How often do we reflect on how we deal with conflict at work? Facing a conflict with a colleague is likely to be uncomfortable. Since we were children, women have been expected to be the harmonizers and avoid conflict. We are not expected to assert ourselves as much as men. Our typical reactions to conflict might include physical discomfort, lack of focus, increased susceptibility to distractions, or we simply tune out. Often the most favored inclinations are to just walk away or to simply avoid the situation. When we do walk away from an unresolved issue, most of us are left with a feeling of unease. The most conscientious of us cannot dismiss the discomfort and must contemplate what happened, why it happened, and why we were not able to address the conflict. Sometimes it is very hard to look inward and ask yourself the hard questions. What really happened? What was your part or role? Could you have handled it differently? How hard is it to just own your part of the dynamic? Sometimes it happens so quickly it is hard to figure out what piece to own.
I have been thinking more about handling conflict effectively as a result of my attempt to bring together the Student Affairs Leadership Team at Northwestern. Now you might wonder, how did I make the connection between conflict and creating a team? It started with asking them to read Patrick Lencioni’s latest publication, The Advantage, a book I would recommend to anyone who is interested in organizational health. According to Lencioni, one of the most important ingredients toward forming a healthy organization is to have a strong, effective leadership team. A major requirement underlying a well-functioning team is to instill a level of trust necessary to manage conflict productively. Lencioni provides the reader with a constructive understanding of conflict which is defined as an attempt to “find the truth.” Having read this definition I re-examined some of my own past responses to conflict. I too have worked hard to manage these situations in a useful way, though I can admit it has not always looked pretty. His definition certainly gave me a very positive way to re-frame my experiences. If the ultimate goal is to find the truth and those involved embrace and share this construct, then the next step becomes easier. Discussion comes more easily. We seem to lose much of our discomfort. Often there is a calmness and sense of shared purpose not seen in usual responses to conflict. There is also the result of a stronger team as members learn to trust each other as they build a shared history of successful outcomes. As the old adage says, the truth will set you free!
Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin
Vice President for Student Affairs at Northwestern University