Situation: Morgan and Jose are arguing about which steps to take next to implement the Micah Project. Morgan wants to move ahead immediately; Jose wants to rethink the situation and perhaps consult with other members of the department to avoid making a rash decision. Morgan becomes impatient and blames Jose for dragging his feet once again. Jose doesn't want to ruffle Morgan's feathers, so he does nothing about the differences of opinion, hoping that Morgan will let up on the pressure. The result is a stalemate.
This is a typical situation where conflict freezes progress and stymies many managers. We must first ask why Jose, like so many other employees, does nothing. The answer is because he probably believes in some very common and unfortunate myths about conflict:
- Conflict is bad and terrible things will occur if differences in opinion are aired.
- Conflict will rip apart the team or its esprit de corps.
- Other employees will be mad at him.
- He would be calling too much attention to himself by making a big deal out of the situation.
- It's better not to engage in conflict; harmony must prevail at all costs.
- The parties will never get over those negative feelings.
- The issue will cause a chain reaction that will halt or delay productivity and involve other people.
At this point, you as the leader might be questioning your own views of conflict, as well you should. But do you know how to actually define conflict? No, it's not some terrible, unmanageable, out-of-control creature. Conflict is simply defined as tension, which is neither good nor bad. Positive tension, that energy that leads to increased creativity, innovation and productivity, is a dynamic byproduct of two or more people sharing their views, even if their views are inconsistent or out of synch with each other. Negative tension is an unproductive, off-putting, harmful result of people not working together to arrive at a positive solution.
What causes tension? The list is endless and mostly individualistic. We all have our vulnerabilities and views that lead to tension, especially the more common negative tension. Most people experience negative conflict when they are supervised and fear an unfavorable evaluation. Similarly, tension arises when employees feel they are being compared with each other or are vying for the same resources, such as time, money, people or equipment. Other employees are conflicted when under deadlines, especially when they do not have the assistance of other helpful employees. Still others have great difficulty dealing with change; breaking or changing habits is almost always difficult. Even if a change seems to be positive, it often is accompanied by some form of conflict, simply due to the change or potential performance evaluation under a new system with new policies, processes or colleagues. And finally, negative tension easily and most commonly erupts with differences in opinions, especially those that are firmly held.
So what positive steps can leaders take to minimize the negative aspects of conflict?
- Realize that conflict is natural and happens all the time.
- Stress the positive aspects of conflict; just because tension arises, the world is not going to collapse. In fact, if handled well, conflict often leads to innovation.
- Realize that conflict can be handled in a positive way that leads to personal and professional growth, development and productivity.
- Encourage others to bring up conflict and differences. Allowing them to fester inevitably encourages them to erupt later, usually at a most inopportune time.
- Identify the root cause(s) of the conflict. You can't begin to unravel the potential negativity in conflict and look toward progress until you determine the source of the issue.
- Look at the issue from all sides. Inspect the positive and negative factors that each party sees to fully comprehend what is at stake.
- Devise a complete list of actions to address the issue; ensure that each party believes that he/she has had input in the final product or decision.
- Decide on the step that best addresses and resolves the issue. Again, all parties need to see that they have had input into this step.
- Agree on whatever next steps are necessary to implement the mutually agreed-upon action.
- Review the process that you used to arrive at the final decision, hoping to implement a similar successful plan when negative conflict next arises.
An effective leader is willing to address spoken and unspoken negative tension and helps transform it into positive, productive tension that leads to increased understanding of the issues, the parties involved and the final outcome.
Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.