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Workplace Conflict, But Make it Agile

Picture this: you are in a meeting with your team, trying to decide on a course of action. People are participating in the discussion as heads nod in agreement with each new idea proposed. The meeting adjourns with an understanding of a solution with which to move forward. You leave the room thinking that all is well. Until...

Workplace Conflict, But Make it Agile

You hear from your manager or someone else not in attendance at your meeting that there is no way that the agreed upon course of action can be carried out. Furthermore, you find out that what was discussed in the meeting has caused a great deal of discontent and has generated conflict that you weren’t aware of. Suddenly, you feel on the defensive, backtracking over the details of the meeting in an effort to pinpoint where the conflict stems from so that you can explain yourself. 

The Culture of Escalation

I’d like to say that this is the first time the scenario above has occurred, but it is common in organizations where direct conflict or confrontation is not an accepted practice. When there is low trust among team members and those outside of the team, the first reaction is to nod and agree with each other. The second reaction is to go behind people’s backs to a higher source – a manager or someone else higher up in the organizational hierarchy to voice concerns. 

Indirect conflict has negative effects. 

  • First, it blindsides people. You think you are problem solving together, but instead, you are continually “called on to the carpet” to explain yourself after the fact. All the while you thought you were on the right track; now you are on the defensive.
  • The quality of communication is lowered because the person to whom a disagreement was escalated does not have first-hand knowledge of the original discussion. The person up the chain now has to spend the time to piece together what happened.
  • Commitment levels are low. It may look as if there’s agreement, but in reality, a course of action is not fully supported and you don’t find out until time has passed.
  • Most importantly, it slows down the pace of work and creates rigidity. Think about how much time could be saved if there was a direct discussion between parties in the room. No time spent replaying conversations to figure out what you did to cause an escalation. No time spent backtracking to determine why people are not pulling their weight as a team implements a solution. Dissent can be aired right away, exposing diverse views that could be considered and discussed to come to resolutions. 

Encouraging Healthy Conflict

So how do we get to the point where we can have healthy conflict? First, realize that it doesn’t happen overnight in organizations where people are afraid that any time they express an opinion, it results in an “explain yourself” conversation with their manager. It takes time, experimentation, and persistence. Along the way, it helps to have a coach who can understand how human systems work and can steward techniques to draw people out like:

  • Ask for divergent opinions.
  • Appoint someone to play devil’s advocate.
  • Implement round table discussions where each person has to poke holes in an idea.
  • Create pros and cons lists about ideas as a team.
  • Ask to speak to the source of feedback. Implement a working agreement that prohibits third party feedback.
  • And most importantly, get people focused on a common goal. Conflict is healthy if it is respectful and is in service of a purpose that the team comes together to fulfill. 

Organizations that have direct, healthy conflict, gain a greater amount of agility and adaptability because they don’t spend time guessing where they stand or playing the escalation game. 

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