Using Conflict to Increase Learning and create a Strategic Advantage


What if you could personally take advantage of each conflict you encounter? What if each conflict you face offered a new opportunity to learn and grow personally? What if every conflict offered your organization the opportunity to improve performance? Consider this example.

Imagine you are a manager of the door-drilling department in a cabinet making shop. One of your employees often makes drilling mistakes. You usually find out at the last minute when the doors need to be installed at the customer’s house. You often end up staying late or coming in early to re-drill the doors to correct the problem. The employee has usually either gone home or has not yet arrived at work.

In this situation, what would tend to be your action (choose one)?

____ Say nothing to the employee and continue to fix the errors yourself. After all, it “doesn’t happen all that often.”

____ When the employee comes in you pull them aside and confront them with the last error YOU just corrected. You threaten to take strong action unless they “shape up” and stop making those errors.

_____ You show the employee the errors and ask them to stay late (or come in early) to fix any new ones. They refuse because of family obligations. You say OK and continue to fix the errors yourself.

_____ You confront the employee with the errors and ask them to stay late (or come in early) to fix any new ones. They agree to do it but only occasionally. You agree to fix the problems when they cannot.

_____ You collect data about the errors. You summarize the types of errors and the frequency. You show the data to the employee and explain   your need to correct this situation. You ask for their help. You ask him/her what they need. You align on a course of action.

Please notice I did not ask you for the most effective or best answer. I asked foryour tendency. What we tend to do in a given situation is not always the best thing to do. Be honest with yourself and go back over the options and answer again if you think you may have chosen the best answer and not your tendency.

A conflict is an apparent disharmony of interests between two or more parties. You can describe a conflict in two parts: a person’s position and a person’s interests. Providing one overriding interest of importance (great customer experience or impeccable quality improvement) is very useful. When employees can appreciate the same interest it makes the resolution in the conflict a bit easier. It takes competing interests out of the picture. When employees have competing interests it is harder to resolve the conflict.

A position tells what the party wants. It is the method of choice to fulfill the party’s interests. It may not be the only method available to deliver on the interests. It is however the method of choice at the moment.

An interest is why the party wants to use their position. For example, the five choices in our example are all positions. They are options to fulfill the employer’s interest. That is: to stop the errors and stop correcting errors for the employee. The key skill for those interested in resolving conflicts is to identify the clear interests of both parties and not just the positions. The parties are well on their way toward resolution once their interests are clear to both parties.

There are five strategies available to each party in a conflict:

  1. One can avoid or ignore the conflict.
  2. One can give in and grant the other’s party’s position.
  3. One can aggressively request their position and the other party gives in.
  4. One can compromise and therefore each give up something and receive only part of their interests.
  5. Each can agree to thoroughly understand the other’s interests and create a solution that meets both parties’ interests completely.

Each of these strategies is represented in the choices in our example. All of the strategies are based upon two dimensions of action. The first dimension isassertive communication and the second is cooperation. When a conflict occurs, each party has choices available to them along these two dimensions. Refer to Figure 1.1.

Conflict Strategies and Outcomes Chart 113015

The ideal outcome is obviously to have both parties collaborate so that both parties win. It is represented in Figure 1.1 by high cooperation and high assertive communication. This is when optimal learning occurs. The more learning in an organization the greater the strategic advantage.

Conflict should not be avoided. It needs to be managed or more appropriately lead. Effective leaders take advantage of conflict.

The parties choose their strategies within the two dimensions. The first choice is toavoid conflict all together (avoid strategy). In the example of the door-drilling department example this is choice number one.

If your tendency is to use assertive communication you may tend to intimidate the other party in a conflict. In the example you might have “…pulled them aside and confronted them with the last error YOU just corrected. You would threaten to take strong action unless they ‘shape up’ and stop making those errors.” In this case aggression is high and cooperation is low. One is being domineering while offering their solution. They are eliminating conflict through compliance with their solution and not through resolution. If both parties use this strategy, they end up competing. This strategy offers the greatest chance for escalating tension and a destruction of the relationship.

The tendency to give in would result in the answer that describes asking the employee to correct the mistakes, being given an excuse and accepting it. The employer gives into the employee’s excuses and therefore does not get their interests met. The employee does not change their behavior.

A fourth strategy described is the choice to compromise. In this strategy, both parties get part of what they want and lose something at the same time. In our example, the employer continues to correct some of the errors and the employee commits to correct some on certain days. However, nothing is done to dissolve the problems all together and prevent them from recurring.

The final strategy is to use assertive resolution to create new solutions. In our example, this choice is described by the collection of data and the alignment between the employee and employer on an improvement plan.

To take advantage of conflict and turn it into a learning event, certain ideal preconditions must exist. The absence of these prevents the collaborative option from occurring easily.

The five preconditions are:

1) Mutual concern must exist for each other’s interests and for the relationship

2) Each party respects the other.

3) Each party trusts the other.

4) Each has a plan “B” incase the conflict cannot be resolved.

5) Each party knows the other’s “true” interests and not just their position.

The environment needs to support these preconditions. In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod describes the ideal cooperative environment. First is must clearly allow each party to see a benefit if they cooperate. Second, there must be a high probability of frequent future interactions. Lastly, each party must be provocable (be able to retaliate if the other party chooses not to cooperate).

“For cooperation to prove stable, the future must have a sufficiently large shadow. This means that the importance off the next encounter between the same two individuals must be great enough to make defection an unprofitable strategy when the other player is provocable. It requires that the players have a large enough chance of meeting again and that they do not discount the significance of their next meeting too greatly.”1

If the preconditions exist, the players can most easily choose the assertive resolution strategy. This is the only strategy that offers the greatest opportunity for learning and an enhanced relationship.

The existence of preconditions also allows for the possibility that both parties will agree to certain ground rules. These ground rules facilitate the communication between the parties.  They would include:

  1. Speak with good purpose (if it doesn’t serve, don’t say it).
  2. Listen with respect and with the intent to understand.
  3. When you do not understand, ask clarifying questions.
  4. Make Your Point Calmly without Attacking
  5. Make only agreements that you are willing and intend to k
  6. When something is not working offer a solution that changes the system and not the other’s behavior.
  7. Communicate without blaming others, justifying your actions or shaming yourself.

In summary, when conflict occurs take these steps to optimize  learning:

Conflict Strategies and Outcomes Chart 2 113015

Leaders recognize that conflict is inevitable. Sources of conflict can range from performance problems with employees to department managers feuding over limited resources. Conflict can either be destructive or beneficial. Leaders must take advantage of conflict by using it to learn new solutions. Unless they are skilled enough to do that, they experience waste of capital, waste in people’s time and loss of profits.

Allowing conflict to occur within the most cooperative and respectful environment will allow everyone to voice opinions, be heard and create new ways of working together. Our highly competitive economy demands that organizations continuously improve and continually learn. Taking advantage of conflict allows everyone to contribute and to make uncomfortable situations productive and valuable.

This requires that leaders create the environment that encourages employees to work through conflicts. Creating a cooperative environment and the essential preconditions can be a daunting task.

Leaders must learn how to create this environment. With the right kind of environment, everyone will have the tendency to collaborate to create new solutions through cooperation and assertive communication. Ideally, a leader can create certain preconditions in an organization as part of the culture. Those key preconditions that can exist are:

  1. Mutual concern for each other’s interests and for relationships
  2. Respect
  3. Trust

oes your environment encourage collaboration or avoidance and defensiveness? Are your employees encouraged to express their interests to do a better job or do they avoid difficult situations because they fear reprisals? Furthermore, can your employees align on one overriding interest of great importance such as “great customer experience?” Does conflict offer your organization the opportunity to improve performance or do employees avoid offering solutions. If a leader takes responsibility to create the right conditions employees will respond.

Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP is a student of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and firmly believes Deming’s work will reinvigorate organizations that suffer from lackluster performance. Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.   Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP. For 19 years his consulting firm, Optimum Leadership, has consulted with dozens of organizations and coached hundreds of individuals in improving leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.  Wally has taught Organizational Change and Development at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. Wally lives in Connecticut with his wife Lorraine.

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