A former boss was well-known for his flamboyant language and turns of speech. One of his favorite analogies was to compare a leader’s job in dealing with conflict with being the pooper scooper at the circus.
He’d tell us it was our job to clean up the messes people on our team made.
Even though we frequently rolled our eyes when the boss was on one of his circus rants, his point was a good one. Why? Because usually what we had to smooth over was some sort of conflict. Something that could have been avoided had the situation initially been handled more thoughtfully.
For lots of reason, conflict is a challenge. People struggle to deal with it.
There are those who see conflict as a life-or-death scourge to be stamped out.
Some see differences of thought, opinion, perspective, and experience as deficiencies because they generate conflict.
These are glass half-empty approaches.
Conflict, while often messy. actually presents us with opportunity.
Bernie Mayer, Professor of Dispute Resolution at Creighton University, is a leader in the field of conflict resolution. In his book, The Conflict Paradox, Mayer examines seven polarities we often encounter as we try to make sense of conflict. The polarities are:
- Competition and Cooperation
- Optimism and Realism
- Avoidance and Engagement
- Principle and Compromise
- Emotions and Logic
- Impartiality and Advocacy
- Autonomy and Community
As with all polarities, the elements in each pair are but one side of the same coin. While the elements may sound contradictory, both of them are necessary for success and survival over the long-term.
As a team leader, one must realize the paradox that surrounds conflict. The team needs to embrace conflict as a means of generating and evaluating ideas. While at the same time, it must shy away from it to prevent frustration or alienation. The biggest challenge for the team leader is figuring out how to balance these two factors. ~Erich Brockmann, professor
It’s natural to prefer one element over the other. When we encounter a person who prefers the other element, there’s the possibility for conflict since we’re now dealing with a clash of interests. I like competition; you like cooperation. You prefer principle; I prefer compromise
As leaders, it’s our job to help those on our team transcend finger-pointing and right versus wrong arguments. Everyone is right!
So that conflict helps us grow and find the best solution, our job is to:
- Steer conflict from dysfunctional to functional, from destructive to constructive, from disregard to respect—all in pursuit of healthy conflict that facilitates innovation and openness.
- Assist people in dealing with issues as well as helping them remember the lessons learned in childhood about sharing and handling disappointment because rarely do we get 100 percent of what we want.
- Acknowledge inequity and injustice, frame solutions that draw from both poles contributing to the conflict, and assist people to recognize there’s always a greater good that transcends individual wants and wishes.
- Weave connection and humanize the difference. “The other” has a name, a face, and feelings, too.
- Build an environment where it’s OK to disagree, but it’s not OK to fail to listen and learn, or label “the other” as being wrong.
All legislation, all government, all society is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based. ~Henry Clay, 19th century lawyer and stateman
Sometimes the contents of the pooper scooper get heavy and smelly. However, that’s when we—if we want to call ourselves leaders—do our best, and most meaningful, work. Right?