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Address Conflict Using Logical Thinking, Not Emotional Reaction

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by John Austin in Behavior change, Leadership, Stress, Training

US employees spend an average of 2.1 hours per week in conflict. Think of the cost of this to your organization and team. Nationally, this is estimated to cost $359 billion annually in wages.

One general principle of leadership that I teach is to create an environment that helps people stay focused on the work and helps them to avoid uncertainty or distraction. This means dealing with conflict more effectively than we generally do.

Whereas conflict and disagreement can be very good to have among team members to bring out the best ideas, it is more common to see people stewing over disagreements or living with “dirty pain” that keeps them up at night or distracted or stressed during the day. This is more common, and this is not as useful or can be damaging to your health.

In addition, team members can marginalize or avoid each other when they have unresolved conflict and this can result in inferior results for the team and poor engagement or poor team morale.

Much has been written on conflict, but let’s start with some data:

    • 85% of employees deal with conflict on some level
    • 29% of employees deal with conflict almost constantly
    • 34% of conflict occurs among front-line employees
           “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive”

According to research, common causes of conflict at work include:

    • lack of clarity with expectations or guidelines,
    • poor communication,
    • lack of role clarity,
    • personality differences,
    • conflicts of interest, and
    • changes within the organization
           Clin Colon Rectal Surg. 2013 Dec; 26(4): 259–264

What do we do to prevent and manage conflict? I held a free webinar on this topic with my friend Kirstin Lund. Kirstin is a 20 year veteran conflict mediator and I’ve learned a ton about conflict from her.

You can see the whole webinar here:

Some of the things we discussed in the webinar include:

    • The foundation for healthy collaboration is healthy people. It’s important for you to take care of yourself, get enough sleep, and plan in time to think.
    • What can you do when everyone in a meeting goes silent? You can treat it as an indication that it’s not safe for them say what is on their minds. You could do your best to create a safe and nonjudgmental environment for them to have the conversation; you could narrate your thoughts and reactions to them; you can take some guesses at why they might be reluctant to say anything. After a few guesses, that usually gets the conversation started.
    • How conflict is maintained by reinforcement, and that it is natural outcome of getting groups of people together. It’s a law of behavior – if someone is doing something, it’s because there is a source of reinforcement for that behavior. This includes arguing and engaging in disagreements.
    • How stress creates a breakdown in trust and makes us more likely to take offense to something someone else says. For productive conflict management, it’s important to listen to the other person without taking offense to what they are saying, thinking, or feeling. It’s the first step in thinking about conflict in a logical and unemotional manner.
    • We know that stress makes us check email more often, and that replying by email can prolong and intensify conflict, rather than address it.

When it comes to managing conflict, let’s remember that leaders set the environment for how conflict (and everything, really) will be handled in the organization. People look to their leaders for cues on how they should feel and act at work.

Is there a tone of respect and honesty? Do people avoid talking about disagreements? When there is a disagreement, do people use logic and reason rather than emotional pleas? What about bullying or aggressive responses?  How do leaders or meeting owners treat those?

We know that it is very common for people to fall victim to the fundamental attribution error, especially during conflict or really any event that creates an emotional response in us. The fundamental attribution error is the propensity for us to mis-attribute the causes of people’s actions.

One reason why this way of thinking is harmful is that when someone commits an error, this bias results in us assuming the error is the result of their personal shortcomings.  On the other hand, when we commit an error, we attribute it to external factors beyond our control.

3 things you can do to avoid the fundamental attribution error and prevent conflict:

    1. Emphasize conversations that are both honest and respectful. Most of us assume we can have only one or the other. Both are possible and necessary in our dealings with coworkers.
    2. Avoid blaming individuals. You want to encourage logical thinking rather than emotional reacting. As you learn more about behavioral science you’ll see that people behave in accordance with their environment and more people don’t intentionally create conflict – most of us are doing the best we can at the time. Often, this results in conflict with others. Forget about intent and start considering why any two people in these roles might have conflict.
    3. Follow a process during conflict that involves asking thoughtful questions to reflect curiosity rather than simply trying to make your point. Imagine that you can’t talk about or reference personality type or “ego” as the source of the conflict (so you can’t blame any person). Given these constraints, what about the current environment could be leading to this conflict? Are the roles clear between the individuals? Is it clear which of the individuals has decision making authority on this conflicted issue? Have the individuals discussed the topic directly, verbally? Has each person had the chance to explain his or her views on the topic, and listened with interest to the other person?

There are many other questions and strategies that can be useful, but I have tried to identify the logic one could use in addressing conflict through logical thinking rather than emotional reaction, so that you can go away and try some of these techniques.

Good luck!

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