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Conflict Sweet Conflict

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: September 2013

"An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind." Mahatma Gandhi

When's the last time you were in a really heated argument? I mean a name-calling, heritage-insulting, spit-flying kind of disagreement? For most of us, this is not a regular event. If it has ever happened to you, it may have been years ago on the playground, or at home with a sibling (or two) during childhood. Maybe it was with your spouse, but if so, it probably wasn't nearly that bad. After all, why would we ever be in conflict with someone we love? Why, indeed. Even as we advance in age and theoretically mature, we still have a very human tendency to drive each other crazy.

Conflict is universal, and it occurs because we're all so different. We look different, we live differently, and we each see things from our own unique points of view. What should be an opportunity for us to learn more about others and ask questions to expand our own frame of reference more often turns into anger, frustration, lack of respect, and worst of all, avoidance and escalation.

What are we fighting about? If we go back to the playground arguments, there were bullies who picked on others, kids who took things that didn't belong to them, or territorial battles over the swings or the basketball court. At home, there were probably arguments over the fairness of chores, what channel to watch on television, or my favorite in my family, whose turn it was to sit in the middle on car trips. I remember epic battles over each of these with my two older siblings, and my father, who is a physically imposing, quietly intimidating kind of guy, never seemed to understand the depth of the conflicts. Of course, when I rationally pointed out that he wouldn't understand because he was an only child, the results were not in my favor. The punishment that followed was an obvious injustice. He didn't stop to consider that his frame of reference was faulty!

So we move from the playgrounds and childhood disagreements to our adult relationships and the workplace. Conflict is not only still present, but it is unavoidable as the world becomes smaller and so many different people with varied experiences, values, levels of knowledge, and ideas interact. When we combine lives with others, even those we profess to love, we each come in with our own frame of reference, our own personalities, and our own ideas of how things should be. Think about the sources of tension in your own relationships. At home, conflicts can erupt over money, division of work, and raising children. If this is how humans act with people they choose to live with, what happens in the workplace?

Workplace conflict is inevitable. While people who work for the same company should generally share the same business goals, working toward a shared vision in perfect harmony, this oversimplifies the complexity of workplace interaction. In the workplace, for instance, hierarchy can cause dissatisfaction and fairness issues among coworkers. There are often several departments responsible for specific functions, and it can be difficult for function-specific groups to see and understand the needs of other groups. In a financial institution, lenders and accounting staff may look at their roles from very different vantage points. If one group has a higher profile, such as creating income, and another group works behind the scenes in support, it can be easy for the less visible, and potentially lower earning group, to feel undervalued. Add strong personality differences, and perhaps a behavioral challenge, and conflict has arrived in the workplace. Divisions are easily created, separating groups into "us versus them" and if leadership is not aware, or worse, avoids conflict between individuals or departments, workplace interaction can escalate from uncomfortable to destructive in a short time.

Conflict is messy and complicated because people are messy and complicated. What's a leader to do when faced with conflict among employees? One of the best things that a company and its leadership can do to minimize conflict is to be sure that employees feel heard. Workers who have a voice in the direction of their company, or at least receive regular communication about their company's strategic direction and their individual roles, are more likely to understand the need for cooperation and collaboration. Leaders must develop the ability to share and inspire that shared vision that will ultimately benefit the entire organization. Leaders also have to be clear about expectations, in behavior, performance, and engagement. If employees are encouraged to share their truths, without repercussions, the workplace can become one of open communication, greater understanding, and an atmosphere of learning and growth.

Sounds simple, right? It's a pretty basic road map for a strong support and achievement culture. But what happens when the highest achievers end up in some form of conflict? Such conflicts might occur because of the perception of favoritism, unfair incentives, lack of recognition, or unfair division of work.

There are important steps that leaders must take when conflict arises. Depending on the level of conflict, a leader may choose to let it play out and allow those in conflict to solve it. If it becomes obvious that intervention is needed, the leader needs to start by asking questions. Not only will this help the leader find the root, or roots, of the conflict, but done correctly, will show the parties involved that their voices will be heard. Listening is the most important first step, without judging or taking sides, but listening to gain understanding.

Naming the problem is important. Once the leader has determined the cause of the conflict, it is important for that leader to calmly let the parties involved know that the conflict is a problem to be solved, and their help is needed. Tension and avoidance in the workplace can affect productivity and create barriers to performance, so the leader has to make it clear that avoidance is not an option. Sometimes, when employees know that the leader is aware of the problem, the conflict will be resolved without further intervention. If it goes deeper than that, with poor behavior adding to the workplace tension, the leader will likely need to go back to the basics of expectations. If employees have a level of self-awareness and respect for others, they will agree that improved behaviors are necessary to moving toward resolution.

In many instances, conflicts are personality based, with petty annoyances becoming magnified under pressure, or when small groups break off and reinforce each other's frustrations about another group. Bringing people together to remind them of behavioral and performance expectations can go a long way toward improving communications and collaboration.

If conflicts are more values based, the resolution process made be more complex, and depending on the severity of the conflict, may need a greater degree of intervention. However, an organization that is clear about values should leave little to no room for operating outside of those values. If employees have been encouraged to communicate openly, they will have no fear of sharing values-based concerns with company leadership, and will be confident that their concerns will be addressed for the good of the entire organization.

Conflict avoidance causes more problems in the workplace than conflict itself. When conflict is presented as a lesson and opportunity to grow and improve, and people are given the conflict resolution tools to handle it confidently and correctly, organizations can begin to benefit from the discussions that take place between employees who don't agree with each other's viewpoints. When two or more parties are willing to ask questions and learn from each other, instead of leaving the meeting room in frustration, the best ideas will begin to emerge. I believe the learning environment is enhanced when people feel encouraged to disagree in a professional and respectful manner. Once the best ideas are allowed to win, creativity, innovation and change can truly take place.

How do you look at conflict? Are you fascinated by it, or do you dread it? I'd love to know what you think.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at