“My name is Alex Rammlmair. I solve conflicts.” This is how crime thrillers begin.
Site of crime: some company.
Situation: conflicts between teams; between colleagues; between staff and their superiors; between different departments; between the departments’ managers; between specialists and those depended on their knowledge; between project managers and stakeholders; between companies and clients.
Victims: motivation, productivity, trust, customer relations, company success.
But this is no crime thriller, it is my job. And for many others it is daily business. For you maybe? Then you are in good company, which is exactly the problem. These problems have become the norm, a law of nature for every working environment. Inevitable. Irresolvable.
Is there really no way out?
The Wrong Problem
Collaboration of people creates tension that leads to conflicts. This may be annoying, but in general it is unproblematic as long as these conflicts are being solved on a regular basis. You have to break an egg to make an omelet as the saying goes; just clean up the kitchen from time to time.
Sadly not all workplace conflicts are as easy to solve as making a crusted frying pan shine again. The main problem is that in 9 out of 10 times the people involved try to solve the wrong problem, albeit with all their dedication. In other words, the kitchen still is a mess after you have cleaned the car for the third time.
When Does a Conflict Become a Problem?
Contrary to common belief most people are quite good at solving interpersonal conflicts; they are successful at it many times a day. Most of the time this fact goes unrecognized because people act intuitively, nipping conflicts in their bud, looking for pragmatic solutions or avoiding escalation. Conflicts do not appear as conflicts.
Only if the approach taken to solve a conflict turns out to be inapt these conflicts attract attention; if our intuition and tried and tested strategies fail. Then, the conflict refuses to disappear and instead grows to be a problem of sometimes enormous proportions. And then what happens?
Most people do what they have always done; they continue to use their intuition as a guiding line and rely on their learned strategies, in spite of the fact that all these strategies have failed them before. Maybe after the third time hasn’t brought any improvement others are called to action, others that do basically the same thing. The result: the car is clean, the kitchen is not.
Maybe you are thinking, “Yes, I have witnessed exactly that many times in other peoples’ conflicts. In my own conflicts I know exactly what the problem is, every time.”
Well, is that really true? Congratulations! Still, I would like you to look at the following list. It contains the six most commonly named reasons for conflicts, along with reasons for why they are wrong.
- The problem lies in the characters of the people involved Unlikely. If this were the case no professional conflict solver would have any chance to do any good. Instead, most people described by others as being unable to cooperate turn out to be very able to self-reflect, thoughtful and concerned about cooperation; very often they have by their own statement tried to improve relationships many times.Blaming one set of shoulders or inalterable characteristics is very convenient, and very wrong.
- Some people just do not go along well The ultimate discussion stopper. Just like a law of nature, these people just cannot work together; ergo we needn’t try to force them to. In fact, you do not need to be best friends with your colleagues, share beliefs of parenting, tax laws, lifestyle, religion or nutrition. You don’t even have to be on the same page when it comes to technology issues. Being on the same wavelength does of course help; but even if you are not you can still work together. Even your best friends have different opinions than you.
- I am in the right; my colleagues think so too Practically all conflicting parties claim this, which is strange, isn’t it? Social approval helps people to deal with problematic situations, but it adds nothing to the actual problem-solving process. On the contrary, it creates the illusion of acting right and makes them believe that there is no reason to look for a solution.Next time you are dealing with a problem get approval from your friends and colleagues; then forget all that and look for the real problem!
- Ineffective communication is the reason for all this Really? It’s that simple? My advice: Forget this thing they call communication. This term is so vague, so weak, so all-encompassing that it fits all and nothing at the same time. Again, you are creating an illusion; the illusion of having gained an understanding of the problem. In fact, it is much more likely you are actually busying yourself with only the symptoms and side effects.
- There is a cultural barrier Another dubious term perfect to hide behind. Be aware, this term makes you incapable of action.Culture, a term that sounds like a fog pervading companies, magically influencing people to do things others find strange; sometimes entire countries! This notion always comes in handy because it relieves people from their responsibility.Culture, there is nothing we can do about that! My advice is to dig deeper.
- The others just won’t listen Good listeners are in fact few and far between. But it is not about listening, it is about being understood. This is why people prematurely utter sentences like, “You didn’t get what I was saying”, or, even better, “This is not what I was saying”.How do you know? Maybe the other person did indeed get you and it is you who did not get the person’s reaction. There is no effective way to find out who did or did not get whom in this scenario, which is ok, because it does not matter.In most cases the problem is not that other people do not understand us but that they do not agree with our point of view and refuse to react to it adequately. Getting it is not the same as agreeing with it. Keep those two separate and you will be fine in 3 out of 4 arguments in the future.
Maybe some of these myths sound familiar to you. I find myself making one of these mistakes from time to time. The important thing is to recognize it and to reflect on it on a regular basis.
Just as Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. ”
I hope I was able to add to your ability to avoid some of the pitfalls when dealing with conflicts. Avoid the illusion of clarity where there is none. Stay capable of acting.
On June 30, 2015 I will tell you how to track down the real problems.