The Flawed Business Approach to Conflict Management

The Flawed Business Approach to Conflict Management

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  — Mark Twain

Our culture is set up to focus on behaviors with the hope that by modifying people’s behaviors, we will be able to move them towards health.  This may mean healthy work habits, relationships, personal fitness, or a number of other various things.  Because of this, many leaders — especially those working in Human resources — and coworkers become the “drug of choice” to deal with problematic behaviors.  However, by simply popping a pill — or in this case throwing out blanketed solutions — all we end up doing is tolerating and maintaining the problem.

A Flawed System

Why does this occur?  Part of the reason is that the stated problem is never the actual problem.  However, we constantly give people an aspirin for a headache without pushing below the surface to discover the cause of the problem.

Now, let’s look at a workplace example of this.  You see an employee who is working a lot of hours but never seem to be getting their work done.  What are your initial assumptions?  The employee’s is lazy.  He’s probably slacking off.  He’s irresponsible.  He doesn’t know how to manage his time.

At this point, what would you suggest?  Chances are, you’re thinking along the lines of stepping in and talking to him, doing a performance review, setting weekly or daily goals for him, possibly even firing him if he doesn’t get his act together, or you might not do anything at all.  There are a lot of possibilities.

So, let’s say you talked to the employee, figured out he was having trouble managing his responsibilities, so you send him to a seminar on time management.  He comes back and things seem to be going well for a while, and then the pattern starts up again.  Now what do you do?

In many cases like this, employees get fired because their “performance is lacking” and they are seen as “unsuited for the position and responsibilities that accompanies it.”  But here’s another question for you — was sending them to a time management seminar enough?  Was that an effective, long-term solution?  I would argue that the positive long-term impact of such a seminar is minimal unless you are able to get a person to look to the underlying reasons they are having difficulty managing their time.

Overly-Responsible Jane

A past client of ours — who we’ll call Jane, to protect her identity — was someone who had been highly successful at her job.  As she became more successful in her job, she began working more and more hours.  Feeling unproductive, she’d attend seminars on managing her time, but would see no results.

Similar to the previous scenario, Jane only recognized her conflict at a surface level, so she only addressed the symptoms she was noticing.  She didn’t realize that, in reality, her success within the organization had made her company overly reliant on her.  Jane became the point person for customer issues, process issues and many of the projects that were taking place in the company.  Because of this, Jane was constantly bombarded with tasks and responsibilities that she simply could not handle, regardless of how well she managed her time.

Eventually, Jane came to the realization that her overly-responsible nature was the root cause of her conflicts — not only at work but in all aspects of her life.  Growing up, Jane was the oldest in her family, and took on the responsibly of taking care of her siblings, including one who was disabled.  She became “mom” at a young age, and when she married and started her own family, she relived this role of being the “responsible one” who took care of everything and everyone, until it became her identity.  This continued into her work life, where she continued to mother everyone and take care of everything.  It was simply in her nature to take on responsibilities, and letting go those responsibilities, in Jane’s mind, meant everything would fall apart.

Adjusting the System

As we can see from Jane’s story, the behaviors a person displays only illustrates one side of the story.  I would go even further to say that behaviors are simply indications of deeper conflicts.  Because of this, we need to look at managing change and facilitating health in our organizations differently.  It is impossible to win a battle when you are competing over a symptom without understand the function that symptom serves.  As leaders, we need to look at symptomatology in the context of its function and purpose.  So, how do you do this?

Begin by asking yourself and others:

  • What purpose does this behavior / symptom serve?
  • How does the problem work?
  • Who are all the parties involved in maintaining the problem or symptom?
  • What are the consequences to change, both positive and negative?

Creating change begins with awareness, and then doing something to actively make change happen.  We are all already trained to spot inconsistencies in people’s behaviors; now take it a step further and dive into the reasoning behind those behaviors to discover the root causes of inconsistencies to create lasting change within your organization.

Leaders who can effectively understand the true problems their people are facing can help to facilitate change and growth.

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