By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin
“Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Conflicts are often messy and unproductive. When you clash in a professional or personal relationship, you cause damage in the three dimensions we have discussed throughout this Conscious Business series: the task (it), the relationship (we), and the self (I). In regard to the task, a poorly handled conflict threatens your ability to coordinate actions with your colleagues and produce good results. In terms of relationships, badly handled disputes lead to resentment, distrust, and complete breakdown. Finally, a mismanaged conflict hurts people emotionally, spinning them off into negative feelings such as sadness, disengagement, or rage.
Yet there are no “difficult” conflicts. There are only conflicts you don’t know how to resolve. As I explained in a previous post, taking responsibility means recognizing that your inability to deal with a situation is derived not only from the situation itself, but from your skill as well. You call the situation difficult when you don’t know how to respond to it effectively. So when I say that some of your conflicts are detrimental to task, relationship, and self, I mean that your approach to these difficult conversations is not robust enough for them.
You don’t have a choice as to whether you face such conflicts; you can only choose how to respond to them. Depending on your skill, conflicts can fuel grudges and misunderstandings or they can foster collaboration and mutual commitment. In this series of posts (module 7), I will examine the nature of conflict and introduce a process of constructive collaboration. This technique for resolving disputes not only yields practical solutions but also addresses the personal and interpersonal concerns of the conflicting parties. Before looking at what works, let’s consider different approaches that don’t work.
What Doesn’t Work: A Menu Of Bad Options
Denying. Some people find conflicts so threatening that they decide to deny their existence and pretend them away. Denial implies acting as if everything is all right when it actually is not. A manager in denial, for example, views his staff as a mutually supportive team when in fact destructive power struggles are the norm. This is akin to ignoring the dangers of crossing a cliff-ridden mountain pass. You can set off on the trail with your eyes squeezed shut while you reassure yourself that you are safe, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up falling into an abyss.
Avoiding. Some people are willing to see conflicts, but they do everything in their power to steer clear of them. In the face of tense situations, they withdraw. An avoiding manager knows his team is consumed by power struggles and responds by never holding staff meetings, so that no one has to face anyone else. Avoiding cliffs may be better than falling off them but it creates its own problems: Few paths remain open, and those that are may require lengthy detours.
Surrendering. When some people discover that their desires conflict with those of others, they give up. This eliminates the overt confrontation, but it never works. The person surrendering does not get his needs met. Sooner or later, this causes resignation and resentment, which not only ruin his mood but also undermine his relationships and jeopardize the work product. A surrendering manager tries to please everyone by flip-flopping on decisions in order to keep the peace. Surrendering is like camping at the edge of the cliff. You keep meaning to cross the chasm, but instead you keep deciding to pack up and go home.
Dominating. Some people try to impose their desired solution at any cost. Initially, this strategy yields positive results on the task level, but it always causes major damage to relationships and it personally hurts those whose needs aren’t met. If people are unhappy and relationships suffer, external achievements will be short-lived. Furthermore, this approach often prevents the “winner” from exploring possibilities that could yield an even better result for him. A dominating manager pushes through his proposal to cut spending without asking for input, never learning that one of his employees knows a way to cut costs more effectively. The dominator climbs up and down steep mountains using unnecessarily difficult routes. Companions get dragged along, unsuccessfully trying to tell him that there’s a shortcut nearby.
Lobbying. In this variation on domination, the person operates behind the scenes. He attempts to impose his will by lobbying an authority figure behind his counterpart’s back. This combines all the drawbacks of the domination strategy with a further aggravation: covert maneuvers encourage power games and destroy organizational integrity. In a side conversation, a sales representative convinces his manager to allocate a new account to him rather than to the colleague who made the initial contact. The lobbying hiker convinces the park ranger to shut down the route he doesn’t want to take before his companions have a chance to argue for it.
Voting. This is another variance of domination, but instead of exercising direct authority, the dominator attempts to get his way by coaxing others to vote for what he wants. Instead of lobbying an authority figure, this “soft” dominator lobbies the members of the group to gain a majority. This fosters political games and abuse of minorities. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that quantity equals quality in decision making, especially when personal interests are at play. Many executive teams act like Congress where each member fights for the interests of his area rather than a unified team where everybody shares a vision and acts with solidarity. A voting hiker cajoles his companions to take the route he likes, promising that he’ll “do something for them later” if they do so.
Compromising. In a compromise, each person ends up with more than what she had, but with less than what she wanted. Everybody loses a little. Meeting halfway may be better than not meeting at all, but it tends to breed mediocrity, not excellence. Furthermore, splitting the difference can be lethal, as the story of King Solomon and the baby with two mothers suggests. Everybody feels unhappy with a mediocre team decision, but everyone accepts it because it incorporates everybody’s input. If one hiker wants to cross the cliff over the bridge to the east and her partner wants to cross on the bridge to the west, the worst possible thing is to go through the middle, where there is no bridge.
All these methods are problematic. Their common weakness is that they take the possible solutions as given: Either one party wins imposing his position over the other, or both parties agree to implement some middle-of-the-road alternative.
What Works: Constructive Collaboration
Constructive collaboration allows people to express and understand each other’s needs and create new solutions. It addresses the task through consensual decision-making, the relationships through mutual respect, and each individual’s self-worth through the consideration of his needs and values.
Constructive collaboration creates new possibilities. People become more focused on winning with the other than over the other. They understand that in order to create the most value, they need a working relationship, and that such a relationship can only be founded on respect for every individual’s interests. This approach reveals people’s preferences and constraints, and engages everyone in constructing solutions that go way beyond the original alternatives. It maximizes efficiency through cooperation. Yet it is the most unusual because it requires shifting from unilateral control to mutual learning.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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