Growth Strategies

Engage in Conflict Now

You won't need boxing gloves, but you'll want to jump into conversations about conflict as soon as you can.
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For many people, the mere mention of the word "conflict" makes them shudder, even though addressing conflict is a good thing. That's why most of my clients are surprised when I suggest that they not only attend to but engage conflict with as much candor as possible, particularly while it's minor so it doesn't grow into something unmanageable.

Take, for example, a situation in which you're giving feedback on employee performance. If an employee is doing sub-par work--particularly one from a traditionally marginalized group--managers often respond gingerly, be it out of a sense of awkwardness in communicating across cultural and ethnic differences or even fear of reprisal (e.g., a discrimination suit). Employees may believe they are doing fine, but without the feedback needed to make important performance changes, issues build up. Then, when managers can't take the incompetence anymore, the employees don't know what hit them.

My consulting group has been using a variation of a 35-year-old model created by John Sherwood and John Glidewell, pioneers in organizational development. They outline four phases in the cycle of relationships between people and groups in organizations:

1. Negotiating expectations: People share information about themselves and establish expectations. Some of those are spoken and some are not. If there is a commitment to the relationship, people fall into patterns of relating that are more or less predictable.

2. Commitment: Once people make a commitment to a shared set of expectations and their roles are defined, they usually fall into a pattern of behavior based on the centrality of this relationship. When it comes to meetings, for example, we often observe implicit norms. While it is common practice to be late and leave early in some instances, you would never consider doing so in others. For some, it is acceptable to read e-mails during meetings. For others . . . well, you get the idea.

3. Stability and productivity: Once we know what we can expect from each other, we can go on to do the work of the organization.

4. Disruption: This stage is considered to be inevitable. A disruption occurs when something new is introduced into the relationship--a new demand, a new association, a new assignment--that establishes an expectation or demand that had not yet been negotiated.

Since disruptions are inevitable, we need to prepare ourselves for how to deal with them so that we can renegotiate and expand the relationship to meet a new set of demands. Ideally, we would just cycle back through phases one, two and three.

But it's not always that simple. More often than not, the desire to just go back to the way it used to be overrides the effort to negotiate. This often manifests itself as a perfunctory apology or some other acceptable acknowledgement without the fuller conversation about what assumptions, systems or ways of doing things need to be revisited before moving on. But renegotiated expectations are better aligned with full consideration of the current realities of the situation. Once the relationship is realigned, the period of stability is likely to be more enduring.

Left unaddressed, disruptions not only persist but intensify future disruptions. Without renegotiating expectations and basis of commitment while giving employee feedback, for example, relationships become more vulnerable.

So, what can you do to cycle consistently through the phases outlined above? Here are some guidelines:

1. Set aside a time to talk face to face.
2. Identify what your expectations had been and the disruption you experienced.
3. Take ownership for your part in the disruption or misunderstanding.
4. Listen to the other person's perspective.
5. Listen more.
6. Take the time to renegotiate.
a. What is it about the way you work together that works well?
b. What would you each want to do differently in the future?
c. How will you stay in touch with each other to move to a new place of stability and productivity?
d. Agree to do this again should another disruption arise.

What we have found is that having this model provides a shared norm and a process for engaging and working through conflict. By catching misaligned expectations early, potential tensions are massaged so that relationships can move to their higher potential. Remember:

Watch your thoughts--they become words.
Watch your words--they become actions.
Watch your actions--they become habits.
Watch your habits--they become character.
Watch your character--it becomes your destiny.


Ilene Wasserman, Ph.D., is's "Office Culture" columnist. As founder and principle of the ICW Consulting Group, she helps foster diversity and inclusion throughout the workplace by enhancing communication and collaboration at all levels.