Imagine you’re sailing on the ocean of leadership. Your mission is to steer your crew through a sea of hidden obstacles. It’s mostly smooth sailing, but every now and again you come across an iceberg. Its contours are huge, jagged, invisible. Your first instinct is to avoid the problem – but how do you find a clear path around it without first knowing its size?
Maybe it’s a surface issue. If so, you can dodge its visible edges. But it could be deeper than that. You need to be careful. There could be any number of values, core concerns and needs hiding in the iceberg. After all, no-one really leaves their personal life at home when they come to work. It’s what you get when you work with humans.
Navigating conflict is an important and under-discussed aspect of our working lives. Senior consultant at Frameworks, Claudia Butler, recently travelled to Europe for an intensive training in managing high escalated conflict, with Trigon Organisational Development (Trigon Entwicklungsberatung for German speakers). Described as a ‘conflict alchemist’, Claudia is well known for her strength in uniting teams and finding the gold in conflict.
How did she first get into this tricky area? “Like many of us, I once assumed that fighting is something children do, and that adults don’t do it anymore when they grow up,” Claudia says to me. “Then I realised conflict happens every day – but we prefer not to call it conflict. It often starts as a disagreement or a dispute, and if it’s not dealt with well it can turn into something worse. Escalated conflict can become extremely debilitating for individuals, teams and organisations.”
When it comes to addressing conflict, there are many misconceptions. “We often try to dodge conflict or avoid resolving disagreements,” Claudia tells me. “We dodge it because we have a deep fear that it could get worse instead of better, when really the avoidance sometimes makes it worse. But people should have a bigger repertoire of choices than just fight or flight or telling other people about it.”
Sometimes, says Claudia, it gets to the point where it feels like there’s nothing you can do anymore. Conflict feels like a boulder rolling towards you. Should you be a Sisyphus and keep rolling it back up the slope, only to face it coming back towards you again? “People might feel trapped. When you’re at this stage, stress levels are high. Conflict can have a huge mental health impact. “The thing is, we usually don’t like to show it because it makes us vulnerable. We often keep up a brave face, regardless of the situation and it allows the conflict to spread like a virus, in us or around us.”
Claudia says as a facilitator, you don’t just take over the wheel for the parties involved. Instead, “you co-design a process and an intervention which has them feel capable to address the issue and make informed decisions.” It’s rarely a quick fix that solves an ongoing problem. “Restoring trust is a long-term objective, not a short-term objective. Agreeing on a new way forward is one thing; but how we deal with the damage we’ve done in the past is another thing. If we really want to be able to work well together, we need to find that balance.”
“There’s more to it than ‘talking it out’. That’s one element. But you must navigate and think about a lot of things, work on yourself, and make choices and decisions that need careful consideration. Then there’s the inherent power imbalance in organisations – what if we have conflict with people in an authority position?”
It might surprise you, but Claudia says we should be aiming to navigate, not eradicate conflict. “You want people to disagree, not to be of the same opinion. You want people to challenge each other and not just say yes to everything. The evidence shows us that that is ultimately creating much healthier and better outcomes. But how to do that well?’
“We know that in the past there have been big mistakes because people said yes all the time or didn’t call things out. We need to learn to explore where people’s core concerns or interests oppose each other and bring them to the table – then we can start to bring them together and see that they actually need each other. The question for me is why wouldn’t we invite that discourse? I think that’s totally valuable to any business.”