Often enough, it’s very difficult for us to address issues of concern and unresolved conflicts. Why? Isn’t that strange? After all, we are experienced managers and self-realizers who like to make decisions with vigor and enforce them effectively? Why do we find it so difficult to speak up about conflicts? Is that natural? Is that the way it should be? I mean, yes! After all, we are flight animals. Fitted with a little bit of intelligence.
After an longer period on sick leave
a friend of mine returned to work.His supervisor greeted him just so with a good morning. No question about how he was feeling, no briefing about what he had missed and was now due. Only three days later did he speak to him again. In a smaller matter of a project.
My acquaintance was extremely disappointed that his boss did not seek a talk with him. Yet he did not approach his boss about it either.
Probably all of us have experienced similar situations. Against our better judgment, we tiptoe around unpleasant issues. Worse yet, we often wait with our eyes wide open for the big bang.
What’s behind this mysterious behavior?
Great-grandfather sends his compliments!
Our ancestors’ cave past lies a long time in the past. Nevertheless, despite the quite a few years that we have since invested in the evolution, our behavior is still strongly influenced by the archaic patterns of action of that time.
To arm ourselves against dangers to life, the most famous proverbial saber-toothed tiger, our strategy for success was:
- Stand still: As long as he doesn’t see me, nothing happens to me.
- Fleeing: Oha, I have been spotted. Better run like hell!
- Attack: Now he will get me right away: Now it’s fight. Either it’s you or me!
We rarely deal with wild animals today
Today it is our domesticated conspecifics that prowl around us and to which we have to react. Especially while being spontaneous, we often still behave as we did back then.
And success proves us right: Many emails get resolved if we just ignore them long enough. Leaving a meeting early sometimes saves us from unloved tasks. And if nothing else helps, we argue our way out of many situations – in a more or less aggressive way. In factual matters, this is often pragmatically clever.
The Saber-Toothed Tiger of Modern Times
A great many team issues, however, are interpersonal issues. They are the true saber-toothed tigers of modern times. And they are proving to be extremely durable and resilient.
The reason: They are questions of balancing interests and satisfying needs. And needs really are a complex matter: We develop our very own needs on the basis of our individual life experiences, and we make sure that they are fulfilled as much as possible. And at any time!
minor and major disputes are equally part of living and working together. They are carried out every day anew. And indeed as long as all our needs are adequately taken into account. And this has to be that way.
There are many ways of playing here: openly or subliminally, actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously, in friendship or in bitter animosity.
We are, of course, initially willing to compromise. But if an important need is permanently not fulfilled, it is the reason for a major conflict, which will break out sooner or later and in an active or passive way. This may be directed outwardly toward one’s surroundings or inwardly against oneself.
Our archaic pattern of action
thus turns out to be a problem in these social disputes. And as a serious danger for teams and their performance. Because whether keeping quiet or running away: Neither solves the conflict.
Attack? Is the attempt to knock the person down or to beat him into flight. Unfortunately, though, not the actual problem! The sure effect of this option is that the “involved” person or persons are in any case weakened – if not one is even swept away completely.
One of the biggest disadvantages that the ancestor-style approach has
is that the whole team is affected by it. For at times, the actual work is lost out of sight. Energy is expended on the conflict, but not on real team issues – work issues that is.
This applies both to the disputants and to large parts of the team that is only indirectly involved: people enjoy watching an exciting row. “Let’s see if my favourite wins.”
This effect is further enhanced by the fact that the disputants tend to forge alliances and rally supporters behind them.
Once it gets to that point, the group’s willingness to cooperate is in the very highest danger, and with it the success of the entire team.
Simmering Conflicts – The Flu Virus for Teams
So disputes, even between individuals, always carry a great risk of contagion for groups: The merry-go-round starts spinning with hardened fronts between two team members or parties, picks up speed with coalition building, until the final stage is: “Together into the abyss!”
In any case, if a conflict is ignored, this escalation is set in motion. The further it progresses, the more difficult it is for the conflict partners to actively influence the events in a positive way and to stop the escalation spiral. From a very early stage, by the way, the disputants can no longer solve your conflict at all without help from others.
So what to do?
Accept the fact that conflicting interests and disputes about them are part of everyday life.
Take personal points of disagreement and objections seriously. Even as a team member who is “only” indirectly affected – and as a manager anyway.
Address them early on and moderate them as neutrally as possible.
There are a number of helpful and practical methods that you can learn. For example, non-violent communication or parts of the Harvard concept. Above all, Theme-Centered Interaction offers good, practicable approaches for this.
However, for a start, your common sense and your linguistic toolbox will certainly do: “Good to see you! How are you? Can we talk later about where we go from here?”
Literature & Links
- Das Harvard-Konzept: der Klassiker der Verhandlungstechnik.
- Hertel, Anita von: Professionelle Konfliktlösung. Führen mit Mediationskompetenz.
- Hüther, Gerald: Bedienungsanleitung für ein menschliches Gehirn.
- Glasl, Friedrich: Selbsthilfe in Konflikten. Konzepte, Übungen, Praktische Methoden.
- Glasl, Friedrich: Konfliktmanagement. Ein Handbuch für Führungskräfte, Beraterinnen und Berater
- Langmaack, Barbara u.a.: Einführung in die Themenzentrierte Interaktion (TZI): Das Leiten von Lern- und Arbeitsgruppen erklärt und praktisch angewandt.
- Rodehack, Edgar: Verantwortung übernehmen! Schuld- & Opferdenken
- Rodehack, Edgar: Vom ‘Warum?’ zum ‘Dahin!’ Werden Sie Problemlöser!
- Rosenberg, Marshall B.: Gewaltfreie Kommunikation. Eine Sprache des Lebens.