Understanding — and preventing — conflict at work

Recently started coming across the work of Lindred Greer, who is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University. Around late 2011, I really wanted to be a professor of organizational behavior, and so I went to grad school towards such an end. That worked out somewhat, but I’m definitely not a professor of organizational behavior now by any means. Rather, sometimes I write discussions on management and leadership (and, periodically, other things).

Conflict is interesting to me. It’s everywhere, and it has totally altered society — can you argue that wars and 9/11 didn’t change things? — and yet, it feels like on a day-to-day level, very few people have any real idea how to deal with it. You see stuff blow up at work all the time, you see passive aggressive behavior literally every 20 seconds (guilty myself there, too), and when people have real feelings they want to get out there, it usually blows up right in their mouth. Life’s complicated, and I get that — but shouldn’t we have a better idea how to manage conflict, at least at work?

Here’s an article from last May by Greer about “How Conflict Goes Viral.” This one looks at dyadic disagreements — essentially a disagreement between two people, often at the beginning of a meeting process — and sees how it can escalate.

Should be noted here that there’s task-oriented conflict, which can be a good thing — that means people are arguing about the quality of the work, or the message/meaning of the work — but most conflict is rooted in personal relationships between the people (that makes sense). You spend 1/2 your waking life at work most days, and yet no one really knows how to make work something valuable, and stuff can build up in terms of interpersonal relationships. Also, it’s not like everyone is walking around being totally honest either.

Basically, as a manager, you need to keep an eye on potential disagreements and intervene before they get out of control. Every time you add a new person to the mix — when someone sides with one of the original two sides in the dyad — the situation becomes more complex (logically), meaning it will take more time to untangle (logically), which is going to cut into time you could be doing something that has bottom-line production associated with it (also logically).

Phrased another way, the goal of most jobs isn’t to fight with your co-workers over things. The goal is to find common ground and use that common ground to drive the mission and the revenue forward. When you fight a lot, that stuff — the actually-valuable aspects of a job — take a backseat to petty personal politics. (I love alliteration.)

Greer draws a parallel between marriage and work conflict in the viral article; you need to know what the real issue is before you intervene in it. That’s the same way you need to fight in a marriage. I’ve been married for about two years, and I can say that probably 92 percent of fights are not really about what started the fight; there’s always something else. Conflict is like a huge iceberg. There’s a tip that people are seeing, but there’s all this space under the surface that’s really making up the bulk of the issue.

Now here’s the interesting extension of Greer’s work. Who do you think would have less conflict: a virtual team or a completely in-office team?

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In the article above, she claims virtual teams have less emotionally-driven conflict, and that might make sense — but in an article published last week, she claims virtual teams have more conflict.

I’d agree with the latter article. I think it’s challenging for virtual teams because so much of virtual interaction, even if done with video, lacks the context of people who work in the same physical space. You can’t necessarily see smiles or gestures, and you can’t “pop into” someone’s office for 5–10 minutes if there’s a challenge that needs to be ironed out. This is a bit off-task, but there’s also the belief that people in other offices might be slacking off or doing less, simply because you can’t physically see what they do all the time (side note: I can’t physically see what most people in my physical office do either).

In general, I think face-to-face interaction is still the cornerstone of how anything gets done — if it wasn’t, business travel would not be a trillion-dollar industry. It is, though, and it is because people need to see each other in order to cement deals and move projects forward.

The sad part of that mentality is that it will continue to limit the potential of people to work remotely, even though most people probably could right now. (Honestly, once you’ve been at most companies 2–3 years and people know you and your work ethic, it should be pretty easy to upsell the company on letting you work remotely — but that’s for another post.)

In sum, then:

  • Conflict can move quickly.
  • Conflict is something that can literally derail a project or team in mere seconds.
  • Conflict is probably higher on virtual teams or teams where some aspect is virtually mixed in.
  • Managers/supervisors need to carefully look at what’s happening in an effort to manage the conflict.
  • Some of this is simply walking around and talking to people about what’s going on; this is also called “organic communication.”
  • Some of it is understanding that there’s “a catalyst issue” (what started a fight) and “a real issue” (what the fight is actually about).
  • Work to reduce conflict, because conflict takes time away from the actual reason you’re sitting at a job.
  • While you’re at it, stop calling work “a family.” Start calling it “a neighborhood.” Here’s why.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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