Performance Pointer

From the Penumbra Group - Your Complete Resource for Talent Management Solutions

December 2007
In This Issue - Conquering Conflict
Great Leaders Are Great Simplifiers
Conflict Crushing Secret Weapons
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"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers.  They can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand."  

  ~ Colin Powell


Great leaders are great simplifiers.  Sound easy?  Consider these sobering facts:


Managing conflict at work costs the average employer 450 days of management time each year. 

(source: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development)
85% of departing employees list interpersonal conflict as their reason for leaving. 
(source: U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics)
65% of performance problems are a result of strained relationships between employees.  
(source: Conflict Resolution: Mediation Tools for Everyday Worklife)
The reality is, being a simplifier is far from simple.  Conflict is complicated.  It's messy, misunderstood and rarely given the attention it deserves. 
It seems easier to ignore issues hoping that they will go away on their own, rather than deal with the unpleasantness that may result. 

The very inkling of workplace conflict can cause even the strongest leaders to duck and hide.  What is it about this dynamic that holds such power over us?  Why don't we approach workplace conflict with the same confidence, big picture focus, and objectivity we apply to any other business problem? 



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. 

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.


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, Officebitterness 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 Officeavoidance 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. 



Learn to Understand the Bigger Picture


When you encounter a conflict within yourself or between others, before reacting, spend some time answering the following questions to analyze the problem and gain big picture perspective:

  •      Who is the conflict with?  (list all the players involved)
  •      What role did each person have in creating this conflict?  (be specific)
  •      What is the form of conflict? (how the problem is being demonstrated or acted out)
  •      Under what circumstances is the conflict happening?  (Is it only in relation to you or others as well?  Does it happen in a particular setting?  Are there specific stressors that seem to be exacerbating the situation?  When did it start?)
  •      Why do you think the conflict is happening?  (Consider behind-the-scenes factors for each of you that might be contributing to this behavior)
  •      What triggers are you responding to?  How might you be triggering them?  (Triggers are behaviors, words, actions and attitudes that seriously irritate or cause you to be angry and upset)
  •       What is the best means of resolving the conflict?  (What have you already tried?  Reflecting upon the personalities and values of those involved, brainstorm all your options for a win-win resolution)
Of course, the picture is still incomplete until you understand the issue through the eyes of the other person(s).  After you spend some introspective time with these questions, you'll be in the right frame of mind to engage the other person and explore their perspective. 
Once you have your arms around the big picture the solution won't be far behind.  The messy and complicated suddenly becomes simplified and solvable.  Now is the time to use this easy to follow, tried and tested game plan for dealing with any conflict you may be facing.  No more excuses - timing can be your greatest advantage or your biggest downfall.

By learning and implementing these steps, you will begin to build your conflict confidence, reset accountability and problem solving expectations, and transform opposition into opportunity.


To learn more about how to bring Penumbra's Conquering Conflict workshop to your workplace, please visit our website at 

All the best,

Jennifer Shirkani and Faith Csikesz
Penumbra Group Inc.