I was buying my daughter a six-inch chicken sub on italian herb bread, toasted, with cheddar cheese. The ‘sandwich artist’ asked the lady in front of me if she wanted avocado on hers. The lady said, “Yes.” Usually, I’m happy to be the quiet, non-provocative consumer in these situations, especially as I had to get my timing right to pick up two other takeaway types from two other locations on my way home. I noticed the avocado situation because the question is usually accompanied by the statement, “That’d be an extra fifty cents.” Tonight it was not.
Maybe it was because it was Friday night and I was tired and hungry. I’d earlier been on the phone sorting out my own meal choices, wavering between ordering for myself a prawn fu yung or fish and chips so I ordered both. So, clearly, I wasn’t thinking straight. I drew the lady’s attention to the sign which declared, in not small print but not overly big print either, that avocado was an extra fifty cents. I wasn’t actually wearing a Robin Hood hat at the time which would’ve been appropriate. Not only because it would have been avocado-coloured but because I took the side of the little person against the big.
And conflict ensued. Not Syrian scale but more than anyone really needs on a Friday night. And all over fifty cents. But it wasn’t really over fifty cents. There was a principle. I assume there was. I was long gone and they were still trucking. Whether it was innocent or not, the seller needed to advise the buyer of the extra cost for the extra fruit / vegetable. (What the hell is an avocado anyway? I’m guessing fruit. Wikipedia tells me the original meaning of the word translates as ‘testicle.’ That’s probably inappropriate for this article. It’s certainly inappropriate for a sandwich. If you’ve learned nothing else today… )
If you think fifty cents is silly to get into a conflict over, many workplace conflicts arise over much less, certainly much less tangible origins. One of the breakast radio shows even has a recurring bit where people ring in and reveal anonymously specific instances of workplace irritations. In fairness, the radio show hosts took turns revealing their primary gripes with each of their own co-hosts, albeit using one of those voice-disguising apps. I only had the car radio on that station because the kids had left it there. I switched over to Radio New Zealand National like a proper grown-up, only to hear a politician and an interviewer yelling over the top of each other about a topic that wasn’t important and was a deliberately controversal grab for headline-seeking attention. And the media was happy to play along. I turned off the radio preferring to listen to other drivers swear at each other. All this conflict can’t just be over avocados, although the politician in question would probably be suspicious of foreign avocados.
I’d like to go back to my use of the word ‘irritation.’ Sometimes irritants serve a useful purpose in nature. The stone in our shoe that forms a callous toughening us up for the future. Grit in oysters give us pearls. Hecklers make comedians better. (That last one isn’t true and if you ever heckle me when I’m on stage, I’ll throw stones and shoes at you and see if that toughens you up for the future.) I’ll ask people sometimes to list words they associate with conflict and 80%+ of the time, the descriptors are negative. A bit of questioning from me though and people quickly self-discover many positive aspects of conflict. Certainly addressing most conflict situations is better than not dealing with it promptly, assertively and directly, ending up seething with repressed anomosity and venting out to a radio station who really can’t help you and don’t even give you a free CD anymore.
The co-workers at the radio show were bugged by one person adjusting the thermostat, complaining of being tired and being blunt. The recipient of that feedback put on a brave face of laughing it off for the sake of entertainment but I doubt many people would genuinely be that responsive. The answer in the real world lies somewhere inbetween, picking the most critical behaviours and ‘going ugly early.’ Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano. Describe the behaviour, outline the effects it has, state the need for change and specify the preferred behaviour, outline the benefits for all concerned and get some agreement. Then check back in, to keep it on track if change isn’t happening and to reinforce the person if it is.
Psychologists have studied the influence of reciprocity at length in preventing, mitigating and avoiding conflict. Give and take. With the dinner special of two foot-longs for $15, you can bang on as much avo as you like. Let’s talk bacon.
Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.
Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.
The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.
The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.
Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.
My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.
I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.
There’s the old joke that goes like this:
During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”
“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”
When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.
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.)