As engineers, and it is applicable to knowledge workers and creators as well, we work with ideas. The idea is the currency and ensuring that ideas survive, thrive and grow is the differentiator between successful and not. And when there are many ideas, we would also see conflicts. Here, we discuss conflicts in the workplace. Unresolved conflicts can fester and affect collective morale, interpersonal relationships, and work productivity. We discuss types of conflicts, a way to think about them and tactical steps to manage the conflicts.
The pace of innovation and constant need for better ideas puts us in the ideas worker category more than knowledge workers. These ideas result in the continuous evolution of knowledge. It is in this light that conflict assumes a very different significance.
At some point, one has to transition from a “there is a best idea” mindset to “ideas are living”, they may come from anywhere, and need cross-pollination and nurturing before narrowing to selection for execution. Hegel’s Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Model is a dialectic method of historical and philosophical progress that postulates (1) a beginning proposition called a thesis, (2) a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and (3) a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition. This is a simple model to think of how new ideas are born. In reality, this can take the form of borrowing ideas, transporting them to completely different domains, modifying them a bit etc. These are also given structured mechanics through six thinking hats like models, where black hat thinking forces an antithesis, often causing synthesis.
Establishing an authority, allowing a focus group to rip it or evaluating it too early, can kill ideas. Some of the fundamentally new ideas look completely unacceptable in the beginning. Not letting them the required space we shut down progress. Having completely on the same page that we need a space to nurture ideas, we should handle a specific phenomenon that arises often, called conflict. Conflict is in simple words disagreement when there are two ideas and the assumption is that one has to give way to another. It is easy to kill an idea but as an org, we need to nurture diversity and differences of opinion.
“Great minds don’t think alike. They challenge each other to think differently. … Converging values draw you to similar questions. Diverging views introduce you to new answers.” — Adam Grant
When you have good diversity, you end up having a variety of ideas and those may end up in good conflicts.
Types of Conflicts
All conflicts present a learning opportunity for all participants and especially for the leader(s) of the team(s).
Conflict can be of many kinds. Broadly, there are two types of conflicts in the workplace — functional conflict and dysfunctional conflict.
What are the dysfunctional conflicts? These conflicts are related to people’s problems or very deteriorated functional conflicts. These are mostly caused by ego issues and/or personal interests put ahead of team/business interests.
A dysfunctional conflict -
- Blocks an organisation or group from reaching its goals
- Gives rise to tension, anxiety, stress and low trust
- Drives out low conflict tolerant people
- Poor decisions from lack of innovation
- Increases stagnancy
What are functional conflicts? Whatever the conflict is in functional conflict, both the parties have a good intention and want to solve or get unblocked for things that benefit the business.
Generally functional conflict -
- Works towards the goals of an organisation or group
- Constructive conflict
- Increases information and ideas
- Encourages innovative thinking
- Unshackles different points of views
- Reduces stagnancy
What is the right way to think about the conflict? What are the mindsets that get the best out of conflicts? We discuss a model that is very helpful in these situations.
Thomas Kilmann Model
Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s model has two dimensions,
- Concern for others’ ideas
- Concern for self’s ideas
At the lowest left is avoiding behaviour where there is low concern for self and others’ ideas. We want a mindset where there is value for everybody’s ideas. This is the collaborating behaviour shown in the top right quadrant. This works as a Hegelian dialectic as described earlier.
When all think alike, then no one is thinking. — Walter Lippmann
It is useful to keep the following points in mind
- See the value in conflict
- Not all conflicts are bad, we should encourage functional conflicts
- New ideas can emerge out of conflicts
- A comprehensive view comes out
- Go with an open mind
- Beyond I am right you are wrong
- Not conflict but focus on the outcome
- Behaviours you want to drive
- No passive aggression
- Disagree but commit
- Rules of engagement — The supremacy of data and reason
- Aristotle’s ethos, logos, and pathos say convincing can happen based on reason, the emotional state of the audience or the credibility of the presenter. We need to use reason for the long-term stability of decisions.
- Set principles before discussing the actual topic. It is easier to agree on principles sometimes than on a concrete situation.
Every time we think of conflict, we are reminded of training by one who facilitated negotiations in the Middle East where both the parties sat with AK47s on the table. Not only does it show the importance of those conflicts, and the things at stake but also the dysfunctions that it may cause if it doesn’t progress constructively.
Managing Conflict — Tactics
“Mediocre leaders deflect or decide conflicts, good leaders resolve them, and great ones use them as tools to advance.”
Let’s talk about how to manage conflicts. Our teachable point of view (TPOV) on conflict management has three steps — before, during and after. While most of us focus on the “during” phase, successful conflict management has disproportionately large “before” and “after” phases.
Before step: Mapping the conflict
Mapping refers to drawing the lay of the land. General Tzu said, “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.” One does background work to understand and also set up for the next phase of resolution. This is a recommended list of things to think through and not all may apply to a situation.
- Reason of issue
- Clear outcomes are needed, an anchor on the problem
- Background on the problem, collect unbiased data, collect points of view
- Do we have the right people in the room?
- Who are the influencers?
- Positions (goals, values and perceptions) of each stakeholder
- Where are they on the Thomas Kilmann model?
- Asking the right questions — what is going right? Why are they still in the team and project?
- Alignment, who does what, who gives budget, who gets the credit
- Find allies
- Long-term relationships play an important role in ensuring conflicts are handled in the most cordial and right ways. This is built over peacetime, as they say, “fix the roof while the sun is shining”. The credibility of the participants, so built, creates a bridge for people to explain their views.
During step: Resolving a conflict
This is the active phase where we resolve the conflict. We try to bring everybody together and ensure all are on the same page as a result of this phase. This is the most high-energy phase and has a chance to degrade to dysfunction.
- Control the narrative — the narrative in the meeting should not be left to chance but should be well guided.
- Framing — “A problem well stated is a problem half solved” (Charles Kettering). Describing context and the problem well is an extremely important step and can swing the dynamics towards a solution.
- Anchor on the problem — sometimes it is very hard to align on a solution, it is better to anchor on the problem. Later is easier.
- Time box it or create a time pressure
- Have a seasoned program manager or someone playing that role in getting to the decision, managing time and following up on action items. Document objectives, positions, and escalation path.
- Ladder of inference — The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. Ladder of inference is a process by which we understand what data, perspective and conclusion other people have made compared to yours.
- Positive spin — At times the disagreements become so wide and the situation appears to become impossible to recover from. At that time focus on what all can agree on rather than disagreements to swing the pendulum to another side.
- Look for unsaid cues as every reaction may not be verbal.
- Follow-up meetings may be arranged if needed. We may not get to all details in the main meeting, not every ‘t’ will be crossed and ‘i’ dotted.
- Make sure everyone is vocal about their Point of View (POV)
After step: A culture of conflict
“Workplaces, like movies without healthy conflicts, are so boring” — Patric Lencioni
Seeing many conflicts one realizes that they are not overheads but are hugely beneficial. So, after conflict resolution, we should think of steps that can encourage a culture of good conflicts. A culture in which we could benefit from them. Here are some tactics to think of.
- End every conflict on a high note, even when the “during” phase had a lot of bad blood.
- Fixate on the outcome
- Keep people updated
- Think long-term — good relationships make conflicts healthier.
- Make people work together
- Make structure work for an organization. Structures with strong hierarchies can suppress conflicts, however, flatter structures help encourage conflicts. Use hierarchical structures only when we need to decide quickly or if a situation is getting out of hand.
- Set conflict Mindset. Educate teams on how to think of conflicts, as described earlier. Use conflict case studies to reinforce the benefits and ways to handle them.
- An effective leader doesn’t “wait” for the conflict, but they prompt it and embrace it.
- As the leader, use conflict as an opportunity to create increased alignment.
One may find a lot of content online to learn. Here are a few to start deep dive with,