How to Travel through Conflict and Evolve

At a recent meetup, I asked a colleague about her company’s experience with conflict, how they view and deal with it. My colleague was quick to tell me how conflict was a non-problem. “It just really isn’t a thing we deal with! People resolve everything themselves.” But is it ever that simple?

Conflict is unavoidable, and businesses can always have a more robust conflict resolution toolkit. Granted, the spectrum of conflict ranges from the simple misunderstandings remedied by, “Oh! That’s what you meant?” stretching to conflict caused by a substantial abuse of power. We’re going to address the stuff right in the middle, the important yet not monumental: the workplace conflict.

For this purpose, I like to frame workplace conflict as two-fold, 1. It’s cultural, and 2. It’s an opportunity.

Conflict is Cultural 
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to define conflict as When Someone Else is Wrong and They are Too Stubborn to Admit It! Yet, conflict is a critical intersection brought on by misunderstanding, unclear expectations, or lack of follow through. If we start to frame disagreement as a cultural misunderstanding instead of the blame game, we will respond with more empathy and arrive at a better solution.

One helpful tool is the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory. It frames an individual’s responses to conflict as one of four quadrants in a diagram. Along one axis, the words read direct and indirect. Along the opposite, it delineates between emotional restraint or emotionally expressive. These create four quadrants with the following qualities:

Discussion Style — Direct Communication and Emotionally Restraint Engagement Style — Direct Communication and Emotionally Expressive Dynamic Style — Indirect Communication and Emotionally Expressive Accommodation Style — Indirect Communication and Emotionally Restraint

Note that each style is valid and no hierarchy exists. Participants in the inventory find a home in one quadrant and each corner is also associated with a general cultural region. The chart below outlines the ICS Inventory’s data on how each cultural region tends to handle conflict. For our purposes, I’ll zoom in on just one example.

Let’s use my experience as a case study. I am firmly in the engagement style: direct communication is my jam and I see emotions as an integral part of the story. Last year I had a conflict with an employee (dynamic style) who was upset with how management handled a promotion. He wasn’t telling me direct reasons why he was upset, but showed up late and wasn’t performing well. This wasn’t like him; I addressed it head on and directly named the center of the conflict. He skirted the topic again, telling me an emotional story about a completely different topic. But here is where knowing my cultural lens was helpful.

I set aside my preferred style and exercised patience by asking indirect questions in order to get at the truth. Culturally, people that value honor and saving face are going to shy away from naming a specific person that has upset them. Honoring this cultural value, rather than scoffing at it, allowed me to connect with the employee and resolve the frustration.

Conflict is An Opportunity
Conflict is an opportunity for you and for others to learn. At The Factory, we can teach others about how we see the world and broaden their horizons. Building webs of understanding may seem like an unnecessary time investment. But when people feel seen and connected they are more likely to contribute their full selves to work. That product launch that requires extra hours? Your employees are going to be more willing to volunteer if they trust you. Navigating conflict responsibly teaches them you can be trusted.

We should shape and reform our current policies to be more efficient, more inclusive, and more innovative, using what we’ve learned. If a conflict is recurring, take time to evaluate how your styles could be clashing. Make adjustments that honor your style and theirs. Then lay out clear boundaries to keep you and your coworkers on the right track.

We should evolve when presented with new information. Let us take each conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow into employees and employers that get stuff done. I’m ready, are you?

~Mackenzie, Community Manager