Conflicts, disputes, adversarial lawsuits, violence, abuse and the plethora of human responses to conflict can radically change the way we view the world.
These human responses are “thieves”: They come to steal, and destroy your peace, your contentment and your equanimity. And not just from you. The values of positive relationships, happiness, security (mental, emotional, physical, etc.), contentment and peace are, are from all parties’ every time conflict is engaged.
The opposite of theft is addition. Adding value by providing the tools for people and businesses to experience life and to—if they so choose—experience it more abundantly. In business, organizations and even families, this includes abundant profits, abundant monetization and abundant revenues.
Conflict is a relationship and, like all relationships, conflict has transactional rules: For instance, “I ignore your issue or minimize it” “I escalate to provoke another reaction,” and so on and so on. A number of these rules are unstated in the workplace, but a number of them are defined, redefined, and codified through the decisions and laws generated by an adversarial legal system.
But, what systems exist that can be used in your business to effectively engage with conflicts that you face every day—and thwart the thief prowling at your door?
The answer to that depends largely on how you as a business owner, manager and supervisor, view conflict in your business. Many conflicts in businesses small and large, occur between management and employees. Employees may view conflict scenarios through varied frames, but there are only about three different frames through which the “the people in charge” in businesses tend to view conflicts, or disputes:
A zero-sum game: A term borrowed from game theory, zero-sum game outcomes occur when one person loses and another person wins. Every conflict results in a “winner” and a “loser” because there are very few resources (time, money, goodwill, etc.) in a business conflict scenario and the resources are distributed to “winners” allocated based on viewing the world from a “one-up/one-down” perspective.
This perspective leads to managers, owners, supervisors, employees and clients viewing conflict as a “fighting of the good fight.” And fights based in principles lead to time lost, lawsuits, bad press and publicity and a loss of an ability to recruit, train and retain future employees.
A variable-sum game: This is the view where neither side in a conflict really “wins” or “loses.” Instead, the dominant belief is that both parties can “win” and that there are enough (or more than enough) resources (time, money, goodwill, etc.) to go around in any given situation.
Managers, owners and supervisors who employ a variable-sum perspective believe that the organization will “survive” any conflict that might occur between employees, employees and management, or employees and customers. A manager I talked to with this belief stated that “I don’t believe in firing employees; I believe that some employees are just not trained properly for the position they are currently in and it’s my responsibility to train them appropriately.”
A mixed-motive game: This view allows for flexibility of approach to conflict based on the nature of the conflict, the individuals involved in it, and the resources (time, money, goodwill, etc.) that are in conflict at the bargaining table. Mixed-motive approaches represent the most common way of resolving conflicts effectively. This perspective allows for a combination of the variable-sum perspective with the zero-sum perspective.
Managers, supervisors and even employees who use and experience the benefits of a mixed-motive approach are rare in organizations. The mixed-motive approach can only be used if you are committed to developing long-term relationships, leading with emotional intelligence, and are committed to performing (and rewarding) emotional labor as a primary output in engaging with (but not resolving) a conflict.
The least risky, most expedient “game,” is not always the game worth playing. And sometimes in the workplace, the thing that matters the most is the thing that gets stolen by the thief of conflict most often.
-Peace Be with You All-
Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)