Alternate Route: Embracing conflict on your journey to Agile Performance Management

On your journey to agile performance management, you and your travelling companions are going to encounter conflict.

Often conflict is seen as something to avoid, or suppress. As we get more comfortable with transparency and encourage everyone to voice their views, we need to see conflict differently than that.

We need to see conflict as something to embrace, to learn from and as something we become really good at resolving. We should not divert our path around conflict, but travel carefully through it. Contrary to old wisdom, to get greatest benefit from conflict we are often going to need to resolve it collaboratively and out in the open rather than behind closed doors.

Ray Dalio is CEO of world leading funds manager Bridgewater Associates where he has created a culture of Radical Transparency. He attributes this culture to the spectacular success of the business over the past 40 years. Dalio says "There is giant untapped potential in disagreement, especially if the disagreement is between two or more thoughtful people". It is this untapped potential that we want to unlock. This part of our journey to agile performance management provides details on how to prepare for that.

Embracing Conflict

Most organisations are far from embracing conflict as a principle, let alone having their people feel comfortable embracing it in practice.

CPP Inc. study of workplace conflict reveals that employees in the U.S. spend almost 3 hours per week dealing with conflict. Twenty seven percent of employees report that the conflict led to personal insults and attacks, and 22 percent report that it led to illness and absence from work. Ten percent report that project failure was a direct result of conflict. 

In Australia exit interviews reveal that chronic unresolved conflict is a decisive factor in at least 50% of all employee departures.

The stakes are high and the cost of inaction surrounding conflict is severe.

Psychologically, conflict is a disagreement that represents a perceived threat to position, interests or needs.

To embrace conflict, the threat associated with the disagreement must be removed. Progressive organisations have applied tough love here, and implemented rules and behaviours that foster and reward those prepared to surface disagreement whilst punishing anyone seen to be suppressing it.

To back that up, they’ve created processes that are tough on the issues and gentle on the people so that once surfaced, conflict is treated in a systematic, predictable and equitable way that gives confidence in the outcome.

Some conflict embracing behaviours that are high visibility and relatively easy to adopt are

  •  Leaders speaking last during ideation or problem solving, avoiding prejudicing the dialogue or outcome
  • Celebrating those who openly question decisions or challenge the status quo
  • Appointing a devil's advocate in meetings to search for problems, shortcomings and oversights with group decisions or plans
  • Getting tough on team members who later show they had withheld perspective that could have been valuable if tabled

Getting better at surfacing conflict is premature though, until you have worked out how to learn from it and built the environment to resolve it.

Learning from Conflict

In order to learn from conflict it's useful that it's voiced in a consistent and constructive way. Your people at every level will need training in productive ways to raise and process their disagreements, and this will take practice.

To constructively raise a point of conflict it's necessary to

  1. Focus on the facts and behaviours in question
  2. State the impact on you, your team or the company
  3. Consider why a rational and ethical person would indulge the facts or behaviours that are troubling you
  4. Know what is non-negotiable to you and why

These steps are how you master your story before it's appropriate to share it.

There is a fascinating article on "myside bias" in the New York Times  which details why point 3 is important. It's how to use the illusion of explanatory depth.

The final point is critical too. Thinking through your bottom line is important to validating and resolving your conflict. Your conflict will resurface (with compound interest on impact) if basic needs for being heard and understood are not met. Conversley, over stretching demands can be a great prompt to uncover hidden agendas, unrealistic expectations, and probe for deeper conflicts.

The opportunity for learning comes from exploring the facts, the alternative facts, and allowing each stakeholder to express their perspective and uncover their emotions. From this everyone can gain new understanding, and a wider lens on the issue. Open discussion of options and alternatives may lead to a previously unimagined outcome that benefits all stakeholders.

For the more mindful readers, Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution describes how you can step outside the conflict, empathise and remove attachment to any preconceptions.

If attempting resolution, it's important to clarify that there is a need for it and a willingness of each party to work together to reach it. This may seem inevitable, but need and willingness for resolution are not always evident.

Resolving Conflict

In resolving conflict you're either looking for 100% agreement or 100% acceptance.

The level of conflict will determine the likelihood of achieving this. Conflict that begins at a low level can quickly escalate if it's not brought into the open. The 5 levels of conflict to be aware of are:

  1. Differences - people have different perspectives on the situation, they understand the other viewpoints and the impact is minimal allowing people to be comfortable with the difference. There is no need for resolution here, the perspectives can co-exist without negative effect
  2. Misunderstandings - people have different understanding of the situation. If there are unwelcome impacts or repeated behaviours, misunderstandings need to be resolved or else can escalate
  3. Disagreements - people have different perspectives on the situation, they understand the other viewpoints but are uncomfortable with the difference
  4. Discord - the non-negotiables of each party are incompatible. Even though the immediate conflict may be resolved relationship issues make future (negative) conflict likely.
  5. Polarization - situations with intense feelings and radically divergent perspectives on the facts in which there is little to no hope of agreement or acceptance.

In Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace it is said the culture necessary to resolve conflict includes 3 essential types of trust. One is contractual trust or trust of character which is confidence in the intentions of others. The second is communication trust or trust of disclosures where everyone is comfortable that people will share information, be honest, and keep private information confidential. The final type is capability trust; where there is confidence in others' abilities to deliver on promises. 

Establishing these trust levels is critical foundational work, and needs to reach from the core to the edges of the organisation where research shows conflict is most acute.

Taking the alternative route

To create a culture that embraces positive conflict, you will need to nurture the 3 kinds of trust necessary for effective conflict resolution. When these are present, your people will be more inclined to surface conflict knowing that it's safe for them. The benefits of taking the alternative route to embracing conflict are significant in terms of celebrating diversity, reducing anxiety, improving engagement, and reducing attrition.

The team at Pay Compliment are always happy to share ideas about how regular sharing of feedback can help you move towards embracing conflict and building a positive culture.

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