace at which the other is moving but they’ve tried to put those differences aside so they can facilitate a smooth launch.

Today is a big meeting with the senior executive team where Shipra and Tom are presenting their individual go-to-market strategies that they aligned to the day before.  Shipra presents the same plan as discussed yesterday but Tom’s plan has changed in critical areas.  Shipra walks out of the meeting angry and feeling blind sighted.  

Here’s what’s running through her head:

Thought: Here he goes again, changing plans at a moment’s notice and making me look disorganized

Feeling: Anger, frustration, resentment

Action: Storms out of the meeting and avoids Tom for the rest of the day

What Shipra doesn’t know is that, right before the meeting, Tom’s top sales representative called with customer and competitive information that necessitated a change to the strategy.

When Tom noticed Shipra’s reaction, here’s what ran through his head:

Thought: There goes Shipra again, flying off the handle and getting frustrated with last-minute changes

Feeling: I’m fed up with her need for thoroughness.  She doesn’t understand how fast-paced and dynamic sales is.  If she’s not going to give me a chance to explain what happened, I’m not going to bother to chase her down.  

Action: Heads back to his desk and avoids the issue.

As in almost all situations, there were opportunities to improve this outcome from both parties. Tom should have given Shipra a heads up instead of surprising her in the meeting, particularly knowing that she likes to be through and doesn’t like last-minute changes.  Shipra should have suspended her conclusion and instead, asked Tom after what prompted the change.  Instead, Shipra let her assumptions take the driver’s wheel, which spun her into a web of anger.  Based on both of their reactions, the wedge in their relationship grew wider.

Does this sound familiar? Can you relate to what happened between Tom and Shipra?  

A Few Key Takeaways:

  • While you can’t control people around you, you can control yourself.  Before you allow assumptions to drive your reactions and look for who’s to blame, seek to understand the facts.  
  • There was clearly an element of trust missing from this relationship.  When situations that have the potential to be controversial at work arise, trust is the foundation that can help promote curiosity before reaction.  When you have relationships at work that are essential to doing your job well, seek to build trust early.  This may look like offering to help or asking the other person how you can best work with them and delivering on what they ask.  
  • Given the high-pressure situation, Shipra and Tom are likely both sleep deprived and stressed.  Stress leads to a release of cortisol (which, if released in large amounts over time, can lead to health complications, weight gain, an ability to sleep soundly, and impaired brain function, among other things).  Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling on-edge and foggy.  Anytime our basic human needs are compromised, we are less likely to take the time to react thoughtfully and patiently to triggers. This is why it’s so important to find time for self-care and calendar in time to recharge.  Being vigilant about self-care will put you in greater control of your reactions so you don’t resort to knee-jerk responses that will make your life more difficult.

Bottom line, you are in control.  You hold the cards.

If you take a step back and intentionally recognize your assumptions before you react, you will be a much better leader/employee/parent/friend/partner/person. And I guarantee you’ll be happier because you won’t be carrying as much mental baggage and negative energy.  Of course, there are some relationships that are so dysfunctional that your best decision may be to leave.  But until you apply your new perception-challenging tool, you just won’t know.  So give this a try and see what changes in you life and in your relationships.  

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