Rowing requires coordination, clear communication, and collaboration to guide a team’s boat through the unpredictable waters to have a chance at winning a race. This happens to be the case in every sport where you participate as a team. In fact, this is no different for teams in the workplace. Like rowing, building digital products is also unpredictable. For example, when Open Table first launched, their first approach wasn’t guaranteed to work and it didn’t. It wasn’t until they tried the strategy of first getting restaurants on board in a condensed area then bringing on customers to use the system. There is lots of uncertainty because software development is essentially problem-solving and unknowns are the norm.
“Collaboration, an open mindset, and clear communications can guide your team boat through all types of changing waters to the finishing line.” — Jutta Lachenauer, Digitalist
Whether it’s a sports team or a team in the workplace, conflict is inevitable and usually one of the biggest challenges faced. It takes discipline and skills to work together towards a shared goal. A team has a mixture of personalities, experiences, skills, cultural backgrounds, values, working styles, ambitions, motives, and incentives. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to expect that when you bring a diverse set of individuals together that there will be conflict. Not all conflict is bad. The conflict that challenges ideas and generates discussions giving rise to innovative solutions and identification of potential opportunities is healthy. On the other hand, a conflict that creates silos in an organization, stifles communication within and across teams and/or creates a hostile, unsafe environment is not healthy. The latter results in a slow down of productivity and the ability to deliver results.
“85% of employees deal with conflict in their workplace and nearly 30% deal with it on a regular basis (‘always’ or ‘frequently’) “ — CCP Global, 2008
Over the past decade, I’ve learned that being successful in the workplace requires that we know how to effectively deal with conflict. It sounds obvious but in reality, it requires practice and skill, especially when emotions are running high. Throughout my experiences of working with a diverse group of teams and organizations, I’ve learned how to navigate and collaborate with the different team dynamics. I was able to apply and refine techniques that resulted in creating win-win situations, building long-term relationships and delivering products successfully. Here are 4 principles that you may also find useful in shifting your situations of conflict to collaboration.
Principle 1: Navigate by listening
No two conflicts are alike which is why listening plays an important role. This should be your first step always.
A recent conflict that I encountered was one of the more extreme cases. It was during a meeting that involved multiple teams from two different companies. I proposed bringing together the two companies so that we could efficiently identify and resolve the misalignment. The meeting started off smoothly but quickly escalated into a shouting match and competition of blame. This was obviously unpleasant for all people involved and no doubt that there were some feelings of awkwardness. Communication was broken and conflict was at its climax. The two companies in this meeting each had a list of their own issues to raise but nothing was being accomplished. Neither party was truely hearing to the other nor was there anything being accomplished. For some time, I just listened to the conversation. Then I took it upon myself to highlight that they were all still one team working towards a shared goal, despite the people in the meeting being from two different companies. In a brief moment, this seemed to give everyone the classic “lightbulb” moment because the tone of the conversation began to shift. The aggressive voices began to neutralize and people started to listen to each other’s needs and concerns. We successfully identified specific areas of misalignment and started working towards resolving them in a prioritized order.
“Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”
Listening is an important skill for those directly involved in the conflict. I’m not talking about the listening where you can hear the other person speaking but honestly just waiting for them to finish speaking. I’m talking about the listening where you’re engaged in the conversation and you’ve given them your full attention. This is called active listening. Dr. Stephen R. Covey describes active listening as “seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”
Going back to the example above, listening played a crucial understanding of the frustrations and motivations of each party. I was able to see blind spots that both parties were unaware of due to the heightened tension and emotions during the conversation. The listening also provided a contextual understanding that helped to facilitate the conversation and navigate it towards commonality. This resulted in an outcome that both parties were happy with.
Principle 2: Establish commonality
Vision, mission, goals, objectives, principles, and values are all examples of ways that we strive to create commonality within an organization. This commonality enables us to act autonomously with a purpose, guides our creativity and brings like-minded people together. When conflict arises, commonality plays a key role in shifting that conflict towards a productive partnership. I like to think of “commonality” as a tool that shapes and encourages collaboration.
Misalignment in the workplace is common, especially when we’re working in fast-paced environments that are constantly evolving. For example, people working in a tech startup would have likely witnessed the engineering team hard at work, only realizing later that what was developed didn’t help to move the needle for any of the business goals. This not only demotivates the team but it also wasted time and money for the business. We often experience the symptoms (eg. confusion, mistakes due to different understandings, etc.) of misalignment before detecting the root cause. I’ve found it helpful to use both Principle 1 (“Navigate by listening”) and Principle 2 (“Establish commonality”) but in that order. In my earlier example, I first used Principle 1 before thinking about Principle 2. I’ve learned that establishing commonality has a higher chance of success only after the people involved in the conflict are understood, or at least some context is gathered. Hence, active listening should always be your first step prior to any attempt at creating commonality.
Earlier, I briefly touched on the idea of commonality with having a “shared goal” and acting as “one team”. As the tensions built up on both sides, the two companies lost sight of their commonality — “one team” working towards a “shared goal”. Company A was trying to get a new mobile app built whilst Company B was providing a service for a fee. By rewording the former statement to “Company A and B are working together to deliver a new mobile app”, I was successfully able to navigate and realign the two companies in reaching the goals together. The reminder of commonality enabled the two companies to pool their talents and strengths together. This empowered them to collaborate more effectively.
Principle 3: Collaborate to succeed
We’ve all had that experience at some point in our career where we’re that “new person”. Imagine that you’ve just joined a new team and a conflict arises with you and another member of this team. Now think of a conflict that arose when you collaborated with a team that you worked with for 3 years. Which conflict do you think you’d be more successful at resolving? Which one would be easier to resolve? Why?
I imagine that the latter conflict situation would have been easier to resolve in most cases. The reason likely being that the 3 years enabled you to become familiar with your team members, from how they work to their motivations, intentions and a built-up mutual understanding of what you’re working together to achieve. You would have had a chance to form an efficient way of working together. On a new team, there’s a learning curve that includes figuring out how to interact and communicate with the new team members. Collaboration helps to speed up this learning because it challenges people to think, it brings together a variety of knowledge and skills, results in problem-solving faster and helps you see a problem or situation from multiple different perspectives. Through all this, it ultimately brings people closer together.
“It’s not how hard you work, it’s how hard you work together” — Bruce Eckfeldt, Business Insider
Collaboration isn’t simple when you bring together a bunch of unique individuals with different personality types. The CPP Global study found that “49% of workplace conflict happens as a result of personality clashes and egos”. But through continuous and frequent interactions amongst a bunch of individuals, they learn how to establish open and new communication channels and foster learning new information from each other that might not have been discovered otherwise. Also, the willingness to hear criticism paves the way for others within the company to do so too. All this accelerates a business’s velocity. We all know this but in practice, it’s harder to implement and practice.
“49% of workplace conflict happens as a result of personality clashes and egos”
A research study suggested that “women may possess more effective conflict resolution attributes than their male counterparts.” The reason for this is that women are better at driving collaboration which happens to be more productive in conflict resolution than avoidance (a common behavior of men during a conflict). Collaboration is also key to creating an extraordinary workplace. Reflecting back on the first example, I was the only female in the meeting which went unnoticed until a colleague of mine raised this. Regardless, when it comes to building teams, it’s worth considering the diversity of gender equally with experience, personality types, and skills in order to optimize productivity and foster innovation.
Principle 4: Embrace an open mindset
The last principle comes down to your mindset. It also underpins your success with the first 3 principles. When you’re discussing ideas with your colleagues, do you find yourself focused on proving that you’re right or working with others to get the best outcome? When you participate in meetings and/or workshops, do you find yourself more frequently offering opinions? Or do you often ask other people to expand on or explain their ideas? Do you believe that you could be wrong?
“The ability to change your mind is a superpower.”
It takes courage to recognize whether or not your mindset is open or closed. A Farnam Street article mentions that “the ability to change your mind is a superpower.” Our mindset determines how we approach obstacles and challenges. Conflict is both an obstacle and a challenge. An individual needs to be open to hearing new ideas, strategies, processes, approaches, and ways of working. They also need to be prepared to hear things that they may not agree with, understand or the possibility that they could be wrong.
Equally, an organization’s ability to embrace an open mindset determines the success or failure to achieve its business goals. Can your teams shift the way they look at obstacles? For example, could they perceive a “conflict” as an opportunity for collaboration and learn amongst one another? The ability to adapt to changes, adjust for the unexpected, be flexible, have a willingness to be wrong and to work through differences is also part of embracing an open mindset.
What does an open mindset look like?
- Listen intently when others speak
- Ask open-ended questions
- Focus on the situation/root cause rather than blame
- Acknowledge and own your mistakes
- Openly accept feedback as an opportunity to grow
Ryan Gottfredson also has a great list of examples of what people with closed and opened minds look like. This can help you identify areas in which you can improve your open-mindedness.
Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, talks about breaking these two bad habits for a healthier mindset:
Habit 1: Believing that you are always correct
A natural reaction is to become defensive when our ideas and opinions questioned. Dalio explains about our dislike for discussing our mistakes and weaknesses.
“Because our need to be right can be more important than our need to find out what is true, we like to believe our own opinions without properly stress-testing them.”
Habit 2: Ignorant of our blind spots
Dalio explains that people have varying strengths and weaknesses and “the best outcomes are created with a wide range of perspectives.”
“While some people are better at seeing the big picture, others excel at seeing details. Some are linear thinkers, and others are more lateral. While some are creative but not reliable, others are reliable but not creative.”
Even the Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezo, understands that he cannot be right all the time. His philosophy for this is to “Disagree and commit?”. Bezos used his own technique for a new project in Amazon Studios. He didn’t agree that the project would work but his team thought otherwise. Regardless, this was his message back to the team “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.”
As you can see, an open mindset isn’t about having to agree with what’s being discussed. One of the biggest benefits of keeping an open mindset is that it helps us to re-evaluate our criteria. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and top-rated professor at Wharton business school says “your probability of making a smart decision or coming up with a creative solution to a problem actually goes up”. He also mentions that “evidence shows that minority opinions improve decision-making even when they are incorrect”.
Going faster together
Conflict requires a non-linear approach for resolving it. The author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson, mentions:
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
We try to avoid conflicts because they’re awkward so not having them “feels better”. But leaving conflicts unresolved can result in reduced efficiency (eg. missed deadlines), increased employee churn and, most importantly, eroded trust. This is a bad experience for both the employer and employees. On the other hand, when we listen, find commonality, collaborate and embrace an open mindset during a conflict, we might discover something new or come up with a better solution than what we had before.
Conflicts are going to happen. It's good conflicts that lead to healthier and more productive workplaces. Remember to actively listen and collaborate to succeed. Our work environments are constantly changing, faster than ever now with the rapid growth of technology. Having an open mindset allows a workplace to thrive which is further catalyzed through collaboration. Just like rowing, you can’t win the race alone.
I’d love to hear about your experiences. What conflicts have you encountered in the workplace? What worked well and not so well in resolving it?