While recently working with a company to improve their conflict culture, I was struck by a telling comment made by a member of the senior management team: “I feel sorry for these young employees we hire right out of college. They mistakenly think they are going to be working with grown-ups.”
He was spot on. His words took me back to two memorable moments in my career. First, a very early one when I realized that all these professionals, well, how do I say…weren’t acting “professional”. Then came a second moment, which was even more troubling, the “aha” moment most of us have when we realize that it is not just THIS person, or THIS office, or THIS company. Poor behavior in conflict is everywhere. My friend and Texas colleague, Don Philbin, has a great expression for this: “Life is just high school with more money.”
The truth is managing conflict effectively takes some skill and purposeful behavior. Remarkably few people have had training to develop these skills. The sad result is workplaces filled with the unskilled reactions to conflict such as avoidance, blame, and passive aggressive behavior. These unskilled reactions build on each other, escalating conflict and creating an unhealthy culture. To rectify this culture, it takes creating a new expectation of how conflict is handled in this business environment.
Change must start in how employees frame the conflict challenge. Typically, the first thing clients tell me is how they would like me to “fix” someone. They have framed the problem as a character flaw in their coworker, manager, assistant, or employee. Once I “fix” the particular person, or maybe a group of people, all the company’s problems will go away. In addition to the reality that I cannot change people’s hardwiring, the flaw in this logic is the failure to see the problem in its true light, “a dysfunctional conflict culture” in which they too are integrally intertwined. People fail to see how their own behavior is also contributing to the dysfunction.
A quick example of this is conflict avoidance, which can be the most insidious and destructive conflict management problem. A fellow employee behaves badly, but instead of directly and professionally addressing the issue with the ill-behaved colleague, his coworker complains about his behavior behind his back and starts avoiding him, even when she should be going to him to collaborate on projects. Her reaction to the initial conflict begins to cause a divide in the team and prevents productive collaboration. Although the first employee’s behavior may have been wrong, the second employee’s reaction to it escalated the problem and in the end may actually cause more harm to productivity.
For real improvement, there must be a paradigm shift from the employee mindset of “they need to change” to “how can I get better at interacting with any type of person the workplace throws my way”. To move employees toward this paradigm shift, the reason for learning conflict resolution skills must be reframed from a necessary evil to deal with this specific person to instead an essential tool needed to unlock success and happiness in their career and, quite frankly, their life in general. Put more simply, the process has to be turned into a value add for them personally.
To do this, we work with employees to unpack how conflict can get in the way of their productivity, how increasing productivity will get them noticed by their supervisor, and how highly supervisors value employees who can work with everyone. Employees begin to understand how this can help them be seriously considered for leadership roles, not only with their current employer, but anywhere they land.
However, the more dramatic realization for employees, is the “aha” moment when they grasp that learning these skills will greatly reduce the stress they are enduring at work. This stress can be debilitating. Watching an employee start to comprehend they have more control over the situation than they realized by simply being mindful of their own reactions to conflict, is the most rewarding part of a conflict culture intervention. One manager I encountered literally shook when he spoke about his work situation. He wasn’t sleeping and was so riddled with anxiety that he could not enjoy any of the hobbies he used to love. He was desperate and ready to make changes. Over several months of working on his skills, I watched this same manager beam when he talked about work interactions. He had become confident that no matter what or who was thrown his way, he could navigate it. Instead of waiting for everyone else to become a grown-up, he had decided to become one.