Conflict in Tough Times Article


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Conflict in Tough Times Article

  1. 1. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D. Chicago Change Partners, Inc Understanding Conflict …When the times get tough, conflict gets tougher By David E. Morrison, M.D. Chicago Change Partners, Inc. periodically cites works that merit special attention to the issue of leadership and change. This attached article decidedly merits that distinction. This is a good article that speaks to an important issue. We are pleased to make this important article about conflict available to you. The author is a well known psychiatrist who is a dear friend and colleague of Chicago Change Partners; Dr. David Morrison. In his practice he has been an advisor, consultant and trusted confidant of many C-­‐Level executives in American business for a number of years. He is truly one of the ‘behind the scenes’ valued advisor in many of the issues reported in our business journals. The issue is conflict: Conflict is normal; it just happens when we see things differently. On the dark side conflict is at the heart of why leadership teams fail to have ‘real’ conversations, why key information is not surfaced and sadly enough why some initiatives fail. On the bright side it can lead to breakthroughs and innovation. Dr. Morrison, the author helps us understand conflict and how it can be destructive and, why it is in too many cases not handled well. Additionally, David provides information to help us to discover new opportunities to transform conflict into a productive learning experience. Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved. Used by 1
  2. 2. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.Understanding Conflict,…when the times get tough, conflict gets tougherDavid E Morrison, M.D.A context for conflict Conflict develops from differences and is the engine of growth, innovation,and creativity. When two people observe a sculpture from different positionsthey have conflicting views. When they view problems from different positionsand backgrounds there is opportunity for each of them to think of the problems innew ways. People confront tough times with different perspectives, values, goals,needs, and vulnerabilities. Those differences conflict with each other, even asthey increase the number of ideas the group has about the problems and possiblesolutions. If the conflicts are managed, the differences will enrich the vision ofwhat the problems and solutions are. Differences offer us more possibilities if wehave the judgment, knowledge, and skills to manage the inherent conflictsassociated with them. Unfortunately, conflict is too often mismanaged and then it squandersenergy and time. The most common mistake is to sweep it under the rug where itsmolders and contributes to procrastination, avoidance and plans for revenge.Individuals and groups dealing with mismanaged conflict feel fatigue as a result ofphysical and psychological wasted energy. The work is impacted because peopleare distracted and not aligned. During tough times these challenges increase. A threatening environment undermines everyone’s ability to manageconflict, which will impede productivity. Thus, in difficult times there is likely tobe more interpersonal conflict and it is more likely to be mismanaged. 2
  3. 3. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.Difficult times increase interpersonal conflict. No matter what side you were on in the political debates of 2009 and 2010,you had an opportunity to observe and experience what tough times does toconflict. The American political process has become polarized. Conflicts haveincreased with no signs of resolution. When individuals have compromised withthe other side, they have been called traitors instead of Americans. Ideologueshave become unquestioned leaders of people on both sides of the argument, andthe arguments are too frequently extreme and emotional. Tough times push people in conflict to extremes and thus make it morelikely that the outcome of the conflict will be destructive, not creative. This is notjust true in the political arena, but in families and organizations. For any leadermanaging conflict, detoxifying it and using it to come up with innovative solutionsis an important responsibility. In difficult times, however, more people find it incongruous to think ofconflict as constructive. In fact, there is significant pessimism about humans’ability to make conflict constructive. Even the American Heritage Dictionary ofthe English Language first defines conflict as “... prolonged fighting; a battle,”“disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons.” It is not until thefourth definition that one gets to a constructive role: “... opposition thatmotivates or shapes the action of the plot.” In order for conflicting views to help a group see alternatives and newpossible solutions, the individuals must be willing to let go of their ideas (at leastfor a while) and accept that their perspective is not the only one or even the bestperspective. New solutions to problems are not possible if ideas and opinions arefixed. When that happens either one side will dominate the other, or the conflictwill become chronic. Within chronic conflict there are usually episodes ofescalation. “Escalation” in this context is used to indicate increasing emphasis ondifferences and moving the conflict into the arena of destructive outcomes. 3
  4. 4. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D. So there can be a range of conflict from a simple difference to war. Thecloser the conflict gets to the war-­‐end of the continuum, the more destructive itis. That can be diagramed as in the following figure. Awareness of differences helps people see there are alternative approachesto problems. Becoming aware of differences, however, increases the chance of adestructive outcome, even if that chance is small. When one of the parties talksabout the differences, confrontation of the conflict has occurred, minimal but stilla confrontation. When the language becomes more extreme in terms of eachparty glorifying their side and denigrating the other sides, it is just a short step tobecoming uncompromising. Righteousness, revenge, and reliance on ideologycontribute to an uncompromising stance. Armed conflict and war are next.Monitoring the way differences are handled will help leaders decide what to do tokeep conflict on the constructive end of the continuum.The downward spiral of tough times and mismanaged conflict The more threatened people feel, the more they move into the destructiverealm of conflict. Understanding why this happens helps leaders decide how toconfront the problem. That understanding relies on some fundamental biologicalrealities. When the world is threatening, everything is more raw. Negative 4
  5. 5. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.affects help humans deal with danger. When danger increases so do negativeaffects, in variety and intensity. Thus, there are more negative feelings, which arestronger than in normal or easy times. Furthermore, the governing effect of theintellect over the emotions is diminished, because emotions are more primitiveand coping is strained (see splitting below). An increase in the variety and intensity of negative emotions makes conflictmore difficult to address. For example, the frustration caused by others seeingdangers and opportunities differently easily turns into anger. After a time, whenthe others hold on to their conflicting views the anger can turn into distress andeven shame — both of which can lead to more anger. Strong negative emotionscan undermine judgment, realistic perceptions and acceptance of difference. Toavoid those feelings many people automatically avoid differences that may leadto conflict. Then conflict avoidance becomes a problem. An example of conflict avoidance is the CEO who does not confront a sullenobstructionist subordinate who is slowing down important work to make amerger successful. The CEO and others know his tolerance of such behavior putsthe company at risk. The CEO’s avoidance of confrontation becomesunderstandable when we learn that the subordinate moved his family to adifferent state and took a tough assignment as a favor to the CEO before themerger was considered. The merger caused unanticipated changes, even as theeconomy dipped. Now the subordinate is stuck in the assignment with lessauthority because there are no other positions for him. (This is not an unusualstory.) Tough times and organizational changes created a different reality than wasanticipated. The CEO’s discomfort is understandable, but it does not justify hisconflict avoidance. He must not put the company at risk because of his feelings ofguilt. In tough times, there are many broken promises. One of the reasons thetimes are tough is because most people are not getting what they planned for. Itis not just that the expectations are different; it is that people made plans onthose expectations. Leaders will feel sad or even angry when plans are dashed, 5
  6. 6. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.but they don’t deserve to feel guilty for events outside of their control. Guilt andshame are notorious culprits in conflict avoidance. Avoiding conflict and confrontation to avoid guilt or shame causes moreguilt and shame (for not acting appropriately). Then everything becomesconfusing because of the different feelings and coping mechanisms associatedwith guilt and shame. For example, common coping devices for shame are:withdrawal, attack self, attack other, and avoidance. Everyone (including theembarrassed person) will only see the coping devices (defenses) and not theircause — shame. This can be confusing for everyone. A common and problematic coping mechanism, especially in groups, issplitting. When a person or group uses splitting, the issues are seen in extremes.It is diagramed below. People see problems as black or white, “we” or “they,” good or bad, “withus” or “against us.” Obviously, this coping device moves the conflict to thedestructive end of the continuum. The associated emotions make it difficult toget people back to a realistic view of the issues. Realistically perceiving problemscauses unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety. As long as people perceive the worldin the all or none way of splitting they don’t feel anxious. They are likely to feeltriumphant, clever, special, or angry. Those feelings and others associated with 6
  7. 7. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.splitting are pleasant, even the anger. The anger is likely to be righteous, whichcan be quite enjoyable, particularly if you share it with a group. That is one of thechallenges for leaders dealing with conflict in tough times—getting people tocommit to seeing issues realistically instead of in ways that make themcomfortable. The interplay between tough times and conflict contributes to power playsbecoming nastier and more devious (described in the second paper).Mismanaged conflict, including conflict avoidance, makes tough times moredifficult.Managing conflict in tough times Managing conflict in tough times requires extra awareness, skill,knowledge, and discipline. Even simple differences can be problematic whenpeople are distressed. For then, some people see any signs of difference asindications of an enemy. Staying realistic and on task is more difficult while newsolutions (from the possibilities well-­‐managed conflict uncovers) are needed morethan ever. Those solutions lie within the conflict. Leaders are forced to wrestle with conflicting demands on them as well asimpulses inside of themselves. For example, when people are tired and fearful,leaders must work harder not to avoid conflict. When feelings are strongest,leaders need better-­‐than-­‐average skills with emotions. When it seems risky toshow any vulnerability, leaders need to be strong enough to ask for help. For noone can manage conflict without getting help, at least from the person on theopposing side. If the person on the opposite side of the conflict will not offer helpin finding a solution there will be no win-­‐win resolution. Everyone must try harder to put conflict in perspective. It is tempting toget moralistic about conflict when people are stressed. Leaders, however, mustnot demonize conflict. Then they must help their people avoid doing the same.This can be done in discussions with their team. Such discussions start with asurvey of the group about how conflict is being managed in the difficult times 7
  8. 8. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.compared to normal times. The team also must discuss and agree on groundrules for managing conflict. There are sources in the literature for suchdiscussions. (How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight; Kathleen M.Eisenhardt, Jean L.Kahwajy, and L. J. Bourgeois III, Harvard Business Review, July-­‐August 1997 is a useful article for starting a discussion on how a team wants tomanage conflict.) Awareness is the first tool in managing conflict at any time. It is even moreimportant during difficult times because of the temptation to hide conflict.Awareness of the complicating factors described in this paper is also useful. Thus,defining the conflict and the specifics associated with it are the first steps. Thereal conflict isn’t always what people are making the most noise about.Sometimes just defining the real conflict is all that needs to be done. That isn’talways true but when it happens it is nice. Deciding what people want (other than not losing) is part of defining theconflict. Part of the reason it is important to define the conflict and what peoplewant, is to make sure they solve only what needs to be solved. Otherwise thework can become interminable. It is always necessary to work on it long enough. Distressed people oftenneed to push themselves to work on resolving conflict longer or they jump toaction prematurely. One of the reasons the work on conflict stops too soon is thedifficult emotions stirred up by this task. Thus, all parties need to expect totolerate some unpleasant feelings. The unpleasant emotions can keep leaders from seeing their own roles inproblems. It is tempting to discount or diminish the part they play in themismanagement of conflict. Leaders need to set the example and be fearlessabout defining their roles in the problem (at least to themselves). Even if they arejust observers they have some role in the conflict. When they can define theirroles in the conflict they can use that information to help resolve it. 8
  9. 9. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D. Compromise is important for a win-­‐win result. While win-­‐win is the goal, itis unlikely any resolution will be perfect for anyone. So once the issues aresolved, everyone must put the conflict behind them. Then, of course, expectmore, particularly if the times are tough. As leaders work on the challenges of conflict they can regularly step outsidethe fray and evaluate the process. They can review the challenges of conflict andask these questions: 1. Are the feelings appropriate to the content? If not, are they: Too strong? Based upon extreme views? All of one kind (e.g., negative, anger, fear) or is there an appropriate mix? Increasing or decreasing? 2. Is the language objective or provocative? 3. Are people willing to suspend their views and look at the issues from the other side’s perspective? 4. Is there a win-­‐lose dynamic? 5. How much are they caught up in one side of the conflict? 6. How can the conflict be used to give them more options in order to solve their problems?Conclusion: Conflict makes tough times tougher. Tough times make conflict moredifficult to manage. If conflict is managed it offers ways out of the turbulence. Tomanage it one needs to: 1. See conflict as a fact of life and not either good or bad. 2. Be aware of its danger and potential, 3. Not be intimidated by it, and 4. Address conflict in a way that minimizes negative emotions. 9
  10. 10. Understanding Conflict, David Morrison, M.D.David E. Morrison, M.D.Morrison Associates, Ltd.650 First Bank Drive, Palatine, Il. 60067847/991-­‐2260Fax: 847991-­‐ 10