Whether inadvertent or stoked by emotion, conflict resolution is part of working with others. Like forest fires, prevention is easier to manage than putting out the flames.
I am a big proponent of understanding what causes these issues in the first place. The genesis of heated disagreement comes from several combustable behavioral truths.
- Core beliefs create “our map of the world.” These are shaped during our formative years of 0-to-13, although cognitive memory begins around 3 or 4 rather than birth. A liberal upbringing produces an adult different than one raised with conservative beliefs. Hence the no religion, no politics boundaries that must be rigidly respected.
- Significant emotional events change us as we grow through adulthood. “Once burnt, twice learnt” is an ages old adage that survives for a reason. In business, so is “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The lessons co-workers learn throughout their careers vary wildly, and often these lessons diminish trust.
- People in the workplace are motivated more by political gains and losses than “doing the right thing.” Conflict often arises due to foreseen political ramifications pertaining to what lies ahead. If someone stands to gain political juice, he or she will pursue it. When someone perceives change as a loss, he or she will resist.
- Never underestimate the predictability of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchical pursuit. Careers follow the same escalator as Maslow’s behavioral hierarchy: survival; comfort; love and affection; respect; and self-actualization. Conflict often comes from clashes at levels three and four (affection and respect). Culturally this is common; and ego-bruising is common.
- Contrasting work styles cause more conflict than intent. How co-workers go about executing their responsibilities differs significantly. Some people are concept-oriented, others detail-centric. Some of outgoing, others reserved. Some workers are direct and straight to the point, while others are much more tactful and indirect. Many workers set out to achieve a task with their “tails on fire,” while others are slower, more analytical, and careful to make a move. Similar styles rarely cause irreparable emotional reactions. Unlike styles easily can. All good leaders will want to take the time to understand the work styles of the people involved. Sometimes the catalyst is simply a contrast in style; and not a willful attempt to disrupt.
It is important as a group leader to remember the principle of all human behavior, which I summarize in three words: Think. Feel. Do. What a person thinks shapes how he or she feels. How he or she feels determines what he or she will do (or not do). People take action — in this case create or engage in conflict — for one of two reasons: they think they will gain something; or they can avoid something bad happening.
Conflict is the bubbling up of emotional reaction. Understand what causes that reaction by dissecting the elements (often through private discussion) that have shaped that particular conclusion. The key to getting to the root cause quickly is through the “five whys.” Asking ‘why’ five times in a continuing discussion peels back the onion to its true core.
Sometimes, of course, you need to negotiate. If so, follow the advice of the late Roger Fisher in his landmark text “Getting to Yes.” Read it, embrace it, and apply what he teaches. Negotiating is stressful when you have no plan, but achievable once you do.
Most people are well intended and mean no harm, but these are stressful times with a lot of invisible noise rattling around in people’s lives. Seek to understand the root cause of conflicts rather than just charging forward like a boxing referee.
Cool heads prevail, and logic can never overlay emotion. In order to get both parties to a logical place, you must defuse the emotion of the moment. Behavioral insight is your success key.
Best of luck. Flareups are byproducts. When they do, work backward through the frustration to locate the root cause. It’s far better to turn acrimony into a learning opportunity than foster scarring resentment.
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