Recent events have reminded us how divisive unresolved conflict of any kind can be. Regardless of the scale of the conflict, whether it is a board room or a city street, all division is rooted in the same human need for compassion, acceptance, understanding, and respect. Without this we cannot feel seen, heard, and appreciated, which are essential emotional needs that are fundamental for our existence.
Simply put, we all need to know that we have value.
While unresolved conflict between teams at an organization is in no way on par with institutionalized racism or any other wide-scale marginalization or multi-generational repression, it stirs the same basic human responses of fear, distrust, anger, and helplessness. Of course, this fear may be over losing your job instead of your life, but it is a form of fear nonetheless and fear tears people and entities apart.
Workplace conflict is no exception.
Sure, the “John doesn’t like Alice” flavor of workplace conflict will always occur, but HR can handle and resolve those one-off individualized problems. The kind of conflict that destroys an organization is the fiercely held division that keeps it from reaching its full potential and lead to its implosion when left unchecked.
Effective organizational conflict management must get to the root of the problem, identify any exacerbating cultural factors, and make a strategic plan to authentically remedy the conflict.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill
The Core Problem
At the root of every organizational conflict is a basic problem – one group feels marginalized, disrespected, or disregarded by another group. These groups can be departments, teams, or pay levels.
The source of the conflict can be anything really, but most commonly stems from communication style, differences in deliverables, experience level, role within the company, performance, educational background, previous experience, demographic characteristics, or social factors.
Bad blood forms, negative perceptions are perpetuated, and the division continues to widen over time.
Sales vs Marketing - In the classic sales versus marketing feud, sales often believes marketing focuses on all the wrong things and gets too much credit, while marketing believes sales is uninformed and doesn’t do an effective job of converting leads. But this is far from the only type of conflict that exists.
Age - For instance, at companies where team lines are drawn alongside age brackets, you may find one team disparaging another because of their “lack of dedication to the job” because they opt to go home to their children instead of staying late in the office.
Conflict can arise over anything, but regardless of the source, the heart of the matter needs to be deeply understood to bring about lasting resolution.
In a conflict, being willing to change allows you to move from a point of view to a viewing point -- A higher, more expansive place, from which you can see both sides." - Thomas Crum
Exacerbating the conflict are aggravating factors like explicit or implicit biases among hiring managers, on teams, or across the organization as a whole. When biases exist, employees can be hired and promoted along preferred criteria like gender identity, race, nationality, religious beliefs, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or attractiveness (to name a few).
Organizational preferences can also exist among certain ideologies within an industry, causing a group think when employees are recruited or selected to advance in the organization based on their agreement with existing perspectives, approaches, and ideas.
What are the biases?
Workplace conflict management requires an honest look at where these types of biases exist and how they can be eliminated. Unfortunately, this is a sticky, dirty area to probe around in because biased individuals do not typically realize they are holding onto any preferences (and those that do are not quick to admit it). The standard corporate band aid of assembling some mandatory diversity training is the last thing that is going to help in this situation.
The only way to work through biases at any level is to have an earnest, judgement-free dialogue. Remember, the primary goal is to help people change their paradigm, which influences their actions.
Terminate or Pledge?
Unfortunately, this is not a common scenario at many organizations. If, for instance, a hiring manager is found to prefer a certain demographic, what usually happens? In our reactionary, knee-jerk culture the response is typically to just fire the perpetrator and bring in someone else. It is easy, clean, and, most importantly, public. And while this may help the company save face to protect the brand, it does little to invest in that individual or society at large.
If instead, the company pledged to provide this individual the chance to learn and grow as a person, what would that demonstrate to their employees? This shift can be enough to allow others to realize and remedy their own biases. And in the end, we might all just be better off for it.
Toxic Leadership Culture
Sometimes conflict is encouraged and perpetuated by leadership, which is the most dangerous situation. Bad management is poison. Management that approaches team dynamics with the “a little competition never hurt anyone” mindset may be concealing conflict under the veil of healthy opposition. However, an “us versus them” mentality of any kind is not beneficial in a company because everyone should be united around organizational goals.
Workplace conflict management must reflect this truth.
Seth Godin explained it perfectly in his recent article, Undoing The Toxic Myth of Exclusion and Scarcity, when he said,
It’s easy to believe that excluding a group increases the benefits for those that are doing the excluding. That division and barriers somehow benefit the people who divide and hoard. That’s true when we’re talking about allocating a truly scarce resource… But in our modern world, a world built on community, connection and the magic that comes from combining ideas, the opposite is true.
When people deprive others of education and opportunity, they’re not helping themselves, they’re depriving themselves of the benefits that would come from what others would end up contributing.
We don’t benefit from treating others poorly, we pay for it.”
The goal of organizational conflict resolution should not be to simply stop the fighting – the goal must be to unite people. Unity and progress require everyone feeling like they have an equal say and that their opinions are truly understood and represented in the solution. The organization that masters this is unstoppable!
About the Author
Kate Pierce is the owner of LionShark Digital Marketing. Her areas of expertise include Search Engine Optimization, Business Blogging, and Copywriting. She lives in the Grand Rapids area with her husband and two children and enjoys cooking, watching sports, and spending time together as a family.
Like a true digital marketing geek, she loves talking about current marketing trends… so don’t say you weren’t warned!