Imagine you’re attending your child’s sporting event and see something very strange. Players on your child’s team refuse to help each other. Some accuse and demean their teammates, while targets of that abuse shrink back, resentfully seeking opportunities to get back at their accusers. And the coaches are doing nothing about it! How could this exist in a group designed to “team” together for the good of all?
Seeing such chaos and turmoil where teamwork is paramount would appall us. Yet many people experience it in their workplace every day. More shockingly, many organizations accept such a dynamic until it begins to threaten the organization’s stability through legal action or an exodus of employees.
The need for conflict maturity
Why do organizations accept this? Simply put, they have a low conflict maturity level. They leave workers to deal with interpersonal conflicts without guidance or assistance, allowing them to follow the instinctive, yet immature, conflict resolution responses they developed through childhood.
By contrast, a high conflict maturity level enables organizations and the individuals within them to deal with conflict in a mature and proactive manner. It requires managers to know and model good conflict resolution styles and to appropriately assist or intervene before minor conflicts fester into crises.
What is conflict immaturity?
Conflict immaturity occurs when we apply our natural fight or fight response to problems that arise. It is evident when we become locked into focusing on problems instead of solutions – when, individually or as a corporate culture, we personalize each other as the problem rather than working toward a collective solution.
Workers with a confrontational personality get stuck in the “fight” response. They look for a scapegoat, unleash angry tirades, accuse, or demean others. Their effort to solve the problem very likely includes placing demands on others and creates a high level of stress and tension in the workplace.
Workers with a conflict-avoidant personality get stuck in the “flight” response. They complain to coworkers and nurse grudges. They may try to teach the ‘problem person’ a lesson through passive-aggressive behaviors. Their quieter actions likewise create a palpable feeling of tension in the workplace.
In their respective efforts to “resolve” the issue, both lose sight of the original problem. And, when the problem persists, each seeks to find support for his/her opinion by actively or passively soliciting others to that point of view.
The conflict immaturity of the individuals is only the start of the problem. Organizations often fall into the same immature patterns for handling conflict that individuals do. They may take a confrontational approach and try to scapegoat problems away rather than solve them. Or they may ignore interpersonal conflicts and hope that individuals involved in them will smooth over their differences and get back to productive behavior.
Neither approach works. If their manager or other leaders in the organization don’t take notice and intervene, feuding individuals typically escalate the conflict, trying to win others to their side. The size and complexity of the issue grows, while the original problem remains unsolved – lost in the wake of interpersonal conflict. It can even reach a point where the organization has no choice but to call in someone like me to avoid dire consequences.
What does conflict maturity look like?
Conflict maturity, on the other hand, focuses on solving the original problem. Rather than scapegoating, finger pointing, or rallying others to their ‘side’, employees work together for a joint solution. Rather than taking dissatisfaction with a coworker to others, mature individuals approach that coworker directly, give him/her the benefit of the doubt and maintain finding a solution as their primary focus.
Conflict maturity doesn’t develop naturally. It takes a conscious effort for organizations to ensure that their leaders and managers proactively use a planned and mature approach when those whom they supervise engage in problem-focused, rather than solution focused, behavior. Rather than looking the other way as issues occur and more employees are drawn into the clash, conflict-mature managers help individuals identify and solve their differences quickly, privately, and evenhandedly. Rather than focusing on the personal conflict, conflict-mature managers redirect employees back to solving the original problem – together.
Individuals come and go. Their ability to keep perspective may falter. That is why an organization must have a plan for managing conflict maturely.
Sadly, conflict maturity is not a common attribute of most organizations – perhaps even less common than on youth sports teams. Businesses operate with far more complex goals, with less clearly defined roles, and with a much wider range of problems. Unlike a youth sports team, employees don’t have the benefit of having just a season to work through. Their commitment is fully intertwined with their livelihood, their sense of self, and the bulk of their time. Concepts as simple as working together for a common goal can easily get lost when immature patterns of conflict resolution are workers’ – or organizations’ – default response.
Conflict maturity is not a destination at which we arrive. It’s an ongoing journey. It involves both an effort to learn, and constant practice to keep sharp. It requires businesses to put a priority on developing a culture of conflict maturity through all levels of the organization. The effort is well worth it. As mature conflict resolution methodologies are incorporated, our businesses benefit from healthier communication, greater collaboration, a stronger focus on solutions and a greater level of success.