Conflict? Or No Conflict?

Note:  One of the scariest behaviors you can ever ask people to engage in is conflict; in fact, it is only #2 behind the fear of falling, the only innate behavior we are born with. Enjoy. Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 can be found on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

Healthy Conflict? Is this even possible?
I was reminded this week of the basic tenets of having healthy conflict by a client who asked me if I thought he knew how to engage in healthy conflict. I assured him that he did and he asked me why. My response was automatic, "Because you know how to stay in the present." He was momentarily puzzled by that response until I asked him to reflect on recent arguments or heated discussions he had witnessed. I asked, "What is the one common denominator that you have noticed about those interactions?" He responded that people always seemed to be bringing up other issues with the problems, this person, etc., from the past. "Bingo," I responded. "So," he kept on, "what is the number two factor in having healthy conflict?"

The Best Ways to Have Healthy Conflict
My response, "There are actually 7 ways to have healthy conflict. They are:"

1. Staying in the Present: Dredging up old history, unresolved conflicts and grudges that are irrelevant to the present conversation.
2. Avoiding Jumping to Conclusions: For example, consider a company with a high turnover in staff. They could easily jump to the conclusion that it is the fault of a specific manager and go about trying to replace that person. 
3. Staying Away from Attacking the Person: This is something we see almost every day coming out of the Washington political arena. If we do not like what someone is saying, it is easier to attack just the person rather than do the work necessary to take an in-depth look at his or her ideas.
4. Avoid Using a Higher Authority: We've all seen the infomercials with famous stars or noted experts citing the miracles they've attained with the latest gadget, book, or program. Other times, people try to insert their religious beliefs into the discussion as way of strengthening their position and, thus, we are asked to trust a product or position entirely because of its association with a celebrity or seemingly higher authority.
5. Pointing to a False Cause: It is easy to assume simple causes for complex problems. For example, consider an organization faced with constant change, as most are these days. People can become overwhelmed with the changes and then turn on each other.
6. Not Thinking in All or Nothing Terms: Most of us have made sweeping generalizations at one time or another. For example, "You can never trust a lawyer...Teenagers are terrible drivers...More money would solve all of our problems"...etc. As I get older, I see very little evidence that anything in life is ever black and white.
7. Staying Away from Emotion: Is often used for manipulative purposes. I have observed people hijack meetings by coming close to tears based on an inference that suggestion for a change to a program somehow discounted their years of work.

How Do You Do This in an Office Environment?
Many organizations I have worked with have established, by group agreement, a set of Conflict Norms. Examples of same might include:

  • Be honest – no "parking lot" staff meetings outside of established meeting times.
  • Speak like you are right; listen like you are wrong.
  • Keep discussions about topics, not individuals.
  • Share all thoughts before leaving a meeting.
  • Engage in conflict in person rather than by phone or email.
  • Humor is invaluable, but only as respectful comic relief; not used as a weapon.
  • Go directly to the person with whom you have conflict, avoid triangulation with 3rd parties.
  • Meetings are not a spectator sport – participate - don't just sit there and mutter, "Whatever."
  • Use “I” statements' not finger pointing and using "You" accusations.
  • And, always, assume positive intent.

This list is, by no means, comprehensive; just representative of common examples I have seen groups create. One group actually inserted a conflict norm that clearly stated, "No throwing!" (I didn't ask where that came from.) My point is, the group, the team, etc., should create their own norms and demand accountability to them, by having "Healthy Conflict" around same.

Rules of Engagement
The military has always established rules of engagement when going into any combat situation, and, even though we are not (hopefully) shooting at each other when we come together to discuss shared challenges and opportunities, they are a great idea for the workplace, too. Some good examples I have seen teams create for their own environment include:

1. Meetings:

  • Be on time; give early notice if cannot attend.
  • Be present & engaged.
  • Capture meeting record, distribute, and store in shared file.

2. Communication:

  • Primary communication by email, phone, in person.
  • Test messages only for quick questions.
  • If urgent, call.
  • Email “cc” means: no FYI required.

3. Availability during work hours:

  • As people are willing and can respond.
  • During weekends and holiday, don’t expect that team members are reading emails.
  • Be respectful when people are on vacation, travel, or personal time.
  • Client, patient, customer support:
  • If it is an emergency, and not controversial, do what is necessary, and let a colleague know.
  • If controversial, get colleague’s permission first.

4. Meeting structure:

  • Weekly, strategic, quarterly staff meetings – when, where, frequency.
  • Wrap up 5 minutes before the end of the meeting and summarize the decisions that were made.
  • If you miss a meeting, get information from someone who was there.
  • Acceptable behaviors at meetings:
  • Enforce conflict norms.
  • No laptop or phone use (on call providers, OK).
  • End on time; timed purposeful agendas.
  • No sidebars.
  • Respond to requests to get on agenda.

5. Use of shared resources:

  • If significant, go to the supervisor.
  • If it is a quick question, go direct.
  • Interaction with other people’s staff:
  • Do not jump down people’s throats.
  • Go through supervisor if substantive.
  • Counseling off to the side; not in public.
  • Timeliness of responding to one another:
  • Will determine as needed.

Intrinsic to healthy conflict is that all of the above can only be successful if the #1 essential element is firmly in place - Trust. And it rarely is. It usually takes some amount of time to put in place and it can be broken in an instance.
 
Next Week: Trust. What is it?