Two different kinds of right
Tragedy… is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.
– lines from playwright/screenwriting star Peter Shaffer, whose works include the Oscar-orgy Amadeus (eleven nominations, eight wins), a biopic of Mozart, who had no shortage of conflict in his own brief life.
Shaffer’s view of the hazardous effects of conflict between right on different sides is not only a blueprint for effective tragic irony on stage and screen – it has clear parallels in the modern organization.
Cross-functional team disagreements, performance reviews, out-sourcing, task allocations, re-allocation of assets, competing inter and intra department priorities, contract re-negotiations, management handling of employee grievances, let alone ongoing dealings with vendors and clients … these aren’t conducted between one person wearing a white Stetson and the other a black. When each party naturally perceives right on their side, being oblivious to the “different kind of right” on the other side becomes all too easy. And these are not rare events. Add in simple misunderstandings, which are also prey to conflict, and we’re looking at a swag of workplace waste.
The fact is, every point of contact in an organization is a potential point of conflict.
The conflict itself is not the problem. That’s a given in any grouping of people, particularly one with the formal and informal dynamics of an organization. It becomes so when it’s failed to be dealt with rationally. That’s when we see the toxic effects – on organizational relations, morale, engagement and retention, and culture.
Digital culture is now upstream of corporate culture. It’s accompaniments – a transformed customer experience, sharper marketing, an agile and innovative focus, creative disruption of hidebound organizational practices, a curious and digitally-savvy workforce – have been boons to business. But it shouldn’t be heretical to accept that these have come with a significant downside – the inability to understand or constructively deal with conflict, which is becoming endemic in organizations.
Digital culture, by its very nature, has driven a wholesale shift towards an adversarial mindset (social media is one graphic example) and a zero-sum conception of disputes and their resolution. It’s fostered a “hide or harden” mentality that sees individuals and teams avoid the conflict problem for as long as possible (allowing it to fester) and when it’s finally unavoidable, double down on their own position, resistant to viewing things from any side but theirs. Digital culture has spawned an adversarial relations model that swamps opportunities for value creation.
Employees themselves aren’t to blame for this. Nobody’s looking to deliberately undermine the good of the organization, or even their own department, their relations up, down and across. Nobody’s looking to sabotage morale.
But faced with conflicting views of a situation involving them, they’re predisposed, preconditioned if you like, to act in what often turns out to be the worst way possible – damaging to their own interests and those of the organization.
From film to fashion, and…
Fashion houses have always had to be nimble in ways that organizations have only more recently aimed to claim.
“Creativity comes from the conflict of ideas.”
This quote, from the House of Versace, in a simple way, highlights the symbiotic relationship between two seeming opposites, that is integral to success in the fashion industry. What of elsewhere? Conflict is talked about within organizations, but as a vexing, not a pressing issue. As “the poor will always be with us”, so it must be with conflict.
But that is quickly changing. Organizations and their HR departments are being more and more mugged by reality. When publications as influential and diverse as Harvard Business Review, Harvard Law School Program, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, BrainWorld, The Leadership Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gallup, LinkedIn, and a raft of psychological studies, all point to increasingly persistent problems in interpersonal relationships and the handling of workplace conflict, it’s time for everyone to wake up.
But wake up to what – to do what?
Individuals have long been sent on courses to learn techniques for conflict or dispute resolution. These are often set in more than one context to encourage the transfer of skill. But skill is not the only or even the main, challenge in the current situation. This conflict outbreak is propelled by socio-cultural forces that are pervasive. The digital culture generates its own mindset, which becomes de rigueur, the default mode, for individuals immersed in its ways. It’s tough for skills to become a positive habit when they’re competing with a mindset that’s biased to self-interest in ways that veer towards the pernicious.
And that’s a fair description of what the digital culture engenders. Not in some insidious way. Simply as a logical consequence of attitudes, beliefs and social tendencies that are shaped by developing technology and its changing societal aftermaths. We’ve identified a trio of characteristics that determine how an individual is likely to approach conflict in the workplace. It’s safe to assume that the population within an organization would fall within a normal distribution on such tendencies. One of them is the capacity to adopt a broad perspective – or more colloquially to “see the big picture.” The self-interest bias effect of digital culture would likely skew the curve here towards the negative end. The same with collaborativeness, the second determining factor. Concerning evidence continues to emerge on the workplace decline of collaboration, along with other attributes associated with Emotional Intelligence.
Which leaves us…
… saying once again – every point of contact within an organization is a potential point of conflict. And conflict itself takes second place to the mindset with which it’s approached by all means by skilled people in dispute resolution (which will come down to negotiation, so be sure to get that right – sales and organizational negotiation principles and techniques are very different, and damaging if used interchangeably.)
It’s not a matter of right and wrong, but of perception. When an individual’s or team’s approach to conflict is mindless, it matters not whether it’s right or wrong – the outcome will be deficient from the organization’s viewpoint.
Caught in the middle of all this is HR. Because the buck stops with them for these kinds of problems. And also because disputes that should be resolved at the source, will increasingly end up in their court to adjudicate.
A Nobel viewpoint
We came in with a classical icon. We’ll leave with a pop-cultural one – albeit a Nobel Prize-winning one. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” rounds out our theme, with a message for those who are content to see the problem but not hear the vibe:
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled…
A good start in avoiding this is to establish the extent of the mindset challenge within your organization – and where the focus should start.
In a follow-up article, we’ll address a method of measuring this largely hidden problem – the critical first step. The solution, reassuringly and refreshingly, comes as the easy part.
- Dylan, Bob, “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” in The Definitive Bob Dylan Songbook, Amsco Publications, UK, 1964.
- Gasca, Peter, “History’s creative minds say you don’t have to be original to be creative” Entreprenuer.com on NBCNews.com, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/55990527/ns/business-small_business/t/historys-inventive-minds-say-you-dont-have-be-original-be-creative/#.XJGraLjZVPY.
- Shaffer, Peter, quoted in MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, M K. Peter Shaffer Theatre, and Drama, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 1998.
- Lax, D, and Sebenius, J, The Manager as Negotiator: Bargaining for Cooperation and Competitive Gain, Free Press, New York, 1986.
- Sebenius, J, “BATNAs in Negotiation: Common Errors and Three Kinds of ‘No’”, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 2016.
- Mitchell, Brian, and Mitchell, Evan “The Digital Erosion of Emotional Intelligence” BizCatalyst 360°, 2019.
- Andrzej W. Kozina, “Managerial Roles and Function in Negotiation Process”, Business, Management and Education, 12(1): 94–108, 2014.