In my last blog, we discussed trust as a cornerstone of organizational health. In this message, I’d like to begin to discuss how you can build on trust to improve both the health and success of your organization.
Conflict management is an organizational skill that can literally make or break a company. How many times have you seen very bright and gifted leaders destroy themselves or their organizations because they would not deal with unhealthy conflict within their midst? More often than not, they choose to put their heads in the sand when it comes to conflict on their team, which normally leads to an escalation of the problem into a much larger issue than it would have been had it been dealt with proactively and properly.
Conflict typically falls along a continuum, from personal and mean-spirited attacks to the opposite end of the spectrum, which is a passive, artificial harmony in which conflict is never addressed. The fact of the matter is there is constructive conflict and there is destructive conflict in every workplace that I have ever seen. Most organizations, especially in the mission-driven environment of healthcare, find themselves on the artificial end of the continuum. In this scenario, you experience an incredible amount of passive-aggressive behavior. And once passive-aggressive behavior is embedded in the leadership team, it will soon permeate the rest of the culture of the organization.
Passive-aggressive behavior exhibits itself in a number of ways. The more common behavior is that a person appears to be agreeable and supportive on the surface or in public, but behind the scenes will backstab, sabotage and undercut their colleagues. Another example would be the person who makes promises about things they have no intention of ever following through on, and then blames others or the organization for their inability to fulfill their agreement. And then there is the person who uses sarcasm or humor to make fun of someone in public, or to denigrate their ideas, hiding behind an “I was only kidding” defense, when, in fact, they really meant every word they said.
So what creates conflict in the workplace? Obviously, power struggles, competition and differing opinions are a major source of conflict. But ego, pride, jealousy, compensation differences, performance discrepancies, etc. can also be sources of conflict. However, much of the conflict we experience exists because of two major causes: poor communication or a lack of emotional intelligence, which I defined as the ability to set aside one’s emotions in the decision-making process.
So dealing with conflict is often simply a matter of defining the rules of engagement. One example of this might be to make a rule that says that if people remain silent during discussions, it will be interpreted as disagreement. As a result, decisions could not and would not be made until everyone weighs in on the conversation. Defining acceptable behavior within the framework for decision-making by making it clearly and publicly known what will and won’t be tolerated can make significant improvements in conflict management.
Another important component of conflict management is actually conflict prevention. Proactively seeking out areas of potential conflict and intervening beforehand in a reasonable and fair manner can prevent certain conflicts and/or minimize their impact or severity if they do occur.
Going back to my emotional intelligence comment, I think understanding the other person’s motivations prior to entering into a conversation can be extremely helpful in conflict management. I have observed this a number of times from individuals who had an extremely high level of emotional intelligence and could deal with conflict in very stressful environments much more successfully because of their ability to see the other person’s point of view. Some of this is based on the fact that my view of others is that people are primarily governed to do the right thing and have the best intentions. I always take this position until I am proven wrong otherwise.
Emotional intelligence also leads to the ability to determine how important the issue is and how much you are willing to create conflict based on the stakes of the decision that is to be made. Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. If the situation that is being discussed is important enough, most people will do what they can to come to a compromise agreement in order to resolve the issue.
Finally, recognize that conflict in and of itself can be an opportunity for both teaching and learning. Almost every conflict can be leveraged for team-building, leadership development and professional growth. This is a characteristic, in and of itself, of a great leader. Everyone’s opinion has some measure of truth and value, if you take the time to look for it.
So once you have laid the cornerstone of trust, you have created an environment that enables healthy conflict and the potential for successful conflict management. When this has been accomplished, you are well on your way to the next building block of organizational health, achieving commitment from your team. We’ll talk more about this in my next blog.