People: Will the Real Conflict Please Stand Up?

By Barry Pruitt

dateFri, Aug 23, 2013 @ 07:00 AM

I often ask business owners what was their best experience as an entrepreneur—and what was the worst. Although said in many ways, the answer often goes like this: the best experience is the people--working with others equally energized and aligned, gifted and ready, even eager to change the world. And quite often, the worst experience is also the people -navigating the inevitable conflicts that occur when two or more people are working together. 

Conflict is a leadership issue. And, just like leadership, it is an ongoing necessity when people work together. And as a leader, you should promote conflict – the right kind of conflict. People Growth 

Difficult conversations are a normal part of life. No matter what personal or professional gains you make, there will always be difficult conversations that have to take place. 

According to the Family Institute of Cambridge and Harvard Law School’s negotiation workshop, within each difficult conversation, there are actually three conversations happening. That is, there are three undercurrents driving the energy behind each conversation.

1. The “What Happened” Conversation

This is the disparity between each party’s interpretation of what has happened. Who is right?  Who is to blame? No matter how we phrase it, in this conversation, we are usually telling the other side that they are to blame. Effective leaders shift the focus away from establishing blame and toward business solutions when there is true conflict (more on that in a moment).

2. The “Feelings” Conversation

Whose feelings are valid? Should they be acknowledged, or peeled off from your conversation? And, if you choose to address feelings, how can you do it without walking into a landmine?

Regardless of effort to check your emotions at the door, there will be emotional undercurrents in difficult conversations. Even more, difficult situations don’t just involve feelings, they are often based on feelings.

Effective leaders benefit from knowing how to acknowledge and talk about the feelings associated with the situation.

3. The “Identity” Conversation

What does this situation mean to each of us? What judgments are we likely making about each other? How is this affecting self-esteem or standing in the business? Even when you are the one who is delivering the bad news, identity still comes into play. How will people see you after this conversation? 

So, how do you as a leader, successfully promote conflict? How can you redirect what many consider negative energy into a positive force to keep your company moving quickly while maintaining the health and relationships of your people? The entrepreneurs who best handle fast growth do it well in the following ways:

1.  Trace the Source. Don’t be fooled by appearance; you need to know what the conflict is really about—what is at the heart of it? Like a CSI investigator, you need to first gather data and analyze.

2.  Preempt predictable Conflict. Much of the conflict within growing organizations is triggered by confusion.  Confusion is brought on by fast growth, intense hiring, people wearing multiple hats, busyness …you name it.  Practicing the Rockefeller Habits and healthy Think-Plan-Do rhythms works best when built on a foundation of Core Purpose, Core Values, and a BHAG. This is the rebar placed within a concrete foundation to ensure it can withstand the stress, pressure, and climate change of a physical structure - while withstanding the weight from the height of the structure.  

Core Purpose clarifies what the organization is trying to accomplish … why are we doing what we’re doing? Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks both sell coffee, but the purpose for each one is very different: for Dunkin Donuts, it is to provide variety of donuts as cheaply as possible; for Starbucks it’s to create an unforgettable customer experience. Now imagine for a moment that some Starbucks staff tried to impose the purpose that drives Dunkin’ Donuts, or that Dunkin' Donuts staff tried to pursue the purpose that drives Starbucks.  Conflict would be inevitable as different individuals pursued different purposes—all within the same organization. 

BHAG is the plumb line that’s critical for long-term entrepreneurial success by offering clarity on where you want to be 10-25 years in the future. If that isn’t clear, people will be working in different directions, pursuing different dreams … causing inevitable conflict. 

And finally, Core Values. Are you willing to write them down, include them in conversation, hire and fire by them? When you as leader clearly articulate values, you empower people to self-select whether to stay or leave – thereby mitigating much conflict. 

In the fast-growth, gazelle-like organizations that I work with, much of the organizational conflict can be traced to lack of (or ambiguity around) these three elements—core purpose, core values, and BHAG. 

3.  Inoculate against toxic Conflict

After you lay the right foundation for productive conflict, as in #2 above, you will still face toxic conflict—conflict that at its heart is a challenge to your organization’s core values. Once core values are set, you must exercise the character to take action when they are violated. A leader cannot make an exception because the person has a key supplier relationship, is a great salesperson, has other family in the business, etc. A leader must instead utilize qualities like:

Willingness to listen. Listen to be sure you understand the true conflict. Toxic conflict has no valid basis.

Action. I’ve seen many leaders create conflict and organizational dysfunction by living, and enforcing, actions, discussions, and decisions that don’t align with the organization. Great leaders make corrections and adjustments regularly – but never in conflict or contradiction to core purpose, core values, and BHAG. 

Feedback. As a leader you can inoculate your team for future conflict by teaching your organization to give and receive feedback. It starts with you and your willingness to accept feedback with introspection. You must then teach others. One simple formula is to share what you like best (LB) about someone’s decision or action, and what you suggest/request that they do next time (NT). Using this same language and format over and over with your team will get them used to it – and practicing it, in short order. 

4.  Promote the true Conflict

Learn to welcome honest disagreement (read that as conflict) to protect and grow your company. It’s the internal “acid test” to any investment of company time, resource, or energy. Wrestle together over your core purpose, core values, and BHAG – the parameters and goals that you want shaping the behavior of your team. 

Being aware of what's going on in your organization and following these tips will help you fan the flame of healthy debate. Without it, you will weaken trust, and cloud the vision, that is so critical to promoting healthy conflict. By understanding the three conversations as identified by Family Institute of Cambridge and Harvard Law School’s negotiation workshop, then tracing the source of conflict, preempting predictable conflict, inoculating against toxic conflict, and promoting true conflict, your team will focus their energy on conflict and debate that is healthy and substantial. And after all, that’s what really matters.

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Barry Pruitt


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