Ensuring workplace conflict remains constructive rather than destructive

| August 14, 2014

It’s easy for workplace conflict to spiral out of control. Corporate Commando Adam O’Donnell shares his ideas on how to keep the peace.

I’ve come to realise that conflict is not just essential if we want to make progress and avoid the ever-present risk of groupthink where nobody wants to speak up against a course of action for fear of disturbing team cohesion – it’s also inevitable.

The thing I’ve noticed about high-performing teams is that people join them because they want to achieve something meaningful and be part of something worthwhile.  More than that, they’ve usually got strong ideas about how the team should be and what the team should do – and those ideas can sometimes clash with the ideas held equally strongly by their colleagues.

We’ve all seen the results of dysfunctional or destructive conflict in the workplace – the tension in meetings is palpable, ideas are shot down instantly, ad-hominem attacks are the norm and individuals form self-protecting cliques in response.

And the leader invariably blames the team.

I’ve witnessed enough conflict in civil wars that have torn countries, villages and even friendships apart and I’ve experienced it in enough corporate settings – with slightly less dramatic but no less stressful results – to realise that there are a few common elements:

We all have needs that we must meet.  I’m referring here to the deep psychological needs every human must meet in some way to feel secure, connected and fulfilled.  Conflict occurs when the actions I take, or wish to take, to meet my most compelling needs are at odds with the actions you’re taking to meet your equally compelling needs.

Your response is a byproduct.  Behind every action I take, however negative or irrational it appears to you, lies a positive intent for me.  Everybody gets up in the morning and sets about meeting their needs the best way they know how with whatever they’ve got at their disposal.  Upsetting you is just a by-product.

Emotion moves faster than reason.  There are, in essence, two pathways through the brain – the high road and the low road.  The high road is the scenic path through the upper brain where reason and logic takes place; the low road is the shortcut through the limbic brain – where emotions are generated.  Our brains are wired to fire off an emotional response to a stimulus far faster than any reasoning process can take place.

So what can we do to make sure that conflict remains constructive rather than destructive?  At my Breakfast Briefing in Melbourne on 27 August, I’ll be exploring this topic in detail but here’s a few thoughts for leaders in a high-conflict environment:

1.        First of all, you’re the team leader, not the team’s friend.  This sounds a bit like a return to the bad days of the ‘cold-war warrior’ style of management but what I mean is that first and foremost you’re a leader and that means setting, and enforcing, the standard for how the team operates with each other
2.        Play the ball, not the man.  A person is not defined by their actions so stop labelling them accordingly.  Someone who fails at something is not a failure in my world – they’re someone who’s still got the guts to try and that deserves respect.
3.        Get feedback from trusted advisors.  They’ll tell you how they perceive your ability to manage conflict.  If you haven’t got any trusted advisors, maybe that’s a sign…
4.        Ask yourself the question “What’s their positive intent here?” every time you encounter conflict.  It promotes empathy and may even give you some insights as to a solution
5.        View compromise as a last resort. Think “win-win” cooperation rather than “lose-lose” compromise to find a solution that could perhaps be even better than what either of you started with

Whilst serving for over ten years with the Special Air Service, Adam O’Donnell successfully led elite teams in some of the world’s most hostile, complex and rapidly changing environments – places that probably won’t feature on the average television travel show any time soon. Now, as the Corporate Commando, he shows business leaders how to get the best from themselves and their people to boost productivity, morale and profit whilst still having time for the things that really matter in life. Visit corporatecommando.com.au for more information on his unique team building and leadership development programs.

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Adam O’Donnell employs insights from his military service to help Australian firms build elite teams to navigate volatile business environments. Apply lessons learned on the battlefield to your boardroom at Corporate Commando.