Is Conflict Always Negative (or Where is the Tiger)?
Once upon a time, when we lived among the tigers, we wisely kept our threat detectors on sensitive.1 With no time to think, when seconds might make the difference between having and being dinner, we reacted, and quickly. Knee-jerk made sense as time was usually on the tiger’s side. Walter Cannon captured it perfectly in 1932 when he named it “fight or flight.” No middle ground when the tiger snarls.
In the workplace, that knee-jerk has evolved, but only slightly: Push harder. Blame. Defend. These reactions feel right at the time as our brains prepare us for the quick response. And each would be appropriate—if there were an actual tiger/lion roaming free amongst the cubicles. Based on our history, family, culture, we act out the conflict dance with slightly different steps, but we’re still constrained by fear. Even non-real events like impending change and rumor, can trigger our threat detectors.
Where’s the tiger? is the first step I help my clients practice. It’s also the first step I learned when I began working in conflict management in the early ‘90s. I grew up in a family that didn’t have conflict. Ha! If you looked up ‘conflict avoidance’ in the dictionary, you’d find my picture. It cost me personally and professionally, as I let conflict manage me. I was completely at the mercy of a binary default setting (BDS) with no other possibilities. I pushed back, hard, or I withdrew. In the workplace the most damaging impact of the BDS is to curtail possibility. When we’re reacting, we narrow our choices and lose the capacity to generate options. Others are either for us or against us; ideas are only good or bad. In our increasingly diverse and ambiguous marketplace, that’s dangerous. Because innovation, growth, and collaboration don’t take root in ground watered by fear, we need to admit conflict.
Admitting conflict starts with one meaning of the verb: to acknowledge. When we learn to re-frame conflict as simply an unresolved difference, by acknowledging that differences are the norm because we are different, we remove the tiger and open options. Conflict is okay, it’s normal. Misunderstanding isn’t someone’s fault, it’s what we do. Once we accept that important insight, we have a starting point for a realistic conversation without blame. We can start listening away from defending and toward understanding.
Admitting conflict also includes the second meaning of the verb: to allow entry. Once we’ve accepted conflict—difference—without judgment, we can welcome the appearance of differences of preference (like sensing and intuiting), culture (like body language and nuance), and vision (goals and strategies) as springboards for innovative problem solving and decision making. As in Tuckman’s Team progress Performing II2, which only has room to appear after storming, our differences can become our greatest asset—our fuel. Conflict is inevitable—who doesn’t have a snooze button? So why not take full advantage of the admission of conflict as a driving force toward better communication and performance?
1I am indebted to James Shreeve author of “The Genome War” and “The Neanderthal Enigma”: Beyond the Brain (National Geographic, March 2005) for the insights that led to this piece.
2The White-Fairhurst TPR model and Colin Carnall’s Comfort Zone Theory provide further insight into team development. Clifford Senf suggested the idea of Performing II, which appears after a second storming stage since most teams move to performing too quickly.