Creative Conflict: Working To Find The Pass In The Impasse
By Mark Gorkin
When you read the word "conflict," what's your first association: anger, tension, avoidance or power struggle? What about diversity and creativity or honesty, intimacy and organizational growth? Conflict ... we seemingly can't live with it; we surely won't survive without it.
Let's start by defining it. Conflict is the friction that builds when two or more people clash over facts, short-term goals, enduring values and the status of their relationship(s). It's also the struggle over resources and methods for defining and achieving these contested facts, goals, values and status positions. But conflict is not just functional; for the pioneering American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, it was also inspirational:
Clearly, conflict is vital for today's "lean and mean" times. It can be the imaginative and interactive energy source firing purpose, passion and the sharing of power three key "p"s for productivity. Conversely, all "all or none" conflict resolution style or climate means one person or group is on top and in control; the other party is perceived to be incompetent, subordinate, dependent, or powerless ... and/or a threat to the established order.
This "win/lose" concept of conflict is forged by an aggressive nature, cultural socialization or from extremism in the pursuit of the Coach Lombardi ideal: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Also, unresolved emotional hurt or humiliation breeds mistrust, which often compels this "dominant or defeated" ideology. Yet, even long-standing or rigidly competitive behavior, if not basic beliefs, can change dramatically with creative intervention and good timing, i.e., 'strike when the ego is hot!" For more information on conflict resolution, look into mediation training online.
Disarming Dueling Egos
After listening to Murray's harangue, the young boss seemed inexperienced and anxious. I suggested Murray tell his that, "I miss the old man, and while I'm not always crazy about your leadership style, I must admit you're keeping me sharp." Murray, of course, exploded: "Forget it. I wanna murder this kid. I'm not doing anything that gets him one up on me!"
Two weeks later, I again bumped into Murray. He was still quite disgruntled. This time, Murray dismissed me with a backhanded sweep when I recalled my strategy. Two weeks went by when Murray's wife unexpectedly called: "Mark, you won't believe this. Murray finally did what you suggested... and it worked." Not only had the young boss eased up on Murray, but he put Murray in charge on long-range planning and sales. (Lorraine shared that Murray, before the overture, had grown increasingly depressed. I can just imagine Lorraine saying, "Enough already," and threatening Murray with eviction if he didn't do something.)
Why did the Murray gambit work? Let's analyze this conflict resolution process:
Need To Grieve
Play Up Or Open UP
Position Vs. Interest
It was in his interest to rely on Murray. It was also in Murray's interest to provide mixed feedback that could be received as a begrudging (hence more believable) compliment. Recognition helped defuse youthful anxiety and aggression. And, Murray's initiative was certainly paid back with "interest." Finally, while Murray would not admit it, I'm sure he enjoyed the role of mentor - a one-up position.
No need to worry about this process fundamentally changing Murray. When I saw him again, and mentioned hearing that things were better at work, Murray didn't give an inch. His only reply: "Yeah, the jerk's finally off my back!"
Good (Croup) Grief!
Verbal exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide. And like a stormy tide, tension was rising; undercurrent frustration was gathering strength.
In a brainstorming session with the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among those directly effected, had not been solicited. Further discussion confirmed my suspicion that resistance had more to do with the process of implementation then the form itself. An idea popped into my head: "Why not have a 'forms funeral'?" While sounding absurd, it does make sense. Effected employees could write eulogies to the old form while raising both positives and negatives regarding the new. I also recommended using the funeral forum to bury a unilateral decision-making process and preach a new day of team collaboration. To cut to the creative chase, the funeral strategy worked. With some minor modifications, the new form prevailed, and team morale was strengthened. Consider these strategic methods:
An open air funeral laid to rest the passive-aggressive resistance. To prevent is resurrection, use the last fifteen minutes of task-oriented team meetings as a stage for human relations issues - from the serious to the humorous. Become the humble leader of a passionate "morality play."
Conceive and Commune
In conclusion, while often frustrating, the tension and struggle inherent in conflict sows its own seed for innovative resolution and growth. Are you ready to reap the creative pass in the impasse?Updated 5/18/2012