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It’s 3 a.m. Your stomach roils with unease and your mind plays an upcoming scene at work in a continuous loop with different perspectives, like a meticulous director searching for the perfect shot. The amount of times you have rolled over make you feel much like a chicken rotating on a spit.

What’s the cause of this sleepless night? Conflict. An issue arose at work and a contentious debate is inevitable.

Conflict at Work


Photo credit: a2gemma via Flickr/Creative Commons

We’ve all felt this way at some point in our careers because conflict is a natural and inevitable component of any human relationship, whether at work or at home.

At work, conflict might emerge from creative differences, stress, personality differences, emotional intensity, communication misunderstandings, or confused expectations and much more.

Despite the potential for unpleasantness in conflict, it actually serves an important purpose in helping people grow and better solve problems, not to mention forging greater creativity. Charles Nemeth notes,

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings….Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

In fact, Nemeth’s research on the subject illustrated his point when he discovered that teams told to debate were 20% more creative than teams directed to brainstorm.

So conflict is an important part of work. But it doesn’t mean one should never be conflict averse. Taken to an extreme, a person might try and address conflict for every small annoyance she encounters during the day. It would be counter-productive to be that insistent on addressing conflict.

But in most work settings where there’s a clear crossroads between parties, it is best to have a direct conversation, almost always. So when conflict arises, embrace the dialogue and approach it with a set of tools that helps bring solution rather than a series of discussions orbiting the problem.

Conflict and Stress

And yet, the stress surrounding conflict matters. If you approach conflict while under stress, you will likely encounter increases in negativity, irritability, shallow communication, and intense emotion, while also decreasing rationality. Not a recipe for success. So the ability to handle stress before conflict is critical. What do you need to do to be at level place before conflict begins?

Conflict and Personality

Another critical aspect of conflict resolutions resides in the understanding of behavioral differences. Truthfully, much of our personality dictates how we approach conflict and how we resolve it. Without this key understanding, two parties might be attempting to move forward but unable to get on the same page. There’s also a level of danger in this misunderstanding as parties might feel abused or depressed as a result.

Generally, people fall within 5 categories — directing, cooperating, compromising, avoiding, and harmonizing. These categories address two aspects that everyone encounters during conflict:

  1. How committed are you to your own agenda? How hard do you push for the desired outcome you prefer?
  2. How committed are you to the relationship? How much attention does it deserve, especially when conflict escalates.

These categories describe two aspects of conflict resolution, one being the response you have when conflict first emerges and the second details how you respond when circumstances become tense and issues are not easy to resolve.

Interestingly, people can swing from one category to another as conflicts shift from a first response to a tense situation. As an example, someone might begin with a direct response, seeking to squash any conflict and moving straight to an answer, only to move to a more harmonizing position when the conflict becomes untenable.

How would you diagnose what style you have? Tools such as the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory bring clarity to the discussion.

Addressing Conflict


Photo Credit: Aidan Jones via Flickr/Creative Commons

So how should you approach conflict? For starters, bring the conflict to the open; don’t let it fester. Secondly, make sure every stakeholder is involved; they all need equal opportunity to participate. Finally, keep everything solution focused; don’t search for a scapegoat. Always keep in mind what the desired outcome should be. Successful solutions should meet the interests of all involved parties, can be implemented, are specific, sustainable, create nurtured and positive relationships, and have a follow-up process.

So the next time you are aware of impending conflict and your sleepless nighttime ritual returns, remember how important conflict is to the creative process as well as to deep relationships. Know your approach to conflict so you can best tailor it to the other stakeholders. With the final outcome always top of mind, your conflicts — while not necessarily pleasant — will become all the more fruitful.

We live in a world of constant change. Markets shift with the wind. New technology always threatens the old ways of doing things. New competitors consistently compete for a slice of the market share pie. And at the end of the day, customers shift purchasing decisions.

Given these factors, organizations must stay ahead of the curve or they will cease to exist. Look at the struggles of certain industries. The recording industry swept aside the rise of digital music and now faces difficult circumstances around a lack of record sales. Its response faces an uphill climb, even with new innovations like streaming providing potential answers to the problem.

Compare the record industry to book publishing; while both faced a decline in its traditional sales, Amazon jumped ahead of the curve, releasing the Kindle and providing an electronic marketplace long before book piracy could develop in our cultural milieu.

A Cost-First Approach to Change

14707224807_96fdabb445_bChange, however, runs deeper than developing a new product or implementing a new technology. In fact, many people making decisions in organizations use finance and economics as the framework for the choices made. What can be done to influence the bottom line in a positive manner? This cost-first mentality can be detrimental to the workplace, especially if jobs are on the line, whether through technology replacing workers or outright layoffs.

Cost-first decision-making tends to lead organizations down the road of technical change, a process meant to increase the output from the same amount of inputs. This process could mean adding a new project management system; it might include consolidating departments to increase workload on each employee. Most often when a serious problem arises in the marketplace, one that may threaten the long-term viability of an organization, technical change becomes the method of addressing the problem.

While technical change can lead to new innovations and a higher level of buoyancy in the marketplace, it is also a Band-Aid for the problem. The second the market shifts again, more change must occur, again to the detriment of your workforce.

One Possible Alternative Approach to Change

What if there was another way toward change? What if leaders addressed change systematically throughout the organization, diving into the fabric of its culture to address change and build a stronger and more resilient company?

As Ronald Heifetz has argued in his book Leadership without Easy Answers, the answer to this question could reside in the concept of adaptive change. Adaptive change addresses the hearts and minds of employees. It’s a much more difficult process. Adaptive change asks the deeper questions around an organization. Why are we doing this? Where do we want to go? What are the attitudes, values, and behaviors that permeate our work culture? Are they the right? Do these attitudes and beliefs need to shift for us to gain a sense of shared identity?

Adaptive change is scary and painful. Many people resist because it can sometimes shift a company greatly, to the point of altering the entire business model. But the success of such a process comes in the form of a healthy, sustainable culture that can more capably address the roller coaster of the external marketplace.

Diving Deeper

electronic circuit boardWhile adaptive change offers an alternative to technical change, an interdisciplinary model provides the most textured approach. Psychologists, sociologists, theologians, anthropologists, philosophers among many other disciplines provide lenses for understanding culture. In truth, the difficulty of shifting culture requires such a layered approach because change shifts at a glacial pace. An individual will tend toward adapting to the current culture, rather than an entire organization tending toward adopting the culture of one new person.

The role of leadership in cultural change engagement is critical. The organization selects the leader to provide authority and maintain equilibrium. When change must happen, the equilibrium shifts. An interdisciplinary toolkit allows the leader to keep the pulse of the organization and begin the process.

Change as a Computer

Think of these ideas like an old computer — one you’ve been using for a few years. The technology feels like yesterday’s news. Applications take more time to open; the video card never seems to want to play nice. It seems — if buying a new computer is off the table — the best solution to the problem is to upgrade RAM and the video card. You should get more speed and a higher quality image. Such a decision would be technical change.

Interdisciplinary change, however, requires a bigger process. In truth, you would need to replace the entire motherboard. The external shell of the computer will look the same but everything performing underneath the surface will be new.

Cultural change is a long process for an organization, but the journey is worth it.