Conflict at work: alternatives to “fight” and “flight”

20140714_190617I saw my counsellor on Monday, the wonderful David Hamilton.  I found myself laughing as I sat down and saying, I guess you’re going to sit and watch me, waiting for me to say something…  and then I went on to tell him about all the things that had been in my thoughts during the twenty minute walk to his offices.  Our sessions have been part of my self-care following a most extraordinary period, in which I fielded more challenges than I could easily handle and which left me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted at the beginning of this year.

Firstly, I supported a friend in crisis, something I wrote about in a blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide.

Just as my friend was admitted to a hospital ward that could give her the care she needed, I was ordered to take down a blog posting by… well, I’d best not say in public.  I was happy to make amendments to the posting based on clear and detailed feedback and confident we could find a way forward that met my needs and the needs of this organisation.  But no, I was to obey orders (including orders that went way beyond the legitimate authority of the organisation concerned).  I quickly discovered a clash of values around leadership of monumental proportions.

As the French say, jamais deux sans trois.  As if this wasn’t enough, in the New Year, I found myself in conflict for a second time.  This time, I chose to draw an agreement to a close when I felt my partner in this agreement (let’s call him Carl) was failing to act in line with the spirit and most fundamental clause of the agreement – to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.

Each one of these experiences was taxing in itself, taking time and energy from other things.  Together, these three experiences left me feeling exhausted and rather bruised.  I knew it was time to take care of myself.

No wonder, if my experience is anything to go by, that people try to avoid conflict.

Trying to avoid conflict at work?

Do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated with the behaviour of a colleague at work and, at the same time, anxious about the consequences of addressing the issues that are stimulating your frustration?

Perhaps you have concerns about the approach being taken by your boss or by your peers.  At the same time, you want to preserve your relationships so you try to smooth things over – but your frustration doesn’t abate.  Or perhaps you’re anxious about the consequences – which you can’t predict with any accuracy – of sharing your concerns.

Or perhaps you are holding back from addressing your concerns with members of your team.  You might be concerned, for example, that if you address those aspects of your star performer’s behaviour that are most unhelpful you will lose not just those behaviours but also the star.  Or maybe the prospect of embarking on a discussion with one of your under-performers fills you with dread.

Or maybe you are watching conflict brewing amongst members of your team and are trying to head it off.  The truth is, many people put off addressing issues in the workplace because of concerns about conflict.

Delaying conflict makes it worse

Now, it would be easy for me to talk about the failings of my partner in relation to the agreement I dissolved at the beginning of the year.   However, years ago, I learnt that you can’t change the others, you can only change yourself so, instead, I’m going to share my reflections on my own behaviour during the course of our agreement.

Firstly, I’m going to give myself some credit.  From the beginning, I put in place an agreement that reflected a fundamental principle… everyone’s needs matter.  I also recognised that neither party to the agreement could anticipate everything that we’d need to have in place for our agreement to work.  That’s why I included a clause in the agreement which said we needed to be sensitive to each other’s needs and make time to talk about any issues arising during the course of our agreement.

Having said that, in practice, I put off having conversations when I started to notice that my partner in the agreement was not doing things he had agreed to do.  In effect, I was choosing to “pick my battles” – deciding which issues were important enough to mention and which issues I should overlook for the sake of maintaining the agreement.

The trouble is, the cumulative effect of my choices were two-fold.  On the one hand, I was putting too many issues to one side so that, over time, I was supporting my partner in meeting his needs – but at the expense of my own.  On the other hand, because I wasn’t sharing my smaller concerns, my partner in the agreement was unaware that his bank account of goodwill was dropping slowly into debit.

I knew he was contributing less than he had agreed and taking more – and maybe he did, too.  What he probably didn’t realise was that, as well as not working for me in the context of our agreement, this was putting a strain on our long-standing relationship. By the time I was ready to move beyond conversations about the detail of our agreement to address my overall concerns, it was already time to dissolve our agreement.  More than this, by the time I was ready to address my concerns, our relationship was at risk.

Do I regret raising my concerns?  No.  But I do wish I’d raised them sooner.

Ground rules for constructive conflict at work

20140714_183513Even when we are slow to address issues in the workplace, there are things we need to know if we want to do so constructively.  You might think of these as “ground rules” or “truths” to focus on when you decide to take action.  What’s more, by sharing them with members of your team, you can help your team to address issues constructively within the team.  Here are just a few of my favourites:

Focus on interests – who needs what?  We get stuck in addressing issues when we take a position (usually some form of “I’m right”) rather than trying to work out who needs what.  Identifying the needs of everyone involved opens up the possibility of finding a way forward that meets everyone’s needs.  Equally, when we try so support everyone in meeting their needs, we leave everyone with their dignity intact, even in the messiest of conflicts.  This is about exploring why something matters to the individual(s) concerned.

Everyone is creative, resourceful and whole.  When we trust that everyone in the workplace is an adult with strengths and capabilities and the capacity to learn, we are more likely to do some of the things that will help us to find a way forward, such as sharing our own views and asking questions or sharing information openly.  (Roger Schwarz offers a great behavioural list in his books and articles under the heading “skilled facilitator”.  It seems to me that we follow Roger’s recommendations most easily when we trust that our colleagues are creative, resourceful and whole.)

Everyone – yes, you, too – has something to learn.  Conflict is most constructive when everyone involved comes to the table willing to learn something new.  Even if our partners in a discussion don’t understand this, we need to understand it for ourselves.  A willingness to learn opens up new possibilities – the possibility of a different way forward in a particular discussion, for example, or the possibility that we might learn something that will make us more effective in future.

The outcome from conflict is always the right outcome – for now.  The outcome from conflict is unpredictable.  We can never know how our colleagues might respond when we raise our concerns with them.  Often, working through conflict means we have to abandon our preferred strategy.  At the same time, handled effectively, conflict can help us to come to a better outcome than we will achieve by avoiding conflict.  It may fit neatly into our plans or it may challenge them.  Either way, it can bring us closer to finding ways to achieve results that meet everyone’s needs.

The aftermath of conflict

You may be wondering what the outcome is from the conflicts I have shared with you above.

One outcome from my experience with the unnamed organisation is that I am much more informed about the style of leadership that currently prevails in that organisation.  As it happens, other people are, too, because our disagreement was a topic of discussion at the organisation’s Annual General Meeting in the spring.  What’s more, people not only know more, they also know that others, too, know what they know.  In my experience, such open debate opens up possibilities, in time, for constructive change across an organisation.

20140714_184222And Carl?  Well, for now, he isn’t responding to my e-mails and has severed our connections on social media so I’m inferring that he wants to take a break or even to sever our connection altogether.  It’s a choice I respect.  For my part, I am clear that our experience offers an opportunity to ask this: is it nourishing for us both to be in contact with each other?  Or are we better off nurturing other relationships?  My choice, which I make with a glad heart, is to stand up for my needs in the context of that relationship whilst also wanting to support Carl in meeting his.

And you?  I wonder what challenges you face at work?  How many of them are an invitation to a discussion and even to a potential conflict?  As I draw to a close, I invite you to notice how many conversations you would have, and with whom, if you only believed that addressing the issues openly – and risking conflict – would be a constructive way forward for you and your colleagues.

One thought on “Conflict at work: alternatives to “fight” and “flight”

  1. Excellent blog!

    I recently had a situation at work where I had to invoke disciplinary proceedings against my star performer. The situation culminated in me accepting his resignation. Since he left the organisation has been a much happier place, I hadn’t realised just what a negaive impact his presence was having. I knew he was himself planning to leave and tread another path, he’d been open and told me. I suspect what we’d both failed to realise was that that change was needed sooner rather than later.
    He now does some consutlancy work for me, so I have access to his star qualities in a way which works for us both.
    As for keeping balls in the air, I said to a colleague recently how good it was that the recession was over. If you work in the construction sector it’s just madly busy at the moment. His response was yes, but in the ression it was easy the goal was simple, cut costs and survive. Now, we’re faced with so many choices and deciding on the right ones to pick is very challenging and those choices just keep coming thick and fast.

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