Think Differently About Conflict

There is much ado about conflict in organizations: books, articles, consultants, a crowded field of best practices, the box of tissues in the HR office. Here I’ll focus on just one aspect – the desire for certainty.

First, a quick assessment. As Bob Johansen from Institute For The Future wisely quips: no organization exists without conflict.

We are proud, we stew, we react, we litigate, we go to war. We are less empathetic than our better angels would desire.

Conflicts arise from different perceptions of reality (see Rashomon Effect). Distinctions of age, race, religion, gender, the wrong creamer for your coffee, etc., you name it, there’s a reason to disagree with others, or with the world around you.

So we take positions for and against, we triangulate in soft voices at the water cooler, we practice politics with subtle glances and rolling of the eyes, we create tribes within tribes, coalitions of right against wrong. And we do so often in subtle ways, and with no conscious ill intent – but at great cost.

That’s why developing the ability to navigate conflict-rich emotions between people is on the short list of critical leadership competencies.

Conflict Is Expensive

The troubling fact is that team and business performance can sputter and stall in the face of unresolved conflict – whether the conflict is made visible or if it's avoided.

The costs are staggering, and well-documented. I was shocked by these few bytes:

  • 385 million working days: The sum of the average 2.8 hours/week U.S. employees spend dealing with conflict. (That’s over $400b/yr).
  • 33%: Percent of employees who said conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting. 
  • 8 to 10 hours: Amount of company time wasted in gossip and other unproductive activities for every unaddressed conflict.
  • 20%: Amount of management time invested in resolving conflict.

Before we act, how do we think about conflict?

The short answer is for leaders to NOT think of conflict as a problem to be solved. More on this below.

First, It’s Important To Know That We’re Hard Wired For Drama (A Short-Course In Neuroscience)

Lesson I: Everything’s Emotional

Every director of marketing knows we love our emotions being triggered.

Nerve cells in our brain’s frontal lobes fire about 400/second. The limbic brain, meanwhile, where our emotional being resides, fires at 20,000/second.

The question is: frontal or limbic, who’s in charge?

Granted, this question is a little simplistic, because the brain is a complex ecosystem. Different parts of our brain appear to both compete and work together. But the bottom line? We are, by design, emotional beings.

The point is how we manage conflict may have more to do with not wanting to feel and react certain ways, than with taking a breath, looking inside, and choosing the best response.

Lesson II: Choice Is A Complex Topic

Brain imaging suggests that many decisions are made by centers in our brain before we are consciously are aware of them.

Then we choose to consciously rationalize a choice that was, in a sense, already unconsciously made for us (see David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain).

So what of free will? Really big topic, one debated for millennia, and one we need to tangle with briefly here.

I once engaged in the spiritual practice of celibacy for five years – full on, shaved head, the whole nine yards. I like to think about free will this way: life has been replicating itself for a few billion years and has it’s own set of best practices. Just try, for example, to choose to not experience lust.

This is not to say we do not have choice. But I’ve learned choice – real, ongoing, conscious choice – takes inner knowing.

And not just knowing your self, but also others. Choices forced by the emergence of conflict always occur in relationship. Knowing both sides of the story is important.

The good news is that, as the wisdom traditions teach, ‘know thyself, and you will know others.’ We all have, down deep, basically the same operating system. There’s a H. sapiens base code upon which we construct our sense of self, our preferences, even our seeming differences.

To understate the obvious: lots of evidence suggests that without the work of introspection and self-development, our subroutine for rising above conflict tends to operate like a poorly developed muscle.

Take politics, for example. Highly successful leaders of conviction, idealism and good will, resourced with hundreds of billions of dollars, and access to the very best thinking on any topic, assemble in Washington, D.C. to govern. Note the track record.

We can throw shoes at the television, but my point is not to condemn political leaders. It is to underscore the fact that they really do fully represent us.

The point is, without inner-knowledge, the choice to consciously navigate conflict does not always avail itself.

Lesson III: We Love Certainty

Talking about soap operas, I used to be frustrated with the perplexing endurance of daytime television dramas. When I worked in rural Central America, the ever-present telenovella, blaring from the tiendas and commedores, ran as an annoying subtext to people’s lives. Rubbish, I would say with certainty. And it felt so good to be right.

But as I now binge-watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards, I’ve had to question the certainty of my convictions. Am I certain about the senseless banality and emotional entanglement of soap operas?

Or do I just feel certain?

Neurologist Robert Burton, in his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, calls out our certainty as the self-deception it often is:

"Despite how certainty feels, is it neither a conscious choice not even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love and anger, function independently of reason."

The adage ‘question everything’ comes to mind.

Successful Organizations Require Built-In Tensions 

Successful organizations need to build natural tensions into their design. Having roles - and people who own those roles - in tension with each other disrupts the status quo and drives innovation. The key ingredient, of course, is trust.

This takes a culture that strives for maturity. It requires seeing and experiencing built-in conflicts as important natural tensions between roles. For example, people who deliver your goods and services will often disparage the people who sell (“They’ll sell anything!”). And sales people feel the reverse (“They are too rigid to meet the customer’s needs!”). That’s a natural tension. You want it, but without the personalized polarizations we fall into so easily.

It's Naïve Not To Expect Natural Tensions To Escalate 

Leaders drive change. Change always call forth the change antibodies. And they push back.

To take your organization to a desired future state, there is an obvious urgency to resolve costly conflict. But casting it as a fixed problem to which there is a standard solution oversimplifies our leadership challenge. We're going to have differences - because we are hardwired that way. We're going to overheat - because of the wiring. Conflict is not going to go away.

Conflict Is Not A Problem To Be Solved, But A Dilemma To Be Navigated

Because natural tensions so easily overheat, leaders walk a fine line. You want creative tension; you do not want conflict.

That’s why solving conflict is simply not your leadership challenge. Your leadership challenge is to construct narratives that compel the people you lead to step into a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity together. To step into unknown landscapes and solve real problems associated with creating and sustaining value for customers and investors.

There are no fixed protocols for VUCA, as Johansen calls these four characteristics of today’s world. There is no just-add-water fix.

What Johansen argues in his new book tracks with what I have learned: the challenge of dilemmas is to not resolve them, but to consciously ride them with a bias towards taking the best choices you can.

Managing Conflict Requires The Willing Embrace Of Uncertainty

The leadership challenge at the top is to be less certain, so that you can listen for the world beyond what he said and what she said, and have the agility to respond with powerful narratives that cast the gaze of those you lead on a desired future – one so desirable that people are willing to rise to the calling of their better angels, give the best of themselves, look out for each other, and navigate all the natural tensions as shoals that mark the journey, not mines to be tripped.