More Wag, Less Bark: Dealing with Conflict

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Occasionally, there comes a little comic relief while commuting in Atlanta traffic. Recently, when bumper-to-bumper, I noticed a small bumper sticker. Usually, I read these and just move on, but this one made me think and even smile a little. It read, “More Wag, Less Bark.” It was so clever that my thought process was kick-started even as my automobile was reluctant to get me where I needed to go.

The image of a happy yellow lab came into my mind. You know, faithful, eager, loyal, cheerful and close by. Also, I pictured the frenetic hopping and wagging of a Jack Russell Terrier. Pure happiness and great attitude are depicted by these two kinds of dogs.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place in which to live if only humans could behave this way? Human behaviors can make or break the culture of a relationship, an organization, a community, a city or the world. Apparently, most people live a lifestyle of stress and some level of conflict.

The dictionary defines conflict as:

  1. To come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash.
  2. To fight or contend; do battle.

As a noun it may mean:

  1. A fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
  2. Controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
  3. Discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
  4. A striking together; collision.
  5. Incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.

Whether this list of definitions is superfluous and overdone or not, conflict seems to be evident in most workplaces. Practically, we may define conflict as a disagreement through which certain individuals involved perceive a risk to their felt needs, interests or concerns. Most organizational conflicts will involve one or more of these fundamental elements. Of course, when you add in politics, culture, generational differences and divergence, conflict and discord may become the norm. Within this simple definition there are several important ideas that become apparent:

Disagreement – Generally, we are aware there is some level of difference in the positions of the two (or more) parties involved in a conflict. But the true disagreement versus the supposed disagreement may be quite different from one another. In fact, conflict tends to be accompanied by significant levels of misunderstanding that overstate the perceived disagreement considerably. If we can understand the true scope of disagreement, this will help us solve the right problems and manage the true needs of the individuals involved.

Parties involved – There are often disparities in our sagacity of who is caught up in the conflict.Sometimes, people are astonished to learn they are a party to the conflict, while other times they are shocked to learn they are not included in the disagreement. On many occasions, people who are seen as part of the social system, company, organization or team are influenced to participate in the dispute, whether they would personally define the situation in that way or not. Sometimes people very readily “take sides” based upon current acuity of the issues, past issues and relationships, roles and responsibilities within the organization, and other factors. The people involved can become an elusive concept to define.

Perceived threat – People respond to the alleged threat rather than the true threat facing them. While perception does not become reality as such, people’s behaviors, feelings and ongoing responses become modified by that evolving sense of the threat they confront. If we can work to understand the true threat (issues) and develop strategies (solutions) that manage it (agreement), we are acting constructively to manage the conflict.

Needs, interests or concerns – There is a tendency to narrowly define “the problem” as one of an incident or disagreement. However, workplace conflicts tend to be far more complex than that, for they entail ongoing relationships with multifaceted, emotional components. There are always chnical, organizational and psychological needs to be addressed within the conflict, in addition to the apparent logical needs that are generally obvious. And the resilience of the interests and concerns of the parties surpasses the immediate presenting situation. Any efforts to resolve conflicts effectively must take these points into account.

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.       Groucho Marx

Solutions to conflict are not always easy to find or implement. At Trove we use assessment instruments and small group coaching to begin the resolution processes. Of course, not all conflict within a relationship or organization is bad. Healthy divergent discussions can be catalysts for good changes. Dealing with conflict early and with a proven system or plan is imperative.

When we are hired to provide solutions to conflict or dysfunctional behaviors, we follow a proven process. This process can have nuances and can even change as new discoveries are made, but generally the system looks like this:

  1. A conference call or face-to-face inquiry meeting to interview the client or corporate decision-maker in order to understand issues
  2. An execution of the Letter of Agreement containing project plan and solutions
  3. The sending of assessment links to all parties involved
  4. An analysis of assessment data (individual and group, if applicable)
  5. Scheduling and then delivering coaching in one-to-one coaching sessions
  6. After the coaching sessions, analyzing the data and designing a “report of findings”
  7. Holding a Discovery Meeting that includes teams or individuals who are in conflict; this meeting is an exercise of solution-based agenda items (Trove’s “secret sauce”)
  8. Holding a follow-up meeting (months later) to calibrate the implementation scheme and continue the positive solutions

We have had great success in getting groups to overcome conflict and move forward with exceptional results! Having more wag and less bark in an organization or in any relationship lifts the positive outcomes. The opposite manifestation of conflict is convergence or synergistic agreement.

Better a lean agreement than a fat lawsuit.     Proverb

Good leaders and managers work at the skill of gaining agreement and alignment with colleagues and team members. Achieving agreement and managing through conflict has many moving parts that a leader must contain in his or her tool kit. Some of these tools would be:

  1. Don’t be conflict-avoidant; instead, work through conflict with a healthy, non-personal approach. Deal with issues or tasks, not personalities.
  2. Design team meetings which allow time for openly discussing conflict. This can be ongoing and at times generic, rather than specific. For instance, the manager or leader may want to describe a conflict scenario and provide a solution before a real issue occurs.
  3. Take the time to create safety in your team meetings for open and honest discussions. Provide personal protection for team members who want to discuss issues without repercussions.
  4. Preventive conflict management is a powerful tool. Take on each conflict face-to-face and as soon as possible. Talk to individuals one-to-one; then implement a one-on-two meeting to quench the fires of conflict early.
  5. When possible, celebrate successes in meetings, and frequently describe the positive climate of the team’s smaller interactions to the entire team. Team members who often “enjoy” conflict may begin to change as they hear and see that a conflict-free culture is the most desirable. Just be proactive and positive in describing an optimistic and conflict-free environment.

Man, an animal that makes bargains.   Adam Smith

Solutions are varied and numerous for resolving conflict. At Trove we use a powerful alliance of coaching and small group discussions with the parties involved to mediate solutions. Diversity of behavior and opinion will not go away. Creative, intentional, and immediate resolutions are possible if crafted with precision and understanding. Of course, Trove relies on a deeper behavioral and emotional intelligence-gathering assessment to provide us with a benchmark of behavioral differences to begin our project resolution.

In a group coaching or within a company retreat, we demonstrate ways to achieve healthy divergence. Certain devices are used to help a team or company see their differences, celebrate their diversity, explore the synergistic ideas available and navigate through the conflict, rather than around it. Too much agreement in place of practicing healthy amounts of conflict as the team works together (individuals working together in pairs), can bring an organization down. In other words, the risk of interdependence and open diversity of discussion (a form of conflict) will also bring great ideation and synergistic solutions. So, the answer to conflict is NOT to avoid it but embrace it. Making conflict and differences of opinions work for the organization is a key concept.

Too much agreement kills the chat.       John Jay Chapman

In today’s culture and against the backdrop of world news, it can be easy to become negative. Some organizations seem to thrive on conflict, and “barking” at each other is the status quo. I am of the opinion that if people will start at the positive side of opposing opinions, then there is an easier pathway to solution without hurting feelings and causing further personal damage. Thus, the title of the article, “More Wag, Less Bark” becomes a solution in itself. Work at building an open and honest culture for your team, but also provide a safe environment to disagree. Celebrate the positives and the successes, but be honest about the challenges.

Set your expectations high; find men and women whose integrity and values you respect; get their agreement on a course of action; and give them your ultimate trust.       John Akers

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