Conflict in the workplace is a thorn in the side of any would-be high-performing team. But like any other problem, we can soar above it by finding the solution. And like any other problem, the solution can be found by getting to the root cause.
First off, there is a difference between conflict and challenging each other because we're authentically committed to a good outcome. For example, calling out the setbacks we see that could potentially obstruct our collective journey towards achieving a breakthrough result can sometimes feel like conflict. But despite how it often feels, this isn't really conflict at all. This is essential to stop complicit activity in its tracks and prevent us from building a team of nodding yes-people that blindly, or worse - wilfully blindly - back visions, ideals or strategies that are doomed for failure. What separates conflict from the positive tussle of challenging each other comes down to our willingness to truly challenge our own thinking as much as we are willing to challenge other peoples.
A lot of conflict is based on our interpretation of facts and situations. It is these interpretations that drive our worldview and most conflicts arise when two differing views clash.
Simply put, to avoid conflicts at work and beyond, we should have an agile mindset that is willing to question our own beliefs and interrogate our own views.
People’s beliefs are like concrete; they’re quick to set in and once they get settled they’re tough to budge. But as difficult and uncomfortable as it can be to give our belief system a shake up, it displays an inspiring level of maturity and can give us the freedom to view situations through a broader, more outcome-focused lens.
When we take hold of a belief, we tend to interpret everything in a way that backs up our already existing view, often bending over backwards to support our preferred narrative. This is what happens in conflict. We refuse to see the other person’s point of view if it doesn’t tie in with our own narrow scope of what is true.
Once our preferred truth is sealed in, it can be difficult to crowbar out. There are three steps we take to sealing the truth. The first step is making an assessment about something.
For example, we might make the assessment that Joe (no offence to anyone with that name) doesn’t work well in a team.
We then find evidence to support this assessment, such as, Joe’s team had the lowest sales results last month. As we’ve already made a negative assessment regarding Joe as an individual, we put the focus on this, not taking into account that two of Joe’s teammates were off sick last month so his team were understaffed, or the fact that Joe himself was training a new starter so his priorities weren’t sales orientated. We put these results down to Joe being uncooperative, obscuring the facts so that they feed our preferred narrative. Finally, we solidify this belief as “The Truth” and it will never change.
Our ability to keep grounding our view within our own version of the truth is extremely powerful. As humans we are meaning-making machines. Our ability to invent meaning based on our preferred narrative and turn our own interpretation into fact is well-honed.
But if you can find evidence to support something, you can almost always find evidence against it. It’s just a case of wanting to find it.
A judge in a court of law doesn’t just hear one side of the story and make a decision based on that, they listen to the narrative as a whole. This is how we need to be with our own beliefs - open, flexible, and emotionally intelligent enough to interrogate our own interpretations and understand when our views may have been previously wrong.
So, what could this look like in the workplace? Let’s imagine it’s your first day at a new job. You step into the office in a freshly ironed suit, cappuccino in hand, and bellow into the room your warmest, “Good morning everyone!”
But in return the entire office looks up at you from their computers for a second, then looks back down at what they were doing without saying anything. This strange behaviour continues for the rest of the day every time you go to speak to someone.
How would you feel? What would you think? You’d probably be forgiven for thinking they were rude. You may even consider not going in the next day.
But let’s say you do go in the next day. You even give everyone your friendliest, “Good morning,” only to be met with momentary blank stares before everyone gets back to work, ignoring you.
By this point you’d have probably formed a strong opinion of everyone in the office. Regardless, you drag yourself in for the third day with your heartiest “good morning” loaded in the chamber. This time everyone welcomes you, thanks you for returning, and explains that they have a ritual for new starters where they don’t talk to them for the first two days and then give them great support on the third day.
How would you feel then? Again, you could probably be forgiven for still thinking they were rude and perhaps you’d even be horrified by their behaviour. But what has actually happened here? Have these people been rude to you? Have they behaved inappropriately?
That may be your interpretation, but the only facts here are that on two days you said “good morning” and got no response, and on the third day you did get a response. Anything perceived beyond that is merely an interpretation of these facts.
While these feelings and interpretations are valid, they are not facts, and they are only as valid as you want them to be. You may have felt everyone in the office was being rude to you, but someone else in that same position may have enjoyed the solitude and the peacefulness of nobody talking to them.
No two people interpret the same thing the same way, and once we loosen our grip on our own version of the truth, we will see less cause for conflict.
There are, of course, objective truths. The sun rises in the east and a square has four sides. But these are hardly likely to be topics of debate in your next board meeting.
We need to scrutinize our subjective truths and the way we categorize these subjective interpretations of events as fact. The sooner we realize that that’s all they are - subjective - the sooner we can loosen our grip on our preferred view. It’s time to do away with the “my way or the highway” approach and start gifting ourselves with a broader perspective on things.
Once we stop seeing other people’s opinions as opposing facts and see them as equally valid views, we will listen more, learn more, and reduce conflict.
The only thing standing in the way of achieving this is ourselves. It’s not always easy to challenge our own beliefs, it can feel like challenging our own identity. But if we have the strength and emotional intelligence to interrogate our own beliefs, we will reap the rewards of a wider viewpoint.
This is an ability that is highly undeveloped in most corporate environments, often leading companies to throw money at “speak up” culture – validating our interpretations - instead of taking accountability for ourselves and being willing to admit that we are wrong.
This isn’t just an exercise into increasing empathy, though it certainly is that as well, it has the power to significantly reduce conflict and in turn propel productivity. All we need to do is tune into human nature, stop shouting into the echo chamber, and start learning from others.
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