What is conflict?

An excerpt from How to Master Employment and Workplace Mediation published by Bloomsbury

Imagine these scenarios.

Scenario 1

A single man (Brian) accepts an overseas assignment with his employer and has to relocate. He travels to his new country of residence and begins to look for suitable accommodation. He spends a weekend viewing over ten properties and is traumatised by the fact that he can’t decide which one to go for. He loses sleep over the next few days as he agonises over the decision that he has to give his employer in the next 72 hours.

Q. Is there conflict is this scenario?

A. No.

Scenario 2

Two meteorologists (Sam and Alex) are having a discussion about future weather patterns. They disagree over the time period for which unbroken sunshine will remain in a geographical area before adverse weather sets in. They are both putting their case forward passionately. The levels of their voices begin to get louder as they use data to strengthen their argument.

Q. Is there conflict is this scenario?

A. No.

Scenario 3

During an executive team meeting at Forego, the country’s largest food retailer, the marketing director and customer service director engage in a debate about the direction for the company over the next five years. Both are using research that suggests the demographic make up and lifestyles of many parts of the country will fundamentally shift over this time period. The marketing director believes that based on this research the company should increase the marketing budget by 50%. The customer service director also believes that there should be a 50% increase in the customer service budget. Both currently have the same budget. Two departments cannot receive a budget increase of 50% and a simple ‘splitting it down the middle’ would not allow either of them to do justice with the resources. The discussion is being conducted with zeal and fervour on both sides. Other colleagues look on.

Q. Is there conflict is this scenario?

A. No.

Scenario 4

Two senior managers (Pat and Sandy) are team members of an important project team. Pat has been identified as the project leader. Although the project is going well, it appears that the timeline is beginning to slip and concern is developing amongst other members of the team. Pat and Sandy’s managers meet for a discussion on progress. Pat begins to accuse Sandy of not doing enough to move the project on, in particular not listening to comments from other members of the team. Sandy rejects this, suggesting that if Pat was more capable, they wouldn’t be in this situation. The dialogue continues with both struggling to be heard over the other.

Q. Is there conflict is this scenario?

A. Yes, absolutely!

So what’s the difference? In scenario 1, Brian has a decision to make by himself. No one else involved in the process. For any conflict to be present there must be a physical element that is represented by 2+ people. In scenarios 2 and 3, a passionate and heated dialogue takes place but each is based on data, research, fact and logic. This is important because as I describe later, organisations should not attempt to suppress free flowing discussion that may be laced with passion. These types of discussion often give birth to some of the most creative ideas and collaborative work methods.

In scenario 4, Pat and Sandy begin to get personal, don’t listen to each other and provide feedback that is ill thought through. This is where conflicts begin and can often escalate because individuals are unwilling or unable to connect with colleagues to rise above their differences and focus objectively on keeping the relationship intact. This is a problem because:

  •  They are interdependent—each needs something from the other as work colleagues
  • They are blaming each other—each is finding fault with each other causing an escalation of the problem
  • They are angry—emotions are beginning to be expressed
  • Their behaviour is causing a business problem—their productivity and performance levels are dropping

Conflict can also be described as a place where people get stuck and can’t figure out where to go. Conflict can be directly associated with learning. Individuals and organisations can, if they want to, learn something from their conflicts. Conflicts often occur in streams, not just accidentally, but chronically—over and over again.

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