Tug-of-war or hanging a tarp?

Engaging in conflict is often thought of as problem behavior to be avoided, especially in a workplace context.

We’re born into this world with a distaste for threats, our brains constantly scanning our environment to avoid or eliminate them. Since conflicts can be hard on relationships, and relationships in turn being something we crave for and need, conflicts can be understood as a threat. This perception continues to be passed on between generations, fuelled by every parent’s urge to train “good behaviors”: being nice to others, staying silent if you have nothing positive to say etc. In Scandinavia in particular, we are nice and polite and stay away from conflict if we can – our social coherence is strong, impacting our behavior quite forcefully.

However, in organizations, harmony is getting us nowhere. Conflict is a requirement for development and growth, and frequently even a foundational element in organizational design. Cross-functional teams have conflict – resolving different or opposed interests – as the main purpose.

In strategic sales pursuits, my primary workplace for the last few decades, a cross-functional team is mobilized to balance the interest of the client with the bidder’s risk profile, financial health etc. Clearly a delicate balance when stakes are high and executive leadership are watching closely. Conflict is perceived as detrimental to teamwork, but the opposite: aiming for harmony, shutting conflict down or letting it simmer under the carpets, may cause important issues to be left un-explored, stifling collaboration and business growth.

Conflict can be very unpleasant, not least when driven by bad behavior, poor performance or skills shortage. We may worry or even ruminate about conversations regarding such topics, and conflict aversion can then lead to conflict avoidance, ie simply not engaging in the conflict.

The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument shows conflict as an activity in two dimensions: whether any given approach meets your needs (level of assertiveness) and whether it also meets the other party’s needs (level of cooperative-ness).

Working to meet both sides’ needs is Collaborating, and to meet at least some of both side’s needs is Compromising. A compromise is not the best outcome but the quickest available option, as Chris Voss clearly illustrates in his book Never Split the Difference: a compromise between black and brown shoes is to wear one black and one brown, no swag at all!

Meeting your own need and not caring about the other side is Competing; meeting the needs of the other side without getting anything for yourself is Accommodating; and, finally, not trying to get anyone’s needs met is Avoiding.

Conflict avoidance makes no sense, not for you, not for them. Topics are circumvented and opportunity is drained. You change the subject, don’t call back, skip the meeting – whatever it takes to not face the conflict, making no room for the issue to be dealt with. Conflict-avoidance may buy you time, but it is unlikely to make the conflict disappear. Pressure will build, and the conflict can even grow larger when avoided.

But how to get through it then? Focus on the positive outcomes that awaits when the conflict is resolved. Your emotions will guide you, if you feel strongly about a conflict it’s a sign that it’s touching something important to you. Don’t let emotions take the steering wheel though! Stay calm, constructive and kind. Hard? Yes, but not as hard as it sounds.

A useful analogy: see conflict as a process like the one of hanging a tarp over your tent. A good result requires people pulling from each corner; if one corner pulls much harder than the other three, the tarp won’t hang properly.  It’s not a tug-of-war.

Following the Conflict Code, developed by Liane Davey in “The Good Fight”, you may prevent most conflicts and make the ones that are left, more productive and less taxing on your well-being. The model is a three-step approach: “Establish a line of communication”, “Create a connection” and “Contribute to a solution”.  Liane Davey includes a set of exercises to train how to enable proactive management of tensions and interdependencies in a cross-functional teams.

Conflict management is included in the half-day course “Teamwork in the Gig economy”, an event designed for leaders, project managers and teams wanting to improve collaboration, performance and respect. The event is introducing participants to foundational skills for contemporary working life – willpower, self-awareness, coaching, resilience, and can be tailored to fit actual needs in your team. More information here.