Conflict – What is it good for? – Absolutely nothing (except when it is).
Conflict is inherent in human interaction so people must love it, right? Xbox is hugely popular but there is no game called ‘Gears Of War: Conflict Resolution.’
Solomon Asch is a great name for an Xbox villain but it’s also the name of a psychologist who ran a now-famous 1951 study on social conformity. (If you’re visualising this as you read, do so in the grainy black and white newsreel style of the day.) Groups of participants were seated at a table while a moustached man in a lab coat with a clipboard told them they were part of a programme of assessing visual judgements. All but one of the participants were in on the scam and it was that one person per session who was the actual subject of the experiment.
Each group was shown two large cards at once. On one card was a single vertical line. On the other card were three different vertical lines labelled a, b and c. Each person was asked to say out loud which of a, b or c was the same length as the first line on the other card. The process was repeated again and again. For the first two rounds, the researcher’s confederates gave the right, and obviously right, answers and so too did the subject. From the third round onwards, the confederates gave the same wrong, and obviously wrong, answer. The subject, who was in the middle of the group, got to hear the incorrect answers being spoken before and after it was his turn.
Initially, most subjects stuck to their guns but it didn’t take more than a couple of rounds for most people to scrunch up their faces, weave their eyes back and forth and go with the group. There were eighteen sessions and three quarters of people conformed at least once. One third went along every time.
I don’t know if would’ve influenced the science but all the participants were men. They were student volunteers and maybe there weren’t many women at university in 1951 or maybe women had better things to do with their time? (Insert your own joke here about women lying about the length of things.)
The thing about experiments like this is that, if they prove anything at all, they prove it about most people and I’m sure you are not most people. However most people are most people and they’re the ones you’re employing, leading, developing and depending on for your success. Thinking about your workplace, how conformist are your people? What innovations aren’t happening? What sacred cows aren’t being challenged? What problems aren’t being solved? All because of too much of what seems to be an overly human trait of conflict avoidance.
One of the themes of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. Some people, perhaps even most people, see conflict as a problem that needs to be prevented, avoided or minimised. I see it as a tool to be managed. By definition, ‘resolution’ does not mean prevention, avoidance, minimising or even ending. It means the act of resolving or determining upon a course of action. We need to acknowledge the conflict and choose to deliberately do something about it. I call this, “Going ugly early.”
A lack of conflict may seem like a great idea but it’s more likely a symptom of organisational avoidance problems. It’s an unrealistic fantasy to have a conflict-free workplace.
Often though, the conflict on balance becomes destructive or unsustainable. Then someone needs to intervene.
One of the critical ingredients in anyone’s skill acquisition, personal development and long-term success is heightened self awareness – metacognition or our ability to think about the way we think. Nowhere is this more evident than how different people view and handle workplace conflict and conflict resolution. There are a number of different models simplifying conflict styles. “I’m an avoider. You’re a competitor. She’s an accommodator.” The key first step is to realise that, whatever the label de jour, when it comes to conflict you have a default preference style and others may differ. Become self aware, then look for clues in others. Only then can you tweak, test, evaluate and re-tweak an approach. Modelling and teaching this behaviour flows through into non-conflict communication, accelerating understanding of, and effective interaction with, others. It allows innovations, third ways and the emperor with new clothes finding out he’s naked.
When it comes to conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right (in the same way that two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.)