Nobody likes conflict, and we’ll often do all we can to avoid it. The problem is that agreeing too much is just as dangerous. It’s possible to end up with the unpleasant situation that management expert Jerry B. Harvey calls the Abilene Paradox, where everyone agrees to a course of action that nobody really wanted. It happens when everyone just ‘goes along’ with an idea because they wanted to please the group, and causes a lot of resentment and blame-shifting.
But it’s inevitable that we will disagree with someone in our family, on our team, in our community, online, on the bus, at the supermarket, and especially with people who don’t share our values. What do we do then?
In the last post, I discussed some strategies for being present with your team while keeping your eye on future goals. This month, we’ll be looking at how to work through team disagreements productively. I learned many of these tips from the Queen’s Young Leaders programme, as well as an MIT course called Leading Creative Teams.
In times of conflict, you could force people to agree with you, accommodate the concerns of others without considering your own, avoid the conflict altogether, or try to come to a compromise that partially satisfies everyone. These work sometimes, but certainly not always.
Most often, the approach that works best, especially when issues are critical, maintaining supportive relationships is key, and there’ enough time to consider the problem, is to really dive into collaboratively solving the problem. Here are some tips suggested by David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron in their book, Developing Management Skills, for facilitating collaborative problem-solving over mere consensus-building:
Phase 1: Identify the problem
Recognize that if someone’s actions are bothering you, this is your problem to work through – but invite them to solve it with you. Describe your problem clearly, like this: “When you do ___ , it results in ___ , and I feel ___ .” Try not to include statements that place blame or point to personal failings. Be clear, and keep trying if you feel misunderstood. Encourage discussion and dialogue, and perhaps identify one piece of the problem to solve at a time.
If you find yourself in the reverse position, show genuine concern for their problem. Ask them to clarify their position, focusing primarily on the interests underpinning them. Asking “Why do you feel this way? Why are you advocating for this?” can open up the potential for empathy and solution-building. Honestly look for elements of truth you can agree with and attempt to problem-solve together.
If you’re the one facilitating a team dispute, suggest this problem-solving approach to working through the conflict. Bring all the facts to the table: this might mean doing a bit of extra research – and always focus on these, rather than emotional states.
Phase 2: Generate the solution
Establish what everyone has in common: being clear about existing shared goals and values makes it easier to focus on what’s really important. Develop multiple alternatives to solving the problem: this encourages conflicting parties to move away from a polarising “either-or” situation, and not feel like they have to defend their position tooth and nail. Invite everyone to brainstorm options for mutual gains. Encourage the parties to think about how fairness should be judged: this shifts mind-sets from “What do I want?” to “What makes most sense?” and keeps everyone focused on issues rather than personalities. Make sure each participant has the same amount of time to speak. Finally, infuse the situation with humour, if you can; it reduces tension and makes collaboration more enjoyable.
Phase 3: Formulate an action plan and agreement
Make sure everyone is clear on the outcome, and steps for moving forward. Frame success in terms of real gains and not perceived losses: encouraging the team to reflect on how a discussion constitutes a real improvement disspates any bitterness.
Phase 4: Implement the solution and follow-up where necessary
Sometimes, plans will go awry, and the problem can persist. It’s helpful to schedule a check-in at some point after the problem-solving session to see if things are going as discussed.
I’ve always hated conflict, but framing it as a collaborative puzzle makes it less terrifying. In particular, I’ve found that design thinking methods and tools are helpful for making collective problem-solving a fun and stress-free endeavour – and that’s what we’ll discuss in the next installment. What are your ways for working through conflict?
The hardest parts of conflict resolution, for me, are (a) accepting that when something is bothering me, that it is my problem to work through, and (b) finding points of agreement when others critique me – so that’s what I’ll be working to improve on!
Rabbit holes and further reading
- Get to the heart of the matter with the Five Whys