When you’re unsure whether or not to confront someone about a conflict or other problem, getting clear on your intention can help make the decision clearer. Here are six questions to help.
Conflict in organizations is not a problem. Well managed conflict contributes to creativity, strategic initiative, more effective systems and communication, stronger workplace relationships and greater commitment to the organization. Organizations shouldn’t attempt to prevent conflict, but should instead focus energy on preventing unresolved or destructive conflict.
Left unresolved or escalating destructively, conflict is expensive, both in financial and human terms. Some conflict costs are easily measured, such as legal fees and losses associated with theft and sabotage. Conflict that escalates so far as to damage an organization’s reputation is measurable in terms of lower earnings or diminished market share. The hidden costs of conflict can be more significant to the bottom line and the overall health of the organization:
Time and salary loss — Studies over the last decade suggest that between 30% and 40% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with employee conflict and helping employees reach agreement. In a study I conducted in 2000, managers’ time on conflict ranged more commonly from 40% to 50% of work hours. The total amount of time spent on a conflict and away from other work typically includes the time of the employees involved, the manager to whom those employees report, and in larger organizations, the human resources manager and legal counsel. It adds up quickly.
Attrition — Research reported in the late 1990s showed that workplace conflict left unresolved for too long leads to team members leaving the company or using valuable work time searching for alternative employment. Employee turnover due to conflict results in severance costs, recruitment costs, training and development costs, and loss of productivity during that period.
Absenteeism and health care expenditures — The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine has reported that health care costs are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress. Stress as a reason for absenteeism increased 316% between 1995 and 1999 and studies suggest that it is a common byproduct of unhealthy workplace conflict.
Grievances and related complaints — Between 1992 and 1998, annual monetary benefits for EEOC sexual harassment cases increased from $12.7 to $34.5 million. Annual monetary benefits for EEOC-handled ADA cases increased from $200,000 to $49.1 million during the same period. Neither of these figures includes monetary benefits obtained through litigation.
Other conflict research reveals the following root causes of unhealthy workplace conflict and increased organizational costs:
Lack of information — Even with email, newsletters, reports, and staff and company meetings, conflict arises from lack of information or knowledge in how to use it effectively. It no longer surprises me how frequently in workplace mediations I hear the phrase, "Why didn’t anybody give me that information before now?"
Skill deficits — Most of us were didn’t learn the "Fourth R" in school. We learned reading, writing and arithmetic, but were not formally educated in relationship. Building relational skills, such as those associated with effective negotiation, interpersonal communication, and collaborative problem solving increases employees’ ability to navigate conflict before it becomes destructive.
Ineffective organizational systems — System problems can masquerade as interpersonal conflicts. As I work with parties to peel back the layers of a conflict, it’s not uncommon to uncover ways the organization’s systems are pressing upon one or more of the individuals involved and directly influencing their behavior. These system problems may be invisible until the overt conflict begins.
Ineffective conflict management systems — The informal system of organizational culture (as in the ways employees and leaders show through word and action that "this is how we deal with conflict here") and formal intervention systems can have a profound influence on whether or not conflict unfolds in a healthy or destructive way.
Ineffective use of ADR — While the increasing commitment to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in organizations is a positive step, it’s often used too late in a conflict, confuses mediation and arbitration, or imposes a process unhelpfully on an unwitting or ill-informed employee. Effective conflict resolution systems, even in very small organizations, create opportunities for conflict to be identified and addressed early and constructively. Effective processes should emphasize collaboration and consensus-building early in the dispute, the use of mediation before grievances or litigation harden positions further, conflict resolution coaching by educated managers, and staff training that supports real behavior change.
In research reported in 2000, Harvard Business School professor Kathleen Valley found that about 50% of negotiations conducted by email end in impasse, while only about 19% of face-to-face negotiations do so. She also concluded that we behave differently by email than we do in person. As a mediator providing online dispute resolution services to eBay users worldwide, I see that difference in behavior frequently.
In email communication, we tend to share far less information about a topic than when we talk in person or by telephone. So, we end up negotiating based on more limited knowledge and understanding. When information is shared electronically, it’s more likely to be exaggerated or altered. In fact, people lie more readily when interacting through email. And email negotiations are more likely to degenerate into an unpleasant exchange than face-to-face encounters. Simply put, people are more willing to escalate conflict when conversing electronically.
Another study suggests that online groups adopt more extreme positions in conflict, a pattern that reduces effective conflict resolution and negotiation. Other authors have noted that email is used more readily to make unpopular requests and avoid confronting in person. Now, there’s even a term for using email to deal with unpleasant business from a distance: Coward’s choice.
Conflict researchers have noted that email isn’t creating new forms of conflict. Instead, it’s exacerbating some conflict. Our typically electronic behaviors can contribute to an electronic atmosphere of distrust and we miss the non-verbal cues that give us additional information when conducting difficult conversations in person. In face-to-face interactions, we rely heavily (more heavily than we’re aware, research suggests) on vocal intonations, body language and facial expressions as behavioral cues. On the phone, we lose the body language and facial expressions. On email, we lose all of these cues and have to rely on the printed word only to guide us in interpreting the sender’s intent.
What can we learn from these research conclusions? We are still developing cultural norms around electronic behavior. Email, listservs, chat rooms and online discussion boards are adding a new layer to our already-complex human communication system. We also know that electronic communication can be more inclusive, foster dialogue and increase efficiency when well managed, so our task is to reduce the impact of potentially problematic online behaviors. Here are some tips suggested by the research:
Whenever possible, try to develop rapport first. Email negotiating works better when you’ve already developed rapport with the other person. That’s why it’s best to work through disputes in person or over the phone. If an electronic exchange is your only option, Valley suggests you try to build some social rapport before navigating the tricky waters of dispute resolution.
Avoid the "tweaking cc." A tweaking cc is the open copying of an email message to someone the sender believes has power over or influence on the recipient. We do it when we want to strong-arm someone into an action, rattle them a bit, inform on them, or simply let them know that someone else is now watching. A tweaking CC is a quick way to alienate the recipient.
Rely on letter-writing conventions. Particularly in conflict situations, start your message with "Dear Tammy," or "Hello, Rod." Conclude with "thanks for taking the time to read this," or "I hope we can figure this one out." Sign your name. These conventions can feel rather formal, of course, and yet they also send a social signal that simply typing a difficult, stand-alone message fails to send.
Take a deep breath. Our mothers’ advice about counting to 10 applies here. Don’t rattle off a reply when you’ve been tweaked by an email message. Valley says, "Stop typing and pick up the phone." Better yet, sit down over a cup of coffee.
Face-to-face interaction remains, at least for now, the gold standard for discussing difficult matters.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.
“The more I think someone isn’t listening to me, the angrier I get. The louder I get.” She said this, well, quite loudly.
I was chatting recently with a woman exec named K. She’d called about some conflict management coaching and I had asked her what most trips her up in difficult conversations at home or work.
“So,” I replied, once the echo on the phone line had died down, “you tend to raise your voice when you don’t feel heard?” Talk about stating the obvious. She was succinct: “Yes. And I think it scares people sometimes.” Pause. “It scares me. I don’t like that I do it.”
This one’s for any of you who step a bit too readily into conflict. The take-all-comers folks. Those of you who’d love to be a little less reactive to the day-to-day squabbles that make up a part of life.
When I was eight, I rather desperately wanted a pair of “boy sneakers.” Up until then, I had been wearing the little white canvas “girl sneakers” that a lot of mothers seemed to buy their daughters in the 60s. All of my girl classmates had them too.
I couldn’t stand those sneakers.
I thought, though the word may not have existed then, that they were dorky. I seemed to go through a lot of them because I wore out the toes. Those little girl sneakers just didn’t stand up well to tree climbing, kickball, stopping bikes with a toe-drag, and building forts in the woods.
I wanted a pair of red boys’ Converse All-Stars. I think it was probably my older brother who started it. He’s 10 years older than I and I worshipped the ground he walked on. He was already a hip artist intellectual college student when I was eight and he had a pair of red Converse All-Stars.
I recall being a complete pest about it with my mother. Whining. Cutting out pictures from magazines and planting them “casually” around the house. Stuffing extra socks into the toes of my girl sneakers and hobbling around, pretending they’d already gotten too small for me. Did I mention whining?
When I got my red All-Stars I went straight to heaven, which in those days was our giant yard and the horse’s field down below it. I recall running around and around, staring down at my newly beloved feet.
As my mother tucked me into bed that night, she asked how I liked my sneakers. I’m sure I practically beamed with satisfaction.
“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “you could have gotten them sooner.”
Sooner? How was that possible? What tactic had I missed? Where had my whining strategy gone so very wrong? Sooner?!
“To be honest, I was ready to buy them for you last month. But you got so annoying about it I figured you could use to learn a bit of patience. Then you started talking about that new bike radio that Laura has. You probably should have focused yourself a bit.”
Well, damn. My first lesson in negotiation. Patience and timing and choosing my battles.
P.S. Eventually got the bike radio, too. My mother proudly noted that I’d handled myself much better on that one.
Photo credit: Megan Hodge
When I’m mediating a dispute involving money, I notice how frequently parties want the other side to make the first offer. It’s clear that many people consider it a disadvantage to go first. If you know anything about the concept of anchoring, though, you also know that making the first offer can actually put you in a very powerful position.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman (also the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics) and Amos Tversky have researched the kinds of mental shortcuts, called heuristics, which people take when making a decision involving uncertainty. They’ve found that we tend to make decisions using some kind of reference point (anchor) and that we adjust our own number higher or lower according to that reference point.
And here’s the rub: Even if the reference point we use isn’t associated with the decision itself, it can influence us heavily. In a now-famous 1974 study, Kahneman and Tversky spun a "wheel of fortune" type wheel labeled with numbers 1-100. They then asked participants to guess the number of African countries in the United Nations. The number showing up on the wheel – a random number, mind you – influenced participants’ answers. For example, when the number on the wheel was 10, the median estimated percentage was 25 African countries in the U.N. When the number on the wheel was 65, the estimate was 45.
These results have been duplicated again and again in subsequent studies. Cornell MBA students were asked to name the year that Attila the Hun was defeated (AD 451). But before answering, they were asked to add 400 to the last three digits of their telephone number. When the resulting sum was between 400 and 599, the students’ average guess was that Attila the Hun was defeated in AD 629. When the number was between 1200 and 1399, the average guess was AD 988. Wow!
The influence of anchors has been well investigated in research on consumers’ buying decisions (consider the role of the auto dealer’s price sticker), gambling decisions, opinions on the fair market value of a piece of real estate, and even judges’ perceptions of whether or not someone is lying.
Now that you know about anchoring you have a powerful tool at your fingertips.
I recently came across a piece of conflict management research that I’d like to share with you. The study was conducted by the Management Development Institute of Eckerd College and found a strong link between an employee’s ability to resolve conflict effectively and perceived effectiveness as a leader with advancement potential.
While the article provided a sketch of the research method and some of the conclusions, this early report didn’t fully define the behaviors investigated or provide a comprehensive review of the project. So, while some of the missing information might help more fully inform our understanding of the outcomes, there’s enough intriguing information to be worth our interest. Here’s a short summary of what they found.
The study concluded that there were strong correlations between certain conflict management behaviors and perceived suitability for promotion (for those of you familiar with Pearson coefficients, they defined strong as .40 or above). These behaviors included:
- Creating solutions,
- Expressing emotions, and
- Reaching out.
Likewise, the research identified behaviors that made some professionals "generally not considered to be effective leaders or suitable for promotion." These behaviors included:
- Winning at all costs,
- Displaying anger,
- Demeaning others,
- Retaliating, and
- Avoidance behaviors.
Without more information about how these behaviors were defined in the research, we can’t help feeling a little vague about what it all means. At the same time, the research suggests that behaviors associated with either highly competitive, aggressive or avoidant conflict styles can be damaging to career advancement. And conflict behaviors typically associated with collaborative, accommodating, or compromising styles appear to enhance career advancement potential.
Interesting stuff. I’ll be watching to see if more work is done on conflict style and career advancement/leadership effectiveness and will keep you updated.
Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander tells a story about a childhood cello lesson. After three unsuccessful attempts to play a certain passage, he put down his bow in frustration. In response, his elderly teacher leaned over and whispered, “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes and you still can’t play it?”
I like to tell this story at the beginning of my fall-term course, Interpersonal Conflict Resolution, in which my mediation students explore the difficult and fulfilling art of working through conflict. Effective conflict resolution has a long list of things it isn’t: It isn’t quick, certainly. It isn’t formulaic-there is no conflict resolution recipe. It isn’t about fixing the other person’s flaws. It isn’t about avoiding and hoping it will go away. And it isn’t successful without commitment.
Effective conflict resolution is a combination of self-reflection outside the “hot moments” of a dispute, regular practice of a few key basic skill sets, commitment to long-term improvement in the way we engage conflict, and most importantly, a learning frame of mind during a dispute. Instead of approaching conflict as a competition (“how can I win it?”) or as a problem (“how can I solve it?”), we need to approach conflict as a learning opportunity (“what can I learn from it?”).
Engaging in conflict as competition may serve our own egos or our own interests quite well, at least in the short term, but it doesn’t do a lot for the other person. Taking the competitive approach to conflict resolution tends to leave debris in our wake and can diminish our relationships. For the important relationships in our lives-those with family, neighbors and co-workers, for instance-winning an argument trades long-term effectiveness for short-term gratification.
A challenge, of course, is that many of us have been raised to engage in conflict with this frame of mind, though it manifests itself differently in each of us. Some of us move quickly to verbal combat. Others of us win by walking away and dismissing the conflict or the other person. The rest of us are somewhere between the two extremes.
Engaging in conflict as a problem to be solved is also enticing, particularly to those of us whose identities are closely connected to “being a good problem solver.”
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.
In the past I’ve written about our mental models of conflict, those paradigms or lenses through which we view a conflict. Because our mental models often exist beneath our awareness, their influence on our behavior is usually invisible and unexamined. Navigating conflict better means, in part, examining these models.
Conflict "rules of engagement" are a type of mental model-they’re the conventions each of us uses to guide our behavior during a difficult conversation, and they’re often unspoken. We learn our conflict rules of engagement from our families, friends, communities, faith institutions, workplaces and schools.
Having conflict rules of engagement is a natural way to make behavioral choices during a dispute-it’s like having a behavioral compass. But here’s the rub: Our conflict rules of engagement aren’t universal. The rules we’ve each adopted over a lifetime are as different as the families, cultures and experiences from which we learned them.
In a recent workshop, I asked participants to reflect on and discuss their conflict rules of engagement. Here are some of the responses I heard:
- It’s always better to set a dispute aside and come back to it later with a clearer head.
- Never go to bed angry at each other.
- Deal with a dispute right away, get it over with, and move on.
- Never raise your voice.
- It’s ok to yell sometimes-it’s honest and it show’s how strongly you feel.
- Walk away, count to 100, and then talk about the problem when you’re calm.
- Never just walk away from a difficult conversation-stay with it until you work it out.
If this small sample is any indication—and I think it is—it’s not surprising that we violate each other’s rules of engagement, often without knowing it. And so the conflict escalates.
Effective conflict resolution, then, is a synergy between creative strategizing about the content of the conflict as well as thoughtful navigation of the process of talking about it. How and when we talk about the conflict is as important as what we talk about.
So, what are your conflict rules of engagement? Consider childhood lessons taught to you about dealing with other people. Then consider additional lessons or rules you’ve adopted along the way. Even consider the rules or lessons you no longer believe but may be so much a fabric of you’re being that they’re hard to discard.
Next, talk to those closest to you-close family and friends-about their conflict rules of engagement. Where is there overlap? What rule differences might get you both into trouble next time you disagree?
We have a terrific petsitter. She’s an animal lover, is very reliable, and spends some real time with our dogs when she comes to walk them on days when our schedules would otherwise make for a loooong stretch between walks. She’s also an excellent communicator, leaving us detailed notes about anything she noticed with the dogs or cats, returning calls promptly, and showing willingness to work with us to sort out the occasional glitch.
As I was pondering how lucky we are to have Laura, I thought briefly about the petsitting company we hired when we first moved to this region. The women who ran the business seemed very professional—lots of forms to fill out, a careful interview of us before they’d accept us as their client, lots of paper handed over for our files. After a couple of instances when they didn’t show up to walk the dogs when we thought they would, I phoned them to see what might straighten this out. Sounds like a communication gap, I thought. The conversation went badly. I still cringe when I think about it.
“You’ve got no right to question us when you never even pay your bill on time,” said one of the owners over the phone. I could sense the clenched teeth through which these words were uttered.
Huh? What could she possibly mean? We dutifully wrote a check, with tip included, and put it in the mail the day after each bill was received (they left the bill on the counter after each day’s worth of walks). I’m far from perfect, but a late bill-payer, certainly not. Ahem! And what about that awful word, never?
She explained, without mincing words, that the contract we had signed obligated us to pay them at the time of the visit itself. So, instead of writing a check the evening after the bill was received, we were supposed to be writing it the morning before it was received; the bill, apparently, was just for our records. Uh oh.
When I asked why they’d never said anything—this had, after all, gone on for several months—she told me that they preferred not to confront “problem clients,” since confrontations could get ugly.
I have a rather distinct memory of thinking, yeah, this conversation is much better than her mentioning this months ago, before she was so ticked off at us she almost couldn’t put two words together clearly. And before our dogs suffered some uncomfortably long days without the chance to take care of their own business. We agreed to part ways, sort of a mutual firing. I dug the original contract out of the files—yup, there it was, several pages in: Payment due immediately at the time services are rendered. No question—we were in the wrong, contractually speaking.
And, had this been pointed out to us much earlier, we would have apologized, mea-culpa-ed, and gotten it right from there on. But we couldn’t fix what we weren’t aware was broken. And the more we erred, the angrier these women apparently got at us, until their interest in serving us well was pretty seriously eroded.
Confronting a problem or conflict is sometimes hard, no question. But failure to do so isn’t a healthy business strategy. In this instance, the problem behavior continued far longer than it need have, and the anger and frustration these women experienced really got in the way of the business relationship. Not to mention, they lost a client who could have been a good one for them over the long run.
I realized recently that I haven’t heard mention of their petsitting service in a while. They used to have a pretty visible presence in the region. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere. Or maybe the hyper-avoidance led to more than the loss of just a single client.
During conflict we tend to turn our attention to managing the other person or getting her to behave differently.
Realistically, though, the only persons we can truly control or manage during conflict are ourselves. And in managing our own reactions, in seeking more constructive responses from ourselves, we inevitably change the interaction with the other person. When we change and improve the quality of the whole interaction, then we may increase everyone’s capacity to act differently or "better."
About mental models
In addition to understanding your own conflict triggers and how you might manage them better, it’s also important to understand how your conflict mental models are affecting the dynamic between you and the other person. As with conflict triggers, understanding your own mental models is self-reflective work that should happen outside of the conflict arena so that you’re better able to manage your actions and reactions during conflict.
Mental models are the paradigms or lenses through which we view the world, including conflict situations. If you know the work of Chris Argyris, Donald Schön or Peter Senge, then the concept of mental models will sound familiar.
Peter Senge, in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline , described mental models as "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action." He further explained that differences in mental models explain, in part, why two people can observe the same event, then later describe it differently.
Because mental models often exist below the level of awareness, their influence on our behavior and on our thinking is usually invisible and unexamined. Part of our personal work in learning how to manage conflict better is to reveal our mental models to ourselves and examine how those models influence the ways we act during difficult situations. Becoming aware of our mental models creates for us behavioral choices we may not have been aware of before. Senge and others have suggested that mental models are actually generative.with creative energy and self-awareness, we can set about generating new models that help us navigate our world in different and more effective ways.
Uncovering your own mental models
In discussions with family and friends, some of the following examples of conflict mental models rose to the surface:
- "There’s ultimately a single truth in all conflict situations."
- "Overt conflict is a signal that something’s wrong with the relationship."
- "Conflict is normal and important for healthy relationships."
- "Proving I’m right means I’ll be more highly valued by others."
- "People who are loud during conflict are unstable."
- "You can’t fully trust people who keep their conflict bottled up inside."
Wow! With differing mental models like these it’s no surprise that we get into situations where other people inadvertently violate our unspoken conflict rules of engagement or our assumptions about the meaning of conflict in our lives.
Here’s an exercise I’ve done with my mediation graduate students to help them make visible the hidden mental models that influence the way they work with conflict and navigate it in their own lives. The exercise can be rich and informative when done with a partner or close friend.
Find a photo of yourself as a child, particularly one where you can recall that moment in time. Try to put yourself mentally back there, then answer these questions:
- How did your family of origin handle conflict?
- What did you learn about conflict from school, faith, and friends?
- What of those lessons still inform how you navigate conflict in your own life?
- Do you agree with the lessons you still carry with you, perhaps in the form of habits?
- How do some of these lessons reduce conflict in your life? How do some of them contribute to it?