It’s natural to want to avoid conflict.

Confronting someone at work can be scary. It can feel very uncomfortable. We might think to ourselves, “I don’t want to offend him/her” or “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

Rather than addressing issues directly, we prefer to stay in our comfort zone. But this has consequences. Small issues start to accumulate. In time, small issues become big issues.

Before we know it, we find ourselves in a dysfunctional workplace environment. People feel unable to speak their mind. Ideas are not openly debated. Tension builds amongst team members, resulting in malicious gossip and backstabbing.

This is not how great companies operate.

Great companies know the importance of mastering conflict.

The greatest place to work in the world

In November 2012, SAS Institute, an analytics software company based in North Carolina, was named as the world’s best multinational workplace by the Great Places to Work Institute.

As well as having a happy, fulfilled workforce, SAS enjoyed 37 consecutive years of record revenues and earnings. In 2012 it generated $2.8 billion in revenue.

SAS’s success story is cited in the book Firms of Endearment by Rajendra Sisodia, Jagdish N. Sheth and David Wolfe. The authors designate SAS as one of their “Firms of Endearment,” defined as companies that are fueled by passion and purpose.

According to the authors’ investor analysis, over a ten year period, Firms of Endearment returned an impressive 1,026 percent for investors, compared to merely 122 percent for the S&P 500.

A key characteristic of Firms of Endearment is the encouragement of employees of all ranks to participate in company decision making.

SAS’s founder Dr. Jim Goodnight has a simple leadership philosophy: it’s all about the people. If you can focus on creating a great environment for employees to feel engaged, connected, respected, challenged and rewarded, they will do extraordinary things for your customers. That will lead you to sustained business success.

Fear of conflict is the second dysfunction in Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

If you want to emulate SAS’s success, you need to start by eliminating the fear of conflict from your team.

What do we mean by conflict?

Conflict exists when people have different ideas or opinions – that’s good! What if everyone had the same ideas and opinions? Not only would it be boring – there would no creativity, no debate and no fun!

Conflicts can happen where there are misunderstandings, where competing interests collide, and where information is lacking.

The starting point is to switch from seeing conflict as bad to seeing it as an opportunity.

All great relationships require conflict in order to grow. This is as true in your business life as it is your personal life.

Now conflicts can develop in two ways:

  • Destructive conflicts: Personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks causing interpersonal tensions and feelings of anxiety and frustration.
  • Constructive conflicts: Goal-focused, productive discussions led by the desire and resolve to tackle important issues.

Constructive conflicts benefit everyone, but people fear conflicts because they often become destructive.

Destructive conflicts

In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins chronicles the rise and fall of organisations. These are the behaviours of companies in decline:

  • People shield those in power from the grim realities for fear of recrimination.
  • Discussions are characterized by people trying to look smart rather than trying to identify the best ideas.
  • People advance strong opinions without providing supporting data.
  • People feel pressured to agree to a decision but then undermine its implementation.
  • Failures are handled by focusing on identifying someone to blame.

All of these behaviours are rooted in a fear of destructive conflicts. Typically, the loudest voice dominates and other voices fall silent. Relationships are no longer authentic or productive. The cost is a loss of the diversity of thinking needed for innovation and growth.

Constructive conflicts

Now, these are the behaviours of companies on their way up:

  • People are willing to bring unpleasant facts and data to the attention of leaders.
  • Discussions are characterised by people focused on achieving group objectives rather than personal gain.
  • People contribute data, evidence and logical arguments to discussions.
  • People unite to support a decision once made, even if they previously expressed disagreement.
  • People are willing to accept personal responsibility and learn from their mistakes.

These behaviours are only possible when people are able to embrace constructive conflict. Critically, the work environment needs to encourage contributions from each team member and discourage personal attacks and office politics.

Why we avoid conflict

It’s natural for us to have an aversion to conflict. Evolution has hardwired in us the urge to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat.

The amygdala is a small but vital part of our brain, residing behind the optic nerves in our eyes. It lies within the primitive, mammalian area of our brain where our emotion resides.

Whenever we perceive a threat, our amygdala floods our body with stress hormones, triggering a fight or flight response. This is what Daniel Goleman describes as an “amygdala hijack” in his book Emotional Intelligence.

So when faced with conflict, our programmed reaction is to want to escape, or to lash out instinctively. Neither option is particularly pleasant.

This is why we often try to avoid conflict altogether.

How we avoid conflict

We typically avoid conflict through defensive behaviour. This is illustrated by the Maintenance Cycle developed by Ralph Colby, co-founder of Intégro.

A change or problem arises. We perceive this as a threat, with the potential for conflict. We react with defensive behaviour. Things stay the way they are.

Defensive behaviours take two forms:

  • Fight behaviours: Such as attacking, yelling, arguing or blaming.
  • Flight behaviours: Such as avoiding, procrastinating, making excuses or sulking.

So how can you learn to encourage conflict in the workplace and ensure that it happens in a constructive way?

Becoming more self-aware

A good place to start is to cultivate self-awareness. Destructive conflict behaviours occur when our actions are driven by instinct and fueled by emotion.

A simple way to cultivate self-awareness is to ask yourself these four questions:

  1. What am I feeling? The best way of freeing yourself from a purely emotional response is to learn to stop and reflect on your emotions. Are you feeling angry, upset, frustrated?
  2. What am I thinking? What is the thought process causing me to trigger those feelings?
  3. What do I want? What outcome do you want to achieve? When your mind focuses on your desired outcome, you’re no longer ruled by your emotions.
  4. What should I do? What’s the best way to achieve your desired outcome? By thinking calmly and rationally, you can decide on the most productive course of action.

For example:

Adam is shopping in his local supermarket with his wife and young daughter on a Saturday afternoon when he sees his manager Sarah coming along in the opposite direction. He calls out “Hi Sarah!”, and gets no reaction. Sarah just walks straight past him.

His first reaction is embarrassment, then anger – “how dare she ignore me like that!” A number of thoughts start running through his mind… all of them focused on the belief that Sarah thinks she is superior to him and that she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she knows him in public.

If he doesn’t rethink his reaction to Sarah ignoring him, he is likely to spend the rest of the weekend in a funk and be dreading going to work on Monday, believing that Sarah has no respect for him.

Now if Adam applies the four questions above to this situation, this is how things will likely turn out:

  1. How is he feeling? He is angry and upset because Sarah did not acknowledge his presence.
  2. What is he thinking? He thinks that Sarah believes that he is beneath her – that she doesn’t respect him. Now that Adam is aware of the thoughts that are causing him to react emotionally to the situation, it would be a good time to question the legitimacy of his thought process: “Do I really believe that is what Sarah is thinking?”
  3. What do I want? Adam decides that what he wants is to be respected by Sarah and for her to be comfortable stopping and chatting with him and his wife if they bump into each other out of working hours.
  4. What should he do? He needs to talk with Sarah about his experience and let her know how important it is for him to know that she respects him.

Becoming more aware of others

No matter how self-aware you become, there may be situations where your emotions get the better of you. You might be feeling annoyed or disappointed at someone, and it would make you feel better to simply let it all out.

But consider how the other person would feel if they’re on the receiving end of your tirade. Are they likely to react by becoming defensive? Are they likely to change their behaviour? Are they likely to respect or trust you in future?

If you wish to give feedback to someone, it’s always better to direct your feedback at their action and not at them.

In my book, Engagement is Not Enough I share my three-step process for giving feedback.

  1. Observation: Describe the event that led to the reasons for you wanting to give feedback. Describe the event objectively, without emotional attachment.
  2. Outcome: Describe the outcome of the event and the consequences that followed. Pause and wait for a reaction.
  3. Request: Make a request as to how you’d like things to change in future.

How can Adam use this “giving feedback model” to approach Sarah about his experience in the supermarket?

  1. His observation: “Hi Sarah, I’m not sure if you saw us or not, but my wife and I saw you in the supermarket on Saturday. I called out hello, but you did not respond?”
  2. The outcome: “I was confused. I thought that maybe you did not want to acknowledge knowing me out of office hours?” Pause, wait for a response.

After step two, it is important to pause and wait for a response. In this case Sarah’s response is that she did not hear Adam call out to her or see him – she had an intense family issue she was dealing with, and her mind was on that as she was walking through the supermarket.

She goes on to say that she really does respect Adam and values his contribution to the team – she thinks he’s doing a great job. This gives Adam the opportunity to go on to step three:

  1. The request: Adam’s response is, “Thanks Sarah. I’d like to request that you provide me with that feedback about how I’m doing a little more often. I was feeling very unclear about how well you thought I was performing, and I think that affected my response to the situation last weekend.”

The DiSC Model

Now people have different personalities. Different personalities need different approaches. Being able to understand and account for different personality types is immensely valuable for nurturing and managing constructive conflict.

The DiSC® behavioural model offers a proven and effective approach to understanding the behavioural styles of each of your team members.

In DiSC, there are four behavioural styles:

  • Dominance: People strong in Dominance are direct and decisive. They like to take control of projects and organise them.
  • Influence: People strong in Influence motivate and persuade others. They enjoy gathering support for ideas.
  • Steadiness: People strong in Steadiness are supporting and caring. They are driven to help others.
  • Conscientiousness: People strong in Conscientiousness care about quality and accuracy. They thrive on solving problems.

Investing in DiSC profiling for your team will identify the different behavioural styles of individual members.

The next step is to understand how the different behavioural styles interact and how to use this to encourage constructive conflicts.

Here are two examples of this in action:

People strong in Dominance

People strong in Dominance are highly competitive and often don’t suffer fools gladly. They can be impatient and intolerant of people because of their sense of urgency and drive to achieve results.

This impatience can come across as overbearing and demanding and create destructive conflict. To remedy this, people strong in Dominance can learn how to appreciate other styles and calibrate their responses accordingly.

People strong in Steadiness

People strong in Steadiness value close relationships and are fearful of hurting others’ feelings. This makes them uncomfortable with being direct with people, especially when voicing disagreement or criticism.

This natural reticence often leads them to avoid conflict and not saying things that may need to be said. To remedy this, people strong in Steadiness can learn how to communicate more directly and not be afraid of offending people with the truth.

The Five Behaviors Team solution

At Intégro, we offer a corporate training and assessment-driven solution that includes the nurturing of constructive conflict.

Our solution is The Five Behaviors®.

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team is based on the approach outlined in Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and is powered by Everything DiSC® personal development assessment technology.

The objective of The Five Behaviors is to develop the kind of teamwork which will foster a competitive advantage.

The five behaviors required to gain this competitive advantage are for team members to:

  • Trust one another
  • Engage in conflict around ideas
  • Commit to decisions
  • Hold one another accountable
  • Focus on achieving collective results

The Five Behaviors approach has a proven track record and has been successfully used by leading companies across different industries including Microsoft, Lee Memorial Health Systems, and Harris Farm Markets.

Want to learn more about how to earn the trust of your team and increase your bottom line?  Click Here

Everything DiSC and The Five Behaviors are trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Keith Ayers- October 2017