Conflict. It's not a word that usually conjures flourishing, growth, and transformation images. We often associate it with discord, disagreement, disunity, and opposition. And this is understandable, as the word means "to contend, fight, struggle and strike." But could it be a contending and struggling that, when led and managed with maturity and wisdom, leads to a flourishing of all parties involved - where not only are better decisions made, but the people involved are transformed to be healthier and stronger team players. Though it takes effort, intentionality, focus, and self-awareness, among other things, I believe it can. In fact, without conflict - growth and transformation will always be limited, capped, and short-lived.
If we want to leverage and catalyze conflict for positive outcomes and results, there are three key things we need to do as leaders: Understand the Nature of Conflict, Recognize the Ways People Deal with Conflict, and Lead with Wisdom through Conflict.
Understanding Conflict: The Myers Briggs Company, in their white paper, Psychology of Conflict in the Workplace, define conflict as the "condition in which people's concerns - the things they care about - appear to be incompatible … it's a situation where your opinions, ideas, or perspectives differ from others." Our opinions and perspectives are often rooted in core values and convictions that we are anchored to. This is why it is essential to unearth the values that fuel the different perspectives and ideas when diagnosing the nature of your conflict. Even behind what may seem like a simple scheduling conflict, convictions could be challenged or even violated. Always ask, the Why? behind why people feel and think a certain way, and sometimes it may be asking the Why? multiples times before you get to the root or the core triggers behind the disagreements and tensions.
As leaders, we must understand the nature and dynamics of the conflict we are currently facing and dealing with. Additionally, relationship clashes, lack of clarity and trust, heavy workloads, stress, and insufficient resources can reinforce and fuel conflict. It has been said that the first step of a leader is not the first step but knowing the ground from which that first step is taken. Know the ground and the context in which you are working from.
How People Deal With Conflict: Based on the Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, there are five ways in which people deal with conflict: 1) Competing (assertive and uncooperative); 2) Avoiding (unassertive and uncooperative); 3) Collaborating (assertive and cooperative); 4) Accommodating (unassertive and cooperative); 5) Compromising (moderately assertive and cooperative). Said differently, people in conflict will fight, flee, freeze, fawn, or formulate a way forward. The goal is to bring people to a place where they can move forward collaboratively and constructively, which results in the best outcome for the team and transforms them as people.
Leading People with Wisdom through Conflict: Once we understand the nature of conflict and how our team members can deal with it, it is time to lead our team forward through the terrain of conflict in a way that results in flourishing for all. Before we can master conflict, we need to recognize that foundational to this is establishing trust. Trust among team members is necessary for the pursuit of flourishing through conflict. To cultivate trust, a leader must model humility and vulnerability - taking risks that empower and create a safe space for others to take risks and speak their mind. I highly value and recommend The Advantage team model to cultivate a forward path through conflict resulting in positive outcomes. The process is as follows: 1) Build Trust; 2) Master Conflict; 3) Achieve Commitment; 4) Embrace Accountability; 5) Focus on Results.
Another excellent resource for developing an approach to leading conflict in a growth-oriented manner is Conversational Intelligence (CI). According to Judith Glaser, the premise of CI is "to get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of conversations. Everything happens through conversations.” Constructing and orienting our conversations is essential to working through conflict successfully. Glaser identifies three levels of conversation:
1. Transactional: This is a tell/ask discussion about exchanging information. The intent is to inform. There is a place for this, but when it comes to working through conflict, it has minimal impact and influence. This kind of conversation is typically rooted in the success of the leader, where there is a low trust - which nurtures the resistor or skeptic among team members;
2. Positional: This is an advocate/inquire discussion about exchanging power. The goal is to persuade toward a win-win solution. There is a conditional trust where there is a blend between I- and We-centric dynamics among the team and leadership. The leader seeks input and feedback from the group, yet, the goal is usually to pivot the group toward what the leader perceives to be the best outcome through a form of negotiation and compromise;
3. Transformational: This is a share/discover conversation about exchanging energy. At this level, it is about co-creating a solution fueled by humility, high trust, and a desire to find a way through the conflict that changes team members and provides an outcome where the whole's input truly creates a greater result than the sum of all input.
The goal is to have transformative conversations and foster collaboration among team members. Here are some practical tips to consider as you navigate through conflict to champion healthy discussions:
- Have conversations that are inclusive, not exclusive (which create silos and territories among team members);
- Ensure that people are valued, appreciated, and celebrated for their contributions;
- Orient your conversations toward developing and challenging people to expand according to their passions, gifts, and personality (an upward regulation drawing out from your team versus and downward regulation pushing in through fear and control);
- Avoid conversations that create an environment of blame, competition, and a focus on deficiencies.
At Chemistry Staffing, we are all about seeing teams flourish through conflict. Conflict allows teams to join and partner, helping them overcome turf protection, groupthink, status quo, and fear. Please contact us if we can help your team journey through conflict in a healthy and honoring manner.
Resources to Check Out:
- Workplace Peace Institute
- Just Work - Addressing Issues of Bias, Prejudice, and Harassment in the Workplace