Turning Conflict into Collaboration

by Linda Gravett, PhD, SPHR

Did you wake up this morning thinking, “Gee, I hope I get into an argument today” or “I hope somebody seeks me out for a confrontation”?  Probably not.  We typically do everything we can to avoid conflict, perhaps because past experiences have been unpleasant or we don’t know how to respond to confrontations.  In this article I’d like to address turning poorly handled confrontations into collaboration.

Webster defines conflict as “disagreement between opposing principles”.  Managed effectively, conflict can result in creative solutions to a problem and a variety of perspectives on improving a given situation.  Or, as Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

Over the years, I’ve observed two types of conflict in organizations:  destructive and constructive.  Destructive conflict is manifested by behaviors such as yelling at coworkers or customers, withdrawal from others, or even destruction of property.  Anger, fear, or frustration might motivate this type of behavior.  The results from destructive conflict usually are far reaching – more people than the two or three involved are directly or indirectly affected.  Typical results from destructive conflict are coworkers avoiding one another, people taking sides and subtly or overtly harassing “the bad guy”, and lower productivity.

On the other hand, constructive conflict can result in increased communication across the organization, enhanced productivity, and less absenteeism and turnover.

As managers and leaders within our organizations, our focus clearly must revolve around modeling and coaching for constructive conflict.  To effectively coach our team through disagreement, we need to be aware of four typical responses to conflict that we might encounter.  These responses are avoidance; rationalization; “yes means no”; and refusal.

When faced with a disagreeable situation or encounter, one response is to simply “lay low” and hope the problem, or difficult situation, will fade away.  My research shows that, instead of fading away, difficult situations tend to only get worse if they’re not addressed, and addressed effectively.  I’d prefer to hear from a vendor sooner than later, for example, if a product or service I’ve been promised can’t be delivered on time.  I may be unhappy; however, I’ll definitely be far more unhappy if I don’t discover this information until too late to meet my commitments.

Another response to conflict is rationalization.  “I won’t confront my coworker about her constant interruptions during meetings because it’ll get better.”  “Someone else will tell Bob he’s doing the monthly reports wrong.”  Without constructive criticism, coworkers or direct reports may not even be aware of their offending behaviors or work deficiencies….and there’s little chance of improvement if that’s the case.

Yet another approach to potential conflict is for someone to say “yes” to a request or statement when they really mean “no”.  I’ve encountered this when, as a customer, I’ve requested a solution or fix to a situation or unsatisfactory purchase.  The sales rep may tell me (in person) whatever I want to hear to get me out the door, only to leave a voicemail later with a different story.  This certainly doesn’t build a level of trust or open communication!

The final response I’ve observed is outright refusal to engage in dialogue.  When this occurs, a person may simply walk away from a discussion that begins to get uncomfortable.  When one or more parties decide to disengage, there’s no chance of collaboration and the situation will eventually spiral downward.

In 1999, I surveyed 500 people in organizations throughout the country to determine the primary causes of workplace conflict between supervisors and their direct reports.  Across this sample, five major sources of conflict emerged:

  • Goal Conflict
  • Perception that Input Isn’t Accepted
  • Unclear Assignments
  • Perception that Evaluations Were Unfair
  • Unrealistic Workload

If you’re in a management role, ask yourself if the way you articulate the company’s mission, vision, and key objectives to your staff is clear.  Do your direct reports understand how their day-to-day activities support the company’s objectives?  Do they have an opportunity to make suggestions to improve systems and processes or eliminate barriers to their success? Opening these communication channels will positively affect the quality and quantity of work.

One of the chief complaints I heard from direct reports is the hurtful way that their supervisor gives them feedback.  When providing constructive criticism, I recommend that you:

  • Focus on the issue (one at a time, not a barrage of complaints from years past)
  • Avoid “hot button” language (such as “you’re just lazy” or “you’re dumb”)
  • Emphasize key points
  • Be specific about what you want (not “your work isn’t up to par” or other vague statements)
  • Acknowledge the other person’s point of view

We’re accustomed to win-lose confrontations in our society; however, I believe we shouldn’t accept a “one winner, one loser” outcome.  Instead, I promote what authors Fisher and Ury describe as “win-win”.

Characteristics of win-win confrontations are:  common goals are sought; compromises occur; and everyone wins.  To pursue common goals, both parties involved in a disagreement must be willing to divulge what they really want, as opposed to simply staking out a position.

When my husband and I were first married, we had a serious disagreement about where to take our first summer vacation.  My position was that Gatlinburg was the definitive vacation spot.  His position was that Myrtle Beach was the place to go.  We saw that being intractable wasn’t going to get us anywhere, so we began talking about what we wanted out of a vacation.  I wanted sunshine, a golf course, and some shopping.  So did he!  We began exploring, together, different places that would fill these requirements.  We went to Hilton Head and had a wonderful time!

The key to success is that both sides find shared concerns and then move together towards addressing those concerns.  You may not always get what you want, but I’ll bet that you get what you need.

Dr. Linda Gravett, PhD, SPHR is with Gravett & Associates (www.Gravett.com). If you have any questions or wish to share your comments, you can contact Linda at Linda@Gravett.com.