Stress and Success: A Conflict Primer


Stress and conflictDoes it seem like your team is working in perpetual conflict? Perhaps people are pleasant around each other in a large group but catfight behind each other’s backs. Or maybe team meetings lack energy and seem as if everyone is withdrawn. They are barely hanging together. This is not good for individuals much less your business. Furthermore, it seems the world has determined that any form of discomfort or conflict is bad. Disagreement and any form of stress are considered a threat to our existence. But, the opposite is true. Good stress called eustress, and diversity of opinion are actually needed for innovation and growth. Prior to acting on a conflict, understand the basics of conflict and stress. Here are three pre-requisites to approaching conflict and why good facilitation of conflict matters.

1. Eustress is Growth

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines eustress as “a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.” Eustress is needed for growth as individuals and companies. Most people mistakenly believe that all stress is bad stress. Only when stress takes the extreme form of distress is it damaging.

Amy Gallo, in her seminar on Dealing with Conflict: A Roadmap for Navigating Uncomfortable Work Situations doesn’t mention eustress specifically, but she does say at about 2:50 that “…when we disagree with compassion, empathy, and kindness it has lots of benefits.” If you are a leader, it is actually your job to create eustress in your team. To do so, set behavior standards and practice safety while challenging your team to consider other viewpoints.

A good example of positive stress at work is a new project. I especially thrive on taking on new challenges and often becoming the go-to person when a project arose from unfamiliar territory. The unknown was both exciting and terrifying, but it meant I’d work hard to get the job done well. This form of tension is essential to growth.

2. Personal checks

Before approaching a conflict with someone else or within your team, understand your own behaviors and attitudes toward conflict. As Gallo states, “Conflict is when we feel threatened; our identity, our resources, our needs. We are having needs that aren’t being met and we have a natural stress response.” When you recognize your body is having that “fight or flight” response, first stop and run a personal check. What am I afraid of? What want do I have that this conversation is threatening? Is there a value that I hold dear that may not be of high value to others and has felt violated?

If you have never done so, I suggest an exercise in determining your values. Start by taking a basic list of values and picking your top 20. Narrow that list down to ten at first and then to five. These are your core values. Many conflicts arise from a feeling that a core value has been violated. Knowing your values may help you communicate and check in with others. “I value X and this seems Y. How does anyone else see this?”

There are two other personal checks to consider when dealing with conflict. The first is to determine if your self-esteem or ego have been threatened. If so and that’s the only threat, then you really don’t have a conflict, just a bruised ego. If self-esteem is only part of the conflict, then check that part at the door before you proceed in handling the situation. The final step is to determine what you really want. At work, you’ll also have to frame your want inside what is best for the company and its goals.

3. Understand conflict and communication styles

Learning the conflict styles is useful when approaching conflict. While taking the Executive Leadership Certificate through Cornell University’s online program, students completed a conflict response self-assessment to learn how they approach and respond to conflict. We were scored in each of the five conflict management strategies; avoiding, accommodating, competing, collaborating and compromising. These strategies all work depending on the nature and extent of the conflict. I scored high on collaborating and compromising and low on competing. My classmates and I learned how our own knowledge of conflict styles could lead to conversations about how to handle conflict as a team. We also obtained tools for guiding our own teams to be more collaborative. I pull these tools out frequently in my business.

Assessing the communication styles of your team can guide you in encouraging full participation in a conflict. Avoiders are those who feel overpowered by conflict and tend to withdraw. To get participation from avoiders, managers will have to provide safety and ask open and fact-finding questions or those to explore understanding and beliefs. Seekers, on the other hand, are those that tend to overpower the conflict. To prevent seekers from overrunning the conversation, managers may have to guide the seeker to stick to facts and use “I” statements. In the safest environments, leaders will want employees to become assertive communicators making wants and need clear while being empathetic to others and the company’s goals.

I recall working with a virtual group where I didn’t have the benefit of seeing body language to assess for seekers and avoiders. When a new member was added, I called ahead of their first conference call to talk about their preferred communication style. Once I knew, I could make sure to approach each call so that everyone could contribute regardless of style.

Facilitation of conflict

If major conflict and disagreement are expected in a meeting or your leaders don’t appear to have fully cultivated an assertive communication style, consider a facilitator. A good facilitator will help the group manage emotions, especially strong emotions that result in “fight or flight” response. Once those are triggered, the thinking part of the brain is shut down. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence calls this “amygdala hijack”. If thinking has stopped in even a portion of your participants, so has your meeting.

If a facilitator isn’t in the budget, incorporate ground rules. These ground rules should be developed by the group and everyone should be responsible for maintaining them, not just the leader. If participants don’t feel safe sharing their views and opinions, the meeting is done before it even starts.

I ran a meeting once where I actually challenged the group to tear apart a program that we’d recently established. I made it clear at the beginning that there were no sacred cows, including materials and ideas that I had generated. Setting that tone and then following it up with careful listening resulted in one of the best and most productive meetings I’ve ever attended.

Parting thoughts

If you are a leader who has completed some personal checks, part of your job is to teach others to do the same. Consider putting personal reflection exercises into onboarding and regular training so that teammates can better understand themselves and how they work with others.

Conflict management skills are an important part of life. We work and live with other people which means we’re bound to disagree. Disagreements, if not handled properly, can lead to resentment, contempt and kill your business. The more you understand about conflict and personal biases, the more successful you’ll be in leading your team to a level of challenge that’s optimum for company growth.

For more information or advice on understanding and managing conflict in your organization or if you need a facilitator, contact me here.

Tags: #conflict #stress
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