It is common thinking that healthy interactions between two or more individuals is always void of conflict. The term conflict is generally seen as an abdominal occurrence in any conversation, especially at the workplace. However, conflicts are bound to arise whenever there is a difference in opinion in any conversation.
The difference in opinion is not the challenge but the articulation of those differences which causes a clash. As defined by the Management Study Guide, conflict is a clash between individuals arising out of a difference in thought process, attitudes, understanding, interests, requirements and even sometimes perceptions.
No two individuals ever think alike and so there will always be disagreements. This makes it even more important for individuals to be able to properly manage their emotions and communicate their thoughts clearly to make their point without causing offense.
The workplace is one place where conflict most occurs. As teams brainstorm ideas or have basic interactions, many disagreements arise. It is not uncommon to thus see many people try to avoid conflict in the workplace. Have you ever made every effort to avoid a colleague at work that you do not see eye to eye with? Or have you ever totally avoided sharing your viewpoint at meetings because many other including your boss disagreed with you? Especially in the African culture, we have learnt right from birth that opposing others, especially our elders, will always have negative consequences. This is unsafe and unhealthy thinking.
There has not been a single innovation born from a single man’s perfect ideation. Some of the world’s most admired inventions were heavily criticised and refined before they qualified as valuable solutions. The difference was the way conflict in thoughts and ideation was handled. “Conflict is simply the energy created by the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing,” says Nate Regier, a former practicing psychologist and author of Conflict Without Casualties (Berrett-Koehler, 2017). “If we define conflict as energy that’s created by the gap, then the real question is ‘How are we going to use that energy?’”. This means that we can have positive conflict and negative conflict depending on how we choose to exchange energies.
Positive workplace conflict is important and is explained by Heathfied, S. (2020) in an opinion piece for the Balance Careers. She opines that when people can disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, it leads to a healthier organization. “Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction.” According to Peter Block, in “The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work,” if you are unwilling to participate in organizational politics and conflict, you will never accomplish the things that are important to you at work, your work mission. There is no growth for you in keeping mute about your ideas and thoughts if they can contribute to a meaningful purpose for those around you.
Strong human interactions and relationships can be borne out of positive conflicts. The Harvard Business Review explains that by working through conflict together, one could feel closer to the people around them and gain a better understanding of what matters to them and how they prefer to work. You’ll also set an important precedent: that it’s possible to have “good” fights and then move on. It also adds that positive conflicts can contribute to a more inclusive work environment. “If you want to have diversity and inclusion in your organization, you have to be prepared to disagree.” “Managers and employees need to get over an instinctual urge to avoid conflict and abandon the idea that consensus is an end in and of itself. In a well-run diverse team, substantive disagreements do not need to become personal: Ideas have both merit and posits of connection or they do not.”
Groups of people in the workplace go through various stages before developing the maturity and ability to be more collaborative. In 1965, a psychologist named Bruce Tuckman said that teams go through 5 stages of development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The stages start from the time that a group first meets until the project ends.
Forming stage: The first stage of team development is forming, which is a lot like orientation day at college or a new job. You could even compare it to going out on a first date. The team has just been introduced and everyone is overly polite and pleasant. At the start, most are excited to start something new and to get to know the other team members. As the group starts to familiarize themselves, roles and responsibilities will begin to form. It is important for team members to develop relationships and understand what part each person plays.
Storming stage: Here, the reality and weight of completing the task at hand have now hit everyone. The initial feelings of excitement and the need to be polite have likely worn off. Personalities may clash. Members might disagree over how to complete a task or voice their concerns if they feel that someone isn’t pulling their weight. They may even question the authority or guidance of group leaders. But, it is important to remember that most teams experience conflict. If you are the leader, remind members that disagreements are normal. Some teams skip over the storming stage or try to avoid conflict at whatever cost. Avoidance usually makes the problem grow until it blows up. So, recognize conflicts and resolve them early on.
Norming stage: During the norming stage, people start to notice and appreciate their team members’ strengths. Groups start to settle into a groove. Everyone is contributing and working as a cohesive unit. Storming sometimes overlaps with norming. As new tasks arise, groups may still experience a few conflicts. If you have already dealt with disagreement before, it will probably be easier to address this time.
Performing stage: In the performing stage, members are confident, motivated, and familiar enough with the project and their team that they can operate without supervision. Everyone is on the same page and driving full-speed ahead towards the final goal. The fourth stage is the one that all groups strive to reach. Yet, some do not make it. They usually fail to overcome conflict and cannot work together.
We now understand that conflict is an unavoidable occurrence wherever human interaction is concerned. The objective for leaders, managers and team members should be to learn how to have positive conflicts. Here are my 4 keys on how to achieve this:
- ACTIVE LISTENING
Active listening is a set of techniques designed to help you hear and understand what someone else is saying and to help the speaker express him/herself clearly. Active listening focuses on both facts and feelings, reduces tension and defensiveness, and allows conflicts to be resolved more effectively – Conflict Management at Iowa. Active listening involves several actions that span from being present and making eye contact with the speaker, encouraging which could be expressed through body language such as positive head nods, asking questions to gather more information from the speaker, restating to check the meaning and interpretation of what you have heard, and validating to show appreciation and acknowledgement to the speaker.
- PARTICIPATE IN THE PURPOSE
By keeping in mind what the purpose of interacting is for, where it is a debate or brainstorming session, you prime your mind to be more positive in giving feedback and in handling criticism with grace. Also remember that not everything you say will be whole heartedly accepted by your team members. It does not mean your contribution is silly or irrelevant. This is not the point where you shut down. Rather, at this stage, be open to receiving feedback and rethink on your contribution to make a better one. Participation from each person is key because the winning solution never lies with a single person. Often our first interpretation – and the action we take based upon it – comes from the narrow angle of the view afforded to us by where we sit in the organization or our agenda. Nonetheless, participating with others often widens our perspective and bring us a well – round solution to the challenge.
- REMAIN RESPECTFUL
Often, people fail to communicate the true meaning of their message because they communicate in a messy way. Using insulting and derogatory language should be avoided at all cost. Positive conflicts must maintain a healthy atmosphere, and that means no individual who disagrees with a shared idea or thought should be “punished” or “disregarded” for expressing their opinion. Being emotionally intelligent comes to play a big role here. Pay attention to the expressions of the people you are communicating with and choose your words carefully to express yourself.
- DISRUPT THE NORM
There may be standard ways to go about things at the workplace but there is no single right way. There must always be an open door to disrupt what is perceived as normal to make room for the unconventional. This means that every conflict is unique and the intelligent way to turn a negative conflict into one that brings positive outcomes is to disrupt and rebuild. Tension can be transformed within a split second with the right words and expression of emotions. No battle is ever lost if there are people willing to see a common point and make things work. Rely on data and facts as much as possible to bring conversations back to a common place of focus and stability.
Workplace conflict remains a difficult situation to navigate for many leaders, managers and team members. But with the outlined keys above, we can begin to transform the outcome of our disagreements and make our interactions work in the favour of getting results and seeking new opportunities. You simply have to change your mindset: conflicts can be positive.
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