Friday, February 13, 2009

The Gifts of Conflict

Healthy conflict management is a necessary part of life, work and play. Personally, I like harmony but conflict has uses. At least at level of creative problem solving conflict can be a course of creativity and regeneration. Ultimately conflict and diversity provide opportunities for large scale change.

In some organizational cultures and subcultures, hearing different points of view is a huge accomplishment. People are afraid to show up and be authentic. Sometimes it takes a heroic act of courage to explore differences, or extreme naivete. Group dynamics are visible through a lens of conflict management strategy and processing conflict transformative work.

My favorite theorists and masters in change through conflict management are Arny Mindell, Kenwyn Smith and David Berg. All of which have profound understanding of group dynamics and the use of conflict.

Cross-functional teams are fascinating to look at using a conflict management lens. Have you ever witnessed a team where one group is assertive (competing or compromising) and another is not at all(avoiding and accommodating). The unassertive group sabotages the plan of action by inaction. Or have you witnessed low commitment to solving the problem on all sides where teams spend all their time analyzing the problem. Perhaps you have seen groups just reel and reel. Idea after idea is advocated for (competing) without a single inquiry.

In these patterns we can descern modes of conflict: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising and collaborating. They are all useful in certain situations. It takes luck or knowledge and skill to choose the right strategy.

Working with a cooperative, I was able to see that the espoused values of cooperation and participation were different from the values governing behavior. When I met the group they were embroiled in conflict. I observed silence from some of the members in meetings and some where attempting to process their differences by cutting each other off from information, manipulating and undermining each others actions. Power struggles and patterns of triangulation predominated interactions and crippled their ability to conduct operations. They had very low trust. In that case, they needed systemic renewal. We conducted an action research process to discover of core values to find common ground and review documentation to clarify roles. The group shared stories to find common ground for their vision.

In healthcare organization, a group of internal consultants could not challenge their clients behavior or manage an agenda effectively in the face of conflict. Disagreement would paralyze them in every phase of their work. When asked, they described their culture as very collaborative. We used the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Inventory to assess their individual and collective conflict management styles.

They discovered that they were a combination of things but the avoiding and accomidating styles were holdind a lot of them back. The TKI opened the door for an exploration of all the styles. They were able to use role play excersizes to discern the right mode for the situations they typically faced and speak candidly about their choices going forward. When the group reflected on the learning in the workshop they decided form conflict coaching partnerships to help eachother prepare for the challenges they anticipated. The pairings brought mad more resources available to each of them. That was a win for them and for the parent organization.

Speed Leas, one of my early favorite conflict management gurus says that in conflict, people stick to what works. He explains that we learn a style of conflict management from early successes then we apply it to every situation thereafter. Ruts aside, I like the idea that we all have gifts we bring to a conflict situation when we are in dialogue about conflict we can assess our collective gifts. I think that makes our organizations more creative and resilient.

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