It’s easy to recognize the need for help with conflict when people are arguing a lot, and those arguments are escalating. It’s harder to recognize when conflict is not visibly escalating. Then you need to recognize destructive conflict by its indirect consequences such as low productivity, falling morale, high turnover, escalating grievances, missed deadlines, and poor work quality. In these cases, three warning signs can alert you to the need for intervention: Decisions Don’t Stick, Silos and Empires, and Unproductive Meetings.
Decisions Don’t Stick
Do you find that you constantly revisit the same decision, a decision that’s been made is undermined, or the decision-making process is characterized by infighting and backstabbing? These patterns result when the processes in place do not adequately allow for differences of opinion – conflict – to be worked through.
Silos and Empires
Is communication or coordination between your organization’s departments scarce? Do people engage in building empires, or do groups “close ranks” and uniformly resist new initiatives? Unhealthy competition between parts of an organization often indicates long-term, chronic conflict patterns. Sometimes, conflict is even institutionalized, with deeply ingrained stereotypes about “rival” units, paperwork designed to control the demands that “those guys” can place on us, and highly controlled lines of communication.
Are your meetings boring or a waste of time? Paradoxically, one sign that the problem is with conflict is when no one ever expresses disagreement. This is often a sign that people fear conflict, or expect conflict will be unproductive. Perhaps some fear retribution, either from above or from peers, and that fear might be justified or not.
Any of these signs can suggest a need for help with conflict, help that can focus on skill-building, resolving specific conflicts, developing robust decision-making practices, and building collaborative teams. When members of an organization truly feel they’re on the same team, working toward a common set of goals, there’s much less need to accrue power or engage in struggle. Energy gets focused on the work, where it belongs.