By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin
“Most parents hate to experience conflict, are deeply troubled when it occurs, and are quite confused about how to handle it constructively. Actually, it would be a rare relationship if over a period of time one person’s needs did not conflict with the other’s. When any two people (or groups) coexist, conflict is bound to occur just because people are different, think differently, have different needs and wants that sometimes do not match.”
― Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children
Let’s take a simple conflict and use it to identify its core elements. Two managers in a technology firm are locked in a fierce debate. The woman who manages the help desk wants to hire another customer service rep. The man who manages the sales force wants to hire another salesperson. There’s only enough money to hire one person. The two managers have been arguing for a long time who should get hired.
Let’s distinguish the three factors necessary for a conflict:
1.Disagreement. A disagreement is a difference of opinion. The disagreement here is obvious: The help desk manager and the sales manager disagree about which role to fill. If either of them changed his or her mind and agreed with the other, the conflict would disappear. The disagreement is like the spark that will ignite a fire—it is necessary, but not sufficient.
2. Scarcity. Some limitation prevents each party from obtaining what each wants independently of the other. Scarcity creates interdependence. There’s a constraint that makes it impossible for both parties to get what they want, or for either party to get what he or she wants without the acquiescence of the other. In this case the scarcity involves the hiring budget. There is only enough room to hire one candidate. If there were the opportunity to have each of the managers for hire his or her preferred role, they might disagree about which role is more important, but they would not have a conflict. Scarcity is like the fuel that the spark will ignite—again, necessary, but not sufficient.
3. Unclear Property Rights. The two parties disagree about who has the power to allocate resources, or about what decision-making mechanism will be used in the case of unresolvable differences. Neither manager in the hiring example above owns the budget; so neither has the authority to make a decision autonomously. If both managers report to a single person with final say over hiring decisions, then they could escalate the decision (together) to their superior. Unclear property rights are like the oxygen necessary for combustion—in a vacuum, a spark will not ignite the fuel.
If any of the three elements disappears, so does the conflict. In the following posts, I will use this insight to develop a conflict resolution process.
A Personal Example At The Kofman Home
My daughter Sophie (entering the kitchen and seeing a cookie on the counter): “I call that cookie.”
My son Tomás (entering beside her): “I saw it first.”
Sophie: “No, it’s mine.”
Tomás: “No, it’s mine.”
Fred (who’s supposed to be an expert in conflict resolution and knows that without scarcity there is no possible conflict produces a box full of cookies exactly the same as the one on the counter): “Relax, guys, here is a box full of cookies. You can each have one.”
Sophie (pointing to the cookie on the counter): “It’s not the same. I want that cookie.”
Tomás (equally adamant as he points to the cookie on the counter): “No, that is mycookie.”
In this video you will find the essential ideas of Constructive Collaboration.
Find more exercises related to mindfulness at work here.