Last August I taught a weekend course on team building to about 25 people participating in A Systems Approach to Quality Improvement at Madonna University in Detroit. Sponsored by the Association for Quality and Participation (513-381-1959), the six-month course leads to a certificate in quality and attracts management personnel who want to expand their knowledge of contemporary workplace concepts.
The Sunday morning agenda was
open so that more time could be spent on participant needs. On this Sunday, the primary
topic the class wanted to address was conflict. Although
this topic is frequently brought up in sessions, on this particular day
it started me wondering why we seem to have so much conflict in our
workplaces and in our society, and why we have so much trouble resolving
Conflict seems to be ever-present in our lives....on the battlefield, on the football field, in the boardroom, or in the bathroom. The possibility of conflict looms anytime two or more people convene.
In team building, you will hear people say that conflict is good for teams, and so they encourage it. What I think they mean is that disagreement is good for teams. Conflict has an emotional component that tends to be destructive, whereas, disagreement is a non-emotional presentation of differing viewpoints.
Conflict arises from a multitude of sources that reflect our differences: personality,
values, ideologies, religion, culture, race, and behavior. It also arises from simple
misunderstandings. As we have expanded collaborative concepts within our workplaces, we
have dramatically increased the number of human interactions where ones opinions can
New teams, for example, may find themselves
in conflict as discussions lead them into uncharted waters. One person may have worked
along side another for years, yet never knew them until they began unearthing
deeply held beliefs. Reaching consensus when such differences are present is frequently
difficult,1 and conflict is almost certain.
Conflict... The Current Model
I have talked frequently in these pages of an exercise I use when working with teams. The exercise is simply a single paragraph story about five people. It is a straight-forward story that one can read in one or two minutes.
I ask participants to rate the five people from best to worst based upon their interpretation of the story. The results are astounding! In a room of twenty people, I will get fifteen different interpretations of the story and its characters. When they begin to discuss the story, they see other interpretations as plausible as their own, and the light goes on that their view of this story and its characters is just one way of looking at it. It becomes a powerful lesson in how our beliefs, having been shaped by our own unique history, are simply one interpretation of reality.
The participants also learn that to resolve
these differences, they must take the time to talk to each other and listen carefully for
other, equally valid points of view. The problem is that we were never taught to do this,
and so we go into our learned offensive and defensive behaviors to defend our
position. Conflict resolution under the win-lose model leaves most
people unfulfilled, particularly if the battle is a difficult one. Frequently, the
emotional component inflicts a wound that may never fully heal.
Resolution... A Different Approach
As I began to read the manuscript, what caught my attention quickly were his opening words:
What a revelation! A law student whose
ignorance of legal procedure led him to follow his instincts and have the clients actually
talk to each other. Instead of preparing a game plan for battle, he simply approached each
conflict as a disagreement looking for a solution.
The Costs of
The direct costs are the fees of lawyers and other professionals. In 1994 alone, there were 18 million cases filed in US courts at a cost of $300 billion.
Productivity cost is the value of lost time, the cost of what those involved would otherwise be producing.
Continuity cost is the eventual end of relationships that would have continued without the conflict.
Emotional cost reflects the pain of focusing on, and being held hostage by our emotions.
If youve ever been in a conflict, you
can probably relate to one or more of the above
Resolution... A New Paradigm
Because we, as humans, are all different in how we perceive the world, conflicts will, at
some level, always be part of life. How those conflicts are resolved, however, is a
choice. We can enter into battles, defending our position, pushing our truth,
and, when all else fails, hire our gladiators to battle for us. In the end, the costs may
take their toll on us.
Stewart Levines book came along at a time when I was in such a conflict. His approach supported my internal rumblings about how to resolve it. I took this path and found a solutionno costs, no lost time, and no emotional baggage to carry around for the next few years. Thanks Stewart....and to my friend Steven Piersanti for passing it along.
Quotes on Conflict...
"The quickest way to kindle a fire is to rub two opposing opinions
"Argument seldom convinces anyone against his inclination."