But therein lies the problem - conflict is rarely boiled down. Because it is ignored and allowed to remain in the shadows, it wreaks havoc in the workplace, sucking the life from even the most talented teams.
Often, when consulting with conflict crippled organizations, we usually uncover that the interpersonal issues plaguing their workforce come as no surprise to the leaders. They are, however, surprised that it runs deeper than they thought or that the company is now holding them responsible for cleaning up the mess. Most optimistically subscribed to the "it will resolve itself" notion with disastrous results.
On the plus side, most conflicts, when exposed to the light of thoughtful examination, are far more simple than they appear. Boiled down, interpersonal strife is the result of flawed assumptions, broken communication, progressive avoidance and unmet emotional needs.
Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to breaking the stigma of dealing with conflict. Most people avoid not what they fear but what they don't understand. The first step to conquering conflict is facing it without pre-conceived notions, or negative expectations.
Stop worrying about being liked or disliked, "wasting time" on what you perceive as frivolous, or preserving delicate relationships - you'll be the enemy and lose them anyway if you play blind.
When nursing these teams back to health, we always begin by breaking down old paradigms and retooling leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to become great simplifiers. We start with two conflict crushing secret weapons: Know the Misperceptions from the Truths, and Learn to Understand the Bigger Picture.
Know the Misperceptions from the Truths about Conflict
MISPERCEPTION: The absence of conflict is a sign of a healthy work environment.
TRUTH: Conflict improves performance.
Conflict causes us to critically reexamine, challenge each other, and create new pathways of possibility. When resolved effectively, it fuels innovation, improves teamwork, and drives productivity. It also:
~Causes people to listen to and consider different ideas
~Opens new pathways of thinking
~Hones problem solving abilities
~Results in increased participation, individual ownership, and renewed commitment to the team
MISPERCEPTION: Conflicts arise primarily from people not getting what they want.
TRUTH: Conflicts arise primarily from people not getting what they need.
Commit this important truth to memory: Unmet emotional needs are the most common root cause of workplace tension. It may appear on the surface to be a tug of "wants", but at the core you will always find roots of unfulfilled emotional needs.
"Wants" are things like money, titles, or special projects, while "needs" are things like a sense of security, belonging, trust, respect, and fairness. As humans, we all share certain core needs or concerns that drive us in positive ways. But if left unfulfilled and unspoken, they can also drive us to act out destructively.
Perhaps it is fear over a loss of status, bitterness over being excluded, anger about feeling demeaned, anxiety over the loss of autonomy, or frustration from feeling misunderstood or unappreciated. Whatever need may be at stake, it is always a mistake to try to keep emotions out of the conflict resolution process. Emotions are a part of what caused the issue and must be a part of solving it.
When problem solving, instead of focusing on the nature of the conflict (i.e., details about the event or situation), focus on the underlying needs of the people involved (i.e., goals, interests, fears). How are they conflicting? How are they the same? How can these needs be met?
MISPERCEPTION: Resolving conflict in the workplace should be a private matter between individuals.
TRUTH: Intervention is an effective resolution technique.
Every organization has a conflict culture, which is to say that the rules for how problems are dealt with (or not) is set at the top. A culture of inaction and avoidance is the most toxic of workplace environments. A failure to identify, diagnose, and treat conflicts creates a breeding ground for workplace warring.
It is imperative that leadership take an active role in encouraging communication about conflict and facilitating collaborative resolution. This does not mean you fix it for them. Your role is to set the example for how to respond to conflict constructively and to hold them accountable.