An alternative way to look at conflict in teams
Why thinking in terms of “conflict resolution” isn’t helping
Over the past few months, I’ve been having lots of conversations about the nature of conflict. I’ve written before about my belief that talking about what’s under the surface in teams is incredibly powerful and productive. But there’s something more about this term “conflict” that I want to explore.
My sense is that in the world of work (and perhaps in our personal lives, too), we perceive conflict as something negative — something to be resolved, or even something to be avoided. I believe that this mindset is robbing us all of our potential.
What is conflict?
When I talk about conflict, I’m talking about “a discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles.” In other words, when the degree of dissonance in a relationship or team reaches a point where some kind of action or intervention is needed in order to move things forward.
Why do we fear addressing conflicts?
In the conversations I’ve had with individuals in organisations around the world, people often express their concerns as questions like:
- What if we break the team?
- What if I hurt someone?
- What if it creates chaos?
- What if it gets in the way of the work?
An alternative way of looking at conflict
Brene Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wildnerness”, offers an alternative approach to conflict. Here’s an extract from her interview with Dr Michelle Buck, Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University:
“[Conflict resolution] suggests going back to a previous state of affairs, and has a connotation that there may be a winner or a loser. How will this disagreement be resolved? Whose solution will be selected as the “better” one? In contrast, I choose to focus on “conflict transformation,” suggesting that by creatively navigating the conversational landscape of differences and disagreements, we have the opportunity to create something new. At a minimum, we learn more about each other than before. Ideally, we may find new possibilities that had not even been considered before. Conflict transformation is about creating deeper understanding. It requires perspective-taking. As a result, it enables greater connection, whether or not there is agreement.
Similarly, Diane Musho Hamilton says in her book “Everything is Workable” that: “The idea is not to eliminate conflict…The aim is to transform it.” It’s helpful to accept that conflict is inevitable in life, it’s part of our human experience. To pretend that conflict doesn’t exist or can be avoided in the workplace is costing us energy and wasted potential.
How how can we transform conflicts?
“Leaders who do not fully grasp the concept that conflict of some sort is necessary and even desirable to teaming are destined to fail in all but the most routine of work environments.” — Amy Edmondson, “Teaming”
In her book “Teaming”, Amy Edmondson offers some insights into how leaders can transform conflict:
- Identify the nature of the conflict
- Model good communication
- Identify shared goals
- Encourage difficult conversations
Basically the first step is to acknowledge that there is a conflict and to describe it — what’s the current status? And like in mindfulness, it’s not about judging it or labelling it as right or wrong, it just is. All of these steps are dialogue-based. And they come with a warning from Amy:
“But there’s a catch: patience, wisdom, and skill are needed to transform tensions into positive results. This is because most of us naturally resist tensions and the conflict they invariably bring.”
“While inspiration comes suddenly, dramatically, even mystically, more often, new ways of being require commitment and time and patience, all of which must be harnessed to a steady vision. The creative process necessarily involves encounters with the unknown, the chaotic, and the pain that seems to accompany the birth of something new. To experience the joy and excitement of that birth, we must be willing to experience unpleasant emotions — from empty irritation to boredom, frustration, and even despair.
We must cultivate creativity. Each moment in time is infused with the fresh, the new, the possible, but it is also heavily laden with past conditioning: our evolutionary history as primates, the mores of our culture, our family upbringing, and wounds from previous relationships. So we may have to push through deeply ingrained habits of body and mind to begin to touch the possible.
Finally, we have to be prepared to fail. Again and again. It is intrinsic to the creative process. Every successful person is a student of failure. It has often been said that failure is only the opportunity to begin again.”
- Let’s shift our thinking from “conflict resolution” to “conflict transformation”
- Conflict offers us all kinds of gifts — new ideas, refined thinking, greater connection and much, much more…
- To transform it we must acknowledge it and start to talk about it
- Transforming conflict requires patience, wisdom and skill — it will likely be painful and we have to be prepared to fail