In our family, we purposefully mentor our wee children in the art becoming a “boss of oneself.” The first lesson is the hard one of self-control. Around the age of 3, our children are told that mad people choose to be angry – other people have no magical powers to “make us mad” because we are not under someone else’s mind control. We choose to be mad – and being mad is not always a good or healthy choice.
Handling conflict is a lifelong lesson. U.S. managers report, on average, spending as much as 18-26% of their workweek dealing with conflict resolution (AMA study by Thomas and Schmidt), so the cost of adult workplace squabbles is significant to American business. It’s also emotionally expensive to the two or more employees who disagree during a workplace interaction or altercation.
To help us better understand the dynamic of interpersonal conflict in the workplace, we’ll borrow a framework from the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. Kenneth W. Thomas, a lead researcher in the field of anger management, notes that people emotionally respond to conflict in one of five ways: (1) avoidance, (2) competition, (3) compromise, (4) accommodation, or (5) collaboration. Add the qualities of “assertiveness” and “cooperation” as defined by the individual’s personal “emotional style,” and we have a stage set for many plot twists.
What’s your style? Uncooperative behaviors include competition (assertive) and avoidance (unassertive). Competing is all about winning or coming out on top. Avoidance merely sidesteps or postpones conflict, resolving nothing. Accommodating is cooperative, but unassertive to the point that you lose your own sense of worth by sacrificing your own interests to pacify the other. Compromising moves you toward middle ground – it’s somewhat both assertive and cooperative. Everybody wins a little and loses a little. If that’s the best you can do, it’s at least a peaceful resolution, involving minimal loss of face for all involved.
But the most productive solution remains collaboration (assertive and cooperative). Collaboration means problem solving together to find a solution that meets both parties’ needs. It’s the most psychologically healthy response, promising the least explosive or emotional fallout. It also often leads to innovation.
How can we help move someone toward collaboration if our antagonist’s natural style is more competitive? One of the things Dr. Phil McGraw, the famous TV psychologist, does best during interviews with confrontational guests is this: he first cites points of mutual agreement. “Can we first agree that …” he offers, setting the stage for common ground. This is a very powerful and yet a very moderate “laying ground rules” beginning.
In a business setting, cite even the most obvious goals: “Can we both agree that we’d like the chance to weigh in on this matter and that it should be resolved this week so we can move forward?” The next critical point of agreement is tone: it’s important that both parties agree to a professional discussion, not a personal attack of ideas or personalities. Then the discussion moves to concerns, which must be heard. What is at the heart of each position – can you identify (and respect) your coworker’s sacred lamb?
It’s easy to throw out the baby with the bath water during an argument, and it’s hard work (a learned skill) to actively listen and consider all opinions fairly. What is good about your opponent’s idea; can you save that while dumping or moderating the rest of the demand? Is joint problem solving possible? “John, I could give you A and B if you’d just reconsider C, because I’m concerned that C will throw our cost analysis off. What could we do instead of C, or how can we bring C in at budget, too?”
What just happened? Now you are both on the same side of the table, looking at the obstacle identified in the center. That’s different than pushing back an entire idea, which often consists of several independent parts. Thomas calls this willingness to partner on a solution that negotiates out problem areas as “firm flexibility,” which “clarifies what you need to be firm about. The idea is to be firm about meeting your concerns, but also to signal flexibility about choosing a position.”
What kind of emotional response does your workplace value? Establishing an office culture that stifles dissenting views (avoidance) can lead not only to business failures, but also to cover-ups and “CYA” mentalities. Likewise, an environment that promotes competition over collaboration is equally shortsighted and may stifle better ideas, if peace relies on accommodation from weaker personalities. Work instead to promote your staff’s soft skill of “firm flexibility” and to establish a respectful arena for discussion.
Join me next week, when we’ll turn our attention to the most serious (yet common) strategic mistakes well-intentioned CEOs make.