Conflicts are not simply problems, but we often treat them as if they are.
When facing a conflict at work we look at the best ways to manage and resolve it without derailing the entire work schedule and objectives that need to be accomplished.
If a team member’s underperformance is affecting a project, or if there’s a lot of friction between two departments that need to work together, we generally choose to look into what needs to be done to sort out the problem.
We tend to address conflict as a fact-finding mission to be followed by an executive decision.
There’s nothing wrong with that; sometimes it’s what is needed.
My children and I are spending a couple of days with a friend at her cottage in a small village on the coast. Last night our children were arguing about what film to watch on TV, and from which platform. My friend and I weren’t taking part in the conversation as we’d reached the stage where we couldn’t care less after a whole day out with three hyperactive children, but after 30 minutes of endless battling, I said to her “For goodness sake, choose the film and just get it done!” And she did. We watched Cruella, and everyone seemed perfectly happy with our top-down, undemocratic approach to conflict resolution.
Why did it work?
- Because we have power and authority over our subordinates (more about this word another day), in this case because we are their parents.
- Everybody wanted to watch a film (i.e. there was consensus on what we wanted to do).
- The choice was a good one for everybody (i.e. the result matched everybody’s expectations).
Remove one element of the equation, and the conflict would have reproduced itself even more virulently after the film had ended.
If my friend had made a choice that the children rated poorly, they would have gone to bed complaining, and the next day they wouldn’t want to let us choose for them – and if they weren’t able to choose for themselves we’d be stuck with the same conflict again!
Does this sound familiar?
Sometimes it goes like this: you’re feeling the pressure of the moment at work, people are getting worried and unhappy, and you can see how things are going to end up, so you make a decision to resolve the problem.
Sometimes this is necessary, but dealing with conflict is slightly different.
It requires more than a problem-solving approach because we need to acknowledge the roles of power, feelings, personal relationships, and narratives.
Recognising all these elements in the conflict and deciding whether or not you’re going to address them is what makes dealing with conflict such a pain, or such a joy, depending on how you look at it.
If I’d wanted to address power during the exasperating discussion about films and explore more collaborative choices I could have suggested that we put it to a vote (not very collaborative, but democratic enough for a bunch of under 12s.)
If I’d wanted to address how everybody felt about it, I would probably have needed to try to persuade my son not to choose a film that he knew his sister couldn’t or didn’t want to watch, so I’d have had to create some ground rules to make sure that the choices on the table were fair for everybody.
Getting it done only works when you have the power and everyone’s going to be fine with your choice. The rest of the laborious choices are more educational, collaborative, fun, creative, long-lasting and arduous to achieve because they’re based on observing and acknowledging narratives, power, status and relationships.
When managing difficult conversations, a good question to ask yourself is whether you need to solve a problem or deal with a conflict.
It’s not the same, and it doesn’t feel the same.
Leadership is about finding better choices for everybody, not just getting it done. This is worth noticing.