Thursday, June 05, 2008

Conflict is Like Electricty: It Can Kill You or Cook that Microwave Popcorn

Disputes may be resolved; conflict can only be managed. There is no way to resolve conflict because it is inherent in every human interaction. Moreover, as Steve Scott points out (, conflict is what permits progress and creativity. "Iron sharpens iron."

An appropriate perspective on conflict is essential, however, in order to manage it. Fear of conflict and avoidance of conflict in the name of some ideal of unity or in the name of adherence to authority lead only to suppression as the views of one faction or individual dominate the views of all others. The conflicts will remain and fester and do nothing to advance the institution or enterprise. In these cases, you see a lot of passive-aggressive behaviors and pointless subversion and defections.

It is far better to acknowledge conflict and manage it so as to benefit from the opportunities that it presents. However, some institutions and enterprises take the perspective, to the exclusion of others, that good conflict = competition in all cases. Competition is only one form that conflict can take, and it is not always the most appropriate form for every situation. In an environment that fetishizes competition, actors are liable to focus on it, develop competence in it , and apply it to every situation. It is written that if all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything begins to look like a nail. Don't get me wrong. Competition can be healthy, in its place. In the wrong setting, competition can be counterproductive.

Business contracts are often negotiated by competitive individuals trained in the competitive model. They see the negotiations as a zero sum game where points are won or lost. But a business contract, in complex transactions, may memorialize an ongoing relationship between the parties and serve as a framework for what should be, if the parties are to be successful, a collaboration. If the contract is drafted and negotiated with this perspective, i.e. that of designing a charter for a collaborative effort, it will not only be a better document but the negotiations will serve as a model for future interactions.

Many conflicts are unrelated to the goals of the institution and involve personality clashes and minor annoyances; however, these are significant to the individuals involved and can make life hell for them if they are not addressed. Some of these will be disputes over particulars amenable to resolution, but many will just be people getting on each other's nerves. The institution or enterprise would be well served by promoting an institutional culture which values tolerance for diversity and respectful but candid dialogue. Managers trained in transformational mediation techniques can model behaviors and attitudes which will enhance the ability of employees to work together and to take advanatge of their differences. They will also be more readily able to weed out assholes.

Conflict is inevitable. It is the energy source for creativity. It can be harnessed for fun and profit, or it can kill you. Understanding how to work with it is essential to determining which outcome you are more likley to experience.

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