7 models for transforming conflict at work

…and the inconvenient truth about why it’s so damned difficult even with the right model. Oh, and how get started in building a culture of healthy conflict.

Where there is work, there is conflict

Recently I was coaching a founder who has built a wonderful, progressive company, but one with a recurring problem of conflict being handled badly. Colleagues are often unable to resolve conflict between themselves and so the founder gets drawn in far too frequently to sort things out. A recent incident cost them three days of time and it’s still unclear as to whether it’s actually resolved. There’s a real risk that a valued colleague might leave the business as a result.

This sort of thing is going on in workplaces everywhere because conflict at work is inevitable.

Conflict is healthy too. A workplace with apparently no conflict is likely to be riddled with fear of conflict, with problems festering unresolved, perhaps to build up and explode one day. Or just as bad, they can be full of groupthink with a lack of diverse perspectives leading to a dearth of creative solutions.

We all know the need is for conflict not to be avoided, but be handled in an adult and constructive way. Yet making this the norm in reality is the hard part.

This is especially so in organisations which embrace self-management. Without layers of bosses to act as parents/schoolteachers/judge-and-jury it’s essential to make healthy conflict between peers part of the culture.

The good news is there are many proven methods for fostering healthier conflict.

Seven models for healthy conflict at work

  1. Transactional Analysis (TA)is used by couples counsellors, psychotherapists, coaches and leadership trainers. TA’s handy Drama Triangle model frames conflicts around the roles of Victim, Perpetrator and Rescuer. And it encourages us to be aware of whether we are speaking and responding as a Child, Adult or Parent.
  2. Self-management pioneer Morningstar’s conflict resolution process (popularised by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organisations) puts the onus on colleagues to resolve their conflicts between themselves with an escalation process to get help from another colleague and then by a panel of peers without a top-down authority being required to act as judge.
  3. Nonviolent communication (NVC) has a focus on building empathy through understanding one another’s feelings and needs and stepping through a process to move away from judgment towards connection and problem solving.
  4. An old favourite of mine from the book Crucial Confrontations which presents a model to allow anyone to get their head clear before stepping into a conflict, learn how to begin a difficult conversation and keep it safe by watching out for and reacting to fight or flight responses.
  5. In many cases, a conflict can be reframed as a negotiation. The classic text Getting to Yes presents a negotiation process which moves from opposing factions to a creative collaboration by listing each party’s interests, needs and concerns then refining potential solutions together. It also highlights the importance of starting with a “meta negotiation” to agree how the negotiation will be conducted before you get into the matter itself.
  6. Conflicts at work are often about authority. Understanding that authority comes in two forms — formal and creative — can help to minimise unnecessary conflict and resolve it when it does happen.
  7. And finally, the management classic, Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team puts conflict into a broader context of why teams ultimately fail to deliver results: Conflict avoidance is built on top of a lack of trust and it leads to a lack of accountability.

These models are not standalone. The focus on empathy from NVC is universally applicable, as is an understanding of how authority works. The Drama Triangle can help you cut through a seemingly complicated conflict and shine a light on what’s happening unconsciously. And the Morningstar, Crucial Confrontations and Getting to Yes processes can give us a template we can follow.

The inconvenient truth about conflict at work

Surely if there are tried-and-tested models and processes it should be easy to give everyone a bit of training, write some handy guidelines and then everything will be rosy, right?

Nope. Speaking for myself, it’s easy for me to rattle off an article like this about healthy conflict, but just like most people I struggle to put it all into practice every time.

The reason it’s so hard is because whilst models and processes can help, transforming conflict requires deep, personal change. That doesn’t happen quickly and let’s face it, many people don’t even want to change.

Image as shared on LinkedIn by thousands of consultants, coaches and frustrated managers.

For example, when nonviolent communication is taught, the focus is often on identifying feelings and needs and on the conversation structure to process the conflict. And that’s great. Yet often, lip service is paid to the two essential core conditions required to make the whole process work: 1) An intention to connect to the other person; and 2) Attention in the present moment.

This is not easy!

  • How do you make someone who’s currently livid with a colleague have an intention to genuinely connect, and fully respect them as a fellow human being?
  • How do you move away from replaying past events or fantasising about possible futures and stay completely present with the current conversation?
  • And how can you do that while stress hormones are coursing through the body and actively shutting down the parts of the brain needed for empathy and creative problem solving?
In a world where we expect “3 easy tips to radically change your life TODAY” we often want a quick fix to our problems, yet the inconvenient truth is it takes time and hard work.

So what are we supposed to do then?

The first step is to acknowledge this is a critical problem and recognise the real cost of the current culture of conflict:

  • The cost of time wasted in conflicts that drag out is huge with the opportunity cost of all of the constructive things the time could be spent on instead;
  • There’s the cost of good people who leave the organisation needlessly because of these conflicts. Tacit knowledge leaves the company and the cost of hiring replacements and getting them up-to-speed is also huge;
  • And then the cost of destructive bad behaviour that goes unchallenged due to fear of conflict.

Even for a small company, the cost of unhealthy conflict can run into tens of thousands of $£€. For a large organisation the cost can be millions.

You can look at this in a clinical, financial director way: When an organisation has an unnecessary high expense which can’t simply be cut the only answer is to invest and reduce that cost over time.

It’s not a simple one-hit investment. A two-day NVC training can certainly raise awareness of how conflict is handled and lay foundations for improving it. If you’re lucky, a small number of people who are really ready to change (or already have the core conditions and just need some tools) might change their behaviour quite significantly. Yet the vast majority of people will not genuinely change their mindset or behaviour.

Building a culture of healthy conflict is an ongoing, persistent endeavour requiring real leadership and commitment.

Leaders must therefore work on themselves first and model more constructive behaviour. Taking inspiration from one or more models of healthy conflict, making a public commitment to handle conflict better, and then following through by following the process every time.

This requires awareness that underneath the problem of toxic or avoided conflict there might be a deeper problem of psychological safety more generally, and that needs to be addressed first.

Since the tools and processes in themselves are not enough, leaders must invest in the “inner work” so they can cultivate their genuine intention to unconditionally respect other people, show compassion towards them, and learn to stay present during difficult conversations. If founders and their successors don’t do this, there is little hope of a better culture emerging.

As the key linchpins of a culture begin to make progress on their own journey, then others can be brought along too, by recruiting advocates of healthy conflict who can coach and support others.

5 things you can do to make a start this week

Whilst there’s no quick fix, you can instead make a commitment to get started right away. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Practice loving-kindness meditation. To the uninitiated it might sound like a flowery, hippy practice, but make no mistake, it has deep power. It’s based on building compassion for ourselves and others and there’s scientific evidence that this ancient buddhist practice can, over time, rewire our brains.
  2. Enrol on an introduction to counselling course (for example, here’s the course at my local college). One in real life, not just learning the theory online because the real learning comes from the group process and practice of skills. Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a core condition of person-centred counselling and it’s why professional counsellors can show respect to even the most undesirable characters. I’ve done it, and it’s life changing — not bad for an investment of 10 half-days.
  3. Enrol on Max St John’s How to Fight Well online course. Although this is an online course, it’s still based around being part of a group which meets via video calls, so deeper learning can happen. And Max is brilliant.
  4. Enlist the help of a ‘conflict buddy’ — perhaps a colleague who will join you on the journey of getting better at conflict. Give each other encouragement to stop avoiding conflict and give each other pep talks before difficult conversations and to debrief afterwards.
  5. Try an experiment in your next conflict — read up on any of the models mentioned earlier and see if you can do even 10% better next time. It’s a start, and you can build on it.
“The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” — Baron de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic movement.

Tom Nixon coaches founders and other leaders to develop progressive organisational culture and working practices. He’s also the founder of Maptio — the online tool for self-managing organisations: Register for pre-release access to Maptio.