Understanding Conflict

There's an important distinction between conflict and constructive debate. When conflict evolves into constructive debate, it often leads to ideas and innovation. When it leads to personal attacks and destructive behavior, organizations need to act.

This article accompanies Strategic Resolve.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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Why can't we all just get along? 
A puzzled CEO asked me this famous question several years ago, hoping for a simple and quick solution. His team was in constant conflict, and as a result, the company's business results were compromised. Something had to change. 
Of course, the fix was neither quick nor simple. We worked together to develop an approach to conflict that has been both lasting and effective. And we used a powerful set of tools to deepen relationships and foster mutual respect and understanding.  
First, we developed a practical working understanding of what conflict is, and is not.

Conflict is a natural and normal part of everyday life. It arises as a result of differences -- in values, perspectives, experiences, ideas, resource needs and preferences, to name a few. If these differences are debated in a constructive way, new ideas and important innovations can be realized.

In fact, constructive debate is critically important to any business and should not be "shut down."

However, when the debate becomes "personal" and people start attacking each other, conflict becomes a very negative force. We made the important distinction between conflict and constructive debate. 
Second, we acknowledged that mutual respect and trust must be built between team members so that healthy debate could occur.

The CEO valued each team member and had excellent working relationships with each person, but the relationships between team members were not strong. Over the years, they had hurt each other -- and mutual resentment and distrust was the result.

No one on the team was comfortable with the way things were, and they were open to change, although a little skeptical about the likelihood of success.

We decided to develop a leadership off-site meeting to build the relationships, and to use a powerful set of tools called Relationship Awareness training. 
Relationship Awareness training was developed by Dr. Elias Porter, and is marketed through Personal Strengths Inc. The underlying theory is that each of us has a different motivational value system, and that we see the world through this lens.

When things are going well for us, we behave in a certain way in keeping with our motivational value system. When things are going less well and we are in conflict, our behavior changes. Through the use of three inventories, individuals begin to understand each other's motivational value system, conflict sequence, and strengths and overdone strengths. 
Each team member, and the CEO, completed all three inventories. The team helped me to design the goals (their goals) for our off-site meeting. They wanted to understand each other better, and they wanted learn how to have great debates with each other.

We chose four big business issues that they wished to resolve during our time together using a new way of working. 
Our workshop was lively, difficult, fun, emotional, deep and productive. The tools we used helped to significantly deepen mutual understanding. Our first "business debate" was challenging, as old habits do die hard. But by the time we reached the fourth, the team was developing new and better ways of working together. It was very exciting.  
The team asked for continued coaching back home, to reinforce what they had learned. We worked together for four months, until the new style seemed to stick. But our work was not over. The team asked for the training to be rolled out for all directors and managers and their teams, so that a common business language for conflict and relationship awareness could be developed.  
And so, the fix was neither quick nor simple. And as they approach a new challenge, a business merger, they will clearly be put to the test.

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The good news is that the CEO no longer wonders why people can't just get along -- he actively works with the team to foster good debates and honest dialogue about differences, and identifies a conflict as something destructive when things get personal. And that is clearly huge progress!

Michele Darling is president of Michele Darling and Associates in Mississauga, Ontario, and former executive vice president of corporate governance and human resources for Prudential Insurance Co. 
See also:

Strategic Resolve

HR Should Mind Its Own Business Sometimes

A Guide to Working-Life Conflicts

Tools for Managing Conflict

Start with No

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