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When conflict can manifest without being managed, it can destroy an organization by destroying persons within the organization. I have seen this happen in the workplace, home, and community. But why? Why is conflict so dangerous to an organization if not managed?
In 1967, Louis R. Pondy developed a process model of conflict, which is very useful in understanding how conflict starts. He cited five stages in what he calls a "conflict episode." These five components are considered the Five Stages of Conflict (Garant & Calson, 2012). They are:
Latent Stage: Participants are not yet aware of the conflict
Perceived Stage: Participants are aware a conflict exists
Felt Stage: Stress and anxiety
Manifest: Conflict is open and can be observed
Aftermath: Outcome of conflict, resolution, or dissolution
These stages have been widely used as many have discussed conflict and expanded on its impact. Instead of dwelling on improving or dissecting these stages, I want to explore how conflict can induce rot into an organization as these stages evolve. To do that, I only need to consider the first two stages. Pondy starts with the Latent Stage, where participants are unaware of a conflict. In this stage, imagine that a problem does exist, but a conflict has not resulted. In addition, consider that the existing problem does not have a personality or a consciousness.
In any organization or system, the early identification of a problem is always desired. Using Pondy's stages, this early identification of a problem aligns with his Latent Stage. How the problem is addressed is dependent on the system and structure you have in place as a leader. However, when systems and structure are ambiguous or when addressing the problem creates different subjective approaches, the rot of conflict can manifest. During this Latent Stage, leaders need to proceed with caution as they manage the various options presented for problem resolution or avoidance.
Pondy's second stage is the Perceived Stage, where members of the organization or team recognize a conflict. If not properly managed, the original problem can shift from being about the issue to being about the personalities of those supporting various solutions to the topic. This is when leadership must focus on the problem and not the personalities.
Often in the workplace, passion and follow-through are awarded. But, as Leaders, we need to ensure that we do not allow the passion and follow-through of one person to destroy another. Because when personalities begin to overshadow the original problem, it will likely result in a winner and loser scenario. So what can you do to avoid this from happening in your organization? Leaders can take two steps to stop the rot of conflict and mitigate the escalation of Pondy's stages. They are:
Keep the problem as the focus in all forums.
You should develop your technique for carrying out this step that fits your style. I often do this by not allowing differing to represent a person or team. In other words, I try to keep the options from having personalities. However, this is not always easy because we want people and teams to own their positions with confidence and truth. So, to carry out my goal, I remind those representing differing options first to identify what they agree on before focusing on where they disagree. This also helps us keep the problem as the focus. Be advised that doing this is challenging and often time-consuming. Nevertheless, it's easier to resolve a disagreement when we start with some degree of like-mindedness. And most importantly, it keeps the focus on the problem and not the various personalities.
Immediately halt any discussion or appearance when rule one is broken
Often attention on personalities is inadvertent. It happens easily. I am sure you can imagine conversations that follow this model. See if you can fill in the blanks. You know how (blank) is, they are always (blank). Or, (blank) is always trying to (blank). These sentences cause focus on an individual. The sentences themselves may not be ill-intended, but they bring attention to a person and may not be positive or representative. As a leader, you must halt that discussion and attempt to decouple those statements from the problem. Additionally, all should be reminded the problem is the focus and not the personality or idiosyncrasies of another individual.
By taking these two simple steps, you avoid the escalation of Pony's stages and avoid the negative organizational impacts that might result from personalizing the problem. When an issue becomes personal, instinctively, self-defense of self-protection maneuvers comes into play, and distrust begins to settle in. From that point, human competitiveness enters, and winning is desired. I am sure you are wondering if competition is harmful. No, I don't believe it has to be harmful on its own. But when the competition is personal, a winner or loser will result. When that happens within the team, the loser can become devalued and believe that coexistence is impossible. That leads to the rot of conflict.
Leaders, managing conflict is healthy and always needed. You risk allowing the rot of conflict to exist in your organization without addressing it. This, then, may lead to loss of talent, creativity, and diversity as your organization moves forward. Try it. Let me know how it works for you. Please post comments at www.leadperpetully.com, or you can email me at Info@AllenManagementInc.com. I would love to hear from you and offer other techniques if you are interested. So now go forth and #LEADPerpetually.
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